In the earlier piece I had written about Blacks, Jews, and Israel, I felt that I had given short shrift to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, of which my sister was a member from the mid-to-late 1960s, at the time the organization was undergoing some considerable philosophical and political shifts. I do not think I fully explained how my sister came to some of her views about Israel as a direct result of being a member of the SNCC. I would like to fill in that gap here, as briefly as possible. This is not being done simply to be thorough but actually because, as I thought about it, much that is important about the thinking of the young Black radicals and Marxists of the era and those of today are explained by it. I think many Blacks are anti-Israel because they think their Blackness compels them to be so.
My sister had gotten to know James Forman, a member of the SNCC executive committee, quite possibly before he came to Philadelphia in 1966, but, whatever the case, she was involved with SNCC before he arrived in the city, working with a small group, to organize a Black student union at Temple University. She worked with Forman quite a bit after as he became something like, for a short time, the quasi-director of Philly’s SNCC chapter or, let us say, for a period he was in Philadelphia a lot. She mentioned a lot during a certain period. He came to the city as part of SNCC’s move to form branches in northern cities and broaden its fight for Black liberation in America. SNCC was redefining itself as something other and more than a southern civil rights group that led voter registration drives and conducted classes for poor, rural Black children. It had become, since Stokely Carmichael’s rise to SNCC’s chairmanship and his proclamation about Black Power, both in 1966, a Pan-Africanist-oriented, Marxist-influenced, Third World-ist organization. This happened sort of all at once and over a number of vigorous, drawn-out debates of the type that overly intellectual, socially conscious, left-leaning young people are likely to have. But the death of Malcolm X in 1965 accelerated the change.
My sister had gotten to know James Forman, member of the SNCC executive committee, quite possibly before he came to Philadelphia in 1966, but, whatever the case, she was involved with SNCC before he arrived in the city, working with a small group, to organize a Black student union at Temple University.
Forman came to Philadelphia to help SNCC members who had been accused by Philadelphia police of hiding dynamite at the group’s headquarters, 521 South Sixteenth Street, which, if I remember correctly, was across the street from the offices of The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s Black newspaper, but in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia that was quickly becoming gentrified. Forman’s coming sharpened the clash between segments of Philly’s Black community and the then-acting Police Commissioner, Frank Rizzo, who would become the police commissioner and finally the mayor in 1971 in what was a fight in the city between ethnic White communities—Italian and Irish, especially—and Blacks over political control. The city had only elected its first Irish mayor, James H. J. Tate, in 1963, so it was a complicated and high-stakes battle. The charges against the SNCC workers were eventually dismissed—although Rizzo’s cops won the propaganda war in convincing a good many Whites of how dangerous radical groups like SNCC were. My sister was convinced that she, and everyone involved in SNCC or any other radical Black organization, were being followed by the police. She thought our family phone was tapped. My mother dismissed this, not entirely, as self-aggrandizing paranoia, but who knows? There were a lot of Black informers in those days. I know of this personally.
By 1967, the crisis with SNCC was well-known in certain circles—the dismissal of White SNCC members, many of whom were Jewish, who were told to organize in White southern and northern communities; the move toward Marxism and the necessity of a worldwide armed struggle against American imperialism; the attempt to merge with the Black Panther Party (which ultimately failed); and the decision to take a pro-Arab, anti-Zionist position in regards to the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
In his autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries (Open Hand, 1985; first published 1972 by Macmillan), Forman shares two letters he wrote to Stanley Wise, one of the trusted members of SNCC’s inner sanctum. In the letters, Forman makes it clear that Blacks are compromised by their Jewish support. In the second letter, for instance, Forman writes, “I assure you that Martin King has cooked his goose with the African countries by his consistent support of Israel.” (495) Forman felt that King had to support Israel.
Forman further elucidates: “There are many Jewish organizations that operated and do operate within the framework of the liberal-labor leadership circle.” (493) And it is this “liberal-labor” clique whom the Black civil rights leadership goes to for financial support. “[We] must get busy and get financial support bases in the black community,” (493) he stresses in italics at one point. (This, of course, begs the question that if such a vein of financial support existed among Blacks at that time why had no one, not even King, been able to tap it?) To support the “liberal-labor” crowd, in essence, means that Blacks must support the foreign policy views of this clique which, according to Forman, means supporting the American policy of supporting Israel. “Israel represents an extension of United States foreign policy as well as an attempt by the Zionists to create a homeland for the Jews,” Forman writes. He also observes, probably correctly, that “the ‘gut’ reaction in many [Black] people is against Israel and for the Arabs, reflecting the black-white tension” in the United States. (493) He also warns that “[SNCC] cannot … just explain glibly the events in the Middle East as a struggle of blacks against whites when the actors themselves have a different viewpoint.” (494) (This was something the Israelis cautioned me and my fellow Black travelers against during my visits to Israel. Forman’s concern here might be for Blacks not to be reductionist in their thinking and see all persecutions as the same persecution endlessly looped. Forman, the Marxist, may have thought that was insufficiently theoretical and sophisticated in its analysis.)
Whatever his leanings, Forman insists in the letters that SNCC should not issue a position paper on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But SNCC had done just that while Forman was in Africa that summer. (The administrative problem of disciplined messaging in an organization that has no leadership structure because everyone is a leader, so SNCC proclaimed, is an idea that only works as an idea that is never tried. Clearly, in this way, and many others, Black Lives Matter mimics late 1960s SNCC.) Forman publicly supported this position and at the 1967 National Conference for a New Politics, a left-wing coalition-building exercise, pushed for a motion to condemn Israel as “an aggressive, imperialist power,” (498) which many at the conference, apparently, were not quite prepared to do. Forman does not say whether there was a large number of Jews present. He mentions that the convention approved support for ANC (African National Congress) and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union) guerrillas. He does not mention whether the anti-Israeli motion was passed. But as he was able to persuade the attendees to give Blacks fifty percent of the voting power at the gathering, it probably had a good chance of being approved. Overall, he suggests that the anti-Israel position on the left was being particularly championed by Black radicals.
In his autobiography, The Making of Black Revolutionaries, (Open Hand, 1985) Forman shares two letters he wrote to Stanley Wise, one of the trusted members of SNCC’s inner sanctum. In the letters, Forman makes it clear that Blacks are compromised by their Jewish support.
My sister was quite involved with SNCC at this time and was assuredly present at the discussion of the anti-Israel position paper that SNCC made public. This influenced her thinking about Israel and explains why she called the country “Occupied Palestine” when I was living with her in 1969. SNCC was pretty much defunct at that point. My sister was no antisemite. In fact, I think, if anything, she admired and was envious of Jews, as most of the Black folk around me as I was growing up were. If I had a dollar for every time when I was a kid some Black person got up and said before a gathering, “We ought to be more like the Jews,” I would be able to enjoy a very expensive dinner. I think my sister was convinced that in order to be true to herself as a Black person she had to be anti-Israel. I understood that years ago and understand it now. Just as a point of racial pride, forget all the left-wing scaffolding. How could she be for a Jewish state when she thought about how Jews were instrumental in financially and ideologically supporting the Black Freedom movement in the United States? In an important respect, for young Black American radicals to denounce Israel was a declaration of independence from Jews. She did not wish even to be like a Jew or to emulate them. “We’re different,” she told me.
Of course, Forman emphasized in his letters to Wise that he was not antisemitic or anti-Jewish. I do not doubt the truth of that, but it is a bothersome protest that those who are anti-Israel always feel compelled to make. It feels a bit like splitting hairs; for, after all, is not Israel as a Jewish State a projection of some sort of Jewish reality or Jewish aspiration? To be against the existence of this state seems to express a certain dislike of the idea of Jewish self-realization. Alas, it could be merely the location and if only Israel had been created in the vast emptiness of the wilds of Canada, everyone would be cool with a Jewish state. (Except maybe Canadians. I have had more than one Jew tell me that Israel would be a problematic state for many non-Jews if it were located on the dark side of the moon.) It always surprises my students when I tell them that Liberia, that colonizer Black nation, is the only country in the world whose constitution states that only Blacks can become citizens. I have no interest in becoming a citizen of Liberia but, as a Black, it comforts me a bit to know such a country exists. It is my small taste of a kind of Black Zionism, some small, flawed place with an unhappy, violent history of prejudice against native peoples, and the victim of western exploitation, can be my home, if I ever need a home. It may not be the best home but, as Robert Frost once wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Forman emphasized in his letters to Wise that he was not antisemitic or anti-Jewish. I do not doubt the truth of that, but it is a bothersome protest that those who are anti-Israel always feel compelled to make. It feels a bit like splitting hairs. For, after all, is not Israel as a Jewish State a projection of some sort of Jewish reality or Jewish aspiration? To be against the existence of this state seems to express a certain dislike of the idea of Jewish self-realization.
Another point that makes me uneasy in revisiting this is how much both the left and the right have their idea of the good Jew and the bad Jew. For most of the left today, the good Jew hates Israel, deplores Zionism as racism, and hates the imperialist West, and for many on the right, the Good Jew is a Zionist who sees Israel as the last outpost of western culture in its fight against barbarism. I feel this especially because I know what it is like as these sides also have their “Good Black” and their “Bad Black.” For the left, the Good Black is an anti-racist activist who promotes critical race theory, disparages Whites as thieves, liars, colonizers, and oppressors, and is anti-western to the core; for the right, the Good Black is someone who likes Clarence Thomas or Candace Owens (except on the subject of Israel), hero-worships Booker T. Washington, abhors the welfare state, likes school vouchers, and wants a Black father in every Black home. Ugh! Blacks and Jews in this regard have a lot in common. Everyone who does not belong to the group always wants to tell the members of the group what they should believe about themselves in order to be looked upon favorably.