After Georgia, New Hope for a Black-Jewish Alliance?

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Professor Jonathan Kaufman reflects on the cooperation of Jews and Blacks in the Georgia Senate race, asking if it is a harbinger of renewed coalitions.

by Jonathan Kaufman.

As the country reels from the assault on the Capitol, Georgia’s election of two Democratic senators—one Black, one Jewish—is creating waves of nostalgia of a more hopeful, optimistic time.

“I think Abraham Joshua Heschel, the rabbi who said, when he marched with Dr. King, he felt like his legs were praying, I think he and Dr. King are smiling in this moment,” Rev. Raphael Warnock, who will be Georgia’s first-ever Black senator, said after being elected.

Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel indeed gave Blacks and Jews the philosophy and the poetic rhetoric that brought the two groups together in the early 1960s. But it’s the Irish-American politician, Tip O’Neil, who offers the best lesson from Georgia and for reviving the broken Black-Jewish alliance for the 21st century: All politics is local.

The Black-Jewish alliance in Georgia was rooted as much in common interests as in common dreams.

The Black-Jewish alliance in Georgia was rooted as much in common interests as in common dreams. Both Blacks and Jews faced long histories of discrimination, oppression, and violence in Georgia. In 1915, a white mob lynched 31-year-old Leo Frank, a prominent member of the Jewish community who two years earlier had been falsely convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl who worked at the pencil factory he managed. One of Atlanta’s leading synagogues, The Temple, was bombed by white supremacists in 1958 after its rabbi joined King to oppose racist Jim Crow laws in the South. 

Even when the alliance crumbled in the late 1960s and Blacks and Jews spent the next decades warring over affirmative action, Israel, Louis Farrakhan, the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson, Blacks and Jews in Atlanta continued to work together on local causes and for local politicians. Atlanta’s Jews were financial supporters of the King Center which commemorated King. They voted for and donated to John Lewis as he rose to become one of the country’s leading members of Congress. For the past ten years, every Friday night of Martin Luther King weekend, Rev. Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, has travelled to The Temple to preach the sermon. The Temple’s Rabbi Peter Berg has travelled to Ebenezer to preach on Sunday.

That familiarity, that show of commitment, that trust, made a difference. When Rev. Warnock was accused during his campaign of making anti-Israel statements, Rabbi Berg came to his defense. A group of nearly 200 rabbis from Georgia and across the country signed a letter of support. Similarly, when it became clear how crucial Black voters would be in the run-off, Rev. Warnock embraced Ossoff, calling him his “brother from another mother.” Ossoff saw his share of Black voters grow from 87 percent in the November general election to a winning 92 percent in the runoff.

Black-Jewish cooperation has always fared best when it is grounded in politics, away from the inflammatory speeches of Black activists in the late 1960s or the Jewish neo-conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s. Even during the tensest decades of Black-Jewish acrimony, Black politicians like Cong. Bill Gray of Philadelphia and Micky Leland of Texas found ways to keep the groups talking. And it was Barack Obama, mentored by many Jewish advisors and supporters as he rose in Chicago, who resolidified the Black-Jewish coalition in the Democratic party–and hosted the first Passover seder in the White House.

But it would be a mistake for Jews especially to look the Georgia results as a return to the spirit and political dynamics of the Civil Rights movement. Nostalgia is too tempting, and it ignores the new American political reality. Blacks and Jews came together in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Jews were still vulnerable outsiders; Blacks had moral power but lacked political or economic power. Rev. Warnock’s victory is another sign of a new emerging class of Black political leaders like Sen. Corey Booker of New Jersey, Karen Bass and Hakeem Jeffries in Congress, and of course Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. These powerful figures will be setting the country’s political agenda; American Jews need to work with them. And Jews need to acknowledge how much has changed for Jews in the past 50 years, and how our own success in America and the benefits of race have fueled, intentionally or not, our participation in white privilege and racism. Blacks must consider if, in the pursuit of coalitions, it is possible to disentangle attacks on Israel and inflammatory rhetoric from the broader agenda of Black Lives Matter. Tough conversations lie ahead.

The message of Georgia to both Blacks and Jews is to … Look … for local issues … that can bring Blacks and Jews together and move the country forward.

Blacks and Jews do not live in a political vacuum. The two groups came together, in Georgia and elsewhere, out of a shared fear of racism and antisemitism. But the alliance thrived and triumphed under the political umbrella of FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, and Barack Obama’s desire to bring the country together. President-elect Biden promises a new era of healing and compromise. The message of Georgia to both Blacks and Jews is to get off social media. Resist hashtag activism. Look instead for local issues—education, policing, housing, voter registration—that can bring Blacks and Jews together and move the country forward. Blacks and Jews, like all of humanity “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” Martin Luther King wrote. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Embracing that common destiny is easier when Blacks and Jews know each other, when they work together on common causes, when they embrace the realities and give-and-take of politics.

If it can happen in Georgia, it can happen anywhere.

Jonathan Kaufman is the author of Broken Alliance: The Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America which won the National Jewish Book Award. He is the author most recently of The Last Kings of Shanghai: The Rival Jewish Dynasties That Helped Create Modern China. He is Professor and Director of the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. A version of this post will appear in The Forward.