Comments on Lieberman Stir Old Tensions
By Lynne Duke, Washington Post,
Sunday 20 August 2000
NEW YORK In a rambling diatribe on a radio broadcast, Lee
Alcorn, an NAACP chapter president in Dallas, said blacks ought to be
"suspicious" of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as a Jew.
At a Los Angeles news conference, Nation of Islam leader Louis
Farrakhan questioned whether Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jewish vice
president, would be "more faithful" to the United States or to
On the editorial page of New York's Amsterdam News, Wilbert
A. Tatum, publisher emeritus of the black weekly, said presidential
candidate Al Gore selected Lieberman "for the money" and that
Jews around the world had bought his spot on the Democratic ticket.
While blacks and Jews remain strong political allies, the
recent spate of blunt, insulting, even antisemitic public comments by
a small collection of prominent blacks has stirred discussion about
blacks' views of Jews and has exposed an undercurrent of black envy,
even resentment, social scientists say.
To some blacks, the social observers say, Lieberman's
nomination is the latest example of how the small Jewish minority of 3
percent of the population has become disproportionately powerful in
the United States. And now, with Lieberman in position to possibly be
a heartbeat away from the presidency, Jews as a group have gained
entry to a realm that blacks have yet to penetrate, though they are 12
percent of the population and have suffered more on American
soil. Those, analysts say, are among the perceptions at work among
Responding to Tatum's lengthy editorial on the alleged Jewish
money calculus of the Gore campaign, Abraham Foxman, national director
of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that it was
"Tatum's assertion is insidious and an antisemitic canard
employed by antisemites, racists and conspiracy theorists through the
centuries to bolster their absurd claims of Jewish control," he
Black antisemitism has roiled public discourse between blacks
and Jews for years, just as anti-black Jewish racism has. Both sides
are hypersensitive about their relative "innocence" in these
debates; each views its history of suffering as a kind of moral shield
against criticism, says Cornel West, a professor of African American
studies at Harvard University and the co-author, with Michael Lerner,
of "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin."
West and others attribute the outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment
among some blacks to basic group envy. Blacks and Jews--like all other
minority groups in the United States--have been subjected to similar
prejudice and xenophobia from the majority culture. "And seeing
one group soar higher, to greater successes, the other group that has
been hated even more has its expectations elevated, meaning: Why not
us?" West said.<
Thomas Laurence, a professor of philosophy at the University of
Syracuse who is black and Jewish, says the dynamic at work goes
deeper, to a problem of group identity. Blacks, he asserts, carry a
profound anger at their long history of slavery and systematic
discrimination, which have deprived them of a sense of unity and
belonging, what Laurence calls "peoplehood." In Laurence's
view, Jews represent what blacks lack most--cohesion and strength
through group cooperation--and this brews black resentment.
"Together, deep scars and deep anger yield quite
inappropriate behavior, which is what we have been witnessing of
late," Laurence said.
Though reactions to Lieberman's nomination have sparked public
dialogue about black antisemitism, a May 1999 poll by the American
Jewish Committee found that Jews themselves perceive numerous other
groups as more antisemitic than blacks. Only 7 percent of the 1,000
respondents said they believed most blacks are antisemitic, but 12
percent, 21 percent and 23 percent respectively said most
fundamentalist Protestants, most Muslims and most on the religious
right are antisemitic.
Since Vice President Gore's announcement Aug. 8 that Lieberman
was his choice as running mate, civil rights leaders have portrayed
the selection as an advance for all minorities and have distanced
themselves from anti-Jewish comments. In response to Tatum's
editorial, Jesse L. Jackson said during the Democratic convention in
Los Angeles that "any language that would threaten our unity is
Some black lawmakers at the convention, however, had
reservations about Lieberman's past political rhetoric: his opposition
to affirmative action, his support for school vouchers. Had Lieberman
been a non-Jewish white man, positions such as these would have drawn
howls of protest from blacks, West said.
"Black leaders would be all over the place. Jesse would be
marching," he said.
But precisely because Lieberman is Jewish and blacks want to
preserve the alliance, the criticism of his relatively conservative
record was far more muted, he said.
That is why Alcorn's outburst was so surprising to the civil
rights community and brought such a swift response: Alcorn was
suspended and then resigned.
In describing Jews as suspicious and interested in money,
Alcorn "picked a scab off an old sore," wrote Philadelphia
Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. Smith described a Washington dinner
party of prominent African Americans who were angered by Alcorn's
outburst and the damaging impact it would have on African American
politics. At the same time, they acknowledged there were tensions with
"And while nobody in the room will say so for publication,
it was tacitly acknowledged that Alcorn's remarks reflected a latent
distrust that bubbles just beneath the surface of a still-important
black-Jewish partnership," Smith wrote.
While Tatum says "absolutely not" when asked if he
resents Jews, he adds, "There is a degree of envy, however."
"Blacks have considered that they have contributed
enormously to this country and many of us believe that we've gotten
the dirty end of the stick, that when considerations are handed out
that we are so rarely considered," Tatum said.
He said that he expects Lieberman to be "a fine vice
president," but that the selection of a Jewish candidate in this
era of big-money campaigns was the product of "a cynical move"
among Democrats seeking to maximize their fundraising potential.
What he said in his editorial in the city's oldest black weekly
is: "The word went out all over the world to Jews in every pocket
of every civilization and near-civilization, that the major protector
of Jews in this world, the American government, is now available. But
in order to get it, you've got to buy it."
The ADL labeled Tatum's editorial as blatant
antisemitism. Tatum denies it. He says he's been accused of hiding
behind "the skirts of my wife." His wife, Susan Tatum, is a
Jewish Holocaust survivor.
© 2000 The Washington Post Company