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"The Negro Revolution and the Jewish Community"


Although he began his career as a professor of political science, Leonard Fein went on to play important roles in the Jewish community, especially in the areas of social action and building Jewish pride and knowledge. In 1974, he founded Moment Magazine, and eleven years later he founded Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger. On March 12, 1969, he addressed the Synagogue Council of America (an organization of American Synagogue associations) at Columbia University. His basic message was that the Jewish community had overreacted to black anti-Semitism. An excerpt from Fein's speech appears below.

Negro Revolution and the Jewish Community, Excerpt

…[T]he new Negro assertiveness is, in its best versions, an audacious effort to force America to come to grips with real diversity. That is an effort we ourselves have not had the nerve to undertake. If the effort is now successful, we ourselves are likely to be among its unintended beneficiaries, for in an America prepared, at last, for pluralism, there will be more elbow room for Jewish assertiveness.

Lest you think this entirely hypothetical, I enter into evidence the fact that at Cornell University, not many months ago, a thousand of the Jewish students on campus demanded a department of Modern Jewish Studies; the fact that at a dozen high schools around the country, students are complaining that their ancient history courses omit all mention of Palestine; or, more broadly, that the fundamentally patronizing character of the radical Jew who urges the black man to assert his identity but who is utterly uninterested in his own is so patent as to make that position simply not viable. The first hints that Jewish students, and radical Jewish students in particular, were coming to this recognition began to reach me some months ago. By now, the signs multiply almost daily, leading me to suggest that around the country, we have turned a corner, that Jewish students are learning to respect themselves as Jews by listening with care to what their black peers are saying. The lesson they are drawing is a lesson they did not, and, in fact, could not have learned from their own fathers, who have been so wrapped up in making Judaism easy that they have, on the whole, made it trivial as well.

Accordingly, it is a most serious error to confuse the ideological implications of the new Negro cohesiveness from its occasional anti-Semitic manifestations. There is no necessary linkage between the two, and to reject the one because of the other is to throw out the baby with the bath.

"The Negro Revolution and the Jewish Community," circa 1969. Synagogue Council of America Records; I-68; box 42; folder 12; American Jewish Historical Society, Newton Centre, MA and New York, NY.

Discussion Questions

  1. What does Fein mean by "Jewish assertiveness"? What does that look like?
  2. What does he say Jews are learning from blacks?
  3. Why do you think he says that Jews could not have learned this from their own community?
  4. Do you think Jews today respect themselves as Jews? Why or why not? What do you think it means to respect yourself as a Jew?
  5. What do you think Fein means that Jews have made Judaism "trivial"? What do you think it means to make Judaism "trivial"? Do you think the Jewish community today has this problem?
  6. Do you think Jews today are learning about their own identities/ethnic pride from other ethnic/racial/religious groups? If so, what is being learned?

Tableaux Vivants

With your group, plan two tableaux vivants ("living pictures" in French) that will help teach your classmates about the document you just discussed. What would a painting or photograph illustrating this document look like? Recreate that picture with members of your group stepping in as the characters represented.

  1. The first tableau vivant pose should illustrate "the way things were"—the circumstances that the activists wanted to change, (based on your document).
  2. The second pose should illustrate that change (based on your document). In the second pose, each member of your group should be clear who their character is, what role that character plays, and what s/he believes. (see below)

After completing your poses, you will be asked to communicate the following to your classmates about the document you discussed, while staying in character:

  • Who is Leonard Fein? What is the Synagogue Council of America? Who are you?
  • What concerns do you have?
  • Is your activism focused within the Jewish community or more about the broader community?
  • How, if at all, do you see your struggle as connected to the Civil Rights Movement?
  • How do you plan to bring about the change you want to see? (if known from the document)

You should also be prepared to answer other questions posed by other students in the class, while staying in character.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. ""The Negro Revolution and the Jewish Community"." (Viewed on December 11, 2019) <>.


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