Opinion: The political perils of a Black-Jewish rift over the war in Gaza

File photo/Al Drago/The New York Times / U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, confers with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, right, during a news conference calling for a permanent ceasefire of the Israel-Hamas war, outside the Capitol in Washington on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.
File photo/Al Drago/The New York Times / U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, confers with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, right, during a news conference calling for a permanent ceasefire of the Israel-Hamas war, outside the Capitol in Washington on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023.

"There's no alliance more historic, nor more important, than the alliance between Black Americans and Jewish Americans." — Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, during his organization's Black-Jewish Unity Week joint event with the American Jewish Committee in 2020.

That alliance, however, is "being tested" by diverging views about the Israel-Hamas war, Morial said this week. And that divergence could influence the way both constituencies — both of which traditionally support Democrats — approach this year's elections.

The relationship between these two communities is long-standing and hit its stride during the civil rights movement. But it hasn't been without periods of friction.

Marc Dollinger, a professor of Jewish studies at San Francisco State University and the author of "Black Power, Jewish Politics," sees a strong parallel between now and the period around the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel took control of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced.

The next year, just four months before America's 1968 election, a New York Times article headlined "Jews Troubled Over Negro Ties" described one point of contention between the two communities as "Jewish resentment over the anti-Israeli stance of Black extremists who, in the parlance of the New Left, accuse the Jewish state of 'Zionist imperialism' and 'oppressions' against the Arabs.' "

Dollinger describes whatever rift may be playing out now as "sort of a Chapter 2."

Despite the fact that Jewish American sentiments don't necessarily align with sentiments in Israel, the world's lone Jewish state, or with the policies of Israel's government, there are parallels between the perceived split years ago and the current cleavage: Many Black Americans, especially younger, politically engaged Black Americans, oppose Israel's conduct of the war in Gaza.

Many Jewish Americans support Israel's right to conduct the war and American support for Israel's war effort in order to eliminate the threat posed by Hamas — and some feel disappointed or even betrayed that many Black people seem to have more sympathy for the Palestinian perspective than the Israeli perspective.

The issues involved feel irreconcilable, because many of those engaged in the debate believe that their positions represent the moral high ground. And nuanced views are sometimes characterized as weak. But there has to be room for nuance.

I believe Hamas is a terrorist organization committed to the eradication of Israel, that its Oct. 7 attack against Israel was ghastly, and that all the hostages taken in the attack must be returned.

At the same time, I believe the carnage in Gaza — thousands of civilian deaths, including thousands of children — is unjustified and unacceptable. Relief agencies continue to warn of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and as the International Court of Justice ruled last month, Israel must "take all measures within its power" to avoid violations of the international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Ruth Messinger, a past president of the American Jewish World Service, finds frustrating the inability, she says, of people to "hold two contradictory ideas at the same time" when considering the war in Gaza, the insistence on an all-or-nothing framing of the conflict on both sides.

When we spoke, Messinger said that within the Jewish community, when she says she's a strong supporter of Israel's right to exist and defend itself, but that the way it is defending itself "means death for Gazans and is," therefore, "bad for the future of Israel and will contribute to the rise of antisemitism," she is often met with the question: "How can you say all those things that disagree with each other?"

It's because the conflict is complicated.

And in the end, this insistence on flattening out the complexities of the issue could have a devastating effect on politics here. President Joe Biden's support for Israel in this war has alienated some Black voters. Withdrawing some of that support could alienate some Jewish voters. Yet he needs the strong engagement and support of both groups.

But Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, lamented that the current tension between these two constituencies over this issue "definitely threatens our ability to work together in terms of electoral organizing."

One worry for Democrats is that young progressives opposed to Biden's position on the war, including many young Black people, will refuse to vote for him on principle.

But Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, who co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations and helped to relaunch it last year, made a point I've thought about quite a bit recently: "A protest vote here, or a lack of voting as a protest, is going to result in a more toxic, more painful situation" than already exists for Palestinians, if it means again electing Donald Trump.

Even if some voters find that Biden has not pushed back enough against Israel's right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, they should consider that pushback would very likely be nonexistent under Trump. In that way, declining to vote for Biden as a way of expressing support for Palestinians — or at least holding out for a cease-fire — could wind up further hurting the Palestinian cause. The moral position, abstention, could become in effect an immoral act, throwing open the gate and allowing even more danger in.

It may be hard to fathom, but the prospects for the Palestinian people could get worse.

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