Fear and hostility go both ways across the ethnic divide.
Farrakhan with anti-Zionist rabbis
In the normal course of things, my recent visit to the African Marketplace cultural fair in Los Angeles might not contain much news interest. But given the background of the rioting in Crown Heights, accounts of growing black anti-Semitism and, especially, the well-publicized sale at last year's fair of such anti-Semitic tracts as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the mere fact of going created in me a certain amount of apprehension.
My anxiety was not quieted by the reaction of friends. "You're going to the African Marketplace?" asked one, a physician on whose sobriety of judgement I often depend. "Are you taking along a shotgun?" Another friend suggested going with a karate expert - just in case. A third had the idea that I should at least go with black people, in order to give myself some protective coloration.
Nobody said, "Great. Have a good time."
Whatever else this may demonstrate, it certainly shows how deeply many white people, Jews among them, fear African-Americans. In order to attend a city-sponsored fair in a public park, I am embarrassed to admit, I stripped my wallet of most of its contents before leaving home. And as bad as the responses, my own included, seem to me, what is worse is that I cannot tell how much they are the consequence of ineradicable racism and how much merely of urban education. There is a background, after all.
The fair itself was, of course, totally unthreatening and great fun. Set up in a straw-strewn meadow, it was meant to approximate - or at least to allude to - a native African marketplace. Tented stalls sold colorful African-style clothing and hats, books, knick-knacks and all kinds of jewelry, along with mostly American-style food. Musicians played jazz and African music. There were various kinds of performances, including a fashion show. It was festive and mellow; everyone was friendly.
My expectation, I think - my fantasy - had been of a highly politicized event, the beating of African war drums for the propagation of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda. But not only was the fair non-political, even the reality of contemporary Africa was absent from it. There were no booths manned by consular officials of African countries, no sociological or cultural information about the African continent or its inhabitants. Africa existed at the African Marketplace as an abstraction, or a projection, a sentimentalized place of origin - as roots and social glue.
By searching for it, I found the Eso Won Bookstore's stall, and by searching among the books I found the Protocols (two copies), The International Jew (one copy), another book called Edom: The Imposter Jew, whose basic message I could not make out. They were on the shelf next to Neil Gabler's An Empire of Their Own, a history of how Jews developed the film industry.
Gabler's book supports, I suppose, for those who prefer not to understand that the Protocols are not history but hate literature, the notion that there is a "Jewish conspiracy."
But even to mention these books is to give them too much importance. Concern with Jews characterized a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of one book concession at the fair. If, as the controversy that erupted in the papers last year suggested, Jews were betrayed at the African Marketplace last year, then it was by the media coverage itself and by our own obsessions, expectations and insecurities, not by the African Marketplace cultural fair.
Conversations in the community, moreover, corroborated the sense that, if Jews tend toward an obsession about our relationship with the black community, the obsession goes one way only. Most blacks do not think about Jews, or know anything about the Protocols of Zion or, for that matter, care much about black-Jewish relations. For many blacks, the question of what blacks think about Jews, Jewish concern with rising black anti-Semitism or Jewish worry about a deterioration in fraternal collaboration between the two communities is simply a puzzlement. The average African-American, commented Larry Aubry of the County Human Relations Commission, who is himself black, simply "does not have Jews as an important subject" for consideration. "I don't see it, sense it, feel it," Aubry says. "Jews are not on the front burner at all."
What blacks are thinking about, Aubry goes on, is - as you might expect - their own communal problems: the drug epidemic, family failure, access to educational opportunities, health care, jobs. And when they focus on inter-communal relations, it is the relationship with Asians and Hispanics that concerns them, those with whom they are in everyday contact or competition.
There is no overt anti-Jewish agenda on the ghetto streets. Against Koreans and other Asians, there is a simmering fury over absentee landlordism and high prices and disrespect; with Latinos there is competition for resources at almost every level.
But with Jews, there is merely little contact. Crown Heights aside, everyday contact between the African-American and Jewish communities has dwindled in almost every major urban area. In most neighborhoods where blacks have moved in, Jews have fled. The tenements and stores in the black ghettos have been sold by Jews to more recent immigrants. In Los Angeles, the second largest city in the country, there are no neighborhoods where Jewish and black residents are thrown into ordinary, everyday contact. Moreover, blacks, brought here as slaves and coping daily with racism, simply do not feel the commonality of experience that Jews - brought here to freedom and now comfortably integrated and influential in virtually all areas of American life - assume between the two communities.
In fact, there is apparently little black desire or need for contact. On the level of communal dialogue and cooperation, local groups such as the New Economic Majority and the Ethnic Coalition are composed mainly of blacks, Asians and Latinos. Jews are not excluded, but neither - despite the historical Jewish concern with such collaborative efforts - have they or other white groups been embraced, according to Ron Wakabayashi, director of the City Human Relations Commission. In the meantime, the Communal Relations Conference, a venerable private organization whose leadership was the older generation of black and Jewish community leaders, has ceased operating.
In general, blacks see Jews as a subset of white culture. African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Hispanic-Americans feel bound by social proximity, competition and, as Wakabayashi suggests - and this is something that Jews often overlook - by a physical appearance that keeps them from stepping away from their identity.
So, yes, the relationship between blacks and Jews has deteriorated. That "Grand Alliance" of outsiders-seeking-justice that fueled collaboration between the two communities from World War I through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is gone, a victim of changed social conditions, retreat into ethnic self-absorption on both sides and disagreements on such basic agenda items as affirmative action and Israel.
But what has replaced it, on the African-American side, is indifference, silence rather than hostility. Jews may believe that a continuation of the relationship is important and may retain a kind of longing for it. As Julius Lester, the black convert to Conservative Judaism, wrote not long ago, Jews continue to "think there is something to care about. For the most part, blacks do not."
At the same time, it is true that there has clearly been an increase, measurable statistically, in black anti-Semitism, especially among younger and better educated blacks. The reasons, observers speculate, may include a deterioration in the black economic situation; a feeling of being bypassed on the ladder to success by other ethnic groups and ignored by the society; the competition of young black professions for jobs with Jews or in settings, like the university systems, in which Jews have already come to positions of influence; even, perhaps, the old relationship between Israel and South Africa, which was widely publicized in the African-American community.
Even if unrepresentative, public manifestations of black anti-Jewish feeling - Jesse Jackson's "Hymietown" remark, Minister Farrakhan's characterization of Judaism as a "gutter religion," the remark some years ago by Kwame Toure (formerly Stokely Carmichael) that "the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist," allegedly anti-Semitic caricatures in Spike Lee's films, the recent anti-Semitic posturing by New York City College professor Leonard Jeffries - are like stings to Jews, irritating in themselves and generating a worry that they will infect the rest of society. Indeed, even Jews who understand that blacks are not generally more hostile to Jews than to other whites worry that Jews may end up as the most convenient, identifiable target for their hostility. As Aubry puts it, deteriorating conditions in the black ghettos constitute "a problem looking for a scapegoat."
One of thosee stings came at the NAACP's 1990 annual convention, held in Los Angeles. At one of the convention's workshop's, Legrand H. Clegg II, deputy city attorney of Compton, CA, charged that blacks are underrepresented in executive positions in the film industry and portrayed in films in unflattering ways because of the "century-old problem of Jewish racism in Hollywood," and he called for a "summit meeting with the Hollywood Jewish community" to discuss the issue. Actress Marla Gibbs, star and producer of the TV sitcom series "227" also complained that the Hollywood "system" was set up "by Jewish people and other people" against the easy access and benefit of blacks. (After the remarks were publicized, Benjamin Hooks, the NAACP national director, called Clegg's views "not necessarily" those of his organization; later, he only weakly disassociated himself from them.)
Clegg, an effusive conversationalist, is apparently quite sincere in presenting himself as an "honest man seeking justice," with no anti-Semitism in him at all. In his view, the media is guilty of "narcotizing" the public against blacks, just as the Nazis did against Jews, and of contributing to a general view of blacks as a criminal "pariah nation." He complains especially that "the descendants of the Holocaust" are doing this. If black people "had invented Hollywood and were stereotyping Jews, the whole country would be concerned about it," Clegg told me.
These are views which, to be candid, I might have dismissed if I had not confronted in myself, in attending the African Marketplace, the extent to which I have become the victim of stereotypes of blacks. Clegg may be a demagogue, someone who has made out of a partial half-truth an overriding, organizing truth and is now riding it hard. As such, he may never be able to understand why his presentation offends Jews or why the mainstream Jewish organizations see him as anti-Semitic, marginal, unpredictable and not a "responsible partner" for dialogue.
Moreover, as a dialoguer - I spent well over an hour on the phone with him - Clegg has a tendency to jump the track of the conversation, especially when challenged. When I asked him, for example, if he, as someone who claims to be committed to the protection of Jews and all other ethnic minorities, had condemned Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements, Chicago official Steve Cokely's accusation that Jewish doctors were infecting black children with AIDS, the anti-Semitism in the UCLA student newsmnagazine Nommo
or New York City Professor Leonard Jeffries' recent diatribe against "rich Jews," he quickly dodged away to complain about Israel's relationship with South Africa and some Jewish leaders' rejection of Nelson Mandela.
So, yes, it is easy to dismiss Clegg as malicious, misguided or irresponsible. And yet there is that small, partial half truth. According to a survey by the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, blacks now have fewer opportunities to attain executive positions in Hollywood than they did 10 years ago. And, to be impressionistic about it, I think that if Jews were regularly portrayed in films in the unpleasant way that blacks regularly are, the Jewish community would be permanently up in arms. Look what happened when Spike Lee made the nightclub owners in Mo' Better Blues
venal automatons who were identifiably Jewish.
In what one white colleague calls an "obsession," Clegg has chosen to blame "Jews" for the pattern. Yet in over an hour of conversation, he never once named a single Jewish executive whom he believed had actually discriminated against blacks, nor could he document, even when pressed, how the claimed patterns of discrimination and negative stereotyping of blacks could actually be traced to Jews.
Clegg's mistake is that he phrases as an attack - which can easily be deflected with facts (increase of blacks in positive roles on TV and in films, non-Jewish ownership of most movie companies, etc. - what ought to be an appeal for help. Because Jews, angered and made defensive by accusations, could
be of help.
In the aftermath of Clegg's remarks, the offer of Jewish organizations to dialogue with "responsible black leadership" resulted in an ongoing series of talks between the national leaderships of the American Jewish Congress and the NAACP on the subject of increasing black access to positions of influence in Hollywood. The results of those deliberations are still to be made public. They may be productive, or they may dissolve into organizational limbo.
But avenues of grass-roots black-Jewish cooperation might serve as a constructive example to blacks who think that Jews not only have it all but are hoarding it. A local group called L.A.'s Young Black Professionals, for example, maintains an ongoing dialogue with congregants at a large and wealthy Reform synagogue. The purposes of the dialogue are to increase religious and personal understanding among its members - but it also offers, as one its black leaders, Tracy Robinson, indicated, important opportunities for professional contacts, as well. Jews are
well-placed and influential in American society and, in some fields, constitute a highly organized network that those who distrust or fear us imagine constitutes some nefarious "conspiracy." As Robinson put it diplomatically, "It's advantageous for our organization to dialogue with the Jewish community. Many positive things come out of this relationship."
The fruits of such person-to-person networking between blacks and Jews might be improvement of the African-American situation. It might also mute the tendency of an extraordinarily successful and extraordinarily insecure American-Jewish community to see monsters outside every window. It is not up to Jews alone, but I believe that Jews would help, if blacks would ask.
But right now, for the most part, there is silence instead. It might make a fitting postscript to note that no local mainstream black leader returned my phone calls - not John Mack of the Urban League, nor Joe Duff of the NAACP, nor city councilman Mark Ridley Thomas, nor lawyer Melanie Lomax, former member of the County Human Relations Commission and former chair of the L.A. Police Commission. The local leader of the Nation of Islam didn't call back either.
I'm not insulted, and I'm still waiting.