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Winter 2000



















The following excerpt is from "Where Are We? Where Are We Going?" by UMass Judaic studies professor Julius Lester. The essay appears in the final section of Strangers and Neighbors.


To talk about blacks and Jews is to talk not about politics but the lives people live. It is the lives we live that influence what we call our politics. Unless those lives are respected, there is no possibility of understanding the words we say to one another. In recent years Jews and blacks have disagreed often over each other's words. Neither has understood sufficiently that in so doing, they are disagreeing with each other's lives. Thus, blacks have hurt Jews and Jews have hurt blacks.

     Lives are not philosophical premises with which one is allowed to disagree, or over which one can have an argument. Lives are sacred. They are God's attempt to create prayers of bone and flesh. All too often Jews and blacks regard each other as merely issues to be analyzed and debated. When human beings reduce each other to abstractions, enmity must follow. Who should know this better than Jews and blacks?

     First, let us acknowledge that blacks and Jews have real and serious differences, differences that may not be resolved by the most well-meaning of dialogues. That is O.K. Agreement is not a prerequisite for alliance. Understanding and respect are.

     A fundamental difference between blacks and Jews is how each group views the history of black-Jewish relations. Jews are convinced they have much in common with blacks, because the two groups share histories of oppression and suffering.

     This Jewish version of black-Jewish histories is not shared by many blacks. To the contrary, many blacks feel they have nothing in common with Jews. An examination of the historical record indicates that both groups are right, and both are also wrong.

     What do blacks and Jews have in common?

(1) The histories of both begin in slavery.

(2) Throughout Western history blacks and Jews have been subjected to stereotyping by the white majority, and, often, the same stereotypes have been applied to both peoples. Jews and blacks have been equated with the devil and considered to have horns and tails and Europeans stereotyped both groups as being sexually licentious.

(3) Both people have been physically segregated from the majority. The word, ghetto, was first used to describe the section of Venice where Jews were segregated from Gentiles in the sixteenth century. Geto is Italian for iron foundry, because it was next to the iron foundry the Jews of Venice were forced to live.

(4) Jews and blacks suffered forced separation from their homelands and were dispersed throughout the Western world. Many blacks refer to themselves as living in the Diaspora, not recognizing, perhaps, that they are using a word from the Jewish experience to describe their own. However, there is a profound difference in the Diaspora experience of Jews and blacks. Jews not only knew that Israel was their home, they kept Israel alive within themselves as a homeland for two thousand years, a remarkable historical feat. For blacks, such a feat was not within the realm of possibility. Being brought to the so-called New World from so many different parts of Africa, blacks had no common language, no common past, no common memories. For blacks the Diaspora is permanent.

(5) Both have been politically subjugated, with laws being passed restricting their movement in society, choices of occupation and social relationships.

(6) Both groups have been subjected to heinous violence. The pogroms against Jews in eastern Europe have a parallel in this country in violent attacks by whites on black communities during the first two decades of this century.

     While blacks as a group have not been targeted-as yet-for extermination as were Jews during the Third Reich, the number of Africans who perished during the centuries of the slave trade is staggering. A conservative historical estimate is 15 million.

     I can think of no two peoples who have endured so many of the same experiences throughout Western history. Both Jews and blacks have been condemned by the white majority, not because of anything we may have done but because of who we are. We are condemned for being, and nothing we do can eradicate who we are. We are Jews; we are blacks; therefore we are the Other. The dominant society in whatever country we have lived has imposed a negative value on who we are. Jew and black are epithets in the vocabulary of the ruling majority and we are looked upon as pariahs.…

– FROM Strangers & Neighbors, Relations between Blacks & Jews in the United States, edited by MAURIANNE ADAMS AND JOHN H. BRACEY with an introduction by Julian Bond. University of Massachusetts Press, $70 cloth, $29.95 paper.

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