One morning last July I attended a group interview with Jesse Jackson. Toward the end, I asked him why he hadn’t condemned the antisemitism of Michael Cokely, an aide to Eugene Sawyer, the mayor of Chicago, who claimed Jewish doctors were injecting the AIDS virus into blacks. (It took weeks before Sawyer finally fired Cokely, amid barely a peep from the black community.) Jackson bristled at the question: “What am I, the designated Negro? I’m not the mayor of Chicago, and it’s not my job to intervene in every local problem.” I reminded him that Chicago was his home town, and that he in fact intervenes frequently in local problems there and elsewhere. Then someone changed the subject.

Later, I attended a seminar on black-Jewish relations in New York, where the atmosphere was tense and occasionally unpleasant. Afterward, I found myself in a long conversation with Paul Robeson Jr., son of the legendary singer and radical who had been a hero not just to blacks but to many Jewish socialists and communists. Robeson Jr. , a teacher and writer, made it clear he has no use for those who long to repair the black-Jewish alliance. He was entirely unapologetic about black antisemitism; it was mindless, perhaps, but entirely natural, given that rich whites mistreat blacks and many Jews are rich. Robeson had written a brave article in The Amsterdam News, a black newspaper, criticizing Louis Farrakhan—brave because some Muslims have a history of violence against their critics. But it mostly criticized Farrakhan’s attacks on other blacks, not Jews. I left the conversation demoralized.

While Jonathan Kaufman’s new book didn’t cheer me up, it did help channel anger into sadness, and that is worth something. He writes that the book was born after a Farrakhan visit to The Boston Globe, where black and white reporters who had worked side-by-side for years began shouting at each other. Kaufman’s goal was to write something enlightening that avoided scratching the scab. That has its disadvantages. As a Jew, I felt myself at times echoing what I said to Jackson: Aha! That’s black racism, and why the hell don’t you condemn it more strongly? But on reflection, the book, while even-handed, is not morally equivocal. It is, instead, a model of reportorial dispassion. Dispassion doesn’t feel as good as passion—and in most of life it’s inadequate—but it can be a useful quality in a book about a sensitive subject.

Broken Alliance places the issue in an informative historical context, then tells the story through five individuals and one family. The case studies are not deep and not exceptionally well-written; the newspaper reporter in Kaufman comes through. But the book is structured so that each story makes important points about the way the relationship between blacks and Jews deteriorated.

One of Kaufman’s best points is that the alliance was not really so natural after all. American Jews had only a relatively short tradition of intense support for civil rights. Given their experience in Europe, where they had a justifiable fear of mass protest movements (which were often directed at them), nineteenth-century Jews were reluctant to man the barricades. They were divided, for instance, on the issue of slavery, some siding with the Confederacy. Then came the wave of poor Eastern European immigrants, sometimes derided by their more prosperous German-Jewish predecessors as “Idkes.” The later immigrants often became socialists, whose philosophical commitment to the working-man led to calls for integration. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups in the early part of the century put blacks and Jews in the same boat. At the same time, Reform Judaism, founded in 1885, included social justice in its creed. By the 1930s, more than a quarter of the black children in the South were educated in schools built by Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears. In the sixties, nearly one-half of all white civil rights workers were Jewish, showing a moral commitment and a level of physical courage dramatically out of proportion to their tiny percentage of the American population.

I was also surprised to learn how early the strains in the coalition appeared. A riot in Harlem was directed against Jewish merchants in 1935, and James Baldwin began writing perceptively about the complexities of the problem in Commentary in 1948. (It was later pointed out that of the five white people with whom a ghetto black came into contact on a daily basis—shopkeeper, landlord, social worker, teacher, and cop, only the cop wasn’t Jewish.) Norman Podhoretz’s Commentary essay, “My Negro Problem—and Ours,” which described how many Jews viewed blacks in their neighborhoods as thugs, not victims, appeared in 1963, before the civil rights movement reached fullest bloom (thereby suggesting to me that he is not really a neo-conservative, just a conservative). Crude black antisemitism, in the form of a Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) pamphlet containing Jews with dollar bill signs for eyes, emerged in 1967.

That was perhaps the critical year in this story. The Six Day War forever changed American Jewish attitudes toward Israel; watching the Israelis face annihilation, then fight back to win (reversing hundreds of years of Jewish history), was a central moment even for those with only the barest connections to their heritage. The survival of Israel, once only one of several critical concerns of American Jews, became preeminent. There is a justifable measure of pride here and moral commitment to something larger than their own lives (in that sense, perhaps directly supplanting their commitment to the civil rights movement). But it must also be said that the emergence of Israel as the single issue for many American Jews has cramped what used to be the enviable complexity of Jewish vision of national and world affairs. It has also contributed to the fragmentation of American life in the last quarter century, the notion that each interest group or ethnic block is in it alone. Jews don’t usually think of themselves as adding to the atomization of America, but they have.

Kaufman misses this, as well as the class dimensions of the story. Israelis moved away from their socialist roots at about the same time that many American Jews did; after 1967 there was parallel social and economic development that sewed the two closer together than they were in, say, 1948. Meanwhile, the New Left—and black leftists in particular—began to identify with the Moslems. Until then, Jews had never experienced antisemitism of the left. By the mid-1970s, it was the most common form of antisemitism in the world.

Unfortunately the analysis of black and Jewish attitudes towards foreign policy is probably the weakest part of the book. At the very end Kaufman hints at the tangle of double-standards and misimpressions that cloud the issue. He travels with a mostly black group of Americans to Israel, where they express outrage to a cabinet minister over Israel’s trading relationship with South Africa. The Israeli official pointed out, apparently to the surprise of the inquisitors, that Arab states and black African countries also trade heavily with South Africa. “I understand your point of view, but I am disappointed. I expected more from Israel,” replied one of the Americans. If they merely expect “more,” then why the venom of anti-Zionism? On the other side, how can Jews be so indifferent to the suffering of the Palestinians, whose condition is less like that of blacks (a common comparison) than it is comparable to Jews in earlier centuries? Kaufman doesn’t explore this at all.

He has a better sense of the ironies and double standards closer to home. He describes Ed Koch visiting a Harlem church on Martin Luther King’s birthday in 1978. After noting that blacks sat motionless while hecklers yelled, “Send the Jew back to the synagogue,” Koch said, “What if Basil Patterson or Andy Young got up and read a proclamation on Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Day and someone in the congregation yelled, ‘Send him back to Harlem. Don’t let him speak’? Why, there would be a storm of protest in the synagogue and the community.” True enough. And what if, as Kaufman notes in another context, only Cheney (a black civil rights worker), and not Goodman and Schwerner (his Jewish coworkers), had been killed by racists in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964? Would there have been a huge manhunt supervised by the president? Of course not.

My own favorite irony recounted by Kaufman involves affirmative action, one of the flashpoints of black-Jewish tensions. Recalling the way quotas excluded them for years from top universities, many Jews oppose such programs. But as Seymour Martin Lipset pointed out several years ago, the main beneficiaries of affirmative action turn out to be not blacks but women—smart Jewish women.

Sullivan’s unprinciple

The case studies vary. There’s a superficial chapter on Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, and one on Jack Greenberg, long-time director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who was boycotted at Harvard Law School in 1982 because black students believed a white man should not be allowed to teach a class on civil rights, even if he was a pioneer in the field.

The “cooperation” case study features Paul Parks, an older black engineer who has experienced a lifetime of prejudice, alleviated only by the efforts of blacks and Jews working together. At Purdue, in the Army (where he helped liberate death-camps), and in his work in the civil rights movement, he consistently saw Jews as the blacks’ best allies, and he says that Martin Luther King (whom he knew well and who relied heavily on Jewish financial backing) felt the same way. The saddest chapter may be “The Last Liberals,” which tells the story of Roz and Bernie Ebstein, who were committed to staying on the South Side of Chicago and working in the black community but were finally forced to flee the area’s violence.

One especially informative profile is that of Rhody McCoy, the central figure in the Ocean HillBrownsville school crisis that ripped apart the New York City school system in the late 1960s. McCoy does not turn out to be quite the bogeyman that New York Jews thought at the time. (He is remembered for kicking out the old Jewish teachers in favor of black militants, but many of the substitutes he hired turned out to be Jewish too.) The profile of McCoy points out what may be the central dynamic of black attitudes towards Jews. Whether in Ocean Hill Brownsville in 1967 or Chicago in 1988, they refuse to denounce black antisemitism because of the fear of appearing to have succumbed to white pressure, even at the risk of looking antisemitic themselves.

But Kaufman misses the more recent questions that grow out of this. Why do such otherwise moderate blacks as Tom Bradley, mayor of Los Angeles, fear to condemn Farrakhan? (The Reverend Leon Sullivan, the clergyman behind the “Sullivan Principles” for South Africa, not only refuses to condemn him, he recently invited the author of the “Judaism is a gutter religion” line to speak at his Philadelphia church.) Are these black leaders afraid of a backlash in the black community? So far, there is no evidence of blacks being voted out of office for decrying Farrakhan’s anti-semitism. Or could it be fear of violence by Farrakhan supporters? Kaufman offers no theories.

But he does offer some hope. The most compelling and in some ways hopeful story comes last. Donna Brazile is a young black woman who grew up in New Orleans, where she was bused to integrated schools. After working through her anger at the white world, she ended up an organizer of the 1983 March on Washington, which commemorated the famous 1963 march. The second march was a cauldron of black-Jewish tensions, and Brazile did a good job of stroking egos and negotiating agreements. Brazile was well-read, but had never learned a thing about the Holocaust (a common experience in American public education). As she met more Jews, she became curious and began to educate herself. In the meantime, her mother told her that she suspected the Jewish family doctor whom Brazile had grown up revering was stealing money from her. The mother, once a supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., seemed to have imbibed antisemitism from the movement, which disturbed her daughter deeply.

In 1984, Brazile went to work for Jesse Jackson. But after finding out he had lied repeatedly about the Hymietown incident—including to her personally—she lost faith. In 1988, she avoided the Jackson campaign and served in the campaign of Richard Gephardt, before moving on to a prominent role for Michael Dukakis. She joked that anyone she found to marry would have to be ten years older, because her generation of black men had been decimated by drug-related murders. “It was scary going back home and asking after friends and finding out they were dead.”

There have always been Jews who wanted to restore the alliance. Perhaps there will soon be more blacks like Brazile, though Kaufman says, accurately, I think, that no rapprochement is really possible until Jackson passes from the political scene. Jews are simply convinced that his efforts to reach out to them are meager and insincere. I noticed that, in this spring’s New York primary (not covered by this book), Jews resented Koch’s claim that they would “be crazy” to vote for Jackson, but most voted against him nonetheless.

Is the alliance really worth restoring? The answer to that has to be yes, though the reasons may sound patronizing (and it’s a patronizing tone that helped cause the rupture in the first place). The calculus is simple enough: 1) Donna Brazile’s generation of poor young black men is dying; the problem of the underclass has moved beyond the hand-wringing stage to one of true national emergency; 2) Blacks cannot address the problem without the help of whites, as some blacks—and some white conservatives—would like to think; 3) Jews are not the only whites who care about the underclass, but if you look at the names of people who write and act and think about this problem, they are—once again—often Jewish.

With time and healing, the coalition may yet be stitched back together. The vast majority of Jews are still Democrats. Blacks have not hesitated to vote for Jewish candidates for office. There is yet some hope of appealing to the better angels—and prophets—of our natures.

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Jonathan Alter, a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, is a former senior editor and columnist at Newsweek, a filmmaker, journalist, political analyst, and the publisher of the Substack Old Goats with Jonathan Alter. His most recent book is His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, a Life.