Adam Mansbach 2008

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Blacks, Jews, and Barack Obama

"What I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community. I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task... is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened."--Barack Obama, at Tuesday's debate in Ohio

The relationship to which Senator Obama refers is not just historic, but endlessly complex. Perhaps no two ethnic groups in America share so unique, intimate, and checkered a past, politically and artistically, as blacks and Jews. Obama is right to acknowledge the fraying of relations between the two communities, but his comments in last week's debate failed to address the reasons for it.

Granted, there was no time for a history lesson. But Obama's statement-an elaboration of his rejection of Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan's endorsement of him because of Farrakhan's alleged anti-Semitism-seemed more in line with the reasons black-Jewish relations have suffered than with any attempt to mount new dialogue.

By vilifying Farrakhan, Obama offered red meat to Jewish voters. Instead, he should have used the moment to bridge communities and display the ability to unify on which his candidacy is built.

On the Jewish side, the problem with black-Jewish relations is this: a handful of ill-advised and highly objectionable statements made by a few prominent black leaders in the mid-eighties have never been forgotten by many in the Jewish community-and they should be.

Yes, Jesse Jackson once referred to New York City as 'Hymietown." Yes, Al Sharpton could have conducted himself better during the Tawana Brawley affair. But these incidents happened twenty years ago.

Not only have Sharpton, Jackson, and even Farrakhan (whose outreach to the Jewish community over the last ten years has been considerable) moved on, but so has black leadership.

Obama's candidacy and the emergence of hip hop generation leaders and grassroots political organizations prove that the civil rights generation is no longer in the driver's seat. Yet, these figures remain central in the collective Jewish memory-fixed in history, and forever reduced to their offensive comments.

Why? Because this dated perception of black leadership provides an easy excuse for Jewish disengagement-emotionally, practically, financially-from the continuing struggle for equality. It also allows Jews to disinvest in the black community and the legacy of progressive work that blacks and Jews once shared.

One of the most fascinating stories of the 20th century is how both black and Jewish Otherness served as foils for each other. Part of this story is the success of Jewish assimilation, which has often relied on the immutability of black Otherness.

With the mainstreaming of Jewish identity has come the ability to engage in the same kind of complacency and hypocrisy that has long characterized white liberal America. Jews can now lament racial injustice without either fighting or acknowledging the ways in which it benefits us.

The post-World War II Jewish credo has been to 'never forget' and maintain eternal vigilance against the smallest rustling of anti-Semitism. When something does happen-regardless of whether the offensive speech or action stems from true malice or ignorance, whether it is repented for or not-the gates come crashing down.

With each of these moments the "lines of communication" of which Obama speaks are severed.

The time has come to rethink this stance. Make no mistake; the civil rights of American citizens have been under intense, insidious attack throughout the Bush years. And if the civil rights alliance of the 1960s is to be restored for the 21st century, it is imperative that the Jewish community realize that sometimes it is not remembering that preserves us, but forgetting, forgiving and moving forward.

We must instead honestly address the reasons and the reality of our disinvestment from this 'historic relationship,' and understand the fallacy of it.


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing