The best books on Black-Jewish relations

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg Author Of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
By Cheryl Lynn Greenberg

Who am I?

I am a professor who teaches and works in the field of African American History. Because I am both white and Jewish, I’ve been repeatedly asked to give talks about relationships between African Americans and white Jewish Americans, and about what “went wrong” to shatter the “grand alliance” of the civil rights movement embodied by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I had no answer, but I suspected that none of the stories that we had been told, whether good or bad, were fully true. So I went back to the sources and uncovered a complex and multilayered history. Black and Jewish collaboration was never a given, and underlying tensions and conflicts reflected the broader realities of race and class in the U.S. In the book I explored how these historical and political forces operated, and continue to resonate today.


I wrote...

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

By Cheryl Lynn Greenberg,

Book cover of Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century

What is my book about?

Was there ever really a black-Jewish alliance in twentieth-century America? And if there was, what happened to it?

My book examines the history and significance of what was less an alliance than a tumultuous political engagement. That engagement advanced the civil rights revolution and helped shape the agenda of liberalism, but it also laid bare the realities of racial and class divisions in our society, which divided the two communities even as they tried to make common cause. These tensions and conflicts persist today; my goal in writing this book was to better understand the past so we may learn how better to move forward with that yet unfinished work.

The books I picked & why

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Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

By Marc Dollinger,

Book cover of Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing the Alliance in the 1960s

Why this book?

There are many wonderful, useful and thoughtful books on the subject from local studies to broader political and philosophical overviews, and while I wish I could recommend them all, I want to highlight Marc Dollinger’s book because he turns so many widely held beliefs on their heads. He argues that far from alienating Jewish allies, Black Power actually animated them and spurred them to rethink “Jewish Power,” revitalizing Jewish political action within a civil rights context. If there has been a divide between African American and (white) Jewish American leaders or agendas, it has at least partly been caused by losing sight of that story and ignoring the impact of white privilege on Jewish communal responses to civil rights challenges.


Black, Jewish, and Interracial: It's Not the Color of Your Skin, but the Race of Your Kin, and Other Myths of Identity

By Katya Gibel Azoulay,

Book cover of Black, Jewish, and Interracial: It's Not the Color of Your Skin, but the Race of Your Kin, and Other Myths of Identity

Why this book?

Not all Jews are white. Again, there are a number of wonderful books by African American Jews that remind us of this fact, and how often we use the word “Jewish” to refer only to Jews of European descent. Azoulay insists on confronting this unthinking racism head-on by reflecting on her experiences as a Black woman who struggled to feel at home in the Jewish community. Too often “Black-Jewish relations” as a phrase defines two discrete communities. This book reminds us that this distortion of the truth both erases Jews of color and lets white Jews avoid taking responsibility for challenging social systems that privilege whiteness.


How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America

By Karen Brodkin,

Book cover of How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America

Why this book?

Now that I’ve raised the issue of whiteness – ways in which American structures and institutions reflect the agendas and interests of white people, and the role those structures play in shaping opportunity and life experiences -- here I want to bring it front and center. Many white people don’t recognize how they benefit from having white skin (called “white privilege”) and many white ethnic groups, including many white Jews in the U.S., deny their white privilege altogether, insisting that they too have been the victim of white discrimination, and that anti-Black racism is no different. Brodkin offers a powerful counter-narrative, pointing out the many important ways that American Jews of European descent did indeed benefit from their white skin even when they did not realize it. 


Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism

By Yvonne Patricia Chireau (editor), Nathaniel Deutsch (editor),

Book cover of Black Zion: African American Religious Encounters with Judaism

Why this book?

Too often “Black-Jewish relations” focuses on Jewish engagement in the Black civil rights struggle, a largely one-sided political narrative. This book broadens that horizon in two ways. First, it focuses on the Black experience and encounter with the other, rather than the Jewish one. Second, it explores the religious dimension that political discussions often ignore – that the Black experience with Jews and Judaism is as much rooted in religion as in politics.


Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

By Eric J. Sundquist,

Book cover of Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America

Why this book?

“Black-Jewish relations” occurs everywhere African Americans and Jewish Americans engage. Scholars and journalists have considered “Black-Jewish relations” in music and film, in economic and social spheres, in education and housing. Sundquist offers an incredibly rich exploration of this broad cultural landscape shaped by African and Jewish Americans. He explores the ways both groups struggled to understand themselves and engage with each other through literature and other forms of cultural expression and in legal, intellectual, and political forums. Black and Jewish authors and thinkers struggled over issues from the nature of citizenship, liberalism, and community to the challenges of racism, anti-Semitism, and historical reckoning. In this extensive and wide-ranging conversation, Sundquist frames the central concerns and beliefs that underlie the complex political relationship so many of us are trying to understand.


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