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Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Jewish Civil Rights Movement

The Jewish Civil Rights Movement

Source: The Boston Book Review | August 7, 2001
A Review of the Book:
Jews Against Prejudice:
American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties
by Stuart Svonkin
Reviewed by Noah J. Efron
Most of what I know about Martin Luther King, Jr., I learned in yeshiva. A poster hanging in my third-grade classroom showed him sermonizing a sea of people surrounding the reflecting pool. Alongside the picture were the words of the “I have a dream” speech; I read them over and over until I knew them by heart. Next to that was a photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel striding alongside King in Selma. When King was shot, class was canceled and a man came to tell us about civil rights. He said that King’s greatest allies had been Jews. Together they fought to make sure that everyone–Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, everyone–had a chance to better themselves, and to be treated with dignity. The man described how Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been shot dead, fighting for blacks. Jews helped blacks because they need us, he said, even though nobody had helped us when we needed them in Germany.
The message was complicated for a seven-year old who’d never met a black, but I grasped much of it. In that annus mirabilis from the Six-Day War to the Chicago Seven, I learned that Jews had to look out for their own welfare, and also for that of other persecuted people. That summer, my twelve-year-old sister found in a shop on the Lower East Side a poster of a Chasid in a phone booth, pulling off his heavy coat to expose a bright blue and red costume, with the letter “shin” stitched on his chest. For me, that Superjew was Moshe Dayan capturing Jerusalem, Heschel marching on Selma, and Abbie Hoffman demanding an end to the Vietnam war, all rolled into one: wherever injustice is found, Superjew will be there.
I later learned that this image of Jews as defenders of the rights of all downtrodden had been carefully cultivated. The MLK poster, for example, was distributed to schools by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Bnai Brith, together with handbooks about teaching tolerance. The prominent billing given the ADL made it clear that the poster had two points: one, racism must end and, two, Jews are leading the fight to end it. The ADL was not alone. Since the end of World War II, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and American Jewish Congress (AJCongress), as well as the ADL, had each set aside cash and hired bureaucrats and experts to devise ways to “eliminate prejudice and discrimination against racial, ethnic and religious minorities.” Svonkin calls this “collaborative battle against bigotry” the “intergroup relations movement.” Each group came up with its own strategies, which were then coordinated with the other groups, Christian groups like the National Council of Churches of Christ and secular groups like the ACLU. These strategies changed over time, but they had two basic thrusts. One was education. The other was legal action. The educational activities included highbrow initiatives like commissioning Theodor Adorno to write The Authoritarian Personality, and lowbrow efforts like radio and television commercials, and distributing posters like the one that hung in my third grade. They also printed teaching guides for teachers, sensitivity guides for police officers, and so on. The legal initiatives included challenging restrictions against African-Americans in housing projects that received government assistance and unfair hiring and university admissions practices, as well as helping draft and lobby for more potent civil rights legislation, and so forth.
In Jews Against Prejudice, Stuart Svonkin describes these efforts. This story has been told many times before, but never in such detail. Svonkin has painstakingly examined the archives of the three organizations he chronicles, as well as the massive published literature, and stitched together a measured account of how they devised strategies, implemented them, and revised them as circumstances changed. In so doing, Svonkin demonstrates how the campaigns waged by these organizations “helped to shape the way in which American liberals thought about fundamental questions of race, ethnicity, liberty, and equality.”
Jewish devotion to fighting discrimination in the years after the war was extraordinary, as Svonkin makes abundantly clear. Aside from the efforts of the Jewish organizations Svonkin chronicles, many individual Jews also joined in. Just under two-thirds of the whites who participated in the perilous 1964 Freedom Rides into the Deep South were Jews. Over half the money donated to secular civil rights organizations in the early 1960s came from Jews. What accounts for this extraordinary devotion? Why did yeshiva buchers like me learn that civil rights was a Jewish production? Why did American Jews, immediately after the Holocaust, complain less and less about anti-semitism, and more and more about the one-level-more-abstract bigotry and toleration? Why did they stop clamoring for a fair shake for Jews and start clamoring for a fair shake for everyone?
Svonkin does not have much of an answer to these questions, and what little he does write is circumspect. “The primary objective of the Jewish intergroup relations agencies after 1945,” he writes, “was to prevent the emergence of an anti-Semitic reactionary mass movement in the United States.” They believed that they could achieve this goal through the intergroup relations movement, according to Svonkin, because they believed that their parochial interests–making Jews safer, wealthier, more socially mobile–were in perfect accord with universalist principles that guided the civil rights movement. “For these communal leaders and their constituents Jewishness and Americanism truly were equal and complimentary commitments,” Svonkin writes, “…what it meant to be ‘Jewish’ sometimes seemed virtually indistinguishable from what it meant, for most postwar liberals, to be American.”
But the idea that Jewish and liberal American values and interests are perfectly harmonious is a vast and self-serving oversimplification. It is almost an article of faith among liberal Jews that some combination of Jewish “prophetic” heritage and the empathy borne of pogroms and the Holocaust left Jews preternaturally sensitive to the suffering of others, and that this combination explains why Jews naturally embrace liberal values, and why they were so disproportionately involved in the mid-century struggles against bigotry and racism. Paul Berman put it like this, “Slavery is Nazism; lynchings are pogroms; Jim Crow is czarist anti-Semitism, American style; Mississippi is Poland; bigotry is bigotry. I am with you! I understand your plight.” For many Jews, such sentiments were genuine. But these sentiments alone do not explain why Jewish individuals and organizations devoted themselves to fighting discrimination and racism. The notion that it was just high-minded empathy and altruism that motivated Jews is, as Julius Lester once complained, “a little self-righteous.” If Jews were acting out of empathy and altruism, why did they energetically fight some sorts of discrimination and racism (discriminatory housing practices, discrimination in hiring or discriminatory voting policies, for example) while tolerating some other forms of discrimination and racism (such as red-lining, discriminatory pricing in black neighborhoods, or rampant, racially-motivated police brutality)? The answer is that something other than empathy and altruism also motivated Jews to fight discrimination, and something other than empathy and altruism helped determine which fights Jews got involved in, and how they got involved. Jewish interests often diverged from those of blacks and other minorities, and from those of other liberals. Not surprisingly, Jewish organizations usually got involved in those fights against discrimination and racism from which they too benefited.
There were, in fact, many different sorts of benefits. Some were “internal,” affecting the standing of these groups within the Jewish community itself. The post-war era was a transitional period for organized American Jewry, with leadership passing from patrician German Jews to children of erstwhile Ostjuden. What better way to solidify the social standing and political viability of such Jews within the Jewish community, than to become involved in a cause that would allow them to traffic with august Protestant and Catholic leaders, with governors, congressmen, and senators? The new Jewish leadership was also overwhelmingly secular. Engaging in a cause that transcended Jews and Judaism, a cause grounded in “Judeo-Christian” ethics, was a way for lay leadership to establish its primacy over rabbinic leadership. Rabbis were incensed when the House Committee on Un-American Activities decided to meet with the “leaders of all three religious faiths,” and invited the secular AJC to represent the Jews. Embracing the struggles for civil rights and civil liberties allowed an emerging cadre of new leaders to sweep aside generations of leaders whose legitimacy rested on the twin pillars of fighting anti-semitism and purveying old-time religion. Also, at a moment when actual anti-semitism was clearly on the wane, the new focus on civil rights and libertie–which effectively bundled anti-semitism with more blatant and heinous bigotries against African-Americans–made “intolerance” seem like more of a threat to Jews than it otherwise might, thereby increasing the motivations (and contributions) of their constituents. For all these reasons, fighting for civil rights and liberties–instead of challenging anti-semitism and discrimination against Jews–enhanced the stature of the ADL, AJC and AJCongress within the American Jewish community.
Fighting for civil rights and liberties also advanced the interests of the Jewish community as a whole in American society. Bundling anti-semitism with racism allowed Jewish leaders to bring the moral gravitas of African-American suffering to bear on issues of particular relevance to Jews. Though Jews were excluded from some neighborhoods and denied some jobs, the discrimination against Jews was–at least by the mid-1950s–subtle and intermittent enough as to make it difficult to rally politicians to legislate against it and district attorneys to prosecute it. Fighting the far more blatant discrimination against African-Americans was a way to fight Jewish battles by proxy and in extremis. It was thus a way to remove social and economic barriers faced by Jews, without appearing merely self-serving. This accounts for why Jewish civil liberties organization hewed close to issues that were in principle relevant to Jews–free access of “minorities” to jobs, housing, social clubs and organizations–while they steered away from the sorts of economic restructuring that might greatly benefit African-Americans but offer no gains for Jews.
Paradoxically, taking a commanding role in the civil rights movement may also have increased the already growing perception of Jews as whites. While Jews seem obviously white today, at the end of the war many (some polls reported most) Americans viewed Jews as a race apart. By embracing the implicit ontology of the civil rights movement–society splits into white and black–Jews became for the first time clearly and unassailably white. That Jews went after the war from being a persecuted minority to being part of the majority was reflected in the increasing discomfort of African-American leaders with the Black-Jewish alliance. Jews were increasingly seen as paternalistic because they were increasingly seen as white. This change too proved beneficial to Jews, who found themselves ever more accepted in white, Christian society.
The fact that there were self-serving reasons for Jewish organizations to fight racism does not diminish the fact that sincere idealism was also a motivation. American Jews after the war had good reason to be sensitive to bigotry, and to regret their quietist response to Nazi anti-semitism and bigotry not many years earlier. Many Jews did feel real empathy for persecuted blacks. Also, the fact that Jewish efforts helped Jews is not damnable. Idealism and self-interest are not always at odds, and even if Jews benefited by fighting racism this does not mean that their commitments were not heartfelt or that their efforts were not valuable. It is often the case, as it was here, that real sensitivity and altruism are enmeshed seamlessly in a ravel of parochial interests and concerns.
Untangling this knot is important, in part because the history of the Jewish “struggle against prejudice” has become encrusted with piety in a way that makes it almost impossible to understand what has happened within the Jewish community since the early 1960s. Dozens of recent books chronicle and lament what one called the “Broken Alliance” between Jews and African-Americans. Many Jews oppose affirmative action, a position emblemized by the Bakke case. Jews are also increasingly opposing welfare and entitlements, separation of church and state (as in the Kiryas Joel controversy) and other liberal-left positions that were once assured of Jewish support so solid that it approached consensus. Many American Jews also support Israel’s steadfast repression of Palestinian civil rights and liberties without regret or ambivalence, perhaps suggesting that their commitment to these rights and liberties is not as sweeping or steadfast as it once was. Among Jewish leftists, these trends are decried as the evaporation of “Jewish values,” whatever those might be. Some mainstream Jewish leaders often claim that these trends show that Jews have been alienated by ungrateful and anti-semitic black leaders like Louis Farrakhan. Some African-Americans see these trends as an abandonment and as a sign of growing Jewish racism. But the Jewish Neoconservatives writing for Commentary (which is published by the AJC) may have a point when they argue that some liberal-left causes–like affirmative action–never had much support among Jews and that most of the changes in Jewish positions simply reflect changes in Jewish interests. In the post-postwar generation, Jews have gotten progressively richer and whiter. Many (though not all) of the reasons why it made sense for Jews fight racism and discrimination simply do not apply anymore.
One might expect a book about organized Jewish efforts to fight discrimination and bigotry to address some of these issues, and it is disappointing that Jews Against Prejudice does not. Svonkin has instead provided an extravagantly-researched, tightly-focused survey of the internal development of three important Jewish organizations fighting discrimination and racism at a crucial time. He chose not to describe the knot of interests and concerns that motivated them, or to explain how these efforts helped the American Jewish community to reconstitute itself in a new image, or how they speeded the absorption of the “Hebrew” race into white America. There is a fascinating and important story behind the bureaucratic history Svonkin has recounted. Regrettably, that story remains to be told.
Noah J. Efron is a Research Scholar of the Department of History of Science of Harvard University and a Visiting Fellow of Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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