Relations between Jews and African Americans have reached memorable peaks and suffered through regrettable valleys.
Through the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition, the American Jewish Committee’s regional office has invested 37 years in supporting dialogue locally. The program’s endurance is a legacy of Sherry Frank’s tenure as regional director.
The coalition’s longevity is a tribute to the work started by long-time regional director Frank, and continued by her successors, Judy Marx and Dov Wilker.
Now Wilker, the regional director since 2011, has contributed to creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, a forum to support dialogue on Capitol Hill.
Several months ago, Wilker assumed an additional role as the AJC’s national director of black-Jewish relations. The position was created “in recognition that we needed to strengthen nationally our black-Jewish relations, but also because of the work that we do in Atlanta,” Wilker said.
In meetings with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the AJC asked, “What to them was the value of black-Jewish relations, what were priority issues for them, and what were the synergies,” Wilker said. “A lot of issues were discussed. We found the easiest unifiers around anti-Semitism in the U.S. and racism and bigotry in the U.S.”
The leader in creating the caucus was Rep. Brenda Lawrence, a Democrat from Michigan. “This doesn’t happen without her,” Wilker said.
In a statement to the AJT, Lawrence said, “In January, I spoke to a gathering of AJC advocates about the need to bring African Americans and Jews together — in Congress and around the country. I met with the CEO, David Harris, as well as Dov Wilker, the director of black-Jewish relations, and together we turned this idea into a reality. I’m happy to partner with AJC in an ongoing way on this vital initiative.”
Along with Lawrence, the African American co-chairs are Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Republican, and Rep. John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat (and a co-founder of the Atlanta Black-Jewish Coalition). The Jewish co-chairs are Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican, and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat.
The caucus was announced on the Hill June 3 by Lawrence and the AJC at its Global Forum in Washington, D.C.
Rep. Lucy McBath, the Democrat representing Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, joined the next day.
As of late June, the caucus had 25 members. The office of Rep. Hank Johnson, the Democrat representing Georgia’s 4th District, said that he hoped to be added to the roster before the House’s August recess.
One member who attracted attention by joining was Rep. Ilhan Omar, the Somali immigrant and Minnesota Democrat who has come under fire from some quarters of American Jewry (including caucus co-chair Zeldin) for comments seen as being anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel.
“This is not about Israel. The caucus serves a very specific purpose,” to deal with issues of hate directed at Jews and blacks in the United States, Wilker said. “The caucus can serve to help educate Jewish and black members and their staffs, and to generate support for legislation related to the priority issues.”
“It’s an historic moment for both the black and Jewish communities, to acknowledge that we have the opportunity to be together, to advocate together, to learn together. It’s unfortunate that these are the issues around which we have to come together,” Wilker said.
Asked where this ranks in his career, Wilker said, “To be able to be involved in the launching of a caucus that brings together black and Jewish elected officials, it’s at the top. I love telling people that this initiative just launched. It’s a great way to say that we recognize that black-Jewish relations have ebbed and flowed, but that this is a great time for this relationship.”
A second link from Atlanta’s Jewish community on the AJC team is Julie Fishman Rayman, since 2012 the D.C.-based director of political outreach. “I started my political journey campaigning for Michael Coles during his first congressional race in 1996. My mom used to drive me to campaign headquarters as it was before I got my license,” the Alpharetta native recalled.
Now the Atlanta coalition co-founded in 1982 by Sherry Frank, John Lewis and the late Cecil Alexander is linked to efforts by Wilker, Rayman, and the AJC and their colleagues to help foster black-Jewish dialogue in the nation’s capital in 2019.