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Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
By Cheryl Lynn Greenberg
Princeton University Press, 2006
368 pp., Cloth, $29.95
ISBN: 0-691-05865-2

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, in Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century, reopens the question of whether there was a “golden age” of cooperation between Black and Jewish groups from the 1940s-1960s. And more interestingly, she asks whether the subsequent decline and disrepair of that partnership is permanent.

Troubling the Waters will be of use to scholars interested in the study of American liberalism and in historical Black and Judaic studies. Greenberg writes that when Black and Jewish organizations cooperated, it was a function of both groups’ recognition that their interests depended on a robust U.S. liberal democracy. When faith in the viability of overlapping strategies and goals declined with changing circumstances, so too did their alliance.

In the aftermath of World War II, for example, Greenberg illustrates that national Black and Jewish civil rights organizations, which had grown in power and visibility, were working together to counter anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism. They argued that both issues were failures of U.S. democracy and had to be fought together. This philosophy culminated in a range of combined efforts, from the famous Freedom Summer and the March on Washington, to more locally based fights against discrimination in housing, jobs, colleges and clubs.

By the mid-1960s, however, Jews were better able to capitalize on the civil rights gains borne of collaboration than were their Black allies. Many Black activists, still seeking equal opportunities in all facets of American life, turned to more militant tactics to close the gap. For many middle-class Jews, those tactics appeared at odds with, if not an outright threat to, their tenuous position. Although this split is commonly overstated, it did occur.

Greenberg draws from the extensive archival materials of national Black and Jewish civil rights organizations, groups that were not only constrained by the views and commitments of their broad membership but also obligated to document those of their opponents. This approach, which brings a century’s worth of careful empirical research to a discussion often saturated with nostalgia, offers a particularly rich description of the economic clashes at the heart of Black-Jewish tension.

Greenberg’s research is the most extensive and systematic on this theme, turning up interesting and frequently overlooked details, including the consistently prescient political work of Jewish women’s groups on questions of race.

The history of U.S. Jews retold in Troubling the Waters is standard. A small group of Sephardim, from Spain and Portugal, come to the United States, followed by a group of German Jews in the mid-19th century. From the 1880s through the 1920s, poor but skilled urban Eastern European Jews converged with former Black slaves in northern industrializing centers. That intersection of race and economics sets the stage for the book’s theme of Black-Jewish relations.

In a similar spirit is the demographic research of contributors Dr. Gary Tobin and his wife, Diane. The duo attempt to make the racial and ethnic diversity of Jews visible by exploring research questions such as: How can we explain the myriad historical and literary references to Jews as mulattoes or as mixed Black people? Their ground-breaking work reframes many of the most basic categories of mainstream research on American Jewry. 

The significance of Black Jews to Greenberg’s analysis is far-reaching. Suddenly, instead of being a conflict between two unique groups, the racial and economic dividing lines between Blacks and Jews emerge as an internal Jewish question. The concept also begs the question why Jews and scholars have failed to add race to the list of sociological factors that differentiate the Jewish community.

Troubling the Waters gives textured life to more than 100 years of civil rights efforts and offers a window into the complex, political decision-making of courageous and often admirable individuals. But overall, the book reinforces a picture of Jewish and Black communities, both past and present, that is perhaps inaccurately homogeneous. Making this full diversity visible is not only an exciting contemporary scholarly challenge that presents genuinely new, necessarily interdisciplinary questions, but opens up the possibility of reinterpreting Jewish identification as spaciously multiracial.

— Gordon is associate director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies. She is the author of Why They Couldn’t Wait: A Critique of the Black–Jewish Conflict over Community Control in Ocean Hill–Brownsville (1967–1971).

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