Eric J. Sundquist: Blacks and Jews: From Afro-Zionism to Anti-Zionism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Eric J. Sundquist is a professor of English at the University of California at Los Angeles. This essay is adapted from Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America, to be published next month by Harvard University Press. Copyright © by the president and fellows of Harvard College.]

...Ralph Ellison once remarked, "All of us old-fashioned Negroes are Jews."

The alliance between the two groups [Jews and blacks] reached its peak in the aftermath of World War II, but almost immediately began to dissolve, as Jews, with the downfall of educational quotas and other anti-Semitic restrictions, embarked on a rapid ascent of the social and economic ladder, while African-Americans, however much their lives were improved by the end of segregation, began an ascent destined to be far slower and more erratic.

When demoralizing setbacks made African-Americans skeptical of integrationist strategies and aroused them to the color consciousness championed by black power, many moved toward a greater sense of identity, as well as legal entitlement, predicated on race. When Jews moved in the opposite direction, black people perceived them to be abandoning historic commitments to social justice while reaping the rewards of their assimilation to "whiteness." Black people wondered how Jews could feel insecure in America, while Jews wondered how black people could be oblivious to anti-Semitism, let alone indulge in it themselves. In the eyes of black people, the Jewish columnist Nat Hentoff remarked in 1969, Jews were included among the goyim in America; the only question was who "among us are the Germans."

This relatively familiar story of the decay of bipartisan liberalism into black radicalism, on the one hand, and Jewish conservatism, on the other, is not incorrect. But it tells just part of the story. A critical, but less well-understood, cause of the breakup may be found in conjoined events — the Holocaust and the creation of Israel — that might have been expected to strengthen the alliance. Ultimately, they did just the reverse.

Hentoff's alarming formulation — that black Americans might perceive American Jews as Nazis — recognized that the calamity of the Holocaust contained the seeds of resentment: African-Americans feared that their suffering would be diminished by comparison to that of the Jews. Yet it also provided a new way for African-Americans to understand their own history. With the invention of the term "genocide," and its inscription into the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948, the depredations of slavery and lynching, as well as America's own Nuremberg Laws of segregation, began to be seen in a different light, so that Holocaust eventually displaced Exodus as a principal organizing metaphor of black thought.

But 1948 also witnessed the founding of Israel. Just as the new Jewish state altered the identity of American Jews, so it changed black-Jewish relations — providing a concrete referent for the many strands of Afro-Zionism that saw Africa as the homeland of all black peoples, whether the Ethiopianism of Edward W. Blyden, the black Zionism of Marcus Garvey, or claims by the Rastafarians and others to be true descendants of the ancient Israelites. Upon visiting Israel in the early 1950s, the renowned singer Marian Anderson found herself witness to "an act of liberation" that she said also illuminated the "deepest necessities" of black freedom, while the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People proclaimed in 1948 that Israeli independence "serves as an inspiration to all persecuted people throughout the world."

In an opinion no doubt shocking to later anti-Zionists, that same year W.E.B. Du Bois embraced Israel as an example of progressivist liberation from colonial rule, pointing to what Jewish immigrants to Palestine had already accomplished in "bringing a new civilization into an old land" and raising it out of the "ignorance, disease, and poverty into which it had fallen." As late as 1969, the black writer and actor Ossie Davis, speaking in tribute to the prominent Zionist Avraham Schenker, asked his audience to remember that "we, too, seek our Jerusalem."

Yet even if black Americans had the same intensity of identification with a lost homeland as did Jews with Israel, their isolation from Africa, let alone from a single nation brought into existence by United Nations mandate, left them in a far more nebulous position than Jews either before or after 1948. By the end of the 1960s, moreover, Davis's voice was drowned out by those expressing a far more antagonistic view of Israel — and of Jews — as the long tradition of black support for Zionism gave way to expressions of anti-Zionism, presaging more vocal and widespread responses today.

Following the Six-Day War in 1967, and the onset of what proved to be Israel's protracted occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, its example as a national homeland and its role as a model of anticolonial liberation, which had made it a prominent partner to black African nations throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, were turned upside down. For many African-Americans, galvanized by anticolonial struggles in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, the image of the Jewish state underwent a transformation: As Pierre Vidal-Naquet, the French historian who has eloquently responded to Holocaust deniers, would observe in 1987, the "victims" became the "executioners."...

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