The Israel-Hamas war could signal the end of the Black-Jewish alliance

Is the NAACP excluding the kinds of Jewish activists that founded it when it expands its focus to include international issues?

While much of the weekend media attention was devoted to the joyous news of four hostages rescued from Gaza, a statement issued on Thursday by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the United States may bring the century-long Black-Jewish alliance to an abrupt end.

In an unprecedented step in the history of Black-Jewish relations, NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson called on the US to end weapons shipments to Israel and called for a ceasefire. Abandoning a long history of focusing exclusively on domestic issues, the venerable civil rights organization established in 1909 thrust itself into the Israel-Hamas conflict. “As the nation’s leading civil rights organization, it is our responsibility to speak out in the face of injustice,” Johnson inveighed. He later continued: “We have been forced to bear witness to unspeakable violence, affecting innocent civilians, which is unacceptable.”

Referencing the recent Israeli incursion into the Hamas bastion of Rafah, the NAACP cited the June 6 Israeli airstrike at a UN school killing 45 Gazans amidst the larger carnage of the eight-month Israel-Hamas war as the precedents for its call to action. (There was no reference in the statement to the problematic source for these death toll figures, the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health.)

Alluding to the Biden administration’s recent three-stage plan to end the Israel-Hamas war, the NAACP deemed it “useful” but said the plan “does not go far enough”: “It is one thing to call for a ceasefire, it is another to take the measures necessary to work towards liberation for all.” Thus, the NAACP demanded President Biden “draw the red line and indefinitely end the shipment of weapons and artillery to the state of Israel and other states that supply weapons to Hamas and other terrorist organizations. It is imperative that the violence that has claimed so many civilian lives, immediately stop.”

This statement raises several important questions: What prompted this veteran civil rights group to involve themselves in international affairs, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? While bearing witness to unspeakable violence, was the NAACP troubled that it had adopted the propagandistic, thoroughly debunked death toll of Hamas leaders? Why impose a weapons ban and ceasefire upon Israel without calling upon Hamas to be removed from power? (The statement does call for the release of hostages and for Hamas to unilaterally “stop terrorist activity”.) Would “liberation for all” through these “levers of power” include both Israel’s right to self-defense and security alongside Gazan freedom? And did the NAACP stop to consider what the effect of their call to action might be on American Jews, most of whom consider themselves Zionists and do not support weapons bans or a ceasefire that keeps Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip?

Sadly, this statement from the NAACP could be the final chapter in a long history of the decline of Black-Jewish relations over the question of Israel/Palestine since the 1960s. Yet, what stands out here is how striking an aberration this position is in the storied history of the NAACP’s moderation. In the face of a confrontation between two new dueling transnational movements, which I call global Black Power and global Jewish Power, the NAACP had long resisted this wedding of the domestic civil rights movement to a broader international political agenda. That coupling has eroded the viability of the Black-Jewish alliance since 1967 – and threatens to fully destroy it today.

Under the leadership of figures like Roy Wilkins and A. Philip Randolph in the late 1960s, the NAACP stood up against SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Commission) and the Black Panther Party and went against new popular radicals like Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, and H. Rap Brown who made solidarity with the Palestinians a centerpiece of a new human-rights orientation, often resorting to deeply antisemitic tropes. (Some of these tropes have come to light once again lately, such as the SNCC cartoon by Kofi Bailey that was recently used to advertise for Students for Justice in Palestine at Harvard University.)

Even when considered unpopular in the more revolutionary circles of the African-American community and when other groups barred white (and by proxy, Ashkenazi Jewish “white”) participation in their movements, the NAACP continued to collaborate with major Jewish organizations. Most importantly, it focused on an allyship based on domestic concerns and did not let developments abroad hijack the history of the Black-Jewish partnership at home. Even if much of the narrative of Black-Jewish relations is mythology – think of that forever reproduced image of Martin Luther King marching with Abraham Joshua Heschel – and often tactical as much as ideological, the disproportionate participation and even noble sacrifice of Jewish-Americans for civil rights, often alongside the NAACP, is an important page in the history of both groups.

Dr. Martin Luther King, center, is flanked by Rev. Ralph Abernathy, left, Dr. Ralph Bunche, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the 1964 march in Selma, Alabama.

Sadly, the NAACP of yesteryear is gone. The slogans of transnational “Black Lives Matter” and “From Ferguson to Palestine” have perhaps come to outweigh the importance of solidarity with Jewish groups (or at least the mainstream Jewish-Zionist organizations) in this fraught moment of policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, the ramifications of this decision may come back to haunt the history of Black-Jewish relations for decades to come.

Published by TOI