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Blacks, Jews, and the Post-Racial Candidate

This week I’m in New York City for the New Voices Conference in Independent Jewish Student Journalism. “Blacks, Jews, and the Post-Racial Candidate” was the subject of last night’s (May 28) panel discussion at the Center for Jewish History (CJH).

Moderated by Marissa Brostoff (New Voices contributing writer), the panel consisted of Sam Freedman (Columbia U. Journalism Professor, NY Times columnist), Jonathan W. Gray (John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY, Assistant Professor of English), and Ari Berman (writer for The Nation). Dr. Gray filled in at the last minute for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who couldn’t make it. In this discussion, the age, ethnicity and race of the panelists matter. Sam Freedman is a middle aged white Jewish academic with experience in political campaigns, Gray is a thirty-six year old African-American academic (with impressively long dreads), and Berman is a twenty-something white Jewish journalist.

The long auditorium was largely filled by the time the discussion started and the audience consisted of mostly CJH members, the general public including many young Jewish Obama supporters, and fellow New Voices conference participants. The discussion was videotaped and the recording should be available on the New Voices website, I’m told by the conference organizer, Elizabeth Alpern.

With Brostoff’s introduction, the discussion at first centered on the question, “Why is this a story?” – why is the story of Obama’s reception with Jews, a small minority, being covered with such enthusiasm in the media (mainstream and otherwise). From this starting point, the discussion hit on some very important points.

  1. Politically liberal support in general and support for Obama specifically is very strong in the American Jewish electorate. Ari Berman quoted Atrios’ post “Writing the Script” on Eschaton (5/11/2008): “Approximately 12,000 articles will be written between now and November about how Jewish voters have a problem with Obama, and then they will go to the polls and overwhelmingly vote for him. Despite this, no articles will be written about how Jewish voters have a problem with McCain.”
  2. The idea of building or (perhaps) restoring a Jewish-Black alliance is distracting when Jewish-American and African-American support of a liberal Democratic party candidate is in reality quite certain. Within the realm of inter ethnic political alliances, more attention needs to be developed between Jews and Hispanics, and between Jews and European-American (i.e. White) Catholics. (Samuel Freedman)
  3. In media discussions, “when Blacks are in the room, Jews are allows to stand in for Whites.” — we need to think of how Jews are being used in terms of “Roveian Politics” (Jonathan Gray). I think Dr. Gray is saying that the media will not comfortably ask whether White America will vote for a Black President, and so instead, news media looks to the opinion polls of a useful ethnic minority so as not to suggest that all of White America is racist. If the observers of this set-up are in fact racist but unwilling to admit this (they won’t vote for Obama because he is a Black president), then they can more comfortably excuse their prejudice if they have a positive feeling towards the useful minority that is allowed to represent their prejudice. Jews may fulfill this role for white gentile philosemites.
  4. The organized smear campaign against Obama that is being spread virally (and effectively) in certain parts of the Jewish community makes use of Israel as a wedge issue. The engineers of the smear know the wedge will not divide Jews because our Democratic support in November is predictable: we will vote for Obama. Rather, the engineers are using the wedge to manipulate Jewish reaction. Once again, the nature of our reaction is important to the observers of Jewish sentiment – namely, white Christian Zionists philosemites — the true target of opinion for the smear campaign. (Ari Berman).
  5. The wedge issue of Israel is effective among American Jews because of our chronic concern for existential threats to Israel. (Samuel Freedman). Amazingly, surveys show that this concern for Israel does not translate into hawkish views among most American Jews. Most Jewish-Americans do not favor preemptively attacking Iran were Iran to acquire nuclear power or weapons.
  6. The Jewish electorate constitutes a liberal “silent majority” because most (powerful) American Jewish organizations are politically conservative. (Ari Berman).
  7. Concern that Obama is a secret Black Nationalist or that he is Muslim has its roots in political disagreements between Jews and Blacks in college student unions in the 1980s. Jewish college students of different backgrounds found solidarity in identification with Israel and Zionism while Black students became cosmopolitan by seeking identification with the apartheid struggles in South Africa. Tension between the two groups arose when black student leaders on campuses were convinced that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza constituted a similar parallel to the hegemony imposed in S. Africa and in the experience of Black Americans in the Jim Crow South. (Jonathan Gray)
  8. Tom Freedman of the NY Times and Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, not exactly Progressives, are presenting a vision of a new vision of being pro-Israel that is at odds with the established pro-Israel lobby. (Berman) What Freedman and Goldberg have written about is the necessity for Israel to marginalize the settler movement and enable a two-state solution within the next three or so years, after which the demographic reality will give truth to the canard that Israel’s occupation is apartheid, and the call for a binational state with an Arab political majority will begin in earnest. Goldberg predicts that when this occurs, American Jewish organizations will withdraw their support for Israel.
  9. It was left to be inferred from the discussion, but we can speculate that powerful Jewish conservative organizations are helping to manipulate the liberal Jewish public. Jews are being used as pawns in influencing the opinion of the much larger Christian Zionist electorate in order to elect Republicans into office and to continue developing a vision for a safe and secure Israel imagined by right wing Jewish organizations whose powerbase depends on all the conservative political alliances they’ve cultivated over the last thirty or so years.

Sam Freedman started with some context on Black and Jewish relations making the point that Jews entertain a “sentimental mythology” that once upon a time Jews and Blacks were allies in the civil rights marches 50 years ago, while in reality this alliance was a progressive Christian and Black alliance with small and short lived participation by certain Jewish progressives. Freedman hit on this a number of times throughout the discussion. Sam Freedman also mentioned the obvious — that since there is nothing wrong with being a Muslim, it is an insult to Muslim-Americans to call Obama a Muslim suggesting he is therefore un-American or worse. Freedman wished this point was made in Jewish circles. He might not have seen Ali Eteraz’ excellent post in Jewcy, “Calling Obama ‘Muslim’ Isn’t Accurate, But It’s Not an Insult Either.”

Jonathan Gray pointed out that in contrast to Jewish cultural memory, Blacks don’t think of Jews as long lost allies in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, Blacks perceive Jews as a “model minority” having achieved material success and social acceptance in the US despite a long history of rejection and non-inclusion. While Freedman would prefer this “sentimental mythology” debunked, Gray considers the (re)establishement of a “liberal consensus” as synonymous with the building of common cause between Jews and Blacks. Obama understands the trajectories of young Jewish and young Black intellectuals and social advocates and believes that common cause in racial and social justice can and should be forged.

Gray also visibly winced at the term post-racial arguing that Obama has self-consciously constructed his identity as Black, regardless of whether he will be recognized as Black by Whites simply because of his appearance. Freedman considered the loss of focus on Obama’s bi-racial identity to be unfortunate — Obama’s “hyphenated” identity seemed to be something that young people really got. For Freedman, this pointed to a future of racial identity politics that is really substantially different than it has been, and so the refocus on Obama’s Black identity, Rev. Wright, etc., is a shame.

The discussion trailed off into questions and answers with Ari Berman making the point that Cory Booker and Obama are new Black leaders who will, for now, continue to be asked, “will X ethnic group (White, Hispanic, Jewish, Black) vote for a Black man.” Meanwhile, young Jewish leaders have yet to emerge and are still overshadowed by Joe Lieberman’s (strangely) evolving playbook. Berman fantasizes of Obama delivering his AIPAC speech at Howard University and vice versa as a more interesting window into Black-Jewish relations.

UPDATE 5/30: This discussion was a good start to what has so far been an excellent journalism conference. Just a shout out to Una Osato who patiently listened to me digest these points over breakfast while she was attempting to prepare a performance piece later that evening. (Her piece at the Bowery rocked!)

CORRECTION 5/30: The first version of this post misnamed the panelist Dr. Jonathan W. Gray. This has since been corrected. Thank you very much for the correction.

UPDATE 6/9: While Ta-Nahisi Coates couldn’t be at this discussion, I found his recent 6/8/08 blog post to back up some of the points Dr. Gray made — notably how the political discourse of Black students in elite college campuses in the 80s and 90s has distorted the actual voice and opinion of most Black Americans. Worth reading.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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