State of the Field: Jews & Others.

Author:Eisenberg, Ellen
 
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In the mid-1990s, when I began to examine western Jewish responses to WWII-era removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans, I expected to find Jews prominent among those who recognized and protested the racism of that wartime policy. (1) Looking for evidence of Jewish opposition, I turned to the records of organizations engaged in what was then called inter-group work. Instead of uncovering opposition, I was surprised to discover that a prominent Jewish civil rights organization in Los Angeles secretly collaborated in disseminating anti-Japanese American propaganda, while most West Coast Jewish groups and individuals remained silent. (2) My assumption that Jews would have, or should have, played a key role in opposing the policy was broadly shared: When I presented my findings at venues including scholarly conferences and community fora, audiences (particularly Jewish ones) were stunned and disappointed to hear that Jews did not lead the limited opposition to the policy and that one Jewish group had, in fact, played a key role in providing the propaganda to support it. Our shared reaction reflected the conventional wisdom that American Jews have "always" fought prejudice. Indeed, many community members expressed a belief that opposing racism and supporting civil rights is axiomatically Jewish, since Jewish values call for social justice.

Much of this conventional wisdom is rooted in the mid-twentieth century alliance between Jews and African Americans. Yet historians, while confirming disproportionate Jewish engagement in the Civil Rights Movement, generally present that alliance as the result of recent and specific communal memories rather than timeless values. As early as 1977, Hasia Diner's study of the period from 1915-1935 traced this "special relationship" to the persecution of East European Jews in their countries of origin, the challenges of adaptation and search for acceptance in America, and insecurity triggered by the Leo Frank trial and lynching in 1915. (3) Michael Alexander's Jazz Age Jews (2001) similarly saw specific communal memories-rather than timeless values-as the source of Jewish identification with African Americans. (4) And in both of these cases, the "special relationship" involved not the American Jewish community as a whole, but specific subsets of Jews, based on their location in the United States, their class position, their acculturation (or lack thereof), and other factors. As Stuart Svonkin explained in Jews Against Prejudice (1997), "attempts by modern American Jews to legitimate their politics by reference to the Jewish tradition cannot be taken at face value." (5) Focusing on the postwar period, Svonkin cast Jewish racial liberalism as the product of a sense of "a latent anti-Semitism ready to erupt," borne of historical experiences as early as European emancipation and as recent as the Holocaust. (6) These studies anticipated more recent and increasingly nuanced accounts of Jewish-African American relationships that replace claims of long-standing values and communal consistency with situational, historically contingent explanations and recognition of variations over time and region.

Recent revisions in our understanding of the Jewish-African American relationship reflect broader shifts in American ethnic/racial history, including increased attention to "whiteness" as a signifier of inclusion. The "racial turn" which has shaped scholarship on race, immigration and ethnicity since the 1990s, opened the door to questions about when Jews "became white" and how that identity impacted intergroup relations. Within American Jewish history, much of this scholarship centers on Jewish-African American relations, with historians such as Michael Rogin arguing that juxtaposition with and use of black culture was critical to Jews' efforts to come to terms with their whiteness. (7) Yet, more broadly, the racial turn in American history also greatly increased attention to Latino and Asian Americans, shifting conversations about race from a binary black/white framework to a relational approach. In recent years, these changes have begun to inspire historians of American Jewry to go beyond the binary of Blacks and Jews to consider multifaceted relationships among Jews, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and (to a lesser degree) Native Americans, as well as internal relations within an increasingly diverse Jewish community.

This review charts recent and emerging directions in this scholarship, beginning with a discussion of work on Jews and African Americans. That literature will then be placed in the context of evolving understandings of race and ethnicity in America, including the racial turn. Although the turn has greatly affected immigration and ethnic history, Jewish historians have been slow in moving away from a black-white dichotomy and toward a multilateral approach to intergroup relations. A path forward is suggested by California-based scholars, who provide models that illustrate the benefits of bringing American Jewish history into conversation with Latino and Asian American studies. Taken together, this survey of the field suggests the promise of relational approaches in understanding Jewish identity in connection not only with African Americans but with a variety of other racial and ethnic minorities. Further, it makes clear the significance of regional contexts in this analysis, demonstrating that regional and local racial landscapes strongly shape identities, racial discourse, and inter-group dynamics.

A "Special Relationship"?: Jews and African Americans

As suggested by the work of Alexander and Svonkin, increased recognition of contingency and variation have been the hallmarks of studies of Jewish-African American connections since the turn of the twenty-first century. Marc Dollinger's Quest for Inclusion (2000) argues that Jewish racial liberalism from the 1940s to the 1970s was motivated by "the community's intense desire to secure the most elusive prize in its history: social, economic, and political inclusion in the larger non-Jewish society." Support for liberal policies designed to increase tolerance and egalitarianism was driven by the belief that they would create a more welcoming and inclusive America. However, when forced to choose between such policies and acculturation, "Jews almost always chose the latter." (8) While recognizing the continuing significance of Jewish liberal proclivities even after achieving acceptance and success, Dollinger's acknowledgement of a strong calculus of self-interest serves as a corrective to both simplistic formulations of Jewish altruism and assertions of undifferentiated Jewish whiteness.

This provides a framework for understanding southern Jews' competing impulses on racial politics. As Dollinger explains in a review of monographs on southern Jews and civil rights by Clive Webb and Ramond Mohl, these works "define a complex and ambiguous relationship to civil rights, acknowledging limits to southern Jewish activism just as they unearth new material that demonstrates impressive commitment to racial equality." (9) Eric Goldstein, in his masterful analysis of evolving Jewish racial identity, similarly charts competing impulses in the South, arguing that, "while most Southern Jews seem to have had a greater degree of empathy for African Americans than did their gentile counterparts, most were too fearful of negative social consequences to express such feelings openly." (10) When coalitions became central to the American Jewish fight against prejudice, Jews in racially conservative regions often expressed support for national campaigns, while remaining silent on explosive local issues. Such was the case in Oregon, where Portland's Jewish weekly loudly condemned racism in the Scottsboro Boys case in Alabama, while refraining from commenting on a similar, explosive local incident. (11)

Conflicting impulses also explain gaps between ideals and actions on integration. Perhaps the most sophisticated analysis of these competing pulls is in Cheryl Greenberg's work. For example, in "Liberal NIMBY: American Jews and Civil Rights" (2012), Greenberg focuses on tensions between Jewish commitments to school and neighborhood integration, and residential choices driven by costs and benefits, such as school quality. Explaining what observers sometimes describe as a Jewish tendency to "behave as liberals politically but as white people in their personal lives," Greenberg insists that casting Jewish migration to the suburbs as purely racist is problematic. "Even if one endorsed civil rights, the reality of integration levied real and significant costs to those who remained," she argues, noting real tensions "between integration as political action and integration as lived experience." (12) Greenberg's Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century (zoo6), more expansively explores cooperation and conflict between national Black and Jewish civil rights organizations. Rather than a "natural alliance," Greenberg provides a nuanced account of two diverse communities working at an organizational level to cooperate within a larger context of liberalism, while acknowledging real differences in privilege and position that sometimes led to fracturing over competing interests. (13) This responds not only to overly romanticized versions of the alliance but also to those who reject the "special relationship" and cast Jews as just another group of white ethnics.

Increased attention to the specifics of regional racial landscapes and political dynamics demonstrates the degree of variation in Jewish-African American relations. For example, Lila Corwin Berman's Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, & Religion in Postwar Detroit (2015) provides an analysis that, like Greenberg's, centers on a Jewish investment in a liberal ideology that included both rejection of discriminatory practices and policies, and an embrace of private...

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