MAXWELL:  Blacks, Jews on a “CommonQuest’

5/19/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

 

At no other time in American history has relations between blacks and Jews been more volatile. Today’s news reports frequently depict violence and anger when the lives of blacks and Jews intersect. Last week in New York’s Crown Heights community, for instance, four black youths beat a 57-year-old Polish man whom they mistook for a Jew.

With the Rev. Al Sharpton on the scene _ suggesting that the police give preferential treatment to Jews over blacks _ memories of the three days of rioting in 1991 have returned. At that time, violence erupted after a black girl was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew. In retaliation, black youths stabbed to death a Hasidic scholar from Australia. Since then, demagogues, both black and Jewish, have fanned the flames of bigotry.

In an attempt to narrow the breach between blacks and Jews, the American Jewish Committee and Howard University are publishing CommonQuest, a magazine that will explore conflicts and common interests between the groups. Co-edited by two professors, Russell Adams of Howard University and Jonathan Rieder of Barnard College, the magazine was officially launched on May 7.

“We need a calm place, beyond tabloid frenzy and ritual accusation, where we can reflect on these tensions in a tough-minded way,” Rieder said. “What we’re finding is an enduring hunger for honest talk about America’s continuing dilemma _ the larger issue of race and identity in American life.”

Adams agrees, believing that the black-Jewish alliance of old must be revitalized. “The blunt truth is that in this century the connection in the struggle of African-Americans and Jews has been both public and intimate,” he writes in the inaugural issue. “Over the years, the two groups pushed America a bit closer to its announced goals, sharing common principles _ and respective strengths. . . . Blacks and Jews have not been participants in a love fest; their relationship was based on mutual need as well as principled commitment to do the “right thing.’ ”

The magazine’s editorial advisory board is composed of notable thinkers and leaders in politics, law, religion, the arts and media, community affairs and academia. They include Reps. John Lewis and Howard Berman; Sens. Paul Wellstone and Joseph Lieberman; former Cabinet member Jack Kemp; artists, writers and scholars such as Anna Deveare Smith, William Julius Wilson, Melissa Fay Greene, Clarence Page and Cornel West; and national black leaders William Gray III, Hugh Price and Kweisi Mfume.

The 56-page first issue tackles some of the thorniest issues facing the two groups. For example, several writers, such as Michael Eric Dyson, Letty Pogrebin, Jonathan Kaufman, Murray Friedman, Salim Muwakkil and Julianne Malveaux, reflect on the Million Man March, its significance to blacks, its meaning to black women, its validation of Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan as a legitimate player in national politics and its impact on Jewish thinking. The no-holds-barred opinions are diverse, creating a framework for years of spirited debate.

CommonQuest will be published three times a year and will be distributed to the general public, as well as to intellectuals and other opinion leaders. Although the first issue has no advertising, Rieder said that future issues will. The impetus for the publication grew out of talks between American Jewish Committee members and Howard University professors concerned about deteriorating relations between blacks and Jews. Initially, conferees planned a newsletter but soon dropped that idea in favor of a national magazine after discussions underscored the need to tone down the acrimony.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinburg Foundation of Baltimore donated grants of $260,000 to jump-start the magazine, and although it is published and housed at Howard University, CommonQuest is editorially independent.

For the first issue, 20,000 copies were published and sent to selected writers, scholars, journalists, artists and politicians. The second issue is scheduled for October and will highlight race and the presidency. The third will focus on black-Jewish relations in academia.

Rieder and Adams, both having published widely on black-Jewish affairs, are savvy editors who fully understand the intellectual and professional risks they are assuming.

Why publish CommonQuest?

Rieder’s response is worth noting at length: “The reasons are many. Much in black and Jewish life fascinates. The need to dispel myths about each other is urgent. Mutual stakes in a just and civil society bind us together. As for the common part of the quest, we need to say right off: We offer no bromides of brotherhood, no romance of Selma days. We don’t aim to make anybody, any organization, feel good; some articles will make some of you squirm. Alliance may be possible in 1996; sentimentality is not. What we will do is offer lively explorations of the relationship, in conflict and amity, and through them of larger issues of identity, race and pluralism that touch all Americans.”

If CommonQuest succeeds in improving relations between blacks and Jews, the United States will be a better place. After all, these two groups, because of their marginalized positions in society, spawned the civil rights movement that changed the nation for the better.

 

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