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Gaza protests are latest test in Black-Jewish relations

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Gaza protests are latest test in Black-Jewish relations
Demonstrators march on Massachusetts Avenue during a May protest at MIT. PHOTO: YAWU MILLER

Back in February, before college campuses erupted in protests, National Urban League President Mark Morial warned that the historical civil rights alliance between Blacks and Jews is being tested by the ongoing Israeli military action in Gaza.

A group of 1,000 Black pastors issued a public call for a ceasefire and called on President Biden to do the same. The top officials in the African Methodist Episcopal Church called on Biden to withhold military funding to Israel, citing the rising death toll among Palestinians under Israel’s bombardment of the territory in which 2.1 million people live under military occupation.

At the national level, relations between Blacks and pro-Israel Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) may appear strained, with the latter organization pledging to spend $100 million to unseat a group of mostly Black and Latino members of Congress who called for a ceasefire.

Since Morial’s warning, however, there has been little in the way of a public airing of grievances over the Gaza war between the Black and Jewish communities.

The notion of Black-Jewish unity came into being during the Civil Rights Movement, when Black and Jewish rights groups joined forces to fight for anti-discrimination measures that benefited both communities. The victories — including the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — opened doors for people of color and Jews to participate more fully in the benefits of American citizenship.

Robin Washington, editor at-large at the Jewish on-line publication The Forward and former Banner managing editor, says the relationship between the communities happened more at an institutional level — between groups such as the NAACP and the ADL — than among the general populace of Blacks and Jews.

“Most Blacks thought of Jews as a different type of white people who go to church on Saturday,” said Washington, who is Black and Jewish.

The comity enjoyed by the Jewish and Black elites in the Civil Rights Movement began to fray in the late 1960s, as groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became more militant and expelled non-Black members and the Six Day War of 1967, in which Israel began military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — an occupation that continues to this day.

While many Black intellectuals and activists sided with Palestinians, seeing their cause as an extension of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and elsewhere, the ADL at the same time began to embrace pro-Israel advocacy as a core mission and equated criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

Things came to a head between Black activists and Jewish community leaders after the Rev. Jesse Jackson met with then Palestinian Liberation Organization Chairman Yasir Arafat during a 1979 peace mission to the Middle East. Jackson, who called on Israel to cease construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, for several years drew fire from Jewish groups in the U.S. Facing death threats during his 1984 run for president from the Jewish Defense League — an organization the FBI labeled a “right-wing terrorist group” — Jackson was offered a security detail from the Nation of Islam.

Relations between Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan and Jewish community leaders soured in the following years reaching a nadir in the late 1980s.

“The relationship has never returned to what it was in the ’50s and ’60s,” Washington said.

Opposition to affirmative action, which some Jews saw as a measure that could limit their access to educational institutions and jobs, also drove a wedge between the leadership in Black and Jewish communities during the 1970s and ’80s.

At the same time, new generations of activists in Black and Jewish communities have emerged — none of whom were alive during the period of alignment between the NAACP, the ADL and other rights groups.

Former state Rep. Byron Rushing said young Black clergy are taking more progressive positions than past generations, including their calls for a ceasefire.

“There’s is a kind of growing radicalization among those churches,” he said. “They’re not anti-Jewish. They just disagree on this issue.”

A new wave of pro-Palestinian activism was ignited during the Ferguson uprising of 2014, after a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb shot and killed an 18-year-old Black man and protesters were attacked by police. Palestinian activists, who witnessed the civil unrest in Missouri on social media, reached out to Ferguson protesters with messages of solidarity and practical advice on how to treat eyes affected by tear gas. The connections forged during those protests engendered a lasting sympathy for the Palestinian cause in activists like Cori Bush, who in 2021 was elected to Congress in Missouri’s 1st District.

While Bush, Massachusetts 8th Congressional District Rep. Ayanna Pressley and other progressive representatives of color have drawn fire from mainstream Jewish organizations for their support of a ceasefire in Gaza, the Jewish community is not at all unified in support of Israel’s bombardment of the territory. Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have led demonstrations across the country, drawing thousands to Washington, D.C., in October for a “Jews Against Genocide” rally and were joined by Bush and Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib.

“Locally and nationally, I think there are really strong relations between groups working for peace,” said Michaela Caplan, a spokesperson for the Boston chapter of IfNotNow, which works to end what it describes as Israel’s system of apartheid in which the rights of Jews supersede those of the predominantly Muslim and Christian Palestinian population. “I think it’s clear that a lot of national institutions that claim to speak for the entire Jewish community do not.”

In the student encampments in Boston and across the country, a racially diverse cadre of student activists — Jewish, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern — challenged universities to divest from companies profiting from Israel’s military aggression and in many cases from Israel itself.

The protests have consequently resulted in building a new bridge between the Black and Jewish communities – albeit their smaller, more activist factions, united by their support of Palestinian rights.

Caplan notes that Jewish activists in progressive groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace are working at the institutional level alongside other progressive groups including the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats to support lawmakers targeted by AIPAC.

“As someone who is really involved in local organizing, there are strong relationships in progressive communities,” she said. “There’s a lot of solidarity.”

Anti-Defamation League, Blacks and Jews, Gaza, Israel, Israeli-Hamas war, Palestine