Georgetown University professors Terrence Johnson and Jacques Berlinerblau co-teach a course that explores the long and complex relation between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Their years of research and teaching together resulted in the book Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue (Georgetown University Press). The work, which features long-form essays and numerous pieces in which the scholars interview one another, probes a variety of hot-button issues. These include Jewish racism, Black anti-semitism, Afro Judaism, the Black/Jewish Civil Rights Alliance of the 1960s, and the strains placed on these communities by the resurgence of White Christian Nationalism. All of these topics have been especially relevant in the past few weeks as voting rights in the United States come under assault and controversy engulfs ABC’s The View and its co-host Whoopi Goldberg. The following is an excerpt from their work which was released this week.
Terrence Johnson: Jacques, we’ve been teaching the Blacks and Jews in America course for five years running. What has surprised you the most about the class?
Jacques Berlinerblau: One of the most surprising things we’ve learned while teaching our Blacks and Jews in America course is that our students have no idea that our syllabus is about the relation between Blacks and Jews in America. Many thought it would consist of two separate components: a “Blacks” module and a “Jews” module. You know, that it would be like a general education (gen ed) requirement, a diversity requirement, or so on. They had no idea an actual relationship between these two peoples existed and stretched back throughout American history. What do you make of their lack of awareness of the lengthy and complex historical encounter between these two minority groups?
TJ: Our Black and Jewish students seem to be invisible to each other. Many of them grew up in deeply segregated and homogeneous communities, places shaped along narrowly construed lines of race and class. It’s highly unlikely that a significant portion of our Jewish and Black students would have encountered each other in social or academic settings—that is, in the same advanced placement class, attending the same pool party, sharing notes in a study group. This social disconnect is irreparable.
JB: I sometimes fear you’re right. This disconnect might be irreparable—as in, they will still be strangers to one another forty years from now.
TJ: Blacks and Jews at this historical moment would appear to be as far apart as immigrant Jews were from elite white gentiles when the former came to the United States in the nineteenth century. Existing social, religious, and economic structures make it nearly impossible for young people from these groups to connect or even to see each other as anything other than strangers.
Secondary schools aren’t teaching the complex history of race and rights in the United States or any other narrative that would highlight the historic encounters between Blacks and white Jews. How, then, do we expect these students to discover any connections between them at a meta or micro level?
JB: True. Then again, there are no two groups in this country that have had so much solidarity and so much strife between them. They have had so much interaction. My point is that if secondary schools were to teach an interethnic module, “Blacks and Jews in America” would have a ready-made syllabus. It would cover everything from James Baldwin to bell hooks, Norman Podhoretz to Letty Pogrebin. Do you agree?
TJ: Of course. But your expectations are unusually high for an institution already suffocating from unaddressed economic disparities and the so-called achievement gap among students of different racial and economic backgrounds. Your argument also places a great deal of faith in our collective ability to do the heavy lifting that is required to teach a course on Blacks and Jews in America. As you well know, the historic interethnic encounters in the United States exposes a disturbing narrative of Christianity’s role in perpetuating anti-Black racism and antisemitism. Do you really believe high school history teachers would garner the administrative support needed to teach such a class?
Notwithstanding the instructional gap’s impact on the rich history of interethnic studies, white Jewish flight to the middle-class suburbs underscores the critical point I have been struggling to articulate: Blacks and Jews are invisible to each other by choice. Please convince me otherwise.
JB: I agree. They are invisible by choice. And they became invisible by cultural structures that made their choices not to engage with one another seem “natural,” in the sense that Antonio Gramsci used the word.
It wasn’t always that way. In the aftermath of the Great Migration, Blacks and Jews lived near one another in northern urban enclaves. They certainly knew one another, though they didn’t necessarily get along that well. Ditto in the 1930s and 1940s when they met one another in communist movements. Probably around the 1950s is when they started physically moving away from one another. The paradox is that this—and by “this,” I am referring to Jewish white flight to the suburbs—coincides with the so-called Golden Era, when elites in both groups worked on numerous civil rights issues together. At the very moment they were winning these victories for racial justice, they were actually in the process of physically distancing themselves. So our students are indeed surprised to learn the relationship wasn’t always the way it is now. They didn’t know that there was a backstory. They didn’t even know there was a story. Nowadays, Terrence, where do our Black students organically come across Jews and vice versa?
TJ: Unfortunately, there’s no organic encounter between them in any intimate setting. Their relationship is primarily transactional. In a general sense, many of our working-class African American students may live in homes or apartments owned by Jewish landlords. Maybe one of their coaches or teachers is Jewish. African American middle-class students may have overheard a parent’s discussion regarding a Jewish boss or the number of Jews in positions of power at his or her workplace.
Something similar can be said of our Jewish students. If the only Black woman they know, for instance, is their nanny, it is safe to assume that experience will inform their subsequent relations with other Black women.
Please keep in mind, just as urban myths are consumed at white suburban dinner tables about allegedly “unqualified” African Americans getting into Harvard, about the Black “welfare queen,” and about Black men dating white women, there exists in many Black communities parallel anecdotes of white Jews as being über successful, both academically and financially. If the students’ initial point of engaging each other is through stereotypical anecdotes, we should expect a contentious classroom until we, as so-called educators, make every effort to address such preexisting beliefs about each other. Obviously, what I am saying is not new to you.
JB: Ha! No, it’s not new. But it’s not contentious at Georgetown University, where everyone is so gosh darn friendly and doing the head nod I alluded to earlier. Eventually you and I do get under the students’ skin, as it were, and they start to open up.
I think the lack of Jewish exposure to Black compatriots is a function of class, and that, of course, intersects with race. As the Jewish community grew more affluent, Jewish children were increasingly likely to attend expensive private schools. (I am not speaking here of Orthodox Jews, who attend their own schools, which are not expensive but are exclusively for Orthodox Jews.) These institutions all predictably fail to look anything like the nation at large. As for Jews in public schools, their attendance is also a dynamic inflected by class. The public schools they attend are usually in the wealthiest districts, where the percentage of African American students is well below the 14 percent mark of the national population.
Where else might Black and Jewish kids come across each other in the contemporary United States?
TJ: Black kids and white Jewish kids don’t often cross paths in the real world. Yes, they may rub shoulders in the locker room or on the soccer field, but that’s it. Jewish kids are more likely to peer into Black life through rap music and popular culture than to engage a Black kid over lunch or dinner. The same can’t be said of African Americans. I can’t think of any corresponding medium through which Black kids might peer into the lives of white Jewish kids.
The intimacy you wish to see among Blacks and Jews only exists within literature. For instance, James McBride’s The Color of Water provides a curious but stark understanding of Black-Jewish encounters. The price of such intimacy is a form of death. In McBride’s autobiography, his mom is estranged from her Jewish family after she marries a Black man. She is dead to her family, especially to her dad. Her Jewish identity is dead. And she symbolically wraps herself in a new identity as a Black Christian woman. As far as the reader can tell, no one questions her racial identity. Her neighbors and the parents of her children’s classmates assume she is Black because of her children’s phenotype. It’s a disturbing but classic story in many working-class Black communities: The annihilation of one’s ethnic identity is the norm rather than the exception.
This is why, if you want to get the real scoop on our families, you need to attend an African American funeral. Unknown children and partners will always surface, and a few of them will be white and Jewish.
JB: In our class, we often have a substantial proportion of students who are neither Black nor Jewish. They seem oddly fascinated by it all. Many Asian American students, in particular, tell us that the whole experience is mind-blowing. They tell me that when they hear about the assimilation of the Jews in the United States, they are reminded of a role they have now been forced to play—that of the model minority. They feel pitted against Black and Brown people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
TJ: I think there’s another reason why some Asian Americans take our class. I don’t believe all immigrants are forced into the category of “model minority.” Immigrants pursue and reinvent the category to different purposes. When Caribbean and African immigrants come to the United States, for instance, their parents often forbid them to associate with African Americans as they are perceived as being at the bottom of the academic ladder. The parents’ goal is to have their children emulate the best students in the classroom— specifically, they identify the Asian immigrants and the Jews.
As far as I can tell, Asian Americans have also sought out model minorities—namely, the Jews. In an effort to widen their political reach, according to a 2007 New York Times article, Asian American leaders have also turned to Jews for assistance. Our course feeds into these students’ curiosity as to how Jews have succeeded as a religious minority.
JB: Have you noticed that in our Blacks and Jews class, whenever we get to the unit on Afro-Jews, something seems to change? It’s as if all of the tensions dissipate. I think the vibe changes for both groups.
What do you think is going on in the hearts and minds of our non-Jewish African American students?
TJ: I can’t give you an answer. It’s as if our Black students are closeted Afrocentric activists until we reach our section on Afro-Jews, at which point they bask in their true identity. Let’s face it, whenever Africa or Blackness is acknowledged and legitimated within ancient civilization and in one of the world’s most important monotheistic traditions, most Black students will find a reason to celebrate. How often is Blackness or Africa noted for epistemic inventions?
In a more serious tone, introducing Judaism’s rich diversity is yet another reminder of our imaginative limits in the United States, where a stark white-Black racial binary strangles our imaginative possibilities.
Of course, Jews are “racially” and phenotypically diverse people, and not through conversion; but in the United States, Jews and Judaism are portrayed as European and phenotypically white, even though we all know Israel sits on the shoulders of Africa. Lewis Gordon really nails it in his article “Rarely Kosher: Studying Jews of Color in North America,” where he gives us a historical understanding of the emergence of a democratically diverse group of people who identify with the tribe.
White Jewish students, however, don’t seem to be surprised or bothered by the readings, and that troubles me. Within the context of the course, which dives into the weeds of structural racism and insidious attacks against Jews by white elites, I expected a different response from the students. I wanted them to express outrage, excitement, confusion—something. Otherwise, what’s the point of pursuing knowledge and discovering new aspects of one’s ancestry and tradition?
JB: I think the Jewish kids are initially shocked. At first, they seem bemused by black Judaism and Black Judaism. Then they experience a sense of relief because throughout the semester they are hammered for the thoughtless manner in which they benefit from their white skin privilege. All of a sudden, they realize their religion is incredibly diverse. When you and I start assigning work about various forms of Afro-Judaism, I do think a lot of the Jewish kids undergo a good old-fashioned paradigm shift.
One proviso: Sephardic Jews (who only infrequently attend Georgetown) are not shocked at all. We Sephardic Jews (I’m half Sephardic) grew up with people of color in our families, so Afro- Jews aren’t in any way unusual.
TJ: For African Americans, it’s not a redemption but a form of recovery when they encounter Afro-Jews. Their existence in a world that refuses to see and acknowledge them is an extension of anti-Black racism operating at a global level. When Black students meet Afro-Jews in scholarly writings, they discover something about themselves as well. No longer is anti-Blackness a figment of their imagination or a symbol of victimization; instead, Afro-Jews signify the rich fluidity of identity. They present a picture of what is undeniably human— our depth, reach, and possibility—and the students can see themselves beyond the boundaries of white supremacy.
JB: So, when our class is done, and we read through our students’ fifty or sixty final papers, what do you think has changed for them from day one when they walked in, thinking it was some sort of modular gen ed course?
TJ: I think it varies and depends on the students’ political and social orientation. I think for half the class, the students leave overwhelmed and with information that they can’t really process in any meaningful way. Unfortunately, the academy, with its increasing professionalization, does not provide an outlet for grappling with this religious and racial problem. For the remaining half, I think they choose to ignore the truthfulness of white privilege. What do you think changes?
JB: I have had the most intense post-class discussions with white Jewish students. Nine out of every ten have said the entire experience was staggering—as in it shifted some of their basic thinking about Judaism. For instance, they are usually Ashkenazi and thus have the haziest understanding of even Sephardic Jews, let alone Black Judaism. To them, Judaism is white, yet they seem relieved to know that it’s not just white.
Then I find a handful of non-Jewish Black students doing the pre-professional thing—which is precisely what they should be doing—and asking me to write letters of recommendation for law school or to network them with people I know in fields that interest them. I find that very satisfying. I’d like to think the contents of the class made them see me as an ally and a mentor in their professional endeavors.
TJ: Sometimes I wonder if I’m failing the Black students who take our class. A handful of Jewish students will routinely return to my office hours long after the class has ended. Most of them are searching for ways to connect the readings to their own social activism and scholarly aspirations after college.
I can’t recall the last time a Black student from the class contacted me to discuss Black-Jewish relations. When they return to my office hours, it’s to rehearse federal policies designed to keep Blacks economically disenfranchised or to tell me how the readings introduced them to a world of structural racisms that they didn’t know existed prior to the class.
I am not interested in reproducing Black-Jewish partnerships that mirror the 1960s, but on some level, I want the material to initiate some degree of political or cultural intimacy between strangers who embrace a similar Exodus story in America.
Are you satisfied with our class as we’ve executed it to date? I think we need to expand the geographic boundaries of our scholarly readings to include encounters between Blacks and Jews in places such as Brazil, France, and South Africa. Are you amenable to this?
JB: First, on the partnerships between students, I, too, wish there were Black-Jewish partnerships among the students taking the class. But we go back to our original point: Choices are the residue of social structure, and the social structures do not make it easy for these kids to form partnerships. I guess some of the African American and Jewish American students date, though I am reminded of Patricia Williams’s important piece in which she wondered why Americans are so eager to resolve social conflicts through sex and romance. But, like you, I don’t have a clear sense of the students’ building partnerships after the semester is over.
As for extending our reach to include Brazil, France, and South Africa, I like that idea, though we would both need to get in the field and talk to people. The university likely wouldn’t support us to spend a year in Paris or Johannesburg. I’m not sure our families would warm to the idea either!
But, yes, you’re right. The next step in Blacks and Jews studies should focus on their relations outside of the United States.