Marc Dollinger (left) and Ilana Kaufman at Temple Sinai
Marc Dollinger (left) and Ilana Kaufman at Temple Sinai

In Oakland, parsing and challenging the black-Jewish narrative

Last week at Temple Sinai in Oakland, Marc Dollinger launched into a discussion of his book “Black Power, Jewish Politics” by saying he was about to “violate historical memory.”

By that, the San Francisco State Jewish studies professor meant ripping apart the way American Jews remember their involvement in the civil rights struggle.

“The story [we tell ourselves] is, white Jews helped the blacks, then the blacks didn’t want us, so we turned outside the United States and the civil rights struggle to focus on the plight of Soviet Jews,” he told some 70 attendees.

Unfortunately, he said, that’s not the way things actually happened — and he wrote his book to offer a different narrative: his own.

Dollinger has been on the speaking circuit with his recently published book, often teaming up onstage with Ilana Kaufman, director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, a new Bay Area-centered national effort to advance the Jewish professional status of Jews of color.

At Sinai, Dollinger spent the first half of the evening summarizing three main points in his book: The vaunted black-Jewish alliance really only lasted for a decade, ending with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While Jews believed the alliance was a natural one, based on the two groups’ shared histories of persecution, in fact African Americans always saw Jews as white and privileged. And, far from rejecting the black power movement, Jewish leaders admired it early on.

cover of "Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s" by Marc Dollinger“Not only did Jewish leaders understand and approve of black power, Jewish leaders followed in the footsteps of black nationalists” to create their own form of ethnic pride in the late 1960s, he said. Public expression of that Jewish pride had a lot to do with Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, but it also took a page from black pride, as did the women’s movement and other newly emergent identity-based groupings.

Dollinger admitted that his thesis upsets a lot of people, particularly older Jewish liberals who look for a return to what they see as a golden age of black-Jewish camaraderie. “There are folks for whom this is an assault on their Jewish identity, usually people who came of age in the ’60s,” he said.

Similarly, he found his own assumptions challenged when he had a pivotal lunch meeting with Kaufman after finishing his manuscript.

She pointed out that his revised narrative, like the old one it sought to turn on its head, still posits two separate communities, one black and one Jewish. How, she asked, do black Jews fit into his story?

Dollinger said he was brought up short.

“There can’t be Jews of color in this narrative,” he admitted. That got him thinking: “How much of what white Jews consider to be Jewishness is really whiteness?”

A lot of it, Kaufman said. That’s a large part of what her new organization is trying to correct. (Dollinger ended up writing the book’s epilogue around that question.)

Kaufman shared a story from her childhood, when she attended Hebrew school at Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She was the only non-white child in the classroom. Kaufman remembers being taken with her classmates to the Soviet Consulate to demonstrate on behalf of Soviet Jews.

“I felt like a mule, being used to protest to free Soviet Jews and not being able to free myself,” she told the crowd. “In Hebrew school I was never, ever acknowledged as a person of color. It never occurred to me that I was entitled to have a conversation about my racial identity and my Jewish identity in a Jewish communal space.”

“How is it,” she asked, pointing to the 11 percent of American Jews who identify as Jews of color, “that the organized Jewish establishment doesn’t see us? We’re right in front of them.”

At the very least, Kaufman suggested that American Jews, both white and non-white, start by looking more closely, and honestly, at their own recent history. “If we really think about this book,” she said, “it requires us to re-engage with our story.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at sue@jweekly.com.