The once-cordial relations between blacks and Jews have deteriorated over the last 25 years to name-calling and violence, so the Jewish audience at a North Hollywood synagogue was seeking special insights--and maybe remedies--from a black scholar who converted to Judaism 10 years ago.
Who better to speak to that strife than Julius Lester, 53, onetime black power advocate, professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and now a lay cantor at his synagogue?
Lester readily acknowledges that he feels both "the pain of a Jew when confronted with black anti-Semitism and the pain of a black when confronted with Jewish racism." His conversion to Judaism developed gradually after discovering as a young man that one of his great-grandfathers was a Jewish immigrant.
Some in the audience, judging by their questions, hoped for a revival of the era from the 1940s to the early 1960s when Jewish legal, financial and personal contributions to black civil rights groups forged alliances that seemed to many almost heaven-sent.
The outspoken Lester may have shattered those hopes during a weekend stay this month as a scholar-in-residence at Adat Ari El synagogue.
"If there is to be any kind of new black-Jewish coalition, we must first put aside sentimental notions that there is some kind of God-ordained bond shared by blacks and Jews," he said. "The notion that blacks and Jews should be friends is romanticism at its worst."
Much has been made, he said, of the historical similarities shared by Jews and African-Americans: Both histories begin in slavery, involve separation from their homelands and entail oppression and discrimination by the majority society.
But these episodes took place at different times; a shared experience does not exist today, said Lester.
"Never in all of Jewish history has there been a community of Jews as prosperous and as integrated into society while being able to live openly as Jews as this community has been in America," he said. "But Jews are so accustomed to thinking of themselves as victims, it may be very difficult and painful to modify that self-image and to see the ways in which that simply is no longer the case."
For one thing, Jews have the social-economic advantage of white skin, Lester said.
Lester cited national statistics on black income, housing and death rates.
"To speak of black-Jewish relations without addressing the concrete despair of blacks is to indulge in nostalgia," he said.
The strife last year between Hasidic Jews and blacks in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn and intermittent black-Jewish conflicts at UCLA have been recent examples of what Lester called the "noisy arena" of relations between the two minority groups.
The breakdown of the old harmony might be pinpointed historically and psychologically, he said.
Lester said that the two groups "rediscovered their separate peoplehoods within 12 months of one another"--in 1966, black pride movements emerged, and in 1967, U.S. Jewish pride was galvanized by Israel reclaiming the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.
Not knowing victory themselves, Lester said, many blacks identified with the underdogs in the Middle East, the Palestinians, and a major religion in their own African homeland, Islam.
In addition, blacks accepted Jewish help in civil rights battles on a pragmatic basis, he said. "Thus, in the late '60s when the relationship began to dissolve, Jews were stunned and hurt that so many blacks did not seem to care, when Jews cared so much," he said.
"There are painful truths each group must learn from the other before there can be any hope of dialogue, not to mention coalition or alliance," Lester said. As a prelude to black-Jewish dialogues, he suggested that Jews examine their racism and that the black community see its responsibility to address anti-Semitism.
For now, however, Lester said Jews must realize that few blacks are interested in rebuilding ties with Jews, if only because other issues are more pressing.
"I'm not a big advocate of blacks and Jews getting together to talk about blacks and Jews," Lester said. "I don't think we know how to do that without hurting each other. Let's get to know each other as individuals, not as abstractions."
Asked by someone in the audience whether he makes such tough speeches to black groups, Lester replied: "They don't ask me to speak to them."
The 1984 publication of his book "Lovesong, Becoming a Jew" brought to a climax a growing hostility to Lester in his own department of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Lester had irked colleagues in the past for urging Andrew Young, who is black, to resign as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, for denouncing certain black leaders as being anti-Semitic and then for criticizing Jesse Jackson's presidential primary campaign.
Colleagues called for his removal from the department because his book asserted that the late black novelist James Baldwin made anti-Semitic remarks in a 1980 campus lecture. As a result, Lester moved to the department of Judaic and Near Eastern studies.
In North Hollywood, Lester did not refer to those controversies but did indicate what approach he's taken when his loyalties are questioned: "I am arrogant enough to believe that truth is its own authority and is not labeled Jewish or black."
Lester applied the same idea after his speech in a conversation with ex-Baptist Gary Hall, a 29-year-old black man wearing a yarmulke. Hall, who is affiliated with Pacific Jewish Center in Venice, asked Lester how he handles questions of whether he should speak as a Jew or a black.
"I stand where I think the truth is," Lester told Hall. "That keeps me from feeling divided."