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A new documentary explores conflict and cooperation between blacks and Jews.

By Lori Leibovich

Published July 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

although blacks and Jews often protested side by side during the civil rights era, relations between the two groups have soured in recent years. A new documentary, "Blacks and Jews," explores why black-Jewish coalitions have deteriorated -- and points to examples of dialogue and reconciliation.

The film, produced by a team of blacks and Jews, received enthusiastic reviews when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was screened again last week at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and was followed by a panel discussion moderated by San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. "Blacks and Jews" will premiere nationally July 29 on PBS's "P.O.V." series.

Salon recently spoke with Alan Snitow, producer, writer and director of the film, about liberal guilt, Louis Farrakhan and black-Jewish riots in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn.

It seems you wanted to communicate a positive message about black-Jewish relations in your film.

Not necessarily. But we wanted to tell stories that revealed something different. We wanted to show that the Crown Heights incidents were about a particular group of blacks and a particular group of Jews. Often when you have conflicts like this and the press covers them, they are reduced and simplified too much. How can you generalize from this incident? We're not monolithic communities. We presented the Crown Heights story [about a black journalist who saves a Hasidic man's life during the riots; afterward the two become good friends] because we wanted to tell people at the beginning of the movie that these would be stories people were not used to hearing about. We decided to reshuffle the deck and re-frame the issues and conflicts right from the get-go.

What were you trying to show in the story about Rabbi Robert Marx of Chicago, who in the '60s exposed Jewish real estate speculators who were gouging black home buyers?

His story told something different and deeper about Jewish community politics and history. It crystallized the idea that Jews were moving up and then moving out of inner cities and into the suburbs. And that this had something to do with class and entrenched economic interests.

Some argue that the crux of contemporary black-Jewish conflict is really about class?

I don't think it's that simple. The majority of Jews vote much more progressively than other whites. There's also very strong feelings in the Jewish community about civil rights. The majority of Jews voted against Proposition 209 [an anti-affirmative action measure] here in California and they were the only white group to do so. So I think it's a simplification to say that it's all about economics. It is one important element. Jews moving to the suburbs is perhaps the most important reason for the current conflicts. There used to be this very intense relationship between the two communities and now there is much more isolation.

Is coalition-building across economic and social class lines possible?

The exciting thing about the civil rights era was meeting people in movements for social change. It was fun. And unfortunately that whole sensibility has changed. Now people see coalitions as intimidating and scary. The mood needs to change -- we need to get back to the idea that this can be fun, that this is a thrill.

Thirty years ago blacks and Jews fought together for civil rights. What are current issues that blacks and Jews could rally around?

I don't want to generalize, but in terms of my interests and views, I think issues of social justice, access to jobs and economic well-being are really essential for both communities -- but in different ways. For Jews, a society in which there is massive economic injustice, where there are centers of power that have no limits and no real responsibilities, where there is no longer a social safety net, where there are extremely wealthy people and extremely poor people, where you have an education system that is more and more segregated -- all of those things are a threat to a society in which Jews can exist well because very often it spawns anti-Semitism. It is the perfect atmosphere for scapegoating.

There is a rich tradition of Jewish radicalism and activism, but Jews are sometimes in a Catch-22 -- they may want to work for social justice movements -- like humane welfare reform -- but Jews, for the most part, aren't on welfare.

People should have a sense of entitlement. "I am a Jewish person and I have a right to be here, working in my own community and there is no one who can say otherwise." I mean entitlement in a very positive sense. Even in easier times people got down on others for their liberal guilt. You just have to know that not everyone is going to be nice to you, some people are going to attack you, even when you are doing good work.

There's a discussion in your film between Michael Lerner [editor of the Jewish magazine Tikkun] and Cornel West [professor of African-American studies at Harvard] where they rattle on but don't really listen to what the other has to say. What were you trying to illustrate in that scene?

I think we were trying to show the limits of dialogue, how it has different functions for different people. Very often for Jews there is a sense that if you are talking, you are safer -- we can feel better about ourselves and our situation. This is different from what many African-Americans feel. All the time, I hear, "Well, blacks aren't as interested as Jews in talking about issues." I think this question is often self-serving in the Jewish community -- starting things from the basis of our needs. Jews want acceptance, they want black people to acknowledge them.

The issues for African-Americans are immediate -- how do we work together to actually accomplish something. They are not interested in necessarily framing it as "blacks and Jews" but rather as general coalition building. We hear time and time again when we show this film that Jews are more interested in dialogue. I think Jews do get a lot out of dialogue itself.

Some might argue that Jews simply want their psyches massaged, they want to feel better about themselves through the work they do with blacks.

Sometimes it's that way. There are a lot of people engaged in dialogues who are serious and want to do real work. I don't think Michael Lerner or Cornel West are there just to be massaged. Blacks and Jews take different things from discussion, but discussion between the two communities cannot be a substitute for activism.

Who attended the screening and panel discussion of the film?

Mostly it was Jews. Maybe 100 African-Americans. For the most part there was not that much heated interaction among those on the panel.

One of the people profiled in the film is a former member of the Nation of Islam who talks about his journey through the organization. There is also a lot of footage of the Million Man March as well as clips of some of Louis Farrakhan's more inflammatory speeches. What is the appropriate Jewish response to Farrakhan?

I think Farrakhan is anti-Semitic. There is no good faith there. Dialogues between Jews and Farrakhan have gone nowhere. This is not the arena for blacks and Jews to work together. There is a broad spectrum of black nationalism and Jewish nationalism -- Zionism -- and the simplification of those things is a real problem. There are people who you may disagree with about one aspect of their particular nationalism but who you can still work with.

Should Jews work with Farrakhan?

No. Farrakhan is not interested in coalitions. His leadership is dependent on there not being alliances. His leadership depends on intimidation and fear. On the other hand, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress send out fund-raising mail that says, "We are never going to talk to Farrakhan" or "We are being the toughest of the tough." This is what my organization is telling its membership about what we are doing with the black community? Many Jews are getting the idea that our relationship with the black community is all about repudiating Farrakhan, about battling Farrakhan. It's not true and it sends out a message of fear -- solely for fund-raising purposes. Enough of Farrakhan already! He doesn't represent the black community! We work with the black community in a hundred other places. Let's stop playing this macho game already.


Well it's testosterone driven. There is this idea that if you don't stand up to Farrakhan you're womanish. These are postures that I think should be dealt with on the football field.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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