For many Americans, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was a time of broad themes, of big-picture talks about race and economic justice. But for some, the events of the past week stirred specific memories — some good and others not — concerning relations between African Americans and Jews.
Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population. Prominent rabbis marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and several were involved in the founding of the NAACP.
Historians have noted that, starting in the early part of the 20th century, the two communities found common cause in fighting their exclusion from largely white, largely Christian mainstream society and in overcoming prejudice that would deny them entry to residential neighborhoods, universities and athletic clubs.
By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the relationship had frayed, strained by such points of contention as the opposition of some Jewish leaders to affirmative action and anti-Jewish comments made by black leaders Jesse L. Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.
Although many African Americans and Jews continue to work together on shared, largely liberal, interests — including civil liberties, public education and voting rights — younger generations have drifted apart over such issues as national economic policy and Israel.
Thomas Hart, 57, an African American lawyer, lobbyist and documentary filmmaker in the District. Hart has long partnered with Jewish leaders on such causes at securing voting rights and expanding black-owned media, and he is making a film about black-Jewish relations.
He said the “dire” economic conditions that many black Americans face have contributed to a gap with the Jewish community, as has the growth of the nation’s Muslim community (a quarter of which is African American) and resulting tensions over Middle East policy.