Advertise - Print Edition

Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Panelists discuss Blacks, Jews, and Obama

Published: October 17, 2008
Section: News

At an event co-sponsored by the Student Union yesterday, panelists Prof. Peniel Joseph (AAAS), Jonathon Kaufman, and Randall Kennedy addressed students in a forum entitled, “Blacks, Jews, and Obama: Can Obama’s Candidacy Restore the Old Liberal Alliance?” Prof. Ibrahim Sundiata (HIST) moderated the discussion.

The talk focused on reevaluating relations between African Americans and Jews in light of the Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States.

Joseph, a Brandeis professor since 2007 and a commentator for PBS on the current election, began the discussion by delving into the historical “commonalities” that exist between Blacks and Jews. “When we think of the white volunteers” who worked for civil rights causes in the South, he said, “many were young Jewish volunteers.”

He also noted that Black and Jews were leaders of the Communist Party in the post World War II era.

“A lot of the time when we talk about the tensions between the two groups, we don’t talk about the common ground between the two groups,” Joseph said.

Still, as Joseph described and the other panelists noted, tensions between the two groups arose in the late 1960s, as Blacks became more critical of Israel. Rioting in Crown Heights, New York, and Jesse Jackson’s presidential run did little to quell the enmity in the 1980s.

To Joseph, “the Obama candidacy has real power to restore aspects of a relationship that was not as nostalgic as people claimed.”

Kaufman, who spoke next, echoed this optimism. A senior editor for the Wall Street Journal and historian on relations between Blacks and Jews, Kaufman commented on the politics of Jews electing Obama: “There was a general sense that McCain was in a position to get 30 to 40 percent of the [Jewish] vote…what has been interesting to me is how that has essentially evaporated.”

Kaufman reasoned that McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin reminded Jewish voters that “there is something that makes the Republican party not a home for them.”

Still, Kaufman qualified his argument, noting that on policies regarding Israel, “Obama will follow a more Clintonian approach” as opposed to a neo-conservative approach.

Later, in response to an audience question, Kaufman considered Lieberman’s weight on the Jewish vote. Taking a firm stance, he said, “I think Lieberman has really diminished himself…this election has dealt him a pretty cruel hand.”

Kennedy, the last speaker, took a different approach to the issue, focusing more on the religious tensions Obama has had to face with the “allegation that he’s a Muslim.” Kennedy noted that this brings up two issues: first, the factual issue of the allegation, and secondly, “how should he respond to the fact that a person’s religious identity is itself an allegation that someone is not worthy of being president of the United States?”

“I think this is going to be an issue for us beyond the campaign,” he said.

As to the question of having an African American as a candidate, Kennedy was clear: “The person of the year is Barack Obama…even those who aren’t going to vote for him [recognize it].”