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  • State of the Field:Jews & Others
  • Ellen Eisenberg (bio)

In the mid-1990s, when I began to examine western Jewish responses to WWII-era removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans, I expected to find Jews prominent among those who recognized and protested the racism of that wartime policy. 1 Looking for evidence of Jewish opposition, I turned to the records of organizations engaged in what was then called inter-group work. Instead of uncovering opposition, I was surprised to discover that a prominent Jewish civil rights organization in Los Angeles secretly collaborated in disseminating anti-Japanese American propaganda, while most West Coast Jewish groups and individuals remained silent.2 My assumption that Jews would have, or should have, played a key role in opposing the policy was broadly shared: When I presented my findings at venues including scholarly conferences and community fora, audiences (particularly Jewish ones) were stunned and disappointed to hear that Jews did not lead the limited opposition to the policy and that one Jewish group had, in fact, played a key role in providing the propaganda to support it. Our shared reaction reflected the conventional wisdom that American Jews have “always” fought prejudice. Indeed, many community members expressed a belief that opposing racism and supporting civil rights is axiomatically Jewish, since Jewish values call for social justice.

Much of this conventional wisdom is rooted in the mid-twentieth century alliance between Jews and African Americans. Yet historians, while confirming disproportionate Jewish engagement in the Civil Rights Movement, generally present that alliance as the result of recent and specific communal memories rather than timeless values. As early as [End Page 283] 1977, Hasia Diner’s study of the period from 1915–1935 traced this “special relationship” to the persecution of East European Jews in their countries of origin, the challenges of adaptation and search for acceptance in America, and insecurity triggered by the Leo Frank trial and lynching in 1915.3 Michael Alexander’s Jazz Age Jews (2001) similarly saw specific communal memories–rather than timeless values–as the source of Jewish identification with African Americans.4 And in both of these cases, the “special relationship” involved not the American Jewish community as a whole, but specific subsets of Jews, based on their location in the United States, their class position, their acculturation (or lack thereof), and other factors. As Stuart Svonkin explained in Jews Against Prejudice (1997), “attempts by modern American Jews to legitimate their politics by reference to the Jewish tradition cannot be taken at face value.”5 Focusing on the postwar period, Svonkin cast Jewish racial liberalism as the product of a sense of “a latent anti-Semitism ready to erupt,” borne of historical experiences as early as European emancipation and as recent as the Holocaust.6 These studies anticipated more recent and increasingly nuanced accounts of Jewish-African American relationships that replace claims of long-standing values and communal consistency with situational, historically contingent explanations and recognition of variations over time and region.

Recent revisions in our understanding of the Jewish-African American relationship reflect broader shifts in American ethnic/racial history, including increased attention to “whiteness” as a signifier of inclusion. The “racial turn” which has shaped scholarship on race, immigration and ethnicity since the 1990s, opened the door to questions about when Jews “became white” and how that identity impacted intergroup relations. Within American Jewish history, much of this scholarship centers on Jewish-African American relations, with historians such as Michael Rogin arguing that juxtaposition with and use of black culture was critical to Jews’ efforts to come to terms with their whiteness.7 Yet, more broadly, the racial turn in American history also greatly increased attention to Latino and Asian Americans, shifting conversations about [End Page 284] race from a binary black/white framework to a relational approach. In recent years, these changes have begun to inspire historians of American Jewry to go beyond the binary of Blacks and Jews to consider multi-faceted relationships among Jews, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, and (to a lesser degree) Native Americans, as well as internal relations within an increasingly diverse Jewish community.

This review charts recent and emerging directions in this scholarship, beginning with...


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pp. 283-301
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