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Was there ever really a black-Jewish alliance in twentieth-century America? And if there was, what happened to it? In Troubling the Waters, Cheryl Greenberg answers these questions more definitively than they have ever been answered before, drawing the richest portrait yet of what was less an alliance than a tumultuous political engagement—but one that energized the civil rights revolution, shaped the agenda of liberalism, and affected the course of American politics as a whole. Drawing on extensive new research ...
Was there ever really a black-Jewish alliance in twentieth-century America? And if there was, what happened to it? In Troubling the Waters, Cheryl Greenberg answers these questions more definitively than they have ever been answered before, drawing the richest portrait yet of what was less an alliance than a tumultuous political engagement—but one that energized the civil rights revolution, shaped the agenda of liberalism, and affected the course of American politics as a whole. Drawing on extensive new research in the archives of organizations such as the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League, Greenberg shows that a special black-Jewish political relationship did indeed exist, especially from the 1940s to the mid-1960s—its so-called "golden era"—and that this engagement galvanized and broadened the civil rights movement. But even during this heyday, she demonstrates, the black-Jewish relationship was anything but inevitable or untroubled. Rather, cooperation and conflict coexisted throughout, with tensions caused by economic clashes, ideological disagreements, Jewish racism, and black anti-Semitism, as well as differences in class and the intensity of discrimination faced by each group. These tensions make the rise of the relationship all the more surprising—and its decline easier to understand. Tracing the growth, peak, and deterioration of black-Jewish engagement over the course of the twentieth century, Greenberg shows that the history of this relationship is very much the history of American liberalism—neither as golden in its best years nor as absolute in its collapse as commonly thought.
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"[Greenberg's] smart and comprehensive analysis . . . is one of the best of a spate of new books on this topic, with her fine research and careful delineation of the facts."—Publishers Weekly
"The vexed topic of black-Jewish relations in 20th-century America requires a brave writer, and Greenberg confronts the issue with honesty and dedication. While she provides ample evidence that the golden age of cooperation between the two groups wasn't as harmonious as generally believed, she also provides numerous examples of cohesion during the more fraught times. Greenberg is not only adept at uncovering little-known controversies and victories; her brief exposition of the famous New York City teachers' strike in the late 1960s, an incident widely credited with bringing to a boil simmering black-Jewish tensions, is a masterpiece of compression and insight."—Atlantic Monthly
"Greenberg's most impressive achievement is the way she weaves the story of black-Jewish relations into the larger history of American liberalism in the twentieth century...While the likelihood of another 'golden age' of black-Jewish relations seems remote, what is certain is that Greenberg's book will be essential reading for anyone interested in this complex relationship and in the history of American liberalism more broadly."—Eric L. Goldstein, American Historical Review
"Troubling the Waters gives textured life to more than 100 years of civil rights efforts and offers a window into the complex, political decision-making of courageous and often admirable individuals."—Jane Gordon, Diverse
"[Cheryl Greenberg] provides extremely detailed histories of Jewish and African American civil rights efforts, together and as separate communities. . . . [F]or the scholar and political tactician, the volume is a goldmine of information. . . . [T]his book is likely to become one of the classic histories of black-Jewish relations in the United States."—Jewish Book World
"Greenberg's is one of the best of a spate of new books on this topic, with her fine research and careful delineation of the facts."—Press-Enterprise
"Essential reading for understanding ethnic/race relations and Jewish identity. . . . Greenberg offers the best study on black-Jewish relations and one that will stand as a classic in the field."—Ronald H. Bayor, Southern Jewish History
"Cheryl Greenberg's view is that Black and Jewish interests and priorities have been fundamentally different all along but did, during a particular period, overlap sufficiently. . . . Cheryl Greenberg has certainly helped to provide . . . a clearer understanding [of the Black-Jewish relationship] with this well-written, well-researched book, which is chock full of information and sensible analysis by a thoughtful, sensitive, and sympathetic writer."—Yankl Stillman, Jewish Currents
"Greenberg's history is both synthetic and original, especially in its coverage of the last thirty-five years. . . . Troubling the Waters is a painstakingly researched, impressively documented, well-written, and important contribution to the field."—Dominic J. Capeci Jr., Journal of American History
"[Greenberg's] book is lucid in its exposition, balanced in its tone, and generous in its sympathies. Writing from a resolutely liberal perspective, she has built upon and outclasses all previous scholarship on the history of the black-Jewish encounter in twentieth-century America."—Stephen J. Whitfield, Jewish History
"Cheryl Greenberg's book stands as an exemplar of scholarship not just in American Jewish history and in African American history, but also in the history of American liberalism which in many ways is the key force which dominates the narrative here."—Hasia R. Diner, Modernism/Modernity
"In Troubling the Waters: Black Jewish Relations in the American Century, Greenberg has done more than write a book that will be of interest to students of Jewish-American history or the African American experience. She has instead produced a work—ambitious in scope and thoughtful in tone—that will be of enormous value to those interested in the broader history of postwar America and the rise of modern liberalism."—Alan Petigny, Reviews in American History
"[A]n admirably balanced, fairly unsentimental account of a former entente. Greenberg . . . approaches the topic with eyes wide open in an attempt to plumb its complexities."—Sheldon Kirschner, Canadian Jewish News
"Troubling the Waters is the most complete attempt to unravel the complicated history of black-Jewish relations during the 20th century."—Edward S. Shapiro, Congress Monthly
This book examines the reality behind the "golden age" by exploring its roots in the time before the heyday of cooperation and challenging facile explanations for its passing. Focusing on liberal political organizations as sites of interaction, I seek to temper the idealized vision of perfect mutuality by demonstrating that blacks and Jews had different but overlapping goals and interests which converged in a particular historical moment; that both communities recognized that convergence as well as an opportunity forcooperation, and came together in a structurally powerful way to achieve those goals more effectively; that fundamental differences of approach and priority remained, which manifested themselves in low-level tensions and occasional sharp disagreements; and that those divergent visions contributed to the later weakening of the alliance as external political realities changed. A blend of political, institutional, and social history, this is a case study of two important communities navigating among competing and sometimes contradictory demands. At the same time, the history of relations between African Americans and Jewish Americans also lies at the crossroads of many larger narratives about race, religion, ethnicity, class, politics, and identity in twentieth-century America. This book, then, also speaks to these broader subjects.
The topic of black-Jewish relations in the United States is not merely a subject for quiet intellectual study, however. It has a presence in American public culture that "black-Greek relations" or "Jewish-Presbyterian relations" generally do not. Stories about the subject enjoy wide circulation even in the nonblack, non-Jewish press. This fascination is evident too, if we consider other silences. Several years ago, during the fiftieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson's entry into major league baseball, reporters highlighted the role of Branch Rickey, the manager who signed him. That coverage never referred to "black-Methodist relations" although certainly if Rickey had been a Jew, the stories would have placed black-Jewish relations front and center. And as a nice Jewish girl devoted to teaching and researching African American history, the topic of black-Jewish relations is also quite personal. To understand myself, I had to make sense of all of this.
Even within the scholarly community, the study of black-Jewish relations has been a battlefield, filled with exploding polemics and shell-shocked casualties. Even excluding extremist rantings and anti-Semitic and racist diatribes, sharp and fundamental disagreements remain. While virtually all scholars and journalists acknowledge that blacks and Jews worked together for civil rights at mid-century, they differ over the nature and makeup of that relationship, whether or not it constituted an "alliance," the motives of the players, and the cause of their apparent ultimate estrangement.
One position, held by and large by the broader "lay" Jewish community and many Jewish academics, is that blacks and Jews have historically had an identity of interest and experience which brought them together in the twentieth century in what these nostalgists term a "natural alliance," or a "golden age," enhanced by Jews' enduring commitment to social justice. This cooperation was marked by a shared recognition of bigotry and discrimination, and a shared liberal vision of the post-civilrights-struggle world. The alliance, which produced dramatic victories in court, in state legislatures, in Congress, and in public opinion, collapsed in the late 1960s, felled by militant black nationalist separatists who expelled white people, allied themselves with a third-world anti-Zionism, and spouted anti-Semitic rhetoric. Jewish activist-turned-academic Murray Friedman perhaps best embodies this view, summed up in the title of his book on the subject, What Went Wrong? The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance.
One opposing position, perhaps best represented by African American intellectual Harold Cruse, questions not the fact of extensive Jewish involvement with black civil rights, but rather Jews' motives. It holds that Jews infiltrated and exploited the movement to promote their own interests, masking their true agenda (improvement of Jewish status) by claiming to be fighting for racial equality. Once discovered to be false friends, they were purged from an increasingly authentic nationalist struggle for self-determination.
Others question the extent of the alleged mutuality of interest. Many scholars from David Levering Lewis to Herbert Hill have argued that black-Jewish collaboration was, and is, primarily a story of elites, whose motivations were multiple and complex, neither wholly manipulative nor wholly altruistic. The broader Jewish community, such scholars insist, was more often either uninterested in, or outright opposed to, the advancement of black people, especially when it threatened their hard-won turf. As for black folks, they argue, only African American elites viewed Jews as different from other whites. This interpretation that black-Jewish coalitions occurred solely among elites is disputed not only by historians such as Hasia Diner, but also by many of the religious congregations to whom I speak, and by many activists, past and present, who have devoted themselves to the struggle for racial justice.
Meanwhile scholars who work on other arenas of black-Jewish interaction, like Jeffrey Melnick and Michael Rogin, remind us that Jewish involvement in civil rights was not the central story, but only one of a multitude of stories, all of which shaped what we call black-Jewish relations. To these authors, the recently visible antagonism between the two communities is simply a public manifestation of longstanding differences.
When I was studying for my graduate-school qualifying exams, survivors advised that if I didn't know the answer to a question, I should respond, "Some of both." (In previous years, I understand, the answer was "the working class," an answer I also like.) I take my training seriously, and my current work on black-Jewish relations responds to each of the debates I've described with "some of both." The story is too nuanced to fit neatly into any of the either/or alternatives that have been constructed for it.
This complexity, after all, is part of the message of scholars like Melnick and Adolph Reed Jr.: there is no single black community, no single Jewish community. Both groups have polarizing internal differences based on class, region, gender, politics, generation, occupation, and a host of other less tangible factors. The resulting internecine disputes fractured unity, and community sentiment often collided with organizational priorities. There have also been many venues in which African Americans and Jewish Americans have interacted; there are multiple "black-Jewish relations." There is the relationship between the civil rights organizations in both communities that fought for many of the same goals, sometimes separately and sometimes in collaboration. There is also the relationship between black and Jewish activists within the same organizations, from the Communist Party to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There is the relationship between blacks and Jews in the music and movie industries, in labor unions, and in the garment trades. There is the relationship between members of the two communities in their everyday interactions, affected as they necessarily were by the economic and power inequities that race and class differences produced and by recurring allegations of black anti-Semitism and Jewish racism.
These categories of relations overlap, surely, but they are not the same. Nevertheless, both scholars and polemicists often use idiosyncratic individuals to represent their communities: what I call the "Goodman and Schwerner Were Jewish" school. Neither the NAACP's Jack Greenberg nor the Federal Reserve's Alan Greenspan stands for all Jews; neither Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. nor Minister Louis Farrakhan reflects the beliefs of all African Americans. That Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish says nothing about the commitment of the Jewish community writ large to the problems facing African Americans. Nor is it valid to infer the end of political collaboration between black and Jewish organizations from violence in Crown Heights or anti-Semitic pronouncements by black rappers.
And yet there is something here. Individuals, community politics, economic realities, and intergroup relations within these different "black-Jewish relations" interact. In certain important ways, I would suggest that it is, in fact, no coincidence that Jewish-born Jack Greenberg served as the NAACP's chief counsel, Herbert Hill as its head of labor relations, Joel Spingarn as a founder, and Spingarn and Kivie Kaplan as its presidents. (Similarly I am not surprised by the interest of Alan Greenspan in the markets, given Jews' historical dependence on finance to keep them safe-and mobile-in anti-Semitic and periodically violent Europe.) It is significant that Goodman and Schwerner were Jewish (it may say something about what motivated these two to action), and that a disproportionate number of white civil rights activists were as well. Jewish agencies engaged with their African American counterparts in a more sustained and fundamental way than did other white groups largely because their constituents and their understanding of Jewish values and Jewish self-interest pushed them in that direction.
This claim, of course, only raises the larger question of why that is so. And that can be answered only by recognizing that all these debates over the nature of black-Jewish relations I have described are rooted in larger questions about identity, race, class, and liberalism. And, like "black-Jewish relations," these terms are themselves contested.
First, what do we mean by Jews? Scholars have long debated the nature of Jewish identity. Are American Jews better understood as members of a religion or of an ethnic group? To put the question in our framework, which model better explains Jews' disproportionate engagement with civil rights?
Many Jewish activists identified their religion as motivating their actions. "[I]t is our moral obligation as Jews not to desist from being a light unto the nation," one anti-segregationist Virginia rabbi preached in 1958. But while faith clearly motivated many, Jewish engagement can not be attributed solely to religious impulses. Jewish activists' perceptions that Judaism demanded universalist equality is itself an interpretation shaped by historical forces. Both Christian and Jewish theologies proclaim that all human beings were created in God's image and describe the pursuit of justice as a moral imperative. Both also contain parochialism and bigotry. Judaism's theology is not ethically distinctive enough, nor have Jews throughout history routinely acted progressively enough, to account for the disproportionately high numbers of American Jews in civil rights efforts. Furthermore, we see this engagement operating even in those born-Jewish activists who did not consider themselves religious.
Rather, the high level of Jewish civil rights engagement seems strongly related to Jewishness as a historical, ethnic identity, shaped by circumstances and forces peculiar to the Jewish people, and the attendant decision of much of twentieth-century American Jewry to stress social activism and cultural pluralism (and in some cases socialism or communism) as the highest expressions of that identity. Even in 2000, close to 90 percent of Jews interviewed reported their ethnic heritage to be "somewhat" or "very" important to them, a figure comparable to that for African Americans but substantially higher than those for other white ethnics questioned. But these Jews' attendance at religious services (more than half reported going only on "special occasions") is well below that of any other group. (Religion? Ethnicity? Some of both.)
The concept of race requires similar examination. While "race" is a notoriously slippery concept to define, virtually no serious scholars any longer consider it a legitimate biological or genetic category. Not only has continuous intermixing of populations made race meaningless in this sense (there is no trait for which differences between putative racial groups are greater than those within the group), but as biologists remind us, every physical trait has a unique pattern of distribution, and any of these could plausibly have been called upon to define the boundaries of "races." A further difficulty in defining race lies in the assumption that individuals have only one race, when many people have ancestors from more than one racial group. The criteria for defining who is black, for example, have changed many times in this country.
Excerpted from Troubling the Waters by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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