eroded kinship

Manhattan Institute event delves into Black-Jewish relations 

In keynote interview, Rep. Ritchie Torres says loudest anti-Israel voices in Congress, such as the Squad, don’t represent Black members of Congress on issues of support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas

Haley Cohen

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) and Juan Williams in conversation at a Black-Jewish relations panel discussion hosted by the Manhattan Institute in New York on June 20, 2024.

What did Black-Jewish relations look like during the Civil Rights Movement? How did the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel influence the Black-Jewish relationship? What can be done to reverse current polling trends among young Black people that suggest sympathy for Hamas and support for antisemitic viewpoints? And how can the two communities return to the kinship once shared by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel? 

Those were among the questions addressed on Thursday at a panel discussion and reception titled “Black Jewish Relations and Returning to a Shared Legacy.” The event, organized by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank, was held at the Monterey restaurant in New York City.

In the keynote interview, Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY) — in conversation with Juan Williams, a Fox News political analyst and author of Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years — said that the members of Congress who are vocally anti-Israel, most notably some members of the “Squad,” are not actually representative of Black members of Congress on issues of support for Israel and condemnation of Hamas. Torres, who represents the Bronx’s heavily Jewish neighborhood of Riverdale, as well as heavily Black and Hispanic parts of the South Bronx, pointed to House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as an example of a pro-Israel House member. 

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Riley, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow who organized Thursday’s event, echoed Torres’ sentiment. “An overwhelming majority of the Black Caucus is pro-Israel, you just don’t hear about them because the focus is among [Rep.] Jamaal Bowman [D-NY] and those folks … but look at the voting record, there is large support there for Israel,” he told Jewish Insider in an interview following the event. 

Bowman, a Squad member, is in danger of losing his seat to Westchester County Executive George Latimer in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The primary campaign has shed light on Bowman’s extreme rhetoric toward Israel, most recently during a Saturday campaign rally in the South Bronx, during which he said that Latimer is seeking to “destroy” democracy in partnership with AIPAC, accused his primary challenger of supporting “genocide” in Gaza and reiterated his frequent call for a cease-fire. 

Torres, an Afro-Latino progressive known for being an outspoken supporter of Israel, and Riley, a conservative who writes about his experience as a Black person in America, both said that the Israel-Hamas war is not primarily a focus in the everyday lives of the average Black voter, particularly those in Torres’ low-income district. “Anti-Zionism is the luxury belief of Ivy Leagues,” Torres said, noting that there is not an anti-Israel or pro-Hamas ideological agenda in the Black community at an extreme level.  

“I largely agree with him,” Riley told JI. “It’s also all about how you frame the question. If a pollster goes up to them and says ‘do you want the war to be over? Are you for a cease-fire?’ The person might say, ‘Yes, I don’t like war.’” 

Riley noted that “there is often a disconnect between Black elites and Black rank-and-file in terms of agenda and priorities.”

“On any number of issues [including] Israel, school choice, voter identification laws and affirmative action,” Riley said, “if you ask Black elites, media personalities and academics what they think, it will often be the polar opposite of what everyday Black voters think. The polling has shown this for decades, and the issue of Israel is yet another example of this, where you have the elites out there pushing one opinion [that’s in the media] and Black rank-and-file feeling completely different.” 

The Black-Jewish relations event was held on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the murder of three Freedom Riders, including two Jews — Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner — who were killed by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Goodman and Schwerner were among the large numbers of young Jewish Americans who participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project, which registered thousands of Black voters and shaped national support for civil rights and racial equality.

The divide today is evident on college campuses nationwide, hearkening back to a time when Black Panther Party leader Stokely Carmichael, while speaking at a college, once stated, “the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist.” More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement’s “praise for Hamas’s ‘resistance’ comes as no surprise to those paying attention,” Riley wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed weeks after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, in which he noted the irony that in 2020 the Anti Defamation League and more than 600 Jewish organizations openly declared their support for BLM in a New York Times ad.

“The BLM groups have a certain agenda and what was striking to me is that agenda was clear to me well before Oct. 7,” Riley told JI. “They did not hide their opposition to Israel. BLM’s founding documents describe Israel as an apartheid state engaging in genocide. This is well before George Floyd. It goes way back [and it’s not just] a few bad apples. There is a long history of black separatist groups having these attitudes towards Israel and Jews, frankly, that goes back decades.”

“Based on what you hear on college campuses, and from certain members of Congress, I don’t think any lessons have been learned,” Riley said of BLM declaring full support for Hamas and the Jewish groups that have backed the movement. Riley pointed to Black-led groups including Project 21 and the 1776 Project as exceptions to the norm that he said are pro-Israel and deserve support from Jewish organizations and philanthropists. 

Thursday’s event also featured panel discussions with several notable leaders from the Black and Jewish communities: Rev. Herbert Brisbon, university chaplain at Lawless Memorial Chapel and the director of the National Center of Black Jewish Relations; Jamie Kirchik, a Tablet contributing writer; Ruth Wisse, professor emerita of Yiddish literature at Harvard University; David Kaufman, a Black-Jewish New York Post columnist and editor and Abe Greenwald, executive editor of Commentary

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.