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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: June 2012

10 - Ethnic Role Models and Chosen Peoples


During the twentieth century, African Americans drew upon a variety of philosemitic traditions to devise strategies (sometimes religious or idealistic, sometimes hardheaded and pragmatic) for their collective advancement. Idealizing the Jews offered blacks the comforting knowledge that another oppressed minority had triumphed over seemingly insuperable odds by employing imitable means. The Jewish example of group advancement in America was particularly potent because of the Jews' identification with the chosen people of the Old Testament, especially compelling to a black population seeking to complete its own journey from slavery to freedom. But religious associations did not crowd out pragmatic evaluations. Just as Jews have historically sought to induce philosemitism (and avoid inflaming antisemitism) as a matter of practical policy, many black leaders recognized that making pro-Jewish pronouncements and currying favor with the Jewish community could yield concrete rewards. If philosemitism is a form of ethnic seduction, we should not be surprised to find an isolated group like blacks keen to win Jewish partners.

The evidence for a black philosemitism is abundant. Up until the late 1960s polls suggested that American blacks were less antisemitic than whites. Popular attitudes fed off and back into policies on the ground. Black civil rights organizations like the NAACP and National Urban League sought out Jewish professionals and philanthropists to provide assistance, while black writers and artists exhibited a marked interest in and appreciation of Jewish topics. But black philosemitism can also be gauged in comparison with its antithesis.

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