- Strangers in The Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America
Attention to relations between Jews and Blacks has produced an extensive body of academic and popular literature, and Eric Sundquist has added an elegant and instructive analysis—indeed, it may be one of the most insightful books yet to appear. Aptly and with appropriate distance, he describes the peculiarly unique interactions between Jews and Blacks as "accidental allies in misfortune" (p. 29). I read Strangers in The Land as a person who is both Jewish and Black, and therefore have a personal as well as scholarly interest. In contrast, Sundquist is neither Black nor Jewish and yet is sensitive to the historical nuances that shape and inform collective identity, strategic essentialism, and its interesting corollary, ambiguity. Sundquist subtly blends a variety of disciplinary orientations and texts—literary, political, and historical—ending with Notes which provide an incredibly rich resource of references that can be referred to while reading or reviewed independently.
Sundquist successfully breaks with the tradition of metaphors invoking marriage and divorce, which presume sentimental emotions rather than a more calculated set of negotiations motivated by "reciprocity of opportunity and opportunism." Pointing out that Jews and Black share the triple collective memory of slavery, exile, and diaspora, Strangers in the Land carefully and clearly spotlights the alienating gateway through which Jews were delivered into the proverbial Promised Land (the U.S.) leaving behind Blacks, whose exclusions were guaranteed by legislation and political policies. The elasticity of the promised land trope, a biblically inspired image, was culturally comprehensible through secular and theological tropes of deliverance and chosenness (p. 128), and Sundquist uses them as a grid for analyzing a relationship that still elicits emotional reactions on the part of both Jews and Blacks. Here I would definitely recommend reading Karen Brodkin (How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says about Race in America) and David Levering Lewis as companions with Strangers in the Land.
Over-interest in interactions between Jews and Blacks have been fostered and furthered by reiteration of cultural and political points of analogy and emulation which have often proved both coherent and convincing. Both groups share a culture of "remembered history" in which commemoration of the past simultaneously represents a political action and enables the centrality of Israel and Africa, for Jews and Blacks respectively, as abstract homelands. In fact, however, Sundquist points out that the parallels drawn between Jews and Black Americans actually register dissimilarity—for instance, the actual role of Israel (a nation-state), and Africa (a continent) in the collective consciousness [End Page 208] of the two communities. For Jews as individuals and as a community, the choice of identification with other Jews is an unconditional option which includes the guarantee of immediate citizenship in Israel, a political entity. As an always available alternative, Israel represents a tangible homeland rather than a trope. In rather stark contrast, people of African descent in the Black African diaspora may feel alienated from their country of birth or citizenship, yet the continent of Africa remains only an alternative domicile where the prerequisite to residency is subject to local rules of entry and naturalization. Africa as the motherland is always a trope invoked as an existential or political expression of belonging. Africa remains a generic homeland precisely because amnesia and amnesty occlude the origins of the Black diaspora, for without the betrayal of kinsmen, the lucrative European slave trade which took place on the coasts could not have been a profitable enterprise.
Sundquist tackles African American discourses around the subject of Zionism with particular sensitivity and insight. Mapping the shift from somewhat romanticized analogies between liberationist pan-Africanism and Zionism, including debates about a "race within a nation" (pp. 151ff), he discretely critiques leftist post-colonial antagonism with its accusatory stance toward Israel. From the mid-sixties, coinciding with the rise of the Black Power Movement and a rift precipitated by a growing resentment of white paternalism within the civil rights movement, Jews are re-imagined as oppressors in a narrative...