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.

Alan Snitow: We had never quite realized how universal this replacement was, of Jews moving out and blacks moving into city neighborhoods. From Brooklyn and Harlem to Mattapan and Roxbury in Boston -- in every major northern city the replacement was blacks moving into Jewish neighborhoods. It's a universal story. And Jewish-black proximity has had a creative history, in music, literature, theater, the labor movement -- radical black-Jewish culture has been a major creative force, and it was partially due to the rubbing of shoulders from early in the century in Harlem. One black real estate agent told us that he "couldn't think of a single incident in which Jews attacked blacks for moving into their community." If they moved into a Polish, Italian, or Irish community, he said, people feared for their lives, but with Jews he couldn't think of a single instance. The downside was the whites that black people saw where they were moving into these neighborhoods, the shopkeepers and landlords and speculators, were very often Jews. As a black, you could respect somebody who was the only person hiring you, but you could resent being the employee and being exploited; on the other hand, as a Jew in this context, you could appreciate someone being an employee, and resent them for all the reasons employers resent employees -- because they're not responsible or they don't work hard enough.

Kaufman: Lawndale was heavily covered and was a major civil rights battle in Chicago, but, apart from an NBC story, it didn't get a lot of national play. And our interpretation was different. We wanted to get at this internal battle within the Jewish community between those who supported the activists and those who didn't or actively opposed them. A lot of people know about SNCC demanding that whites and Jews leave the organization. But I don't think a lot of people know about the forces in the Jewish community (and the Catholic community and the other communities) that demanded the end of the civil rights coalition on the white side. That's the radical nature of our retelling of that story.

Snitow: It also means that your own community is an arena; you have to go through some struggle inside, to reach the point where coalition is possible.

Sragow: When did you know that you'd end the film with the controversy over black and Latino students from Castlemont High in Oakland disrupting a screening of Schindler's List? [During a field trip on Martin Luther King Day in 1994, they were ejected from the Grand Lake Theater for laughing during scenes of Nazi atrocities.]

Kaufman: The Schindler's List thing happened right here in our back yard while we were already making the film. We couldn't have known that Governor Pete Wilson and Steven Spielberg were going to come to Castlemont, but here was this story that illustrated our themes of media stereotypes and media manipulation of concepts; what we were reading was reducing the story to "black teen-agers," when we knew there was a more complicated story that we wanted to follow, finding out early that there were all these Jews that worked in the school.

Sragow: You interview a male Jewish staff member, who agrees with a black female colleague about the essential innocence of the kids, and is trying so hard to be understanding and liberal. Yet at one point he has to split with her and object to Afrocentrists coming into the school and saying Jews controlled the slave trade.

Kaufman: It was a powerful moment.
Sragow: How did you end up feeling about Spielberg? [The director eventually visits Castlemont on a healing mission.] The kids appear to take him as this generic American success figure. And it's hard to read Spielberg's response when the student body president attacks Wilson for riding his coattails.

Kaufman: You know, Spielberg contributed to Pete Wilson but he also gave to Kathleen Brown -- he gave more to Brown, more and earlier. The other thing that's not in the film is that Spielberg came back to the school after this incident with the demand that there be absolutely no publicity, press, or media and sat in the library, not in the auditorium where kids would be forced to go, and anyone who wanted to could voluntarily go and hang out with him in the library for one hour. He sat and he talked to the kids and we heard great things about it. He sat and gave kids autographed posters of Jurassic Park, which meant a lot to them. I think he acted very decently; I think he wanted to correct whatever had happened as a result of Wilson's appearance.

Snitow: When Spielberg says the Castlemont incident should be put under the category of "the privileges of youth" [Spielberg even recalls being tossed out of Ben-Hur when he was a kid], the phrase he uses was in many respects the phrase we were thinking of to figure out what was going on there.

Sragow: As I watched your film again, it struck me that it was really about the failure of identity politics, of politics based only on race or religion or gender.

Kaufman: I prefer to look at it as post-identity politics rather than anti-identity politics, because I don't think you can come back to the ideal of coalition politics until after having been through some kind of affirmation of yourself.

Snitow: The analogy that we've often used is that Martin Luther King Jr.'s immediate circle around him included a Jewish left-wing businessman who many think was a member of the Communist Party, Stanley Levison; Ella Baker, who was a very powerful and experienced organizer, who was difficult for male chauvinist clergy to accept; and Bayard Rustin, a gay man, a pacifist. King's brilliance was to bring all these individuals around him. But they had to stay in the background because of who they were -- because their identities as Jews, leftists, gays, women, were too controversial. I don't think you can have that anymore. And I think that's a positive thing. A new movement that tries to move toward coalition is going to have to be based on the possibility that people are openly what they are.

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