Rebuilding Black Support for Israel
The relationship between the African-American leadership and Zionism has had an unfortunate trajectory. As Jacques Berlinerblau writes in “Blacks and Jews in America,” his new book: “Prior to the final years of the 1960s, Black civil rights groups were supportive of Israel. In so doing, they were in step with the majority of rank-and-file African Americans. In the 1950s and the early 1960s, African American views toward Israel were generally positive.”
As Cornel West once noted, Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were all Zionists.
However, Berlinerblau writes, “All of this changed in the final years of the 1960s, even as Martin Luther King consistently defended Israel from African American critics.”
The catalyst was the 1967 Six-Day War, and an article published by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) immediately afterward, entitled “The Palestine Problem: Test Your Knowledge.” There, the SNCC began by telling readers that “Zionism, which is a worldwide nationalistic Jewish movement, organized, planned and created the ‘State of Israel’ by sending Jewish immigrants from Europe into Palestine … to take over land and homes belonging to the Arabs.” The founding of the state of Israel was illegitimate, SNCC continued, because “under the Charter of the United Nations, the UN General Assembly had no legal right to recommend the 1957 Partition Plan which created the ‘Jewish State.’”
This caused “a world problem,” for which SNNC largely blamed the Rothschilds. For anyone who didn’t get the message, SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael followed the article with statements such as, “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.”
Some senior Black leaders — A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin for example — spoke out against the SNCC article.
Nevertheless, according to Berlinerblau, “the intervention of Stokely Carmichael and other Black Power figures would fundamentally change the Black-Jewish dialogue until the present day and likely well beyond. … the new narrative explicitly identified Israel as a Western, colonialist enterprise, treating Palestinians the way the United States did Blacks.”
As a result, Berlinerblau says, “Ferocious debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by extension the legitimacy of the Jewish state have characterized Black-Jewish interaction for more than half a century.” Those debates have been marked by the crude antisemitism of a large number of Black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jeremiah Wright and, of course, Louis Farrakhan.
More recently, there is the movement for Black lives. As Joshua Muravchik has noted, “When it emerged, it issued a platform that called for ending US aid to the ‘apartheid state’ of Israel, which it said engaged in ‘genocide’ against the Palestinian people. This and other foreign-policy planks of the movement are no longer evident on the Internet, but neither was there any public repudiation of this stand.”
Lately, Black Lives Matter activists have called for “Palestinian liberation,” and an alliance with Palestinian leaders. Then there is what we might call the House of Representatives anti-Israel Caucus, where, for example, former Black Lives Matter organizer Cori Bush calls Israel an apartheid state, supports the BDS movement, and has voted against funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system.
Fortunately, there are Black leaders who oppose this kind of thinking and seek to rebuild their communities’ support for Israel. Dr. Michael Stevens is that kind of leader. He is the Senior Pastor of the City Church in Huntersville, North Carolina, and the retired African-American Outreach Director for Christians United for Israel (CUFI). He is also the author of the book, “We Too Stand: A Call For The African American Church To Support The Jewish State.” There, Stevens argues that by supporting Israel, the African-American church “can rebuild the bridges of commonality and cultural appreciation that existed prior to and during the civil rights era.”
He starts by invoking the early alliance of Blacks and Jews, famously exemplified by Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, walking together from Selma to Montgomery. Then, Jews served as officers and staff of the NAACP, the National Urban League, and the Congress of Racial Equality. Also, they were disproportionately represented among Northern white activists who went south to support the movement.
Today, with Israel under threat, Stevens says to African-Americans: “May we stand with our Jewish brothers in this hour in the same way that they marched alongside us during the 1950s and 1960s. May we speak out about the people God called ‘blessed’ and vow that we will uphold their precious inheritance.” He concludes: “The Jewish community greatly needs the African-American church, just as the African-American community needed the support of the Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s.”
That’s right on target. As Muravchik has written, “renewing the black-Jewish alliance entails recalling something of the history of relations between the two groups, including both high and low moments, and also considering what each can do today to make relations as mutually beneficial as possible.” Standing together in support of Israel might be a good place to start.
Paul Schneider is an attorney, writer and member of the Board of Directors of the American Jewish International Relations Institute (AJIRI), an affiliate of B’nai B’rith International.