For more than a half-century, the once-robust relationship between the American Jewish and black communities has gradually withered. Growing doubts about Israel among minority voters have created one of the most significant divisions within the Democratic Party and therefore one of the greatest challenges to bipartisan support for the Jewish state.
Stories about the Freedom Riders and Jewish leaders in the civil rights movement, as well as the coalition that the communities formed on behalf of then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1970s and ’80s, have grown musty with age, and sporadic efforts to recreate those relationships with other underrepresented communities have met with mixed success at best.
That’s why it’s worth paying attention to the Urban Empowerment Action PAC, a new political action committee organized by Jewish and black leaders to support candidates who are “dedicated to the educational empowerment and economic uplift of black communities.” This is the type of language that we’ve heard periodically over the years as similar partnerships have occasionally been attempted, usually without much lasting impact.
But this group has something different that could help it succeed: It has a target.
The new super PAC has made it clear that it is committed to defeating congressional incumbent Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) in her primary campaign for reelection this summer, and it has promised to raise $1 million on behalf of fellow Democrat Janice Winfrey, the Detroit city clerk who has filed to run against Tlaib. In stark contrast to Tlaib, a charter member of the so-called “Squad” and an anti-Israel firebrand, Winfrey has outlined a strong Zionist agenda that is attracting broad Jewish support.
Urban Empowerment Action is supporting other candidates too, including Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.), an incumbent facing no credible opposition in her own reelection campaign. But their financial involvement in those other races is much smaller. Their most important priority by far is the defeat of Tlaib.
The campaign against Tlaib isn’t solely about Israel. Longtime Democratic civil rights and political activist Bakari Sellers, who is advising the PAC, points to Tlaib’s vote against President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill last year and other criticisms of the president. Sellers also noted that the retirement of Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), Michigan’s only black congresswoman, would leave the state without a black representative in Congress. But Sellers has long been active on behalf of pro-Israel causes and has stated that Winfrey’s support for Israel was a key reason for the group’s backing.
Tlaib’s strident anti-Israel language has made her the country’s harshest critic in Congress. She is the only member who has stated that Israel should not exist as a Jewish state and recently introduced a resolution in the House to formally recognize the nakba, the Arabic term for “catastrophe” that many Palestinians use to describe the establishment of Israel in 1948. Even while the Squad continues to grow its membership, defeating Tlaib would send a strong signal of the political ramifications of such ardent anti-Zionism.
There are several other organizations that have supported pro-Israel candidates in key Democratic primaries in Ohio, North Carolina and other states this year. But the collaboration with the black community under Urban Empowerment Action’s banner is unique. Electing more allies of Israel to Congress—from both parties—is critically important, but these first steps toward rebuilding relationships between Jews and other minority communities are just as necessary. Accomplishing both tasks simultaneously is even better.
At the same time as these outreach efforts move forward in national politics, the California Jewish Legislative Caucus has been making similar progress in state government. The caucus has dramatically increased its involvement with its colleagues who represent other ethnic and racial groups, both helping those members to better understand the challenges faced by Israel and American Jews, and demonstrating their commitment to helping these communities achieve their goals.
It took many years for black-Jewish relations to deteriorate to their current state of disrepair. Those bridges will not be rebuilt overnight, but these are early and important steps in the right direction. They deserve our applause, our admiration and our support.
Dan Schnur is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” (www.lawac.org) on Tuesdays at 5 p.m.
This article was originally published by the Jewish Journal.