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Historical oppression at heart of African American - Jewish relations

STANFORD -- African Americans and American Jews are both linked and divided by their histories of oppression, according to Paul Berman and Cornel West.

Berman, a cultural and political critic, and West, chair of African American studies at Princeton University, spoke at the Stanford University symposium "African Americans and American Jews: Bridges, Boundaries, Identities" on Friday, Feb. 12.

The symposium was sponsored by Stanford's Program in Jewish Studies, the African and Afro-American Studies Program and the Stanford Humanities Center.

When the Jews first came to America, they "encountered yet another 'tragic people' whose identities are rooted in their own oppression," said Berman, a recent recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker and the New Republic.

However, the two groups had a radically different vision of America, he said. The Jewish people saw it as a land of freedom, and African Americans saw it as a land that enslaved and oppressed them.

For immigrant Jews, America was "a different kind of situation from the past 2,500 years: With a certain amount of effort, they could, in fact, have rights. To Jews, liberalism was the counter-thesis to the aristocratic/religious-dominated society, which was oppressing," he said.

"But in America, it was one of the unique tragedies and ironies of African American existence that they were oppressed precisely by the society that defined itself as liberal."

West said that "the black folk said [to the Jews], 'We've been down for a long time. We've been here while you were getting your butts kicked in the Ukraine. We've been getting ours kicked here.'

"We're not additions to American life as you were taught in your high school courses in the 1950s and 1960s, nor are we defections [from] it; we are constituents in the formation of American civilization," said the author of the forthcoming book Race Matters.

"Every immigrant who comes with a smile has to recognize that they're going to be Americanized. . . , which is to say 'discover that you're white,' " West said. "Jewish brothers didn't know this until they got here."

Many African Americans turned from liberalism to "Third World-ism," which further divided African Americans and American Jews, Berman said.

"One of the natural consequences of this was to find - in the question of Zionism - that the Palestinians were the oppressed Third World people, and the Israeli Jews were the white European imperialists," he said.

The Jews became to the African Americans "the hypocrites that I have always known among American liberals, because it was the same liberals who practiced racial oppression."

American Jews believed that African Americans would understand and empathize with their attempts as a "despised minority to try to create rights for themselves for the first time," Berman said. "[They thought] 'Jews in the Middle East are a people like yourselves, and that Zionism is the equivalent of the civil rights movement. It is the movement of the protection of the oppressed minority.'

"The same quality which links them in some way is precisely the quality - because of the small difference between liberalism and Third World-ism - [that] sets them utterly at odds," he said.

To better understand each other, African Americans and American Jews need to know about each other's histories, West said.

They should be aware of "the profound hatred of Jews that sits at the very center of European culture" and "the profound hatred of African people [that] sits at the very core of American civilization."

"We're talking about two underdogs," West said, and "we should attempt to interpret each other's histories, to understand why the prevailing anxieties are being articulated in the way that they are."

West advocates an "all-embracing moral vision" for the future, which would be "a universal ethic in which we attempt to not lose sight of the humanity of others."

"We should try to stay attuned to the circumstances that [others] are responding to," he said. "There should be a broadening of empathy and we should try to identify with their frustrations."


This story was written by Jane Bahk, a student intern with the Stanford News Service.


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