Opinion: On Black and Jewish Tensions: A Way Forward

Opinion: On Black and Jewish Tensions: A Way Forward

I’m a 34-year-old Chicagoan living in Harlem who has been watching New York rapidly turn into the Bible Belt. In Donald Trump’s America, we’re just as tolerant as we were in the 1960s. White people are hiding their phones when Blacks enter rooms and shielding their children when brown-skinned men walk past.

Blacks, even while struggling to establish some sort of unity and freedom from unnecessary police persecution are attacking non-adversarial whites and Jews. And in the very midst of this wreckage, guys like Nick Cannon and DeSean Jackson have shown proof of an underlying tension that has been bubbling to the surface, which deserves to be mentioned.

 Growing up black in the Southside of Chicago, the only Jews I knew were Moses, Joseph, and Jesus. In our religious books, bearded white men were whipped by Egyptians or Nubians. Hell, even Jesus was blond, blue eyed, and fair-skinned. Sadly, none of our examples of ethnic Jewish people in coloring books, text, and TV were brown, Black, or tan. It was further reinforcement that Blacks were to be subjugated to whites—even the Bible said it: Jews were the chosen people.

I’d never seen real antisemitism until I moved to New York. Sure, I’d known something about the Holocaust because the late Elie Wiesel’s Night was required text in high school. Everyone I knew owned a Bible, so most people in my circle of buddies had a basic understanding of Jewish persecution. But I came from the projects, and I’d spent time in tenements with little more than the Lord’s Book to keep me company. Why should I care about others’ struggles?

To add further confusion to my childhood memories of religion, there was a picture of this blue-eyed Jesus next to a picture of MLK, both framed, in every house. But the church preached that the man who died on the cross was Black, yet we had crosses holding up a skinny Caucasian with thorns circling his head on walls behind and adjacent to the preacher.

“You’re Jewish,” said a friend of mine, back in 2012. I was 25, and I’d just moved to Brooklyn from living in the South for six years. I was shocked to know I was Jewish because I thought I’d been born a Christian African American male.

“We’re the real Jews,” said Michael, my Brooklyn-born Jamaican friend.

I blinked several times. I didn’t remember my parents mentioning my being Jewish. Where was he getting this information?

He explained: “Yeah…these Sephardim, these Ashkenazis, Brother they’re Jew-ish, you know? Like when you’re gonna be somewhere at 6…ish? It couldn’t be clearer, Brother!”

Many of my friends believed this strange concept that Israel was in Africa, then somehow shifted to its current position once the Israelites began to question and disobey God. Therefore, the original, and the most Jewish, Jews came from places like Morocco and Ethiopia.

“Yeah, yeah, I see now,” I said, as unsure as I’d ever been about anything. “That makes sense.” It didn’t.  I didn’t understand that this idea of Jews not being actually Jewish represented a greater, more sinister detail hiding within my community: a fierce anti-Semitic presence in some ranks of the black fraternity. And while this was my first introduction to antisemitism, I’d known racism for most my life.

I can’t remember the first time I got called the N-word, but I know it was from people who looked like me. It was a handshake, a warm shoulder to cry on, an expletive to describe an ignorant person. “Nigger” was a way to emphasize a point and a filler word to describe that point you emphasized, but it definitely sounded like “nigga” when my homies said it. More abundant than breaths taken during a sentence, nigger was never used sparingly. I didn’t experience hatred behind the word until I was a teenager.

I heard the term used derogatorily several times when I moved to Anaheim, California. Home to Disneyland, and, at one time, a major hub for the Klan. My high school’s mascot was Johnny Rebel, an amalgamation of all the Civil War soldiers who died in the name of the South.

During my teens I learned the power behind the word “nigger,” in the wrong hands. I began to hate my skin. Once, a boy gave me a textbook after he’d drawn a swastika and a black man hanging from a tree. He wasn’t a good artist, but I could see where he tried to go. I laughed it off, but I felt tears come to my eyes and hurriedly turned my face away from him, toward the clouds outside the window.

My peers used other terms to describe how horrible being Black was: moon cricket, porch monkey, jiggaboo, pickaninny, and, most hurtfully, rapist. Having dark skin was so closely associated with violence in life, many people felt rape came naturally to my kind. I’d been stripped down to an untamed animal. I hated me.

I would also learn of the long history of Jewish hate crimes and massacres in Europe, the devastation of the Holocaust, and about the violent riots between Blacks and Jews in Crown Heights in 1991, that left one Jewish Orthodox man dead and another man, mistaken for Jewish, murdered by a group of Black men. These were real world examples that opened my eyes to more than my own injustices.

At 18, I joined the Navy, and despite what people had told me, I experienced very little racism. I did live in a military town in Virginia Beach, with a great deal of diversity, so I just reckoned all of the South was this way. I assumed times had changed since the Civil Rights Movement.

After my military service was over, I moved deeper into the South, from Virginia, to Florida, to Alabama. That’s where racism found me. White people flung insults with glee. To my surprise, many of my brown friends were totally fine with it.

“That’s how it is down here,” said one of my friends. I’d been in Florida for 2 weeks and had been called a nigger 25 times.

He shrugged and said, “You get used to it. Give it time.” He was right. After only a few months, I just accepted being called nasty things. It happened so often that I walked outside expecting to get hurt verbally.

I moved to NYC 10 years ago. Because my past was a tragedy, I looked forward.

I wanted to fit in when I came to this city in late 2010. So when a friend of mine blurted out: “These fuckin’ Jews run the world!” I didn’t hesitate to agree with him. I nodded.

We surveyed two Hasidic men as they inspected a house near my duplex in Bushwick.

“Look at them,” my friend said, pointing at the two men with an ire that shook his voice. They spoke Yiddish, but their intent was undeniable. Within months new residents would occupy the space. White Hipsters. But my friend was way too animated, too upset about this prospect. Foam circled his mouth, and his bottle of gold liquid tilted in his hand.

“The Jews come,” he spat, his arms gesticulating across the width of the stoop where we sat. I stood up. He continued: “The Blacks move out, the Mexicans come in. The Mexicans leave, the whites move in. Every. Fuckin’. Time.” He really seemed to just hate everyone. But he also delineated white from Jewish. And this really blew my mind because, for the first time ever, I had to learn Jews were not necessarily white. My childhood lied.

Some people of color I hung around spent too much time talking about mutual troubles. When I hung around them, men and women would bash “the system,” for keeping us on food stamps and tossing us into prisons. They’d comment on the decline of the family, mentioning the roles black men played in leaving black women to fend for themselves.

From the conveyor belt of prison that guides healthy men 21 and under into sentences that destroy adolescence; where drug use is expected.The rent is due and the kids can’t eat, so hope doesn’t exist; to the kids with dollar signs in their eyes, eager to join gangs for the gory glory, and for the opportunity to escape the people they should be uplifting. I’d seen too much to disagree with the old adage “There is no unity in the Black community.”

They’d talk about the roles that Jews allegedly played in the plight of the Black man, breaking up Abyssinian-owned businesses, limiting access to goods, taking jobs with them once they departed the neighborhood. There were no more Black bodegas, therefore no more Black products to sell to our community, which gave other ethnicities the opportunity to corner the local economy.

These things dominated conversations, and it didn’t make sense in a town I’d always known for its inclusiveness. But who was right? I often found myself trying to break up the negativity and anti-Semitic remarks I heard.

“But look at all we have in common,” I said once, while arguing with another pal. We’d been going back-and-forth about the inequality in the two groups, about the Black people’s inability to harvest wealth and share it, and the Jewish community’s preponderance to do that well.

I jokingly pointed out similarities between both crowds: “We have slavery, oppression, and hard-to-manage hair! Also, we share Sammy Davis, Jr. Come on, it’s not all bad.” The other guy was not amused.

I’ve gained many Jewish friends since first moving to New York. I’ve learned things that my brown and black-skinned friends never talked about.

Some of my Jewish friends spoke of the racism in their own communities. Their grandparents, and sometimes their own parents, spoke of the schvartzes as lazy, uneducated, violent monsters that flooded neighborhoods primed for decent real estate, and ran down the property values.

“Things really changed close to the end of the ‘60s,” said my friend Rudy. His father had been a one of the Jewish Freedom Fighters, so Rudy was a bit of a history buff. “Blacks and Jews got along better before the 1960’s. Before that, the two groups worked kinda well together.” I was amazed.

I was torn between both assemblies, ping-ponging between loyalties. I dared not say how the one group spoke of the other one. I straddled the fence that separated controversial from PC.

It was wrong. I should have stood up for my convictions when I saw racism and antisemitism. One thing that held me back, I believe, is a history with injustice in my own life. Seeing my group of people attack another group was relatively new, while having my Jewish friends speak of their runs-in with hate, felt like those painful memories I’d spent most of my adult life running away from.

 Acknowledging the issue of division between these two groups is only one part of the equation. We can only begin to heal and move forward after the problem is dealt with. Now, more than before, should be the moment of unity between Jews and Blacks, because these almost daily attacks will only grow in number. I’m willing to help bridge the gap, one positive word, action, belief at a time. I’m not here to silence speech, because a serious, open-minded discussion must happen—now. We don’t have time to waste pointing fingers, while watching America collapse on itself like a dying star. I’m ready to talk. Is anyone else?