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I grew up with grandparents and parents whose memories I bless every day. My grandparents, Eastern European Jewish immigrants, spoke fluent Yiddish, as did my father. I miss the rich use of that language. But there was one Yiddish word I came to detest.
It was the word “schvartze”. Literally, the word meant “black.” But it was used in a way that had a most derisive and bigoted connotation.
My mother was a model of racial tolerance, and she absolutely refused to use the word “schvartze.” When I heard people of my parents’ or grandparents’ generation use the word “schvartze,” I would object immediately. The greatest American hero of my lifetime was, is, and always will be Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. His endurance and struggle against virulent racism on and off the baseball field was the leading inspiration for my involvement in the Civil Rights movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once told former Brooklyn Dodger great pitcher Don Newcombe, it was the struggle and triumph of Jackie Roosevelt Robinson over the most virulent racism of white racist players and fans in the 1940’s and 1950’s that paved the way for King’s later triumphs in the civil rights arena in the 1960’s. And I will always bless the memory of the late Dr. King as well for his firm and unwavering support for the survival and security of the State of Israel.
I had this in mind in September, 1969 when I took part in a civil rights march in downtown Pittsburgh protesting the local builders trade unions’ discrimination against admission of prospective African-American construction workers.
I had the good fortune that day to march next to former Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers great running back John Henry Johnson. When we reached the site of a tall office building then under construction, we had objects thrown at us from above by white construction workers. Being next to John Henry Johnson, I wasn’t fearful in the event of an outbreak of violence.
When I got home that evening, my mother was fully in support of my march participation. In the weeks that followed, however, I often got a different reaction from other members of the Jewish community both inside and outside my extended family. It was more often than not expressed with the words, “Why do you help the schvartzes, Alan? Concentrate on helping your own people.”
By this point, I would find the use of the word “schvartze” to be absolutely repugnant. And years later, when Jewish comedian Jackie Mason referred to former New York City Mayor David Dinkins as “ a fancy schvartze with a mustache,” I found it to be absolutely disgusting and repulsive.
Recently there has been justifiable outrage in New Jersey regarding the use of the phrase, “Jew ‘em down” by African-American municipal council members Michael Jackson in Paterson and Kathy McBride in Trenton. I find use of this phrase by African-Americans to be just as reprehensible as the use by Jews of the Yiddish word “schvartze.”
Jackson used the phrase “Jew us down” at a public council meeting in addressing businessmen regarding the value of property slated for redevelopment.
McBride, the president of the Trenton council, noted in a council nonpublic executive session that her city’s assistant attorney was able to settle a personal injury claim against Trenton at a lower amount because he was “able to wait her (the plaintiff) out and Jew her down.”
Yet I find even more deplorable the attempt of McBride’s fellow African-American Trenton Councilwoman Robin Vaughn to rationalize Councilwoman McBride’s use of the phrase, “Jew’em down.” While McBride subsequently apologized for her antisemitic comment, Vaughn attempted to excuse it by saying that the term “Jew down” was a verb meaning to negotiate fiercely, and in no way a hateful term. This is a defense of bigoted language as specious and cynical as the defense by some Jews of the word, “schvartze” by noting that the literal definition of the word is “black.”
Vaughn’s statement in defense of McBride was even more offensive than McBride’s initial antisemitic comment. The term “Jew ‘em down” has been used in America for over a century in stereotyping Jews as Shakespearean Shylock fraudulent merchants and traders and usurious bankers who attempt by deception to charge excessive prices, impose onerous interest rates, or pay less than fair value for goods, services, and labor. By making such a sham and unconscionable defense of McBride, Vaughn displayed both deplorable ignorance and vile antisemitism on her own part. (She apologized earlier today).
The bigoted public rhetoric of Jackson, McBride, and Vaughn comes on the heels of the firing of Jeffrey Dye, the Passaic County NAACP president and political ally of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who lost his job at the Department of Labor after issuing a series of racist and anti-Semitic social media comments.
All this constitutes a source of shame for the State of New Jersey, which justifiably prides itself on being the state of its greatest Republican governor, Tom Kean, who set forth the vision of the Politics of Inclusion, which would never condone expressions of bigotry and intolerance on the part of its public officials.
In my column of July 22, 2019,, “To Donald Trump: Stop Using Israel as a Rationale for Your Race War” (https://www.insidernj.com/donald-trump-stop-using-israel-rationale-race-war/), I noted that Jewish-African American relations, after decades of tension appear to be improving markedly. The public antisemitic disgraceful episodes of Jackson, McBride, and Vaughn must not be allowed to impede this continued progress.
In this era of racist and antisemitic white nationalism enabled and condoned by Donald Trump, Jews and African-Americans face a common danger. The vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jackie Roosevelt Robinson should always inspire us Jews and African-Americans to walk together and motivate us to repudiate expressions of bigotry amidst the members of our own respective communities.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.