Blacks & Jews, pt. 1
Long before the recent hullabaloo surrounding Kanye West’s self-immolation on the steps of the Anti-Defamation League’s headquarters, much ink had been spilled over the complicated relationship between American blacks and Jews - though, not much recently. When, every so often, a black celebrity hits the news for saying something that causes Jews to feel threatened or offended, the press treats each story as hermetically sealed off from the others. At all costs do they avoid suggesting that the incidents might be in any way connected, or that they could reflect genuine friction between the two groups, rather than merely the ignorance of one misguided individual.
The Kanye spectacle is a re-eruption of an old volcano, long dormant and perhaps thought extinct. Soon after Mount Kanye blew its top, NBA star Kyrie Irving got in trouble. Before them were Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Professor Griff, Lupe Fiasco, Nick Cannon, Whoopie Goldberg, and many more. Cannon was fired from his TV job in 2020 for promoting the theory that black people are descended from the Biblical Israelites rather than from Ham, the cursed son of Noah. Ye, Irving, and Cube also came under fire for promoting this original version of Wakanda Forever. Griff, Fiasco, and Jay-Z went the traditional route by suggesting that Jews own and control the recording industry that signed their checks.
It is comparatively rare for celebrities of other races to make such a glaring faux pas on the topic of Jews. It took a bottle of Jim Beam and sleep deprivation for Mel Gibson to join the rappers and agree out loud that Jews control the entertainment industry. So what gives? It turns out that there is a history here, but our (understandable) reluctance in America to talk honestly about groups as groups has caused it to be mostly forgotten, even by the principals.
Until about 100 years ago, black and Jewish Americans still had little experience with each other. Most blacks still lived in the rural South, while almost all Jews lived in the urban North. In antebellum times, black slaves identified their plight with that of the ancient Hebrews toiling under the whips of Pharaoah, and Negro spirituals expressed their hope that they would one day be led out of captivity into their own Promised Land. By the turn of the century, the railroads had been built and word had begun to trickle down to some Southern blacks that their Promised Land was just a short train ride to the north, and soon the stampede was on. Between 1915 and 1960, some six to seven million black Americans migrated from the rural South to the big cities in the North and West, one of the largest mass migrations in human history, and one whose consequences defined much of American domestic politics in the twentieth century.
Baltimore, Philly, Brooklyn, Harlem, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland… when the First World War began in 1914, all of the cities that became well-known in the 20th century as hubs of African American life still had virtually no black people living in them. Even the Ku Klux Klan had shifted its focus. The 2nd KKK was founded in 1915 in Atlanta, but failed to really catch on in the South. Instead, its strongholds were in the West and Midwest, in cities like Chicago, Indy, Cleveland, and Portland. Like the early Progressive movement, the KKK of this period was a WASP reaction to the disorder brought about by mass immigration. The cities had multiplied in size in the blink of an eye, and many had been taken over by corrupt ethnic political machines. Millions of immigrants - southern European Catholics, eastern European Jews, central European “free thinkers” - huddled in hastily-constructed ghettos that seemed to emanate crime, vice, and disorder.
These were the neighborhoods into which migrating Southern blacks were funneled when they made their way to America’s great cities, and they lived cheek by jowl with Irish, Italians, Poles, Jews, and others who’d only recently arrived themselves. In the early years of the Great Migration, blacks were not seen to be invading “white” neighborhoods, but Irish, Italian, Polish, and Jewish neighborhoods. If, as time went on, nobody spoke of Italian-black relations, or Irish-black relations, the way they continued to do about Jewish-black relations, that is because Jews alone among European ethnics retained a meaningful sense of group identity, while the others melted into the generic American white population.
From the beginning, Jews were relatively more tolerant than the other Euro-ethnics of black migrants. What they heard about the Jim Crow South reminded them of their parents’ tales about the Pale of Settlement. Blacks had been slaves in America just as Jews had been slaves in Egypt, and both had survived since in their own form of exile. A strong strain of political radicalism told the same story to those unmoved by Judaism. Both groups had gone through their own “ordeal of integration” in the American cities they now called home. The Eastern European Jews who began arriving in the 1880s were seen as uncouth, immoral, and potentially dangerous by the well-assimilated handful of German Jews who preceded them to America. Those German Jews were afraid that the unruly behavior of their eastern cousins would ignite the flame of anti-Semitism in America, and went as far as setting up training centers for newly-arrived Ostjuden to be taught how to behave in their new country. Similarly, when Southern blacks arrived in the Northern cities, they encountered very small groups of well-assimilated blacks who had lived there for years, and looked down on them as an embarrassment. Dark-skinned blacks faced discrimination and exclusion by lighter-skinned blacks. There was also a general prejudice against rural Southerners (white or black), who were perceived to be rowdy, vulgar, ignorant, and more prone to violence and licentiousness. Like the German Jews, these assimilated Northern blacks had managed to find some peace and even some acceptance in their cities, and they worried that they would be associated with the behavior of their country cousins.