In early June, The American Jewish Committee (AJC) hosted a virtual meeting along with three U.S. senators to officially launch the first-ever Senate Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations (SCBJR). Those senators were Cory Booker (D-NJ), Jacky Rosen (D-NV) and Tim Scott (R-SC). “Reinvigorating the black-Jewish alliance was at the bedrock of the civil rights movement,” said moderator Manya Brachear Pashman to the guests. “It’s key to combating racism and anti-Semitism both here in America and around the world. That’s why today’s announcement is so critical.”
“I’ll be frank,” said Booker at the meeting, “It was very hard to have a black-Jewish caucus in the past because really there weren’t any blacks in the Senate.” Booker noted that he and Scott were the first black senators at the same time. He also revealed that he has been studying Torah for his own benefit for about 20 years. “I’ve been deeply influenced by the Jewish faith,” he continued, “When Tim [Scott] got to the Senate, he became a champion of issues surrounding Israel, and he and I made a determination to show a black commitment to the State of Israel.”
Booker’s new coalition is a sign of the revival of what was once a well-established fact: The black and Jewish communities can and did work together, focusing on common interests instead of glaring differences. Today, it’s hardly the only coalition of its kind. On June 18, following President Biden’s announcement a day earlier that “Juneteenth” would now become officially a federal holiday, the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations (CCBJR) met virtually to commemorate the importance of the day. In attendance were CCBJR co-chairs Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI), as well as many others.
“For the Jewish community, we’ve always been involved with other communities in advocacy – it’s never been about us,” said Dov Wilker of the AJC. “And I think the diversity of the [Jewish] community and [participating in events like these] is an opportunity for us to speak about the diversity of our community.”
“I along with my colleagues formed the CCBJR to stand together in solidarity,” Zeldin told The Jewish Press, “and to defend our respective communities against continued discrimination. It’s obviously very personal for me, and it’s been infuriating to witness this recent uptick in anti-Semitism.”
Days before Booker’s announcement, a fresh new conflict erupted in Israel, with the terrorist organization Hamas, which rules Gaza, firing more than 4,000 rockets into the Israeli civilian population. As a result, tensions began boiling over on American soil. On May 24, in the middle of New York City’s Times Square, Joseph Borgen, 29, was kicked, punched and beaten by a group of men who reportedly yelled anti-Semitic slurs at him. Borgen was on his way to a pro-Israel rally at the time. That same night, the police apprehended Waseem Awawdeh, 23, who was charged with assault as a hate crime and criminal possession of a weapon, among other things. While in detainment, according to prosecutors at his arraignment, Waseem told his jailers that if he could, he’d do it all over again.
After leaving the hospital, Borgen was a guest on the popular television show The View. “You have said many politicians and local officials have reached out to you and your family. But there are others you haven’t heard a peep from,” host Meghan McCain said. Borgen replied, “It is disheartening that my senators, one of which in the past used his Jewish identity to garner support from the Jewish community – I haven’t heard from him, he hasn’t reached out to my family.”
“It’s incredibly frustrating to see certain members of Democratic leadership in Congress look the other way at this behavior as members of their party intentionally stoke the flames of anti-Semitism,” Zeldin, who is Republican, told The Jewish Press. He was referring to Democratic leaders such as Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and the silence of the Democratic Party towards members of their party’s anti-Zionist congressional contingent known as “the Squad.” However, Zeldin could also include here Democratic members within his very own black-Jewish coalition who echo, to some degree, the Squad’s talking points.
In Lawrence’s view, “We have to determine that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are two different things. My objective and my goal is to work on our relationship in the U.S. where we [blacks and Jews] have the respect of our mutual history.” She asserted that she is personally pro-Israel.
“For the last decade or so what we’ve seen is this rise of the anti-Israel left,” Neil Strauss, communications director at the Republican Jewish Coalition told The Jewish Press. “So now we see pluralities of Democratic voters who support cutting aid to Israel, or the majority of Democrats think that Israel is more responsible for the recent violence heaped on it.” Strauss said while the leadership of the Democratic Party hasn’t changed, they know where the votes are and won’t upset their base, so taking strong positions on Israel or the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is likely to be deemed too risky.
Strauss believes that Republicans are more committed to rooting out anti-Semitism. He also believes there is hope for engaging the black community in that fight through coalition-building, but said it depends how it’s done. “You have to ask: Where has Cory Booker been to counsel AOC on her rhetoric?” he said. “Coalitions are great, but what have they done to tackle the real issues?”
When it comes to tackling those issues on the ground, few have more experience than Dov Hikind, former New York State Assemblyman and founder of Americans Against Anti-Semitism (AAA). Hikind founded the group following a year of black-on-Jew violence that plagued New York City in 2019. When a deranged black couple stormed a Jewish grocery store in Jersey City, N.J., killing everyone inside, AAA was there that evening to reach out to the local black community to understand more about its relations with Jewish residents. The conclusion was that rather that outright hatred, there were some grievances and misunderstandings between blacks and Jews in the area.
AAA has made it a top priority to open the lines of communication with the black community, but now, more than a year later, Hikind is feeling discouraged. “Something I think is extremely important is to reach out to other groups,” he said. “And we’re going to be focusing more on the Latin and Asian communities and whatever can be done in the black community. But to be honest I have much less hope in that. Tens of millions of dollars [has been spent on building a relationship with the black and Jewish community]. What’s happened to it? In the end, it hasn’t been working.”
Hikind believes there are a lot of negative feelings within the black community about Jews that need to be addressed by the two communities – and the same is likely true concerning Jewish impressions of blacks as well. “I’d love to go deep down into the black community and into the public schools and find out what’s bothering [them] about the Jewish people. How do you get together a group of blacks and other non-Jews to have that conversation?”
Others believe that there is no real tension between the communities, at least on a widespread level. “There is no development in the African-American community for the division between blacks and Jews,” Hazel Nell Fukes, president of New York State Conference of NAACP told The Jewish Press. “There are individual persons with individual thoughts and actions, but that does not mean it is a problem within the broader community.”
One key group to weigh in on the viability of coalition-building is black Jews, a small but growing sector of the greater Orthodox Jewish community who often find themselves caught in the middle when tensions between blacks and Jews arise. “I don’t think that it’s necessarily the responsibility of black Jews to go around fixing problems or doing outreach, but it does surely help in terms of finding common ground,” noted Maayan Zik, an African-American Jew and co-founder of Jewish advocacy groups Kamocha and Kerevelt. She says it is meaningful when engaging the black community to show that not all Jews are white, but that we come from all over the globe and are varied and multi-cultured.
In the view of Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, if any coalition is to be successful, blacks and Jews should focus on their commonalities. “African-Americans are the number one target of race-based hate crimes according to the FBI,” Cooper said. “Meanwhile, the number one target of religious-based hate crimes are Jews – even though we represent less than 2 percent of the U.S. population.” Cooper said the history shared by blacks and Jews is part of his own personal story as well. “I was born in Brooklyn in 1950,” he said. “I went to school in Flatbush. One of my heroes was Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK). One reason is, I grew up during the Soviet Jewry movement [and] MLK was one of the first American leaders to talk about the plight of Soviet Jewry, before the [Jewish] federations ever woke up.”
Rebuilding A Black Pro-Israel Movement
A historian who understands just how close the black-Jewish relationship was during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s era is Dumisani Washington, founder and CEO of the Institute for Black Solidarity with Israel (IBSI). IBSI was founded in 2013 “shortly after my first trip to Israel, which was actually as a pastor accompanying Christians United For Israel (CUFI) – an organization with 10 million members,” Washington told The Jewish Press. “I’d been a Zionist all my life and I had a passion for African and African-American studies and the two got infused while I was in the Holy Land.” Washington said that while he knew of the close bond between MLK and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century), “I wanted to go further and understand more, and I began to see there was a deep history between the black and Jewish community that was not really talked about.”
Washington, author of Zionism and the Black Church, said MLK spoke for the broader black community which was very much pro-Israel, but there was a concerted effort at the time to change this fact. “What has happened since his death is what I often term a slow, methodical but consistent attempt on the part of the anti-Zionists,” he said, “so that by the time we fast-forward to today we see a group like Black Lives Matter, which is supposed to be concerned with the black community, involving itself in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict 10,000 miles away.” This black anti-Zionist tradition began as far back as the 1960s. It was a fringe movement at the time, but even MLK expressed concern it might eventually grow.
In 1968, MLK was assassinated; the next year Yasser Arafat became the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), “and one of the first things on his agenda [was] to meet with the militant black civil rights communities, such as the Black Panthers and types like Angela Davis,” Washington noted. (Davis was a black activist and a member of the Communist Party who was accused of conspiring to participate in an armed takeover of a courtroom in Marin County, California in 1970 in which four people were killed.) Arafat’s outreach to the black community was not uncommon among similar struggling movements, possibly due to the fact that blacks represented a struggle by a minority in the most powerful country in the world, making it the perfect example for all other struggles.
“One thing that’s been a frustration for me is I’ve always seen the black community exploited for other groups to get what they want,” Washington said. From a historical perspective, he noted, the black community is to a large extent disconnected from their ancestry and the specific places where they originated (Africa is made up of many unique and distinct countries); slavery wiped out all records. One result of this has been the attempt of outside groups, sometimes successfully, to prove or manufacture some scheme of “common” past identity – often capturing the minds of the black community’s most vulnerable or disenfranchised members.
Washington’s IBSI is not a religious organization. Its signature program is called the PEACE Initiative (Plan for Education, Advocacy, and Community Engagement). The pilot program has already been fully funded. “We are actively speaking with community leaders who will be recommending for us 20 black men and women ages 25-40 to become our ambassadors. They can be from all sectors of life: pastors or politicians of either party, educators, athletes, or entertainers.” The criterion for acceptance into PEACE is that the individuals be very involved in the black community in a meaningful way, and the ideal candidates should be critical thinkers who “go beyond the headlines to search for truth.” The pilot group will complete a 16-week study course with topics ranging from biblical Israel to modern Israel to Israel-Africa relations, and more. They will travel to Israel for eight to ten days to connect to the people. IBSI hopes to expose its ambassadors to all types of Israel’s residents: Jews, including Ethiopians, as well as Palestinians, Arab-Israelis, etc.
When the ambassadors return home, they will report to and maintain “Tesfa Centers” (Tesfa is Amharic, or Ethiopian, for “hope”), places that will serve as think tanks where the black community can learn about Israel, and where other recruits can be identified to join the PEACE program and to further the pro-Israel movement through activism, alliance-building, and community-planned events. For the pilot program, the first Tesfa Centers will be set up in four U.S. cities. IBSI expects to have some 300 PEACE Ambassadors in 48 cities across the country by 2025, and is currently raising the remaining funding needed to do so.
“We believe the cultural change will happen as [the Ambassadors] go back to their lives and also in [their] role in terms of promoting strong black-Jewish advocacy,” Washington said. “We believe that if we are focused on taking recruits from different sectors of black society, it will have an effect on black society at every level.”
It’s a beautiful midsummer morning in Brower Park in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Adults are throwing Frisbees, children are playing innocently, and a dog, off its leash, is chasing a squirrel around on the vast lush, green lawn. The lawn is a rare sight, with most New York City parks being cast in asphalt and gravel. Here, however, in the center of a community that has been defined for decades by the harmonious but delicate balance of a working-class black community and a middle-class Orthodox Jewish community, such a lush lawn seems almost a reward for learning how to live in peace.
Still, many folks in this tree-lined community remember the riots of 1991, when anti-Jewish violence filled the streets after an automobile accident resulted in the death of a black child. Afterward, the community resolved not to live in bitterness. Later that same year, the organization One Crown Heights was formed, and last year its main community event saw over 1,200 come to enjoy the amusements, the food, and the camaraderie here in Brower Park.
Arna Lipkind, one of the longtime organizers, credits events like that for maintaining peace and understanding between the neighborhood’s blacks and Jews. “We cannot change this world,” she told The Jewish Press while walking through the park. “But neither are we free to do nothing to effect change.” When thinking about past tensions between blacks and Jews, she said. “I am not discouraged. All communities like ours need to create safe spaces for dialogue, and I feel like programs like One Crown Heights really are the cure. They are the model for building bridges, creating dialogue and safe spaces.”