The mythology of the ‘Black-Jewish alliance’

(Peg Hunter - Flickr)

Noah Colbert

Mondoweiss  /  December 22, 2021

The Black-Jewish Alliance wasn’t derailed by gullible African Americans being hoodwinked by Palestinian tales of woe, as Zionist organizations would have you believe, but because Zionism is incompatible with the principles of equality and justice.

On November 3, Northeastern University hosted a panel titled “Repairing a Divided America: Blacks, Jews and the Future of American Coalitions.” The speakers included Andre Tippet, a Hall of Fame Linebacker who played for the Patriots from 1982–1993, Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker, Kraft Family Philanthropies President Josh Kraft, and Josh Zakim, Former City Councilor and Board Member at The Lenny Zakim Fund. I learned of the event the day before while scrolling Twitter, where a tweet from the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs asked “Can the Black Jewish Alliance be Revived?” 

Which is a tough question to answer, considering it’s difficult to revive something who’s very existence is, well, dubious. There exists this notion, beloved by the Old Guard of the Black and Jewish establishments and those who still see the NAACP and the ADL as meaningful forces for societal change, that at some point in the past, there existed this vibrant, tight knit Black/Jewish alliances against the forces of white supremacy. They’ll often point to the role Jews played in the burgeoning civil rights movements of the 60s, particularly in establishing organizational structures to advance the cause. That Black and Jewish Americans both vote overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic Party is also seen as proof of the natural affinity between the two demographics.

Indeed, the “Black/Jewish alliance” seems to be applied retroactively to define a certain era; and the most well-known thing about this alliance is not how it truly functioned at the time, but the fact that it no longer exists. Proponents of this theory will offer differing explanations, but they all agree that at some point in time, the Black/Jewish alliance was torn asunder by some divisive force. It’s never exactly clear when or how the rot set in, but various culprits are to blame: radical Black student movements, the Black Panthers, the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, Black criminals in Crown Heights, Jesse Jackson, Black Lives Matter, “Palestinianism.” 

Israel plays an important role in this narrative. Zionists who promote the “Black/Jewish Alliance” theory contend that the embrace of the Palestinian cause ripped apart the “natural” affinity between Blacks and Jews. In his insultingly titled article “The Palestinian Appropriation of Black Pain,” Joshua Washington identifies Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC)1964 Newsletter “The Palestine Problem” as the turning point for this shift. “Full of falsehoods; many of which have long been categorically refuted,” the newsletter “sent a very loud and clear message to their Jewish supporters and Jews everywhere that so long as Jews supported a Jewish state, they were SNCC’s enemies.” Washington goes on to bemoan the “color consumed” view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by today’s generation of Black Lives Matter supporters, and argues that

We as black Americans need to stop letting people with no real interest in our well-being tell us how to behave toward our Jewish cousins.”

This approach towards reviving the Black/Jewish Alliance seems to have been the one taken by the Kraft Foundation. For the first 30 minutes of the event, an audience of mostly white students were regaled with awesome tales of the Kraft Foundations program to send Patriots players to Israel. When I heard the concept, I nearly laughed aloud; maybe I did. Birthright for NFL players? 

Tippett, a convert to Judaism, described the vast gulf between expectations and the reality players experienced in Israel. Everyone expected it to be these dangerous, locked down places with guns everywhere, he said, but it was a free and accepting society. In the video presentation, a Christian player marveled at being in the presence of his religions holy sites. The politics were irrelevant, this was about bridging gaps through understanding. 

I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of the event; a discussion about the political dynamics between two complex groups apparently being above politics, political problems that were going to be solved by setting them aside. It is true that tourists in Israel can experience a carefree time and forget all about the conflict; but this is by design. Only those privileged by the apartheid state that is Israel can afford to forget about it. Though I am not religious myself, hearing of religious wonders seemed a cruel joke when it went unmentioned how Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, remains divided by a cruel separation wall and checkpoints, how Evangelical tourists have more access to holy sites than the Palestinian Christians who live there. 

Beyond the whitewashing of Israel, the entire discussion of the country seemed out of place. Even if Israel was the magical place it was made out to be, what does it mean to average Black and Jewish Bostonians to have players and owners take trips there? The average wealth for Black households in Boston is $8, compared to over $250,000 for white households. Just in October, an unidentified individual ripped down the mezuzah at the Northeastern Hillel house. What does extolling the virtues of Israel do to solve these issues? A similar question was asked on Twitter recently by Rabbi Mike Rothbaum: “Our local schools are plagued by antisemitism. There’s a speaker engaged by a local shul ostensibly to discuss antisemitism. 3/4 of the talk is about defending Israel. My students aren’t targeted for Zionism. They’re targeted for being Jews. They need safety, not talking points.”

What this whole episode made abundantly clear is that there is a deep crisis of conscience within both the Black and Jewish establishments, which hampers their ability to be truly committed to justice and build solidarity. The emancipatory spirit that existed in the 60s has been quashed; there are too many organizations to count, but very little to show for. The authority claimed by having “marched with MLK” wanes as they fail to meaningfully tackle systemic racism, and provide no real answers for dealing with resurgent threats of white nationalism. 

After the first wave of Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2013 and 2014, which occurred in a decentralized and organic fashion, the reactions of various organizations revealed their true intentions. Politics around Israel are used as a method of division between progressive Black and Jewish communities. When the 2016 policy platform for the Movement for Black Lives identified Israel as an apartheid state, many mainstream Jewish organizations pulled their support. The Boston Jewish Community Relations Council immediately disassociated from BLM, and liberal Zionist organizations like J Street firmly rejected the characterization while supporting some of the platforms other goals. Even during the second resurgence of BLM during the George Floyd uprisings, this tension remained. An article in Forward on June 10, 2020 assured Jewish readers “You don’t have to choose between Black Lives Matter and Israel,” giving them permission to give qualified support to BLM while retaining their love for the Jewish state. 

This philosophy was espoused at the panel, where the phrase “coalition” was thrown around a great deal. Blacks and Jews form a coalition, they say, and coalitions sometimes have disagreements that have to be ignored for the time being. But for yesterday’s generation, this is a fundamental failure to understand the teachings of MLK, whom they claim to hold so dearly. After all, was it not he who wrote, from his jail cell in Birmingham, of the evils of preferring “negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice?”

The establishment’s embrace of this negative peace is untenable, as Zionism is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of equality and justice that are central to Black liberation politics. It is unjust that my Jewish friends can hop on a plane and vacation atop the villages my Palestinian friends’ grandparents fled from. It is unjust that the freedoms that NFL players experience on their vacation are secured through the subjugation of 5 million Palestinians. It is unjust that their suffering, their struggle for dignity can be reduced to a sideshow, an inconvenient child locked away in the basement that is Gaza, rarely to be spoken of.

Zionism is incompatible with Black Lives Matter because Zionism, put quite simply, is a form of racism, of Jewish supremacy. 

The incompatibility of Zionism and Black Liberation is not simply theoretical. For example, Dennis Powell, president of the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP, was excoriated by Jewish leaders and rabbis in the summer of 2020 for calling attention to the training programs that American police receive in Israel, where tactics of racial profiling, surveillance, and restraint tactics are perfected in what is known as “The Deadly Exchange.” These programs are often supported by organizations like the Anti-Defamation League, which purport to fight against hate domestically, but is often engaged in Israel advocacy under the guise of fighting antisemitism. In this case, the taboo around Israel was actively impeding Powell’s ability to talk openly about the Black struggle against police brutality, without him even attempting to touch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The constraints Zionist orthodoxy places upon the Black community have been seen even at this very university. Last February, the student organization Northeastern University Students Advancing Intersectional Dreams (SAID) hosted a conversation with the esteemed Angela Davis during Black History month. Davis’s discussion was entirely focused on Black liberation, yet Northeastern Hillel still felt the need to release a statement condemning her for [virtually] coming to campus. The statement accused Davis of antisemitism, both due to her support for Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) and dubiously sourced innuendo from Alan Dershowitz’s memoir Chutzpah. 

Even at a particularly Zionist campus, Hillel’s statements received a fair amount of pushback from even Jewish students, which the organization did not acknowledge. Hillel, like the NAACP, ADL, Kraft Foundation, and other Zionist organizations, is out of touch with the communities it claims to speak for. Israel’s actions wouldn’t become the slightest more justifiable even if 95% of Jews truly were Zionists, but the blacklisting of Black organizations that call Israel an apartheid state seems uniquely divisive when polls show up to 25% of American Jews feel the same. 

So in short, no, the Black-Jewish Alliance was never what it has been made out to be. It wasn’t derailed by gullible African Americans being hoodwinked by Palestinian tales of woe, and it won’t be restored by purging “Palestinianism” from our movements. But there is a coalition to be built among all of us, Blacks, Jews, Palestinians, any who will join us. I know, I’ve seen it. In the classrooms of Students for Justice in Palestine meetings, on the streets of Copley Square last May at SaveSheikhJarrah rallies. The people in this coalition aren’t “color consumed,” ill-informed wild eyed college students imposing America’s racial pathologies onto a foreign nation. They’re simply passionate people, of all ages and backgrounds, committed to seeking justice both here and abroad. Coalition building is important, but there is nothing more destructive to it than historical revisionism. 

Noah Colbert is a student at Northeastern University and the President of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine