Years ago, as a rabbinical student, I was one of a group of rabbinical students who visited an African American seminary in Atlanta. My fellow rabbinical students and I expected an uplifting weekend of interfaith sharing like we had experienced in visits to other (largely white) seminaries. We were unprepared for the raw anger directed against us as Jews. We were blamed for “Jewish exploitation of blacks.” We heard stereotypical charges against Jewish pawnbrokers and Jewish landlords, the middlemen who represented institutionalized oppression in the ghetto. Having lived in the buildings of exploitive landlords myself, I could understand their anger against such landlords (not all of whom were Jewish). But I could not understand why these students held so tightly to their anger against all Jews or why they transferred such anger to us. One of the more self-reflective students explained it this way: African Americans were angry that we Jews could succeed in America where they could not because we could pass as whites whereas they could not.
I have thought a lot about those interactions since the recent brouhaha over presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s relationship with his controversial black liberation pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Obama’s recent speech on race was clearly crafted to put at ease not only white America but also Obama’s Jewish supporters. Obama won points in the Jewish community for including a reference to one’s rabbi among other clergy with whom a parishioner might disagree. Obama also won points as a friend of Israel by accusing Rev. Wright of distortion in blaming the conflict in the Middle East on “the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.”
Obama’s vision of how, together, we can move beyond mutual recrimination toward real change and betterment for all is truly inspiring. I am convinced this is not just rhetoric for him but reflects his deepest beliefs.
However, in a fairly long speech touted as the definitive response to his relationship with Wright, Obama’s silence on Wright’s support for Louis Farrakan was deafening. Where was Obama’s repudiation of the decision by the magazine run by Wright’s daughter to award Farrakhan the Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Trumpeter Award as a man it said “truly epitomized greatness”?. Where was Obama’s courage to speak truth to power, to decry hate talk in all its permutations?
Obama’s silence reminded me of another memory, this one of a congregant. He remembers his family traveling to the beach on the Maryland shore. He was a child. Maryland was still a segregated state. They arrived at the beach to find a section of beach for blacks only and another section for whites only. Posted between the two was a sign that said: “No Jews or Dogs.” The family had to get back in the car and head home. It was a stark reminder that, as Jews, his family did not fit in.
I have not had a chance to confirm the historicity of this memory. It is a telling sentiment, nevertheless, about the ambivalence we Jews experience in discussions about race in America.
One thing this campaign has revealed is that we Jews still see ourselves as a minority in a Christian world whereas the African American community still largely sees us as part of the white majority. If we are ever to effectively resurrect the Jewish-African American alliance Obama talks about, then we will need to address this “race” issue as well.