US Affairs: Let the races begin... mending rifts

American Jews are looking to Obama to keep his promise to restore good relations between blacks and Jews.

Obama big head 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Obama big head 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
If it's possible to sum up Barack Obama's campaign pitch in a word, it's "change." But as the president-elect begins the work of putting together the team and policy priorities that will shape his term in office, the question of whether he can deliver that change looms. Of particular relevance to the Jewish community is his pledge to restore the historic black-Jewish alliance, made at synagogue stops and other Jewish outreach events. "There was a time when we saw common cause in eliminating discrimination and promoting civil rights and promoting civil liberties in this country. That sense of a common kinship of people who have been uprooted, and people who've been on the outside. That strikes me as the very essence of what we should be fighting for," Obama declared during the campaign. "And I want to make sure that I am one of the vehicles by which we can rebuild those bonds." While some observers point to the long road ahead, replete with obstacles and pitfalls, others say that the watershed election can make a difference, and that Obama - surrounded by Jewish advisers, and attentive of the historic relationship at stake - will be making a significant start as soon as he becomes the first black resident of the White House. "It's hugely significant," said Jason Isaacson of the American Jewish Committee, which does outreach to the black community. "It's great for everybody. The lesson is it's good for the country, and it's good for minority groups when these barriers fall away." The symbolism of a black man entering the White House, he explained, "sends signals - it sends signals to the [American] people, first of all, and it sends signals to our children, and it sends signals to the world about what America stands for. It changes perception, and perceptions are the antecedents to reality." He pointed out that power, for instance, is based at least as much on the perception of that power as on its exercise. "In the business of politics, symbolism is significant. Don't sell symbols short." But Isaacson said that he thought that the campaign, which spent so much time on Jewish outreach, could also lead to concrete changes between the two communities. For one thing, the outreach effort has focused attention on the issue. And Isaacson referred to the Jewish and African-American volunteers who worked together for the campaign as themselves reestablishing some of the grassroots networks that tied the two communities together during the civil-rights era. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which also works with the black organizations, said that relations between the two communities are already better at the local level, where they often have common issues on which to build common political fronts. "There's been a great deal of coming together on the local level," he assessed. "On the national level, there's been very little going on." And it's there that Obama will have his work cut out for him. BLACKS AND Jews typically came together on major national causes, first in labor leagues and the Communist Party, where racial and religious barriers were rejected. The alliance reached its apogee in the early 1960s with the civil rights movement - its indelible image the photographs of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel linking arms with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in protest. More than half of the whites who participated in such marches and worked to end segregation - including two young Jewish activists, Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who were killed in Mississippi in 1964 - were Jewish. But that partnership deteriorated as black nationalism took over the movement, and white activists were pushed out, all against a backdrop of urban strife that often pitted black tenants against Jewish landlords and shop owners. National black political figures since then - including Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan - have more recently been known for making comments offending Jews and stoking the divisions rather than mending them. During the presidential campaign, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, an expert on race in America, noted that Obama had to stress his renunciation of figures such as Farrakhan for Jews to feel comfortable voting for him. "There was a considerable amount of anxiety about Barack Obama's feelings, given the expressed feelings of these other political figures," he said at a Brandeis University event on black-Jewish relations held during the week before the election. But in the end, he added, Obama was able to quell such fears. Despite ugly attacks on Obama circulating in some parts of the Jewish community - including the allegation that he's a closet anti-Semite - and some Jewish voters' admission that they wouldn't vote for a black candidate, Foxman felt the strong show of support for the Democratic candidate should put questions about the stance of Jewish voters to rest. "It triggered some racist attitudes," Foxman acknowledged, but he pointed to the exit polls showing that 78 percent of the Jewish vote went for Obama, slightly more than Democrat John Kerry received in 2004. "The end result in the community was such an overwhelming affirmation... that color didn't matter." Jonathan Kaufman, a Wall Street Journal reporter who covered the campaign and who has written a book about black-Jewish tensions, speaking at the same Brandeis forum as Kennedy, found the claim that Obama was secretly anti-Semitic "almost laughable," considering how crucial Jews were to his early political rise in Chicago. He has also since named Illinois congressman and devout Jew Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff, his first appointment as president-elect. "When Senator Obama was running for office as a state senator in Chicago, one of the strongest charges against him was that he was a tool of the Jews, that he was too close to the Jewish community and was being sent in by the Jewish community to take over a black seat," noted Kaufman. He said that Obama, with the long-term ties, could help improve the relationship between the two groups, but he also suggested that any success would likely be attributable to an overall shift in racial dynamics, just as the rift in the past had been. "Much of what tore apart blacks and Jews in this country was that the atmosphere became much more poisonous," he contended, referring to the roiling late '60s, where racial tensions exploded after the assassinations of King and Malcolm X. "The promise of Obama for blacks and Jews is that he is certainly trying, and I think many people are responding to this desire to bring the country together again," he said. "If you bring blacks and whites together again, if you bring different ethnic groups together again, if you have a black president in a predominantly white country, that, I think, creates opportunities for groups to work together, and for blacks and Jews to work together." At the same time, Kaufman called attention to the issues that divide the two communities, and warned that they could rear their head at a time of recession and national anxiety. He pointed particularly to the hot-button issue of affirmative action, which has often put Jews and blacks on either side of the divide. "We all wish we could have a kumbaya moment, where we'll all get together," he said, but suggested things could turn out otherwise once Obama was in office and had interest groups making demands he couldn't merely shrug off with campaign promises. "I'd like to think there will be reconciliation, and you can start a dialogue, but some of those ongoing tensions that really spring from fundamental disagreements between blacks and Jews might come to the fore." And Marshall Stevenson, dean of social sciences at the historically black Dillard University, who has done extensive research on black-Jewish relations, said that the younger generation of blacks and Jews is much less familiar with one another than during previous decades, making rapprochement more difficult. He also indicated that the many problems Obama will face entering office, including a spiraling economic crisis and two punishing wars, could push improving black-Jewish ties to the back burner. "Looking at all the challenges that's he's walking into, that's kind of down on the totem pole," he said. Foxman also acknowledged the many challenges waiting for Obama, but said he was confident the president-elect was committed to the issue. He noted that much of his half-hour meeting with Obama during the latter's trip to Israel this summer was devoted to the topic. While he said that Obama hadn't gone into specifics on what he would do to advance the issue - whether convene a high-level committee, speak out on the topic or other such moves - he said that by virtue of the president's leadership, a tone and priority is set for whatever he decides to address. BUT WHILE some have suggested Obama would seek to address race in America - perhaps along the lines of former president Bill Clinton's initiative to have a national conversation about the issue during his term - Kennedy argued that Obama wouldn't be keen to tackle race relations head on. "I think he might very well believe that the most efficacious way of addressing it is not to address it directly," he said, adding that Obama seems inclined to focus on programs that help the whole society rather than certain segments of it. "He has already signaled that he would be in favor of social reforms, but they're social reforms that everybody can get a piece of." So the change, even on the symbolic level, might be about what Obama's presidency means for everyone, rather than for a few interest groups. "We're part of our constituencies and have our own identities, but it's refreshing when Barack Obama was not seen by himself and by [the rest of] America as the black candidate, but as the uniting candidate," Isaacson said. And perhaps the most dramatic implication of that change is actually its insistence that things are the same. "It's a reaffirmation of American ideals," Isaacson continued. "This is what we've been fighting for, and convincing ourselves and the world we are about - and lo and behold, it turns out to be true."