Struggles in the Promised Land: Toward a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the United States

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Date: Fall 1998
Publisher: American Jewish Congress
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,054 words

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Edited by JACK SALZMAN and CORNEL WEST. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Reviewed by ROBERT PHILIPSON

This is the liberal version of the story. Jews came to the United States in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. Blacks were brought here in slavery. The two groups came into significant contact toward the end of the nineteenth century when the Black peasants of the Great Migration settled in the same northern cities that hosted the masses of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Soon an alliance developed between the elites of both groups to fight nativist prejudice and to promote civil equality. This so-called Grand Alliance culminated in the victories of the Civil Rights movement of the late fifties and sixties. "Then," to quote from Michael Walzer's essay, "came Black power, the 1967 Mideast war, community school boards, affirmative action, the Nation of Islam, and so on; and now there is only trouble and mutual recrimination." For many years, the liberal version of the history, producing such books as Jonathan Kaufman's Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America, was the official version.

The official version, however, has not always been accepted in Black America, and for the past thirty years, a counter-narrative has found its way into print, beginning with the 1967 publication of Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. According to the counter-narrative, Jews enriched themselves through the Atlantic slave trade, both as financiers and slave-owners; established preponderant influence in Hollywood and the American media, where they marginalized and distorted the images of African Americans; took advantage of their positions as landlords, teachers and social workers to further enrich themselves, and secure a specious moral superiority. Those Jews who participated in the civil rights activities did so out of ideological self-interest and rank paternalism. With the establishment of Israel, the Jews have shown themselves to be as oppressive of people of color abroad as much as they are at home.

The gap between the narratives outlined above is unbridgeable, but they both draw from the school of philosophical Realism, i.e., that universals, such as "Blacks" and "Jews" have objective reality. Struggles in the Promised Land purports to shed historical light on these two narratives through a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of Black-Jewish relations in the United States. The book had its genesis, as Jack Salzman, its Jewish editor, explains, by way of a follow-up to an exhibition on Black-Jewish relations mounted by The Jewish Museum of New York City. "The question was how to present that history within the walls of a museum - or so it seemed. But as the weeks went by, it became all too clear that there was no readily definable history." What troubled Salzman, however, was not the fact that "Blacks" and "Jews" had been reduced to monolithic entities either working in concert or lunging at one another but that the official version of their history had been strongly challenged by Afrocentrists and their followers....

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A54600129