Time to talk

Blacks and Jews hope dialogue can get them past years of mistrust

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Every green light brings my car closer to B’nai Brith, Canada’s anti-Semitism watchdog, and me closer to my nightmare — an assignment to cover “blacks and Jews in dialogue.”

Given the press reports that describe our American counterparts (I’m black) as locked in a blood feud foul enough to make a Hatfield or a McCoy blush, I fear tonight’s “dialogue” may get dangerous.

But I find no blood or daggers at the meeting of about 50 people, equal parts black and Jewish, in quiet discussion. We Torontonians have once again failed to live up to the American ideal.

Old friendships

Still, we’re not as un-American as we once were, according Karen Mock, director of the project and of the League for Human Rights B’nai Brith Canada. “Over the years, we (B’nai Brith) have felt that we really needed to escalate the communication between blacks and Jews. We had been relying on old friendships and people who had grown up together or worked together in the multicultural/anti-racism movement,” says Mock.

“But with the anti-Semitic rhetoric coming up from the United States from Louis Farrakhan and others, and the way young blacks and Jews were growing up in Toronto, people really didn’t have a sense of the historical relationship between the groups and increasingly were seeing each other as part of the problem, and not the solution.”

Last February, with funding from the federal government’s heritage department and in cooperation with organizations like the Jamaican Canadian Association, B’nai Brith welcomed more than 200 blacks and Jews to the project’s first monthly meeting. About 80 now turn out regularly.

Yet according to Mock, the project’s main objectives remain the same. “There is very strong consensus in three main areas: raising awareness among Jewish and black youth, networking vis-a-vis the black and Jewish professional and business communities, and building trust and good relationships so each community understands the other’s concerns and pain.”

As two of the country’s most maligned and misunderstood peoples, we’ve certainly more than enough pain to go around. In fact, that seems to be the group’s major stumbling block: who’s doubled over the furthest, blacks or Jews? Tonight’s guest speaker, Jamaican Canadian Trevor Lawrence, attempts to settle all that with a poem, the title of which — I Believe In Your Holocaust, Do You Believe In Mine? — threatens to turn the members of the quiet crowd, both blacks and Jews, into Americans on the spot.

But everyone maintains their composure, and silence takes the room as all strain to catch every stanza, line, word and syllable of Lawrence’s piece, which details the atrocities of the Holocaust and then those of slavery. Some of the Jewish people are uncomfortable, but when he’s finished everyone manages to applaud. He’s no Langston Hughes, but his goodwill is obvious.

Lorne Foster, the group’s black co-chair, gives me his take on why the Holocaust is so contentious an issue for Jews and blacks.

“There’s no more taboo topic than the use of the word ‘holocaust,'” says Foster, a sociology professor. “I understand a lot of Jewish scholars and Jewish people believe the term (to be) unique to their experience, and there’s misunderstanding and resentment about others attempting to appropriate it.”

But according to Foster, many black scholars point out that the word is of Greek origin and isn’t specific to any one people or its genocide. (I would have thought we blacks had enough on our plate with terms like “400 years of slavery” and “systemic racism.” )

Still, Foster feels that Lawrence’s reading, whether you like it or not, shows how far the group has come in establishing trust between its black and Jewish members. “The poem resonates with the issue of who has had the worse holocaust, and tries to deal with and overcome it,” he says. “The argument is going to go on, but at least we’ve put it on the table.”

Michael Landaure, a Jewish member of the group, was impressed by what he calls “the passion and literary wisdom” of the work, but says his wife was less than thrilled. “She took umbrage, but I haven’t heard her say anything more, so I think she’s probably read it again and understands where he (Lawrence) is coming from.”

I ask Landaure if, in a country where the face of intolerance is nine times out of 10 a white one, members of the Jewish community are singling out blacks as somehow more anti-Semitic than other Canadians. And is that not racist? Landaure pauses and then purges.

Black anti-Semitism

“I don’t know how widespread it is, but my gut tells me there’s probably a lot of presuming that blacks are anti-Semitic until proven otherwise,” says Landaure, who offers as possible explanations media reports from the States and demonstrations against the musical Showboat and anti-Semitic comments attributed to some black protestors.

But, says Landaure, “I don’t think Jews should be excused from their racism. That’s one of the reasons why I’m here, to resist my own racism that I never thought I had.”

Shmaya Harrison works with the National Minority Supplier Development Council, an organization that helps minority-owned small businesses land contracts with Fortune 500 corporations, and like Landaure she sits on the Blacks and Jews in Dialogue subcommittee on business. Harrison also attends these meetings regularly and, as a black woman, appreciates Landaure’s honesty but thinks the story of Jews and blacks is increasingly becoming the same one written for whites and blacks — that of the haves and the have-nots.

“In the time that we have been meeting, the issue that has been coming up over and over again is how can we get Jewish professionals and business people to come to the table to work with the black professionals and business people who are ready to talk,” says Harrison.

Two others on the subcommittee, both Jewish, see Harrison’s point and wonder whether shared interests between the two groups aren’t dwindling as Jews assimilate into Canadian society and blacks remain outside, noses pressed up against the glass.

“I’m going to lay it on the table,” continues Harrison. “My perception is that perhaps Jews no longer have to deal with economic, employment and integration issues and have focused their activism only on anti-Semitism and Israel.”

History forgotten

Later in the week, I’m invited for coffee by Blacks and Jews in Dialogue’s most senior members, Morley Wolfe and Arthur Downes, who have been working on black- Jewish relations for half a century but insist on calling it friendship.

“I have associates who are Jewish, and sometimes I’ll talk to their children and find they simply don’t know what their parents and we blacks went through together,” says Downes, who first met Wolfe when they attended Harbord Collegiate in the 40s. “These kids don’t know about the quota systems that were once in place for Jews entering the professions, or that in the 30s swastikas were flown here in Toronto, or of the Jewish support for the American civil rights movement.”

Wolfe, a former director of B’nai Brith, picks up where his old classmate leaves off. “Blacks and Jews have worked together on so many issues in Toronto: the Fair Accommodations Act and the founding of the human rights commission.”

I share with them some of my memories of growing up black in a predominantly Jewish community — the bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs I gorged myself at, the time some white guy made the mistake of calling me “nigger” and found four of my Jewish friends in hot pursuit, and the playground tutorials in Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and Russian that were so often centred on the conjugation of swear words.

A couple of hours later, after our fill of coffee and talk, we shake hands and go our separate ways.

In the parking lot, I watch as Wolfe, the Jewish gent, drives off in a Chevy, while Downes, the one who looks like me, sails away in a big, shiny Cadillac. Admittedly, I’m surprised and can’t help but laugh. Of all people, you’d think I’d know better.

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