A Relationship That's Past Its Prime
The New York Times, May 17, 2003
by Samuel G. Freedman

Eleven years, eight months and nine days after a Hasidic Jew named Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed on the streets of Brooklyn's Crown Heights, Lemrick Nelson Jr. confessed that he did it. He was woefully late in more ways than one. In its bloody moment in 1991, the killing seemed to symbolize all that had gone wrong in the special relationship between blacks and Jews. Now that a federal jury has found Mr. Nelson guilty of violating Mr. Rosenbaum's civil rights, it only reminds us how little that relationship matters anymore. One can feel satisfaction that justice was finally done in a hate crime without believing the crime stands for something larger.

That black-Jewish era, in many ways, is over. It can be studied and celebrated. But for reasons of demography and politics and the mere passage of time, it should be retired to the realm of history or mythology. In a New York and an America of constant immigration and growing intermarriage of all kinds, blacks and Jews are neither as cohesive nor as important as they might like to believe. And in liberating themselves from the weight of the myth, with its charged currents of loyalty and treason, ardor and betrayal, they might be able to encounter one another as incidental individuals rather than as emblems, slogans and impossible expectations.

The story of blacks and Jews was a story of mid-century America, of alliances made in the Scottsboro Boys case, anti-lynching legislation, the creation of fair-employment commissions and, of course, the civil rights movement. It left us with the icons of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marching arm in arm; it left us with the martyrs of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, murdered together and deposited in a common grave beneath a Mississippi mud dam.

But it has been nearly 40 years, two full generations, since those glory days ended with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's expulsion of whites, a disproportionate share of them Jews. And the more the past heroism has been invoked as a model for eternal partnership, the more, perversely, it has become nothing but a cudgel with which blacks and Jews bludgeon each other for every perceived infidelity.

Pathetic and paternalistic all at once, Jews couldn't hear enough black gratitude about the civil rights coalition. It filled some Jewish need to be different from and better than run-of-the-mill whites. Blacks, in turn, found demagogic catharsis in vilifying Jews, the only whites guaranteed actually to be hurt by black scorn.

The Crown Heights riots, widely interpreted as the nadir of black-Jewish relations, instead showed how irrelevant the old model was becoming. There was no shared experience of voter registration or freedom rides among the antagonists in central Brooklyn. The Lubavitcher Hasidim were among the few large Jewish communities left in the borough; their Caribbean-immigrant neighbors typified the changing shape of black New York. Their battles were the battles of middle-class people -- seats on the school board and community board and favorable parking deals from the police. Had the Lubavitcher rebbe's motorcade not struck and killed a black child, Gavin Cato, on Utica Avenue, the dividing line between Crown Heights and the impoverished cauldron of Brownsville, Mr. Rosenbaum would probably have walked home uneventfully that night in August 1991.

The most significant legal arena for blacks and Jews today isn't the Brooklyn court where Mr. Nelson stood trial but the Supreme Court, which is weighing the constitutionality of the University of Michigan's affirmative action program. A quarter-century ago, in the Bakke case, two oppressed minorities fought each other for the limited supply of entree to the American elite. The pillars of the American Jewish establishment -- the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee -- filed briefs against affirmative action in Bakke. This time, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and seven other groups filed on the University of Michigan's behalf, citing precedents, including the Talmud, in arguing for diversity's importance to democracy.

One could explain this seeming reversal in strictly legal terms. The Michigan affirmative action program, unlike the one at the University of California medical school that was at issue in Bakke, does not reserve a specific number of admissions for minorities. It is not, in other words, a quota. Or one could say that in the intervening years, Jews have grown prosperous and entrenched enough that they no longer feel threatened by affirmative action. As Ivy Leaguers for a generation or more, Jews are now the ones getting their children admitted as "legacies." The leadingJewish day schools boast admissions officers as wired into top-tier universities as the famous WASP prep schools. Affluent Jewish families can easily afford the test-prep classes and private college-admissions consultants that rig the game of putative meritocracy. Besides, whatever the high court says, diversity is the unchallenged norm in corporate America already.

So we're free, blacks and Jews, free in sad and poignant ways of our signal achievements as political and moral comrades, but free, too, of our unique ability to torment one another. A few months ago, Amiri Baraka caused an all-too-familiar furor with the publication of a poem implying Jewish complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks. When he rose to defend himself, the infamous firebrand had gray hair and reading glasses. He looked like nothing more than an old man, past his prime, desperately trying to get somebody, anybody, to take notice.

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