President Obama holds 4-year-old Kylie Schmitter to light a menorah as Kylie's sister Lainey looks on during a Hanukkah reception at the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Alex Wong)
President Obama holds 4-year-old Kylie Schmitter to light a menorah as Kylie's sister Lainey looks on during a Hanukkah reception at the White House in Washington, D.C., in 2013. (Photo/JTA-Getty Images-Alex Wong)

For black Jews, Obama’s importance was multifaceted

On Election Day 2008, Marcella White Campbell’s 4-year-old son was playing in front of the TV, repeating the name of the man who would soon become the first black president of the United States.

“He was running around and rolling the name Barack Obama on his tongue,” said Campbell, the managing editor of Be’chol Lashon, a national nonprofit based in San Francisco that advocates for Jews of color.

“I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘This is a biracial man who may be president of the United States. He’s trying to get around this moment and figure out what it means to him.’ I couldn’t even imagine how exciting it would be for my kids.”

Obama made history as the first black president, but for black Jews, that was only the beginning of his resonance. Several African American Jews told JTA that eight years of having the son of a black man and a white woman in the White House showed them that living with a hyphenated identity doesn’t make you any less American.

“It helps you to imagine what it means to be American in a different way,” said Yavilah McCoy, who founded Ayecha, an advocacy group for Jews of color, in St. Louis. “The fact that there was a president that viscerally embodied the idea that you can both have an ethnic and cultural identity and be American and a leader of the American people, while holding those things to be true, I think as American Jews, it is a model for us.”

But where some black Jews felt hopeful watching Obama’s administration, others doubted that underlying currents of racism in America would dry up or disappear. Shais Rishon, a black Jewish writer who goes by the pen name MaNishtana, remembers that when Obama walked onstage to declare victory in 2008, MaNishtana was afraid the president-elect would be assassinated.

“I knew he wasn’t going to be any worse than any other president,” he said. “But I also knew there wasn’t much he could do by himself to fight the tide of what had come before.”

Jewish Americans have long grappled with the significance of their dual identities and how each affects the other. For black Jews, that struggle contains yet another dimension.

Marcella White Campbell, managing editor of Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco (Photo/JTA-Courtesy Campbell)
Marcella White Campbell, managing editor of Be’chol Lashon in San Francisco (Photo/JTA-Courtesy Campbell)

Campbell said that along with identifying with Obama personally, she has felt had to defend him differently in differing settings: as a black person in Jewish contexts and as a Jewish person in black contexts.

“There have been times when someone says Barack Obama is really bad for Israel, and I guess I feel more put on the spot than someone else might feel by that in the sense of needing to back him up,” she said.

American Jews voted for Obama twice, in large numbers. But Jewish leaders have frequently opposed his actions on Israel, including signing an agreement with Iran last year that they said fell short of curbing its nuclear program and last month allowing the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution criticizing Israel. MaNishtana, who is Orthodox, remembers feeling hurt when synagogues he attended edited their prayers for the country to remove any well wishes for the president.

But when reflecting on Obama, African-American Jews interviewed for this article focused more on his significance for the black community. Several pushed back on the idea that he should have spoken out more forcefully on issues affecting black Americans, questioning how much difference it would have made and appreciating that he worked to be a president for all Americans, regardless of identity.

“Given that his job is so hard, are there some things he could have come out and said earlier? Yes,” said Jared Jackson, who heads Philadelphia-based Jews In All Hues, which helps Jewish organizations be more attentive to diversity. “But would it have stopped, you know, the killing of unarmed black and brown men and women, and trans [people]? I can’t really say.”

The reflections of some black Jews have changed with the election of Donald Trump, who has promised to undo Obama’s legacy and who won office after a campaign that included statements targeting minorities. They worry that the Trump presidency could erase or counteract Obama’s message of inclusivity.

“Part of the narrative we were teaching them during the 2008 election was what this was showing: that America is changing,” Campbell said of her kids. “We believed that at that time and we told them that. The past eight years culminating in the 2016 election has left us wondering: Is that true? Did we lie to them?”

Ben Sales
Ben Sales

JTA reporter