The Other and Almost the Same

Paul Berman


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This text erroneously presumes that all Jews are white. It provides insight into history; however, The Posen Library does not condone or promote uniform ideas about Jews or their race.

What, exactly, has the argument been about—apart from the words themselves? Have the Jews and the blacks been fighting all this time over political spoils? Not especially. Over economic interests? Some people think so, but economic competition between blacks and Jews is strictly marginal. Has it been a war over neighborhoods? Sometimes, but not consistently. Is it a war between parties, Republicans and Democrats? Or between liberalism and conservatism? Not even that, for at the end of the day the blacks and the Jews have trooped off to the polls and in one national election after another they have, more often than not, voted for the same candidates. So what is it—this fire that burns without logs and never goes out? […]

For the driveway may be long and circular, and the living-room carpet may be thick, but the enemy-memory does not fade—except among the handful of Jews who choose to escape Jewishness altogether. And from the perspective of that memory, to prattle on about kinship between American Jewry and African-Americans seems not so outlandish after all. For anyone can see that, if the Gypsies are a tragic people and the Jews are another, the African-Americans are still another: marked by spectacular defeats; marked, too, by continuing accusations about other than fully human qualities; marked, even—and here the African-American conundrum is classic—by the compensatory feats of supreme cultural brilliance, which all the world has had to acknowledge, and which make the sufferings and the successes almost inextricable. And the whole phenomenon is, from the perspective of Jewish memory, all too familiar.

It’s true that to detect invisible similarities you have to peer through a lens capable of revealing them. In a slightly sentimental mood, some American Jews like to imagine that Judaism itself is their lens. That seems to me a dubious claim. If Judaism per se had any such power of insight, there would be two or three hundred years of black–Jewish alliances in the United States by now. But history—real history, not the conspiracy fiend’s version—shows nothing of the sort.

During slavery times—when Jews counted for half of one percent, or even less, of the American population—a small number of Jews participated in the slave trade, along with vastly larger numbers of Christians and Muslims; and a small number of other Jews participated in the abolitionist movement; and the Jews failed to distinguish themselves either as slavers or as antislavers.

Alternatively, it is sometimes said that the European Holocaust is the Jewish lens—though the Holocaust explanation stumbles over the same problem of historical dates. Probably the first important moment in the black–Jewish alliance was the founding of the NAACP, in 1909, long before the Nazi era in Europe. Yet that date—not the exact year but the turn-of-the-century era—does point, I think, to the series of ideas and sentiments that finally allowed a large number of Jews to notice similarities between themselves and the blacks. […]

When the Jews did sympathize, it was mostly as a result of abstract political reflection, and the people who indulged in the abstract reflection were not always in a rush to proclaim their own Jewishness. The emancipatory liberalism of the American Jews took an infinity of forms in the twentieth century, and only some of these movements flew a Jewish flag. Many Jews were more likely to proclaim a doctrine of purer universalism and to relegate Jewishness to the sphere of private life, or perhaps to the sphere of things to be abolished someday, along with every other threat to village atheism. From the perspective of people with the universalist idea, humanism and liberalism, not what they conceived of as Jewishness, brought them to the cause of African America. There is an old and slightly peculiar Jewish custom of rebelling against Jewishness by identifying with the most marginal of all possible groups, so as to rebel and still not assimilate into the mainstream; and this, too, played its part in attracting Jews to the black cause.

A black person who judged from his own experience with Jewish storekeepers and with abstractly motivated civil rights supporters who didn’t call themselves Jews might easily suppose that Jewish support for black causes was, even in the midcentury heyday of the black–Jewish alliance, either spotty in the extreme or mostly a matter of elite arrangements by a handful of lawyers—and, in either case, not a large and popular tendency. That was how Jewish support did, in fact, begin. […]

[…] The twentieth century was not only the worst century in the history of the Jews but also, within the Jewish world, one of the most passionate centuries, and the passions have been expended chiefly on projects of emancipatory liberalism, not just for the Jews, that have proved to be less than successful. Socialism as a worldwide movement did not deliver universal emancipation. Communism turned out to be a fiasco in which the Jews themselves ended up prominent among the victims. In the Middle East, Zionism’s loftiest dream was obliged to sink to the undreamy level of merely surviving, no matter what the price.

The effort of the Jewish liberals in the United States to perfect American democracy by supporting the cause of African-Americans was just one more among these several universalist campaigns, and it ended with some successes but also with a pathetic aspiration that went no further than hoping that anti-Semitism among blacks could be contained. And, in the wintry atmosphere that has followed on these failures, the old-fashioned ideas of emancipatory liberalism are not about to burst into renewed bloom among Jews in America or anywhere else, and the moral grandeur of the Jewish political movements of the twentieth century does not seem likely to be matched in the twenty-first.

What, then, will be the ground for either hostility or fraternity between African-Americans and American Jews in that century? I can guess. The blacks and the Jews will remember their old alliances and their old fights. They will forgive some old injuries, forget none.

But there is a little joke at the end of this story. Judaism allows divorce, and the mainstream black church, in its Protestant denominations, likewise permits it. But the relation between Jews and blacks does not allow divorce. The American Jews and the African-Americans are who they are because of long centuries of a past that can be put to different uses but cannot be overcome. It was the past that made the blacks and the Jews almost the same, and the past has the singular inconvenience of never going away.


Paul Berman, “The Other and Almost the Same,” from Blacks and Jews (New York: Delacorte Press, 1994), p. 4, 9–12, 27–28. Originally published in The New Yorker (Feb. 28, 1994). Used with permission of the author.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 10.

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