Obama and Black-Jewish Relations

The long road from marching side by side at Selma to today, when the White House is openly clashing with Israel.

By Jason L. Riley

Wall Street Journal

March 31, 2015

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 Netanyahu.

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 preferences.

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 for decades.”

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.