White Jews on the Periphery of Black Power
Jewish activists were a conspicuous presence in the U.S. New Left of the 1960s. Yet in contrast to the large and influential Jewish Left that preceded the Second World War, Jews in the U.S. New Left rarely presented themselves as a collective force. Postwar Jewish radicals came of age in the wake of the Red Scare, when much of the historic working-class ethnic base of Jewish activism was being rapidly incorporated into America’s white middle class.
While some Jewish radicals had never been defined as white – and continued to be excluded – America’s increasingly homogeneous postwar Jewish communities left even white secular, internationalist Jews ill at ease.
As these Jews embraced universalist social justice efforts in the 1960s, many of them continued to feel deep personal connections to Jewishness. With notable exceptions, however – such as Abbie Hoffman and his Jewishly-inflected political theatre – they tended to express these sentiments privately. The outlines of a collective identity become more clear when we look at patterns in Jewish New Leftists’ lives.
This research looks at one subset of activists: white Jews who built their lives in intimate connection to Black liberation and anti-colonial resistance movements. For these white Jews, work to support Black Power and anti-colonial movements was both a necessary act of solidarity and a personal expression of the search for a political and cultural home. I look at memoirs, oral histories and press accounts of white Jews on the New Left to unpack the factors that muted radical Jewish public identity, to ask what the consequences of this might have been, and to reconsider these white activists’ choices as a collective Jewish phenomenon.
Home and Freedom
My current book project is a microhistory of Black/Jewish interconnection in the 20th century.
Microhistory takes a small topic of study - like an unusual event or a little-known community - and untangles the details of the story to reveal what they meant to the people at the time, and how they relate to larger issues in history. Although I am primarily focused on the United States, this topic - and the story at the center of my research - cannot help but be connected to global events and debates.
I begin to peer into the issue by examining a crime that occurred in 1970s Philadelphia. But my real interest is in the unique relationships between the people who were impacted by it: an elderly, white Jewish couple and a group of young Black radicals, not Jewish, who coexisted on one block in North Philadelphia. While North Philadelphia’s history of white flight and economic desolation follows a path that may be familiar to many, the relationships which I study here do not.
Because my educational background is in Jewish history, I am especially drawn to looking at all of the different ways that the Jews in this story - the radical white Jews, their more traditional Jewish family members and acquaintances, the Black Jews or Israelites in the neighborhood and, ultimately, the North African Jews that enter the story as it moves across an ocean - think about issues of home, family, belonging and liberation.
Less familiar to me, but equally important to this story, is the history of how activists in the Black diaspora - in the U.S. and throughout the world - increasingly reached across borders as they shaped new visions for their self-determination over the course of the 20th century. The relationships between Black gentile, white Jewish and Afro-Jewish communities in American neighborhoods and cities profoundly impacted, and were impacted by, the choices that all of them made about their place in the world.