Obama and Black-Jewish Relations
long road from marching side by side at Selma to today, when the White House is
openly clashing with Israel.
By Jason L. Riley
By Jason L. Riley
President Obama is trying the patience of Jewish Democrats in
Congress, a dozen of whom took Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes to
the woodshed last week over the president’s continued criticism of Benjamin
According to Politico, the lawmakers complained to Mr. Rhodes
that Mr. Obama is behaving as though the Israeli prime minister’s recent
comment dismissing the chances for Palestinian statehood is all that is blocking
the peace process, when the talks have been moribund for a year. The Democratic
congressmen also noted that the president had refrained from criticizing
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and had even hinted that he might
back United Nations recognition of Palestine.
Of course, the Obama administration’s vindictive digs at Mr.
Netanyahu are really about the Persians in Iran, not the Arabs in Gaza and the
West Bank. The president is trying to undermine Israeli criticism of U.S.
nuclear talks with the mullahs. Mr. Netanyahu says Iran must be prevented from
developing a nuclear weapon and is worried that the White House will cut a deal
that doesn’t do that. Iranian leaders have said repeatedly that they want to
annihilate Israel, which is home to about half of the world’s Jews. Unlike Mr.
Obama, Mr. Netanyahu takes the Iranians at their word.
American Jews supported President Obama overwhelmingly in 2008
(with 78% of their votes) and 2012 (69%). Save for Jimmy Carter in 1980, every Democratic
presidential candidate has won at least 65% of the Jewish vote for the past
half-century. (Mr. Carter could only muster 45% against Ronald Reagan’s 39%.)
To the extent that Mr. Obama was seen as the culmination of a decades-long
civil-rights effort focused on increasing black political power, Jewish support
for the president also makes sense:
Henry Moskowitz, a Jewish immigrant from Romania, co-founded the
NAACP in 1909. Jack Greenberg, a Jewish attorney, litigated Brown v. Board of
Education before the Supreme Court in the 1950s and succeeded Thurgood
Marshall as head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in 1961. Rabbi Abraham Heschel,
a leading Jewish theologian, was a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and
marched with him in Selma. Rabbi Uri Miller recited the opening prayer at the
March on Washington in 1963, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke just before King’s
“I Have a Dream” speech.
Some Jews made the ultimate sacrifice, as in 1964 when Klansmen
murdered Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, along with James Chaney, for
promoting black voter registration in Mississippi.
This black-Jewish alliance became strained as the black left’s
agenda moved away from equal treatment for everyone and toward special treatment
for blacks. Jews who had experienced discrimination in the U.S. and elsewhere
yet advanced by dint of individual talent and diligence were wary of group
When blacks challenge “the systems of testing by which school
principals and higher officials in the educational bureaucracy are selected and
promoted, they are also challenging the very system under which Jews have done
so well,” wrote the sociologist Nathan Glazer in a 1964 Commentary magazine
article on black-Jewish relations. “And when they challenge the use of grades
as the sole criterion for entry into special high schools and free colleges,
they challenge the system which has enabled Jews to dominate these institutions
Jews were also put off by the rise in black militancy beginning
in the late 1960s, when groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee voted to expel whites—including several Jews—from leadership
positions. Later, anti-Jewish black groups like Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of
Islam would gain prominence. Martin Luther King Jr. had equated anti-Zionism
with anti-Semitism, but in the 1970s black leaders like Jesse Jackson would
openly embrace Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization. In 1984,
Mr. Jackson told a black Washington Post reporter that he was being unfairly
treated by the “hymies” who controlled the media.
By the 1990s, Al Sharpton was wearing a King medallion
around his neck while referring to Jews as “diamond merchants” and
“interlopers” in Harlem. “If the Jews want to get it on,” he once told a
black crowd, “tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my
house.” These days Mr. Sharpton spends a lot of time at Mr. Obama’s house,
where he counsels the president on race relations when he’s not lecturing the
country on civil discourse from his MSNBC anchor chair.
If you can judge a person by the company he keeps, this is
worrisome. America’s relationship with Israel is in tatters, and Jewish
Democrats are right to wonder whether Mr. Obama—who spent 20 years marinating
in the sermons of a pastor, Jeremiah Wright, who has called the Jewish state
“illegal” and “genocidal”—much cares. The historical irony of the
first black U.S. president cutting a deal with the ayatollahs that jeopardizes
the security of Israel isn’t lost on Jews.