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Panelists: Common goals remain for blacks, Jews

By George L. Spectre
Washington Jewish Week
Thursday, January 26, 2006

Time, discord and even turbulence have taken their toll on black-Jewish relations. But the will and rationale to continue working together toward an America of greater equality, opportunity, tolerance and justice have not diminished.

That was the message from the African American and Jewish speakers at a Martin Luther King commemorative event held Wednesday of last week, and jointly sponsored by the NAACP of Montgomery County and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Some 300 members of both communities — along with a number of elected county representatives — attended the evening program, held at the Bolger Center in Potomac.

Acknowledging that the two communities began to drift apart in the late 1960s, former Montgomery County Council president Ike Leggett asked the audience to remember always that “throughout the civil rights struggles, our Jewish sisters and brothers were right by our side.”

Unfortunately, he said, “too many of our [African American] young people today do not know about this.”

By the end of that decade, African Americans “had grown impatient with the pace of change and with the strategy of nonviolence,” he said.

For many blacks, the emphasis shifted to black power, and traditional white allies were spurned in the process.

“This isolated many of our friends in the Jewish community,” said Leggett, a professor of law at Howard University’s Law School, and that gulf widened with differences over such issues as affirmative action and Israel.

Despite differences, admonished Leggett, both groups “must continue to keep their eyes on the prize — the prize of equality and justice for all.”

David Shuster, a national correspondent for NBC and MSNBC, moderated the panel, which also included Judge Peter Krauser of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals and a past chair of the Maryland Democratic Party; Colbert King, The Washington Post’s deputy editorial page editor and columnist; and Peter Edelman, former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who now teaches law at Georgetown University Law Center.

Krauser offered an overview of the black-Jewish relationship beginning in the 1920s when “the Jewish press led the attack” against the Jim Crow lynchings of African Americans in the South.

Throughout the years, Jews have funded a variety of black institutions and played prominent roles in the black struggles for equality. Moreover, “at a time when trade unions were refusing to admit blacks,” Krauser added, “Jewish trade unions were opening their doors.”

In the 1950s, Roy Wilkins and Arnold Aaronson came together to form the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, “and that relationship became a symbol of the black-Jewish alliance.” Krauser also pointed out that in the historic 1963 March on Washington, Jewish groups formed the largest white contingent after the trade unions. But with the assassination of Rev. King, “the black-Jewish relationship would never again be as strong.”

Colbert King likened that relationship to a “romance” between an older, more experienced partner and a younger partner with less experience, brought together by “common purpose and mutual attraction.”

The luster of that romance has obviously faded, but Jews and African Americans still share and profess worthy common goals. However, King underscored, “It is not good enough to view each other from a distance; we must also interact in our personal lives.”

Edelman bemoaned the rise of “identity politics” in the United States. “We seemed to have lost that sense of the common good,” such as working for the elimination of poverty in this country. Americans have “allowed the poor to become invisible.”

Especially in the wake of Katrina, Jews must take the lead in getting the rest of America to start paying real attention to the needs of the poor.

The two communities, he said, should cooperate on “very concrete projects” to better the lives of African Americans.

But Krauser was quick to point out that many good things are happening in both this county and throughout the state. “On the local level,” said Krauser, “it is surprising how much fraternity and cooperation there is between blacks and Jews.”

Nor is the national level barren of black-Jewish cooperation.

Indeed, those ties inspired JCRC president Andy Stern and Henry Hailstock, president of the Montgomery County NAACP, to agree by the end of the evening to hold a series of black-Jewish programs in Montgomery County throughout the year.

© 2006 Washington Jewish Week