Sunday, May 04, 2008

Blacks and Israel

In discussions of why the Black/Jewish alliance of the early 20th century began to falter in the 1970s, the question of Israel usually is at the forefront. Growing Black identification with third world anti-colonialism (which manifested itself in support of Palestine against their purported colonizer, Israel), combined with growing Jewish ambivalence to affirmative action, was a double-whammy combination that severely fractured previously deep bonds.

But both problems, while certainly real, have been overstated. Jews have demonstrated ambivalence towards affirmative action (particularly quotas, which have deep negative connotations given their history as a tool of exclusion of qualified Jewish applicants), but they still register support for it at levels higher than any other White ethnic group, and the trend lines are positive, not negative, on the topic. Blacks, for their part, do support Israel -- albeit by lower margins than Whites. Moreover, while high-profile anti-Israel statements get media attention and feed the perception of a large and growing bloc of the Black community in strident opposition to Zionism, the reality is far more complicated. Certainly, some Black leaders shifted from previous support of Zionism to staunch opposition (such as Stokely Carmichael). At the same time, others made the opposite trek, such as Jesse Jackson, who in the space of several years went from describing Zionism as a "poisonous weed" choking Judaism to hailing it as a national liberation movement. Other Black leaders, led by Bayard Rustin, formed the Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee (BASIC) -- joined by, among other notables, Clarence Mitchell, David Dinkins, and even Andrew Young, who become a poster boy for Jewish concerns over growing anti-Israel sentiment in the Black community when he met with representatives of the PLO as America's Ambassador to the United Nations in 1979.

The reality is that the view of significant Black anti-Israel sentiment is largely apocryphal, stemmed by the aforementioned high profile denunciations rather than by any strong empirical evidence. Summarizing a long history of survey data, Gary Rubin writes:
Four points stand out in this review of three decades of surveys on African American attitudes toward Israel. First, African Americans show consistent support for Israel over this entire period. Second, that support is at a lower level than that of the public at large. Third, for greater proportions of African Americans than others, this is not a very important issue: Blacks consistently outpace whites in the proportion that express no opinion on Israel-related questions. Fourth, response of African Americans are subject to the course of events; they are especially prone to express sympathy with the Palestinians as well as with Israel and to strongly back pro-peace positions. [Gary E. Rubin, "African Americans and Israel," in Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States (Jack Salzman & Cornel West, eds., Oxford: Oxford UP 1997), 357-370, 366]

Rubin also notes that the Congressional Black Caucus has "consistently and overwhelmingly favored foreign aid to Israel" (367, quoting Murray Friedman), and notes that in general Black politicians have been quite willing to "horse trade" with Jewish leaders so that each group can secure the support of the other on issues of mutual importance.

So what do we get out of this? First, Jewish concerns are not wholly off base -- Blacks, while overall supportive of Israel, are less likely to express that position than Whites. More importantly, the relative apathy on the issue Rubin notices is not neutral -- just as Blacks are hardly unconcerned with Whites who "don't care one way or the other" on questions of racial justice. When the question is basic survival and equal dignity in the arena of human affairs, apathy and indifference can feel like hostility. But all that notwithstanding, insofar as Israel remains an issue of critical importance to Jews, the Black community writ large is not our enemies, and that's important to keep in mind as groups who truly are hostile to our interests try and pry us apart.

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