How the 1960s civil rights and black power movements split on Israel

Michael R. Fischbach – December 27, 2018
Excerpt of Chapter 3, titled “Reformers, Not Revolutionaries: the NAACP, Bayard Rustin, and Israel.” Reprinted with permission from Stanford University Press.


Transnational Countries of Color

by Michael R. Fischbach

296 pp. Stanford University Press. $25.95

Just after war broke out in the Middle East on June 5, 1967, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations began planning a large pro-Israel rally in Washington that was to be held on June 8. The group asked Roy Wilkins, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), to issue a statement of support. Wilkins then sent a telegram on June 6 to each member of the NAACP’s board of directors asking whether he should release a statement for the rally. Wilkins pointed out that he had received numerous requests that the NAACP issue a statement supporting Israel but noted that the group had not taken a stance on the Vietnam War, and therefore he was reluctant on his own to issue something on this foreign policy issue without consulting the board.
“Black Power and Palestine
Transnational Countries of Color” by Michael R. Fischbach, Stanford University Press, November 2018.
Wilkins had maintained a policy of silence on the situation in the Middle East for several weeks: when Moshe Decter of the Conference on the Status of Soviet Jews wrote to Wilkins on May 31, for example, asking him to endorse a statement on the growing tension in the region, Wilkins responded that the NAACP was “not signing any statement at this time having to do with the Israeli-Arab situation.” Wilkins soon sent a memorandum to NAACP staff members reiterating this: “The NAACP is making at this time no official statement on the dispute between Israel and the Arab countries. As you know, we have made no official statement on Vietnam.” Wilkins told NAACP employees that they were free to make comments as individuals as long as they did not identify themselves as having a connection with the NAACP.
Wilkins needed a clear response to his telegrams quickly, but board members’ opinions varied. Some wanted to continue adhering to the policy of avoiding statements on subjects not related to civil rights. At least one of them recognized, though, the political difficulty in refusing to issue a statement of support for Israel given the past financial generosity of Jews: “It is difficult to refuse,” read a return telegram from board member Charles R. “C. R.” Darden, “a request from our great benefactors.” Others left it up to Wilkins to decide or did not make their wishes clear. In the end twenty board members ended up approving issuing a statement, compared to fourteen against and three who were not clear in saying one way or the other. But by June 7, when Wilkins apparently needed an answer, the vote stood at eleven for, and eleven either against or uncertain. It appears that given the tie vote, Wilkins did not release a statement for the June 8 rally. Yet for Wilkins this was not the answer for how to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. Like other mainstream civil rights leaders, he was being drawn into the politics of the conflict, like it or not.
The Black Power movement’s increasingly vocal support of the Palestinian national liberation movement starting in mid-1967 did not just engender public controversy among Jews and others who were accustomed to widespread American support for Israel. These pro-Palestinian sentiments also made traditional black civil rights leaders uneasy and put them on the defensive for a number of reasons. By the time of the 1967 war, mainstream black groups were already feeling marginalized by the Black Power movement. They struggled to maintain the initiative at a time when the “classic” civil rights struggle in the South was generally over and when Black Power advocates were confronting institutional racism in the North along more aggressive lines. While traditional civil rights groups worked within interracial coalitions to change the system, Black Power militants spoke openly of revolution against the system on their own without white allies. They stressed a new, revolutionary black identity that understood blacks in America as constituting an internal colony to be liberated, whereas civil rights activists saw blacks as Americans, albeit second-class ones, but fully capable of fighting for inclusion in the American system as equals. Combined with the violent urban rebellions that rocked various inner cities from 1964 to 1968, Black Power was posing a powerful threat to the strategies and nonviolent tactics of traditional civil rights organizations and their vision of black identity in America. These attitudes were reflected in the differing stances the two sets of black activists adopted toward the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Civil Rights activists not only believed that their own approaches and leadership styles were being threatened by black militants’ attacks on Israel; they also thought that their own efforts to maintain forward movement on civil rights were put in jeopardy as a result. Many mainstream black leaders therefore felt a tremendous need to reassure whites in the face of militant black assaults on mainstream sensitivities. Traditional African American leaders were particularly anxious in 1967 to assure Jewish allies of their commitment to reciprocating the Jewish support they had received in their struggle by taking up a cause near and dear to the hearts of many Jewish Americans—Israel.
There had long been bad blood between Black Power and civil rights groups. Malcolm X derided mainstream civil rights leaders for their cautious, safe-and-sane approach, sometimes calling them “house negroes” wishing to maintain the system as opposed to more militant “field negroes” working to overthrow it. In 1964 he described mainstream civil rights groups’ vision of black identity: “As a rule the civil rights groups, those who believe in civil rights, spend most of their time trying to prove they are Americans. Their thinking is usually domestic, confined to the boundaries of America, and they always look upon themselves as a minority. When they look upon themselves on the American stage, the American stage is a white stage. So a black man standing on that stage in America automatically is in the minority. He is the underdog, and in his struggle he always uses an approach that’s a begging, hat-in-hand, compromising approach.”
Malcolm X was right: civil rights organizations certainly were not on board ideologically with Black Power approaches and criticisms. Their outlooks and worldviews were completely different; moreover, they were loath to do something that might fracture their carefully constructed coalitions with Jews and other whites. So when matters relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict emerged within the national discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, these groups generally went out of their way to stay on the mainstream path by supporting Israel wholeheartedly. The venerable NAACP was noteworthy in this regard, for its stance, too, reflected its own sense of identity and place in America, as well as its belief in working together with white allies on behalf of civil rights.
Roy Wilkins had been around racial politics for a long time. He began working for the NAACP in 1931, and by the 1960s he had risen to the top of the group and was one of the so-called Big Four of the civil rights movement, a term used to describe the heads of the four main civil rights groups in the 1960s: the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the National Urban League. All these organizations ended up dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict during the 1960s and 1970s, particularly because the media and the public often demanded to know what their positions were. As the historical record shows, traditional civil rights organizations were far from unanimous or consistent in how they handled this controversy and what it meant for identity politics.
The NAACP was the nation’s oldest civil rights group, having been founded in 1909 with support from the Jewish community. It comes as no surprise, then, that from its inception the NAACP prized mutual black-Jewish cooperation in the service of racial justice. In 1951 Roy Wilkins continued this heritage by joining with Arnold Aronson of the National Jewish Community Relations Council and A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters union to form the Leadership Conference on civil rights. Moreover, the NAACP had a long tradition of supporting Israel stretching back to the Jewish state’s formation when the NAACP saluted the brand-new Jewish state at its thirty-ninth annual convention in Kansas City in June of 1948.
The Middle East war in June of 1967 presented Wilkins and the NAACP with a political problem. Having avoided taking a position on the war in Vietnam and other foreign policy questions, Wilkins was extremely reluctant to do so now, even though Jewish organizations were calling in favors from groups that they had supported in the past. While he waited to hear from the NAACP board about issuing a statement, Wilkins went ahead and wrote a draft statement on June 7, 1967, and showed it to a few confidants for comment. Even though he decided in the end not to release a statement in the NAACP’s name, the draft document sheds light on Wilkins’s own thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Considering both his personal aversion to revolutionary Black Power politics and the NAACP’s long record of supporting Israel, Wilkins was nothing if not totally supportive of the Jewish state in his draft and completely antagonistic to the Arabs. Wilkins was unwilling or unable to understand Arab grievances as emanating from anything other than a “fanatic” hatred of Jews and Israel:
A people persecuted down through the centuries has been returned to its motherland and through sacrifice, industry, knowledge and ingenuity has made a land bloom and has built a bastion of democracy… . The hateful and chilling cry that she must be destroyed must never be raised again, even as it is unthinkable that it be raised today against Chile or Iceland or India or Ethiopia. Never again must it be possible for 14 nations, united only in a common and fanatic hatred of a people and its religion, to surround, militarily, another nation and announce brazenly to a stunned world that their concerted mission is one of extermination.
Wilkins went on to offer his personal comments on the conflict in letters and articles after the war ended. All of them expressed total support for Israel, a position that reflected his mainstream view of the slow-and-steady struggle for black equality. He wrote that a peaceful resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict would only come when the Arabs let bygones be bygones and recognized Israel; peace for him had nothing to do with movement on the Palestinian refugee issue or any other matter dear to the Arabs. “Peace with justice and honor,” Wilkins wrote in a June 17, 1967, letter, “will come only with the recognition of the fact of Israel as a nation.” He did not explain how this would bring “honor” to the Arabs. Wilkins also wrote an article entitled “Israel’s Time of Trial Also America’s,” which appeared in the June 24, 1967, edition of the Philadelphia Afro-American. Yet by the month after the war, the NAACP’s board made it clear that it did not want Wilkins signing statements any longer that did not originate from the NAACP itself. Meeting in Boston on July 12, the board instructed him not to sign any such statements “for an indefinite period of time.”
Author Michael Fischbach (Photo: Randolph-Macon College)
The SNCC newsletter controversy that exploded a few weeks later in midAugust of 1967 gave Wilkins the chance to defend Israel publicly by attacking SNCC, particularly because the controversy had raised the question publicly of black anti-Semitism. There certainly was no love lost between Wilkins and the younger generation of SNCC activists such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. The NAACP had struggled patiently for years on behalf of black rights by building coalitions, courting officials in Washington, and filing lawsuits. It was working within the system to crack open that system so that blacks could participate fully within it. SNCC represented students, young people committed to obtaining their rights as soon as possible through direct action, grassroots activism, and increasingly militant-sounding politics. Wilkins and the NAACP in return had little patience for SNCC’s growing Black Power attitudes or rhetoric, which they not only did not share but believed drove away sympathetic whites and their financial support.
The time had come for Wilkins to let loose at SNCC, and the newsletter controversy provided him the pretext. He was quick to condemn SNCC, even though he had not read the article. In a press release he issued on August 17, 1967, he not only faulted SNCC but even suggested that it was becoming un-American and anti-Semitic. “If the text is as reported,” Wilkins intoned, “S.N.C.C. is openly following the Soviet line in the Arab-Israeli matter. In addition, by its reported attacks upon Jews, it is following the age-old hate line.” He lamented: “It is a sad development that young Negroes, seeking to overcome the injustices suffered by their race, should employ against the Jews the same hateful distortions and lies that have been used for 350 years against their own kind.”
Ever the insider and politician, Wilkins also worked hard to let Jews know of his position in contrast to Black Power advocates, probably because he feared the Jewish backlash against SNCC might hurt the NAACP’s fund-raising. He had reason to worry: the NAACP did in fact begin receiving angry letters and even hate mail from disgruntled Jews announcing that they would no longer donate to black causes because of what they had heard about SNCC and the National Conference for New Politics (NCNP). Wilkins needed to distance the NAACP from black radicals inasmuch as some whites could not or would not always differentiate among civil rights groups.
Touting his pro-Israeli credentials was a remedy. On November 10, 1967, Wilkins addressed the convention of the Jewish Labor Committee at the Commodore Hotel in New York City. The speech afforded him another opportunity to attack Black Power criticisms of Israel as “anti-Semitism” in front of a supportive audience. Wilkins accused “some of the new emerging Negro militants” of using anti-Semitism “as an organizational cement, as a scapegoat.” A major Jewish organization decided to reward him for his long years of civil rights work and perhaps for his strong pro-Israeli orientation: the American Jewish Committee bestowed its highest honor, the American Liberties Medal, on Wilkins at its annual meeting on May 14, 1970—twenty-two years to the day after Israel declared its independence.
Wilkins’s position on the Middle East offered a clear example of the conflict between the views of racial identity and place in America held by the Black Power and civil rights movements. Wilkins proved so unhesitant in his denunciation of SNCC for its hostility toward Israel because it had violated “the rules” about groups involved with the black freedom struggle speaking out on other issues such as Vietnam or, now, the Middle East. What stance to adopt on the Arab-Israeli conflict had become a litmus test for black groups’ wider conceptualizations of themselves and their respective missions.
The National Urban League and CORE
The National Urban League was another important civil rights group that never wavered in its pro-Israeli attitudes in the face of Black Power challenges. It was led by Whitney M. Young Jr. at the time of the 1967 war. Young began his association with the League in 1949 and eventually was appointed the group’s executive director in 1961. Another of the “Big Four” civil rights leaders, Young rose to become one of the movement’s most important Washington insiders. Like Roy Wilkins, Young had no sympathy with the Black Power movement or its stances on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Black Power advocates reciprocated the ill feeling, frequently deriding him as “Whitey Young.”
When the 1967 war broke out, Young made it clear that he was solidly supportive of Israel. He signed a pro-Israeli statement in the New York Times on June 7, 1967, and later offered one of the most stinging rebukes of SNCC delivered by any party during the newsletter crisis in 1967. Young remarked that the SNCC newsletter resembled the Nazi Party’s attitudes toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. He later visited Israel, in April of 1969, to attend the “International Conference on Technological Change and Human Development” held at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. After his visit he wrote a glowing article for a liberal American Zionist publication expressing his admiration of the Jewish state.
Continuing to support Israel whenever he could, Young wrote a letter on October 7, 1970, blasting an unnamed critic who had objected to Young’s signature on a strongly pro-Israeli statement published in the New York Times the previous June. In it, Young defended his decision to add his name to the advertisement: “I would continue to favor providing Israel with the weapons she needs to defend herself against those who have sworn to destroy her.” Yet he went further. In a clear swipe at Black Power’s embrace of both Africa and the Palestinians, Young also took the opportunity to criticize the Arab world: “If the Arab nations had really been concerned with improving ‘the social, economic and political existences’ of their people, they would long ago have ceased threatening to push Israel into the sea and concentrated their energies on improving the lives of their people.” Young went further, to expose what he called the “the myth of Arab-black friendship,” a theme that had been developed by pro-Israeli propagandists as a public relations tool to combat Black Power criticisms of Israel as a “white” country in league with imperialism.
The position on the Arab-Israeli conflict taken by CORE, by contrast, was more difficult to judge than that of the NAACP and the National Urban League because it fluctuated over time as CORE negotiated with the changing times by flirting with Black Power. Established in 1942, CORE became a major interracial group committed to waging the black freedom struggle nonviolently under its leader, James Farmer. Farmer was another establishment black leader who had a good opinion of Israel. The Histadrut, Israel’s labor federation, hosted Farmer on a five-day visit to Israel in January of 1965. He not only met with Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and former Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan but visited Jewish farming communities and came away feeling they offered a good model for rural American blacks.
Yet by 1966 CORE was moving in the direction of Black Power, a process that accelerated under the leadership of Floyd McKissick, who became CORE’s national director in early 1966. The SNCC newsletter controversy forced him to deal with the issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict. At an August 17, 1967, press conference at the YMCA in Harlem, he declined to address the issue directly when asked because he had not studied the newsletter. When reporters pressed him by asking CORE’s stance on anti-Semitism, McKissick demurred by referring them to the group’s position paper on the subject, which had been issued in April of 1966 and had stated that there is “no room in CORE for persons with anti-Semitic sentiments.”
A few weeks later McKissick found that his attendance at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago in September of 1967 drew attention from Jewish groups. The Commission on Social Action of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis soon contacted him inasmuch as he had attended the conference as an observer and inquired about his position on the Israel resolution adopted there. On September 6, 1967, he responded by saying that he had attended the gathering a few days earlier only as an observer and had not voted on any resolutions. Furthermore, he noted, “Zionism is a form of nationalism. CORE supports nationalism and is now studying various national-state theories. Thus CORE cannot support a position against Zionism.” Supporter of Black Power or not, McKissick was not about to jump onto that bandwagon.
CORE’s stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict soon became more solidly aligned with the Palestinians and against Israel during the period from 1968 to 1970 but not unreservedly so. CORE elected Wilfred Ussery as its national chairman in 1968. Ussery was an activist from San Francisco who firmly allied himself with the Palestinians and their cause. He attended the Second International Conference in Support of the Arab Peoples in Cairo from January 25 to January 28, 1969. On his return to San Francisco Ussery called a press conference on February 13 and stated, among other things, that “Israel exists in its present perimeter as the result of one aggression after another and in each case having that aggression condemned by the United Nations.” Ussery also said that Israel never once had voted against South Africa in the United Nations. “This is of great concern to the black people in this country.” One year later, Ussery, who at that point was no longer CORE’s national chairman, lent his name to a telegram that the World Peace Council sent to the UN Security Council denouncing an Israeli air attack on civilian areas near Cairo.
In contrast, Ussery’s replacement backed away from the Palestinians. Roy Innis rose through the CORE ranks to become national chairman in 1968, after which the organization began moving to the political right. Not surprisingly, Innis came out in support of Israel. He spoke out strongly when the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) separated Jews from among the other hostages it took during the dramatic hijackings of Western aircraft several months later in Jordan in September of 1970. Innis published an editorial titled “The Jews Must Not Stand Alone” in the September 19, 1970, issue of the Manhattan Tribune in which he wrote that this action belied the PFLP’s statements that it was anti-Zionist and not anti-Semitic.
Innis’s attacks on the PFLP were enough to cause others in CORE to worry about how the black public might react. A CORE spokesperson noted thereafter that Innis’s comments were “not pro-Jewish or anti-Arab.” Continuing, the spokesperson said that CORE “was in favor of the Arabs doing things in a fashion which everybody should subscribe to, be he black, white, Jewish, green or purple.” Fluctuating between traditional and more radical positions on other issues, CORE leaders could not seem to arrive at a consistent position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The varied and sometimes confused stances adopted by the NAACP, the National Urban League, and CORE illustrate several dilemmas these groups faced, as well as their envisioning of black identity and politics in America. All of them remained committed to improving the lot of African Americans by working with white allies within the American socioeconomic and political systems in nonviolent ways. As the 1960s wore on, their vision and their allies began to slip away. These groups struggled to remain relevant in a post– civil rights era. They also faced increasingly vocal Black Power critiques that called for drastically changing the American system, not working within it, and identifying with Third World peoples. Finally, they suffered from the growing white—particularly, Jewish—backlash as the black freedom struggle moved to the North, replete with violent urban insurrections and sharp denunciations of everything from American capitalism and foreign policy to Israel and Zionism.
For all the expressions of support emanating from the NAACP and the National Urban League, the traditional civil rights personage who mounted the most public and vigorous defense of Israel in the face of Black Power attacks and in service to the beloved community of blacks and Jews working together for the rights of all was the venerable Bayard Rustin, and he did so with great vim and vigor.
Bayard Rustin and the Pro-Israeli Counterattack
It had seemed like a good idea at the time to Bayard Rustin. By mid-1970, the fifty-eight-year-old socialist, pacifist, labor advocate, and civil rights activist had participated in some of the most famous campaigns and events of the civil rights movement. He was also a passionate supporter of Israel, called by some “Israel’s man in Harlem.” Placing a strongly pro-Israel advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post signed by dozens of prominent black Americans would go far in counteracting hostile Black Power attacks on Israel that emerged in 1967, he thought, and would in the process help frayed blackJewish relations by showing Jews that pro-Arab blacks did not speak for most African Americans. Apparently, after drafting a statement and obtaining all the signatures, Rustin added a final section that called on the administration of President Richard Nixon to accede to Israel’s request to purchase state-of-the-art American military aircraft.
The advertisement engendered a host of responses. American Jewish groups were thrilled with it. Others, however, expressed visceral hostility. Among the criticisms thrown at Rustin by some pacifist comrades of old was that he had betrayed his nonviolent heritage by calling for sales of aircraft to Israel. Black Power activists were livid for what they considered his “Uncle Tom” groveling to gain the approval of Jews. Additionally, at least two of the signatories, a member of Congress and an important civil rights figure, complained that the text was not the same as what they had approved prior to publication.
Overall, Rustin weathered the criticism and was pleased with what the advertisement had accomplished. But later in life, he confided that adding the sentence about the sale of jets to Israel had been a mistake. How had it come to this? Why was Rustin so committed to the Jewish state that he had placed the advertisement in the first place, not to mention amending the text at the last minute in a way that angered some notable friends and allies and seemed so at odds with his own pacifist background?
If other traditional civil rights leaders and groups were not always certain about how to address the Arab-Israeli conflict, or tried to avoid speaking out on the topic, the attitude of Bayard Rustin stood in marked contrast: he charged right into the fray with a spirited, public, and long-lasting defense of Israel in the face of black attacks. For this and other reasons Rustin was despised by Black Power activists. Rustin was certainly no stranger to criticism and controversy by the time he took up Israel’s cause in the late 1960s. A homosexual black man who was a pacifist, labor activist, socialist, and civil rights activist, he had done much over his varied and active career to upset friend and foe alike as he fought for peace and equal rights. “He had,” recalled his friend and fellow pacifist David McReynolds, “paid his dues.”
Rustin’s early career as an activist was steeped in the tradition of nonviolent resistance. He was imprisoned by the American government during the Second World War for refusing to serve in the military and traveled to India in 1948 to study the discipline of nonviolence with some of the followers of Mohandas K. Gandhi. Rustin also worked for the pacifist group the War Resisters League in the late 1950s. Moreover, he was a leader of the early civil rights struggle. He helped to form CORE in 1942 and, later, worked with Martin Luther King Jr. to establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Rustin was close to labor activist A. Philip Randolph and organized the famous August 1963 March on Washington, at which both Randolph and King spoke. It is difficult to overstate Rustin’s importance on the world of nonviolent direct action, both in the wider pacifist sense and the more specific case of nonviolence during the civil rights era.
But Rustin began moving away from direct-action activism and toward the conventional political realm in about 1964, focusing particularly on building coalitions and working through the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO to address blacks’ socioeconomic problems—something he called moving “from protest to politics.” Beginning in 1965, Rustin based his work out of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, which he founded with the institute’s namesake that same year along with financial support from the AFL-CIO. It was the beginning of a rightward turn that ended up baffling many of his former associates.
Among Rustin’s many passions was an interest in Jewish issues and Israel. Years later, David McReynolds recalled that Rustin’s deep feeling about Jews came from the fact that he identified with them as an oppressed people. Beyond that, Rustin had long associated with Jewish liberals in his political work, civil rights activism, and labor efforts and had built particularly strong ties with Jews and Jewish groups over the years. He also had visited Israel. Not only did Rustin disagree strongly with Black Power, however; he could not stand its attacks on Israel and Zionism, and he feared these would rupture the liberal black-Jewish coalition he was committed to expanding.
Rustin therefore had little sympathy with SNCC and its increasingly radical orientation that emerged in 1966. Gene Guerrero, chair of the Southern Student Organizing Committee, recalled attending a “disturbing” fund-raising meeting in New York around that time at which Rustin railed against SNCC. Guerrero met with Rustin and two people close to him—the venerable Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party of America, and Tom Kahn, a member of the League for Industrial Democracy. Thomas and Kahn said nothing, Guerrero recalled, but Rustin pounded the table in anger when talking about SNCC, saying it had become a dangerous organization.21 Not surprisingly, then, Rustin blasted SNCC during the newsletter controversy. In a statement released to the press on August 15, 1967, he stated he was “appalled and distressed by the anti-Semitic article.”
After several years of Black Power attacks on Israel, Rustin was deeply concerned by 1970. Exacerbating his angst was the fact that the black-Jewish relations that already were frayed by the mid-1960s had worsened after 1967. In the midst of their relief and joy at Israel’s perceived salvation, Jews were mortified to see blacks attack Israel as the aggressor in the war and hold up the Arabs as victims of Israeli imperialism. For many American Jews, black support for the Palestinians and concomitant denunciations of Israel first leveled by SNCC and the National Conference for New Politics in the summer of 1967 were disturbing because they evoked deep-set fears about their own security as a minority community in America. Moreover, the massive black uprisings in Los Angeles in August of 1965, both Detroit and Newark in July 1967, and dozens of cities in April of 1968 had seen many Jewish-owned businesses looted and burned. These events precipitated a wave of fear among those Jews who continued to live and work in black areas of other American cities. Adding further fuel to the fire were tensions in 1968 in the largely black Ocean Hill–Brownsville school district in Brooklyn, New York. Conflicts there between a new locally controlled black school board and the United Federation of Teachers led to strike actions by mostly white teachers, a large percentage of whom were Jewish. The strikes in the fall of 1968 spread and involved teachers throughout the New York City public school system.
Bayard Rustin therefore had reason to worry by 1970 about Jews abandoning ongoing political work with blacks. His vision of black identity and his future place in America were threatened, and he decided to take forceful, if controversial, action to prove to Jews that not all blacks echoed Black Power attacks on Israel. The erstwhile pacifist decided on a public relations campaign to urge the United States to supply Israel with advanced weapons. Rustin’s fullthroated, public offensive on behalf of the Jewish state was aimed as much at showing American and Israeli Jews that some blacks were on their side, and therefore part of the liberal mainstream, as it was trying to influence American politicians to back the Jewish state fully.
Something else motivated Rustin to publish his newspaper advertisement on behalf of Israel in mid-1970. The first half of 1970 saw the Republican administration of President Richard Nixon exert great efforts to create a framework for Arab-Israeli peace in the form of the Rogers Plan, named after Secretary of State George Rogers. Rogers spent several months in 1969 trying to broker an end to the Egyptian-Israeli fighting along the Suez Canal known as the “War of Attrition.” The Israelis were strenuously opposed to some of Rogers’s ideas, which to them meant making important concessions to Egypt without securing any binding concessions in return. American Jewish groups leapt to Israel’s defense. Two dozen such organizations met in Washington on January 25, 1970, under the auspices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to express their concern with the plan. The president of the Zionist Organization of America, Jacques Torczyner, denounced Nixon’s policy as “appeasement” of the Arabs.
As part of Rogers’s efforts, the Nixon administration later announced in March of 1970 that it was holding up Israel’s request for additional American-made military aircraft. In part this was to discourage the Soviet Union from providing even more weapons to Egypt than it already had in the years following the disastrous Egyptian defeat in 1967. Yet Jewish groups found the news about delaying the shipment of planes to Israel highly disconcerting. When Soviet pilots actually began flying aircraft painted in Egyptian colors in combat patrols a few weeks later, both the Israelis and their American Jewish advocates again jumped into action to lobby for delivery of the aircraft.
With this background in mind, we can begin to understand why Rustin suddenly decided to swerve from his labor and civil rights work in mid-1970 to assist the diplomatic efforts of both Israelis and American Jews by harnessing his pedigree, and that of “respectable” American blacks, to the offensive against the Rogers initiative and the withholding of aircraft for Israel. His solution was to place a full-page advertisement in the New York Timesand the Washington Post calling for the administration to support Israel, a statement that would be signed by a number of prominent black Americans. Rustin hoped it would not only help the Israelis and their American Jewish supporters but also go far in repairing black-Jewish relations that had been damaged by Black Power advocates’ attacks on Israel.
These various themes were stated clearly in the letter that the A. Philip Randolph Institute sent to prominent American blacks on June 12, 1970, soliciting their agreement to lend their names to the advertisement. The letter, mailed under Randolph’s signature, told recipients that the United States must take a role in creating Middle East peace but only in such a way that was “consistent with the democratic values upon which we have based our own struggle in America”; in other words, American efforts to bring about Middle East peace must be solidly pro-Israeli. Randolph’s letter stated that he was encouraging potential supporters of the advertisement to speak out in defense of Israel’s right to exist as the most democratic country in the Middle East. The letter also noted that Israel had helped black African nations, certainly more than the Arabs had.
Beyond encouraging diplomatic support for Israel in advance of when Rogers was set to issue his final plan later in the fall of 1970, the Randolph letter also stated clearly Rustin’s other main objective: to repair black-Jewish relations by showing that some blacks were not supportive of Black Power stances on Israel. Randolph wrote: “Such an advertisement is also important from the point of view of the relationship of the black and Jewish communities in America. In the past few years there have been some tensions between these two communities which have negatively affected the attitudes of a minority of blacks toward Israel… . It is in the interests of both groups [blacks and Jews] that the ties that bind them be nourished, not severed.” This concern was kept quiet; a press release issued two days before the advertisement appeared mentioned nothing about this last point.
Rustin solicited funds for the expensive advertisement from sympathetic Jewish supporters, and the broadside eventually appeared in the June 28, 1970, issues of the New York Times and the Washington Post. It was titled “An Appeal by Black Americans for United States Support to Israel” and advocated full support to Israel. While not directly mentioning the Rogers initiative, it made clear that the signers were solidly behind Israel and were calling on the United States to act in such a way that would be “unequivocally guaranteeing Israel’s security.” The statement then revealed the signers’ faith in Israel as the Middle East’s only example of a democracy and thus eminently worthy of American support.
The advertisement also stated that the signers were concerned about the Palestinian refugees but with important political caveats. It did not use the term Palestinian; it implied that the signers knew what the “real interests” of the refugees were, and it claimed that the “real” interests of the Arab world were not political but socioeconomic.
The advertisement then veered into an attack on Black Power critiques of Israel:
Some Americans, including a small minority of blacks, have expressed the feeling that the Middle East crisis is fundamentally a racial conflict between nonwhite Arabs and white Israelis. We think that this point of view is not only uninformed but dangerously misleading. It ignores the fact that approximately half the Jewish Israeli population consists of immigrants from Asia and Africa [i.e., Mizrahi/Sephardic Jews]. And it also implies that there is an inherent solidarity of nonwhite people… . We should add in this regard that Israel, with its impressive program of foreign technical aid, has contributed far more than any of its Arab enemies to the development of black African nations.
It then drove home that black support for Israel was consistent with the black freedom struggle: “We, therefore, support Israel’s right to exist for the same reasons that we have struggled for freedom and equality in America.”
The final sentence of the advertisement that Rustin added at the last minute contained a political bombshell. It pointedly stated: “For the present this means providing Israel with the full number of jet aircraft it has requested.” This statement represented a serious break with Rustin’s pacifist background and would prove to be the most controversial portion of the advertisement, coming as it did in the midst of the Nixon administration’s dithering about when to deliver the planes. The advertisement also included a section that readers could cut out, sign, and return to the A. Philip Randolph Institute indicating that they had sent President Nixon a letter urging him to send the aircraft to Israel and “bring the Israelis and the Arabs to the conference table.” It also solicited a financial contribution.
Rustin managed to secure sixty-four signatures for the advertisement, including his and Randolph’s. The signers ran the gamut of black American life, from politicians to athletes, from clergymen to labor leaders, and from civil rights leaders to publishers and academics. Political figures included United States Representatives Shirley Chisholm, William L. Clay, John Conyers Jr., Charles C. Diggs, Augustus F. Hawkins, and Louis Stokes. Famed former baseball player Jackie Robinson signed. So did state and local politicians such as Georgia M. Davis, Richard Hatcher, Leroy R. Johnson, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Basil A. Paterson, and Carl Stokes. Civil rights figures such as Ernest Green, Vernon E. Jordan, John Lewis, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young lent their support. Business and publishing leaders joined academics in lending their names, as did clergymen such as Thomas Kilgore Jr., Martin Luther King Sr., Wyatt Tee Walker, and William J. Walls. Rustin later claimed that what motivated these people to sign was their solidarity with the “progressive ideals and values which a nation like Israel represents.” The black mainstream was fighting back vigorously against Black Power and its pro-Palestinian internationalism. The battle for black identity had been joined.
Reactions to Rustin’s Advertisement
The Jewish reaction to Rustin’s advertisement was immensely positive, bordering on giddy. This was not a surprise given that Jewish organizations and donors had paid for some of its cost. The venerable left-wing Yiddish newspaper Morgen Freiheit opined in its July 1, 1970, issue that Rustin’s advertisement “must be strongly greeted” as a good antidote to “extremists” who want to depict the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of a black struggle in America and an African struggle against imperialism. I. L. “Si” Kenen, vice chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Israel’s main public relations man in the United States, waxed effusive in a letter to Rustin in which he described the advertisement as a “remarkable achievement” and assured him that “we are deeply grateful to you.”
Eager to champion his efforts on behalf of Israel and black-Jewish amity, Rustin wrote to Israeli prime minister Golda Meir shortly after the statement appeared telling her that more than eight hundred people had filled out the mail-in coupon to President Nixon that accompanied the ad (calling on him to provide the aircraft to Israel). Rustin also was sure to mention the other reason why he had carried out this initiative. “I hope,” he wrote, “that the ad will also have an effect on a serious domestic question: namely, the relations between the Jewish and Negro communities of America… . I hope that the ad will help to heal the divisions between the two groups so that their important alliance for social justice can be maintained.”
In contrast to Jewish responses to Rustin’s advertisement, black reactions varied. One of the midwestern congressional representatives who signed the statement later admitted that he had signed it for political purposes: “fifteen percent of my constituency is Jewish.” Another politician who did not sign applied that same reasoning in reverse, saying, “twenty-five per cent of the people I represent are Klansmen. Would that be an excuse to support their priorities?” In the black press thirteen newspapers carried the full ad. Three of them—the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Louisville Defender—praised it. Two others—the Afro-American and the San Francisco Sun Reporter—were critical of Rustin’s efforts. The latter paper opined, “In the event the ads were subsidized by non-Blacks, then these 60 individuals described as ‘Black Leaders’ have become tools in the world-wide propaganda campaign of the hawks in the Golda Meir regime in Israel.”
The advertisement elicited a torrent of outrage and complaints from ordinary blacks sympathetic to Black Power. For them, Rustin had become the epitome of an Uncle Tom, a docile “negro” willing to do anything to please white people and secure their friendship and financial aid, as opposed to being a proud and independent “black” man. Rustin in their eyes was nothing more than a Zionist toady trying to harness the black freedom struggle for Israel’s needs instead of standing up for issues near and dear to blacks in America. Phiefer L. Browne of New York wrote as much to Rustin: “You are the type of Negroes who are considered sell-outs and ‘Uncle Toms,’ ” Browne accused Rustin and his cosignatories, “because you are more concerned with the security of a people thousands of miles away than with the oppression of blacks here and in Africa.”
John Grimes and Evelyn Nixon were two others who wrote to Rustin in a similar vein: “We find it impossible to recommend support of Israel because such support would create further oppression of Blacks,” referring to peoples of color overseas. They also laid into Rustin: “It is the epitome of Uncle Tomism in all its negative connotations to support your Great White Father in his further oppression of Blacks… . America has presumed to set up a white watchdog in this Black stronghold to insure that oil will be regulated to American industries. Israel’s geopolitical position separates Asia and Africa and insures imperialist supervision of natural resources on both continents.” The two then offered some unsolicited advice to Rustin about “Uncle Tomism”: “It is time that we no longer serve as tools for white politicians. We must begin to have opinions that are in our interests and to say what we feel and not what our oppressors want to hear.”
Beyond sending angry letters, some Black Power advocates enacted resolutions and made statements denouncing Rustin. At an August 1970 conference at Howard University in Washington, Jomo Logan of the New York–based African Americans for Friendship and Retainment of Our Image, Culture and Arts (A.F.R.I.C.A.) offered a resolution entitled “A Resolution by African americans [sic] Condemning the Appeal by So-called Black Leaders Calling for United States Support to Israel,” which ripped into Rustin and his fellow signatories for betraying their race: “It is pathetic that in this day and time these so-called elite Blacks are unsympathetic to the implications of their endorsement of Israel and to the negative meaning it has for all people of African descent.” It, too, accused Rustin of “uncle tomming to appease Jewish interests [and] must be considered an act of ABSOLUTE TREASON against the BLACK RACE.” The conference adopted Logan’s resolution unanimously.
Another denunciation of Rustin came from the Republic of New Afrika (RNA). The RNA emerged from a March 1968 conference called by the Malcolm X Society in Detroit that proposed creating an independent black country called the Republic of New Afrika in the present-day states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. Shortly after Rustin’s advertisement appeared, Ray Nero, minister of information for the RNA’s consulate in New York, published “An Appeal to Reason: A Message to the Negroes Who Support Israel.” It called Rustin and his cosigners “naive” for believing that by supporting Israel, the United States was supporting democracy and justice in the Middle East. Nero wrote that “their statement signed by ‘non-violent’ Negroes, ‘pacifist’ Negroes, and ‘good Christian’ Negroes…only endorses more criminal acts against the Arab population.”
Nero also castigated them for urging nonviolence at home at the same time they were urging America to send military hardware to Israel. “More jets to an already militarily superior people does not seem in line with a policy of nonviolence,” Nero’s statement said, adding: “They say that more jets will ‘…guarantee Israel’s right to exist as a nation.’ Do they think more of the right to exist on stolen land than they do of their own right to exist here? What is to guarantee our right to exist here when faced with…mace, riot tanks and shot guns?” Finally, Nero blasted Israel for its treatment of fellow “colored people”: “Israel continue[s] to annex Arab land, expel its inhabitants, deny political rights to those born and raised there, and force the growth of refugee camps. It was Israel that forced a move for survival and dignity. It is only justice the Palestinians want, but they will not bury their dignity to get it.”
James Lawson and his Harlem Council for Economic Development also denounced Rustin and the statement he engineered and published. Lawson established the United African Nationalist Union in 1948 and long was involved in labor and black nationalist causes. He chided Rustin by writing that the estimated $10,000 it took to publish the statement in the New York Times and the Washington Post could have been spent on a revolving loan fund for black businesses, ten $1,000 scholarships for black students, or as a down payment on a cooperative. Besides, he said, “no Black man is rich enough to afford a quarter [of a dollar] for the Zionists! The Zionists are already rich and influential.” Lawson also offered a color analysis of the Arab-Israeli conflict: “Furthermore, how can those who pretend to be of African extraction advocate war machines to a predominantly white nation (Israel) to destroy their own kind? Many Arabs are Black and African! It is ironical, and tragic, that a group of ‘Negroes’ would take this course against their own kind.” Black Power advocates clearly were fighting back.
Much as Black Power groups had done, traditional civil rights organizations publicly took sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s and 1970s in ways that reflected their own respective ideological positions on questions of black identity and political action in America. Organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League, and individuals like Bayard Rustin, were reformers, not revolutionaries, and not surprisingly they denounced the Palestinians and stood squarely behind Israel as a sign of their fealty to a multiethnic vision of measured civil rights gains. Rustin’s efforts on behalf of Israel provoked a viscerally hostile response on the part of blacks who viewed the Jewish state as the enemy of a fellow country of color, Palestine. Interestingly, the dean of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr., was much more conflicted and nuanced about what he said about the Arab-Israeli conflict in public. His hesitance reflected his own efforts at projecting a certain image and a certain vision of black political activity.