Connecting with Black Women
It was a summer evening in 1984, the day after the Democratic National Convention nominated Geraldine Ferraro as Walter Mondale’s vice presidential running mate. A woman vice president! In our lifetime! I couldn’t have been happier if my mother had been commemorated on a postage stamp. After work, I bounded up to the apartment for a get-together of our Black-Jewish women’s group. I could hardly wait to share my ecstasy with my pals.
In the six-woman Black-Jewish dialogue group that Harriet Michel and I had founded, we discussed Geraldine Ferraro’s brand-new nomination.
Besides Harriet, who was then director of the New York Urban League, two other African-American women were in our group — Bernice Powell, then president of the New York Coalition of 100 Black Women (now executive associate to the president of the United Church of Christ); and Marguerite Ross Barnett, then vice-chancellor of the City University of New York (now chancellor of the University of Houston). Besides myself, the two other Jewish women with the dialogue were Marilyn Braveman, then director of education and women’s issues for the American Jewish Committee, and Jacqueline Levine, past president of the National Jewish Community Relations Council and vice president of the American Jewish Congress.
Our group had originated as a spin-off of a larger, coed Black-Jewish coalition composed of New York City movers and shakers. Because the male members seemed incapable of talking personally, of exposing their vulnerabilities, or of making real human connection, the group had degenerated into power-posturing and speech-making. Finally Harriet and I, who had been grimacing to each other across the room for months, decided to convene a small, all-women’s group. So here the six of us were, toasting Geraldine Ferraro, bubbling with enthusiasm as we reviewed our impressions of her acceptance speech and the prospects for the Democratic ticket.
After a few minutes, however, I noticed that the three Black women in the group were not bubbling quite as effervescently as the three Jewish women.
“How come you guys aren’t so excited?” I asked the Blacks. “Is there something wrong with Ferraro?”
I wasn’t being rude: directness is one of our ground rules.
“She’s white,” answered all three Blacks, almost simultaneously.
“But she’s a woman, like you, like us” said one of the Jews.
“But she’s white.”
“Yeah, she’s also Catholic and not a Jew but I still feel her achievement as my own” said a Jewish woman. “I think to myself if an Italian Catholic woman can do it, maybe someday a Jewish woman can be in the White House.”
“It’s a big leap from a white Catholic to a Black of any kind,” said another Black member.
“But this is a tremendous breakthrough for the American political system. If Gerry can be the candidate of a major party, you could be too” said a Jewish woman, gesturing toward the Blacks, all of whom are prominent enough in public life to run for office.
“Not so!” was the reply. “And that’s the point. The woman in me is glad for Gerry but the Black in me has no greater political possibilities today than last week. Gerry’s success won’t help my people one bit.”
In the midst of my celebratory raptures my African-American friends forced me to change my angle of vision, to alter my strictly feminist orientation and acknowledge a critical difference between Black women’s marginalization and mine. Whereas it depends on the political and social climate of the moment as to whether I feel more vulnerable as a Jew or a woman, the oppression of color and class always outweighs the oppression of gender or religion. In a white-run society, racism is the overriding injustice; it does not allow invisibility, or passing.
I turned the situation around and saw their point even more clearly. If a Jewish man had been nominated as Walter Mondale’s running mate, I would have felt pleased and proud but I would not have been popping my cork. Jew or not, I would have seen it as a man’s triumph and thus familiar. His victory would not have greased the track for a Jewish woman or any woman. Likewise, Ferraro would not ease the way for any Black, male or female.
If our women’s group works harder at decoding causes and goes deeper into the realm of feelings than the other dialogue groups I’m familiar with, it’s because we all consider ourselves feminists as well as advocates of our own communities. We are interested in one another not just as Blacks or Jews, but as women. While we are not afraid of male-style confrontation, we are more devoted to female-style communication, down-and-dirty mutual self-disclosure and emotional honesty.
I have learned that although I see myself as a Jewish woman, Blacks see me as a white woman. I have had to admit that I see Blacks as Black before I think of them as Christian. I have bounced back after hearing some of the infuriating opinions Blacks have of Jews, and I have gotten off my chest some racial hostility I wouldn’t have dared to confess anywhere else.
At the victory rally the night David Dinkins won the New York City Mayoral primary, Jesse Jackson made a speech that contained a number of gratuitous Christian religious references. The next day, I asked a Black friend, “Since Jews supported Dinkins in greater proportions than any other group of whites, don’t you think all that Jesus talk was pretty insensitive of Jackson?”
The Black woman’s face closed tight as a fist. “You’re not gonna get me to speak against Jesse” she said flatly. “Jesse Jackson is our Israel. Even if he embarrasses us or says the wrong thing, he’s the best we’ve got and I’m not going to bad mouth him — just like you’re not going to bad mouth the Jewish State.”
Her analogy made so much sense that I took it a step further in my own thinking. I’ve been saying that uncritical support of Israel threatens the integrity of Israeli democracy and the Jewish ethic. Following my friend’s analogy I want to insist that Blacks’ uncritical support of Black leaders who are insensitive to Jews or to outright anti-Semitism can be just as corrosive to black ethics. Cumulative insults from men like Louis Farrakhan, the Black Muslim extremist, plus polls showing rising Black anti-Semitism, plus Black criticism of Israel, have coalesced for some Jews into an irrational fear of Jesse Jackson, simply because he is the most prominent representative of Black sentiment.
I agree that at times Jackson has been insensitive to Jews, but I do not believe he has demonstrated disregard for Jewish interests. On the contrary, I think we have reason to take heart from many of his gestures of support: his appearance in the pulpit of the Skokie synagogue prior to the announced Nazi march, his public apology at the 1984 Democratic convention, his stirring remarks at a Holocaust memorial service, his interceding with Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of Soviet Jews, and his participation in a Kristallnacht remembrance. Such actions have persuaded me that Jesse Jackson is capable of sensitization and change. I take his overtures toward Jews as a sign of his potential for empathy and self-education. Unless he shows signs of backsliding, I see no purpose in the continued attacks on him, especially as long as he remains a strong advocate for women.
Using the Jackson/Israel analogy of my Black friend on post-election day, I believe that Jews, who want the world to give Israel the benefit of the doubt despite her errors and flaws, can work harder to understand the gigantic significance of this African-American leader, flaws and all, and should give him the benefit of the doubt as well.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF MEN
On the issue of Louis Farrakhan, the women in our small Black-Jewish group battled for months to change each other’s minds. The argument sounded something like this:
Black Woman: “Since we have so few spokesmen who can engage the attention of the whole community, we have to protect our leaders, not censure them. I’m not going to attack any African-American just to make Jews feel better, especially someone like Farrakhan who has been such a positive influence on our, youth. We’re trying to develop living symbols of Black aspiration.”
Jewish Woman: “But Farrakhan’s hate message should invalidate his hero potential. Real leaders send the message to their followers that bigotry is unacceptable. Real leaders aren’t afraid of denouncing injustice whoever its targets or perpetrators.”
Black Woman: “Maybe Jews feel strong enough to go around undermining other Jews, but we have to worry about exacerbating the tensions that already divide the African-American community. If Jews really were there for us, you’d stop harping on Farrakhan. Only one percent of American Blacks are members of the Nation of Islam. There are millions of white anti-Semites. Isn’t it hypocritical to keep throwing Farrakhan in our faces? Farrakhan’s main message is one about economic independence, self-help and mutual support. What you do for your community is what Farrakhan .wants Blacks to do for Blacks. But whenever he speaks about self-help, the press reports only what he says about Jews.
Jewish Woman: “Why not point that out to him? Maybe if he edits out the Jew-hating, the press will notice his economic program. No one’s going to pay attention to the main ‘message’ as long as it’s surrounded by malice. And how can you be sure that his anti-Semitism is rhetorical? Maybe he consciously uses it to gain attention. Anyway, Jews have learned from experience that no expression of anti-Semitism is just rhetorical. Every pogrom starts with a hate campaign. Why not just admit it’s wrong?”
Black woman: “Our position as middle-class, moderate Black leaders is too precarious for us to look weak.”
And so it goes. Even in our intimate group where there is a will to understand, we spent five or six sessions on Louis Farrakhan and finally declared an impasse.
THE POLITICS OF SURVIVAL
At about the same time that Harriet Michel and I started our small dialogue group, I helped to found a larger Black-Jewish women’s group that was to prepare us for the Nairobi U.N. Conference; this group petered out within two years. At first, I attributed its failure to waning Black interest.
“Why do you think so many Black women stopped coming to meetings even though we started out with an equal representation?” I asked a Black friend who had been part of the group.
“You Jews have to stop acting like God’s chosen people,” she barked, her eyes shooting sparks. “The world doesn’t revolve around you. Relations with Jews are not a priority for most Black people; our main concern is survival.”
Blacks worry about their actual conditions and fear for the present; Jews worry about their history and fear for the future.
My friend’s point about Black priorities was well taken, but her words hurt; inter-group dialogue is the Jewish response to our deep-seated insecurity. We invest in dialogue as a form of insurance against anti-Semitism. Although safe and relatively prosperous right now, Jews are a people whose vulnerability is seared indelibly into our collective unconscious.
“A Jew needs dialogue the way anyone, even if never personally threatened, would need constant reassurance had one-third of her relatives been murdered,” I tell my friend.
My friend listens but she still doesn’t get it. She grew up in a neighborhood where Jews collected the rent, ran the shops, employed Black domestic workers, checked up on welfare clients, and taught Black children. She works now in New York City where every Jew she sees is thriving. She points out that 30 million American Blacks have only 24 Congressional representatives and no Black Senators, while six million American Jews have 31 Jewish members of the House and seven Jewish Senators.
Blacks worry that their (bad) situation will never improve — therefore their issues are affordable housing, better education, and affirmative action. Jews worry that our (good) situation will never last — therefore our issues are freedom of religion (separation of church and state), freedom of emigration (Soviet Jews, Ethiopian Jews) and a secure Israel. Blacks need relief in the form of practical economic assistance. Jews need relief in the form of continued acceptance.
Assistance. Acceptance. Clearly, these needs are not comparable, but they can be experienced with comparable intensity and they can lead people to the same place. Thus Blacks enter into dialogue in the hope it will result in action to address their needs, while for Jews, dialogue is the need; if Blacks are still talking to us, we think, maybe the liberal alliance is not dead, maybe we don’t have to fear Black Christians as much as white Christians, maybe everyone will promise not to hurt us.
While I had been hurt by my friend’s angry words, talking together clarified that I was the one who had not understood. I had suggested there was something wrong with Blacks for dropping out of the dialogue when in fact there was something wrong with the dialogue for failing to serve the needs of its Black participants. Because the Jewish agenda — creating alliances — was being fulfilled, Jews kept showing up at the meetings. But the Black agenda — cooperative activism — had stalled, so some Black women had stopped coming.
ISRAEL, AFFIRMATIVE ACTION AND SOUTH AFRICA
I have been trying to persuade Black friends that Zionism — the commitment to keep Israel alive as a Jewish state with a Law of Return that gives Jews automatic citizenship — is not racism any more than goals and timetables for Black hiring is reverse racism. I believe that anyone who can understand why history entitles minorities and women to affirmative action ought to understand why history entitles Jews to safe space and preferential immigration policies. Just as legal remedies are justified in reparation for racism and sexism, the Law of Return is justified by worldwide persecution and anti-Semitic bigotry.
Why, ask my Black friends, should Israel’s relatively well-off four-and-a-half million people get three billion dollars in aid (much of it military) when all of Black Africa, with its half billion poor people, gets less than one billion dollars? Given the U.S. budget crisis, they say, some of the money earmarked for Israel might be redirected to developing African nations, Black Caribbean islands and the Third World within our own borders: Harlem, the South Bronx, Detroit, Watts,-and the South Side of Chicago.
Despite growing antagonism between Blacks and Jews, I draw hope from surveys that show our two communities still are the most politically compatible groups in America. Our voting patterns are more alike than any other racial or religious categories. We share a common vision of justice. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Jewish members of Congress vote together on most issues including those affecting Israel, Soviet Jews and South Africa. In our electoral habits, we are similarly perverse. Although Jews have experienced great economic success, we still vote our consciences, not our pocket-books. Although Blacks have experienced great economic stress, they still vote their consciences not their rage. It’s up to us to build on this compatibility, bring it out of the statistics books and make it work for us.
Where Black-Jewish relations are concerned, I find my women’s movement experience instructive. In the early years of feminism’s Second Wave, millions of disparate women accentuated female commonalities in order to create a unified women’s movement. This period was analogous to the time when Blacks and Jews accentuated their common dream of justice in order to create a unified civil rights movement.
Now, however, feminists are acknowledging that each woman comes from a different place and has different needs, and likewise, instead of saying Blacks and Jews are the same under the skin, most of us are trying to respond to each groups’s special needs while keeping alive that common dream of justice.
My first reaction was to regret that identity politics — the ideology of distinctiveness — have replaced the politics of commonality. But taking the lead from women of color, I have seen the virtue of group cohesion, self-affirmation, and unashamed advocacy of their special interests. Today Blacks and Jews and other Outsiders insist on being let “In” (wherever that is) without having to pay the price of conformity.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor Ms. magazine. This material will appear in somewhat different form in her forthcoming book Deborah, Golda and Me: Being Jewish and Female in America to be published by Crown Publishers in 1991.