Tense Alliance

A conversation with the makers of Blacks and Jews, a highlight of the 17th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival

Blacks and Jews -- the title suggests a blunt attack on the tensions between two groups that once joined hands and now butt heads. But this feature-length documentary, screening four times at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival before airing (in slightly abridged form) on PBS's POV July 29, turns out to be rich, incisive, revelatory. Although it's replete with footage of riots and volatile demonstrations, it leaves you feeling contemplative and revitalized: not in a dead calm, but a live calm.

The directors -- Alan Snitow, a news producer and writer for the Oakland-based Fox affiliate KTVU, and Deborah Kaufman, who founded S.F.'s Jewish Film Festival in 1981 -- first dug into the subject in a four-hour 1994 Pacifica radio series called Ambivalent Allies, created under the sponsorship of KPFA's Bari Scott. (Scott became their co-producer on Blacks and Jews; she is an African-American, as is the director of photography, Ashley James.) Thanks partly to this extensive preparation, they're able to take original routes over well-trodden ground, like the dual tragedy that occurred at Crown Heights, Brooklyn, when a Hasidic driver lost control of his car in a rabbi's motorcade, killing a West Indian child and sparking the retaliatory murder of a visiting Australian Jewish scholar. Snitow and Kaufman focus on a Village Voice journalist, Peter Noel, who saved the life of a "civilian" -- a beaten, bleeding Hasid -- during Crown Heights' ensuing days of mayhem.

In a conversation at the moviemakers' office at the Saul Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, Kaufman told me that one question she kept asking herself during filming was "Can Jews support black nationalism?" She and Snitow cited Noel as precisely the kind of "progressive black nationalist" they should support: in Snitow's words, "Someone very out about his West Indian identity, and about being black in New York, and at the same time not retreating in fear from the Other."

Using news footage and present-day testimony and interviews to flesh out episodes that date from the end of the Martin Luther King era (a period of close black-Jewish cooperation) to the Million Man March, the film coheres as an informal chronicle of racial and ethnic politics in late-20th-century America. Aside from a crude, sketchy explication of Hollywood's Jewish roots and resistance to blacks (a segment excised for time from the POV presentation), Blacks and Jews is at once contemporary and historical, fresh and archetypal, multifaceted and clarifying. African-American journalist Salim Muwakkil criticizes the Nation of Islam from the perspective of someone who passed through it -- and Snitow is right to feel that men and women of all backgrounds who "went through sectarian things in the '60s and are now mainstream people" can relate to Muwakkil's odyssey. Throughout, the filmmakers maintain a balance between the universal and the particular.

For example, a segment on the transformation of a Chicago neighborhood called Lawndale, in the '60s, from a Jewish area to a black one does several things simultaneously. It puts human faces on the concepts of "blockbusting" (real estate speculators scaring white homeowners into selling cheap so they can resell homes on extortionlike terms to blacks) and "redlining" (banks refusing loans and mortgages to those black buyers). It touches on the positive and negative aspects of blacks' and Jews' shared urban history. While many Jews supported the black home-buyers' protests, Lawndale's speculators were also Jewish. And it contrasts the public discussion of the issue in 1969 as a social and economic problem with the race-tinged arguments of today, in which black and Jewish leaders (in the filmmakers' view) lead a bitter parody of "call and response" liturgy that benefits only those who want to drive two populations further apart.

Kaufman explained that her impetus to create Blacks and Jews was her concern that some Jews have been swayed by "a kind of nostalgia, not for being a victim, but for a history that's narrow and doesn't allow for political change." Snitow said that his involvement emerged from two decades of discussions with co-producer Scott: "What's the cause of this tension, why do you get upset, what makes you upset, all this back and forth." Snitow at one point came to doubt that a black-Jewish coalition could or should exist again as it did up to the mid-'60s. "But," he said, "I noticed that the collapse of the kind of coalition politics that was involved in the civil rights era coincided with the rise of the

Republican right. And to me, that doesn't seem to be an accident. So maybe now we have to talk about some new coalition if we want change to go in a different direction from Newt Gingrich, or Barry Goldwater, or Ronald Reagan."

Michael Sragow: Your treatment of Crown Heights is different from Anna Deavere Smith's in [her one-woman show] Fires in the Mirror. You emphasize far more than Smith does that this is one of the few neighborhoods where poor blacks and poor Jews live side by side and compete for social services.

Deborah Kaufman: We wanted to deal with class issues -- it both complicates things and clarifies things, and Americans don't easily talk about them. When we went to London for the Jewish Film Festival there, the questions we were asked acknowledged the class relationship between blacks and Jews, and understood that the film was about not just these two particular ethnic groups, but class relations in the United States. It was great to have that feedback in a country where the subject is a more natural point of discussion than it is here. I think the class issue became more of an issue as the film progressed. The last story we decided to do is the second story in the film, the story about the Jewish neighborhood of Lawndale in Chicago. And that story seemed incredible to us because it dealt with the class mobility of Jews, and at the time it was perceived more as a class conflict than a black-Jewish conflict, but it fed the stereotype of "the bloodsucker" that Farrakhan talks about now.

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