A shared history of oppression led Black and Jewish Americans to fight together for civil rights, particularly in the 1960s. And in many ways, the two groups have remained connected.
But lately, there’s evidence of mistrust, misunderstanding and anger on both sides and some of that mistrust is stoked by conspiracy theories and antisemitic and racist tropes circulated online.
Now, a grassroots effort led by three people in Denver is encouraging both groups to come together to create understanding and reconciliation and to help fight against misinformation spread by white nationalist groups.
“There has been a lot of coming together, but there has also been a lot of coming apart,” said Caren Press, a retired attorney, co-organizing an event Wednesday night that invites Denver’s Black and Jewish communities to discuss where their histories connect and diverge before they find ways to combat white supremacy. “Together, we need to figure out how we can move forward in a productive way.”
The free event, which will be held from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. in the library at George Washington High School in Denver, is co-organized by Press and Evan Weissman, who are Jewish, and Theo E.J. Wilson, who is Black.
The discussion will be led by Wilson, the director of Shop Talk Live, a nonprofit dedicated to educating and empowering Black people, and Weissman, director of Warm Cookies of the Revolution, an organization working to cause social change through art.
The idea to host Wednesday’s event came after rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, spewed antisemitic tropes online and on television, including one hateful comment encouraging Jewish people to forgive Adolph Hitler and another threatening members of the Jewish community. West’s long list of problematic remarks eventually got him suspended from Twitter and have caused several high-profile companies to sever business ties with him.
His rhetoric has also led to vandalism, harassment, intimidation and violence, under the “Ye Is Right” campaign, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.
In mid February, University of Denver leaders released a statement condemning antisemitic vandalism and theft in residential settings at the school. And last year in Colorado, there were 53 instances of antisemitism, 163 instances of white supremacist propaganda and one instance of extremist murder tallied by the Anti-Defamation League’s Hate, Extremism, Antisemitism, Terrorism map.
“This is happening now because there’s a real rise in white nationalism and white supremacy that has gotten to the point where now Jews can’t go to synagogues or meet without security present,” Press said. “Things have just felt scarier.”
The same need for security has been true for Black communities across the nation. In 2015, a young white man, who used a journal to detail his racist motivation to shoot Black parishioners at a Charleston, South Carolina, church, said during his murder trial that he did not regret his decision to kill nine people. In 2022, another white gunman killed 10 people and wounded three others in a racist attack at a grocery store in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York.
Although both share histories of oppression, tension still exists
Black people and Jewish people share histories of oppression, and are faced with constant threats from white nationalist groups who spew hate, and voice opinions about wanting to destroy, enslave or dehumanize both groups, Press said.
And while both groups have come together over the past few decades to fight together during many social and economic justice movements, the tension between them is still apparent, Weissman said.
“Racism shows up in an everyday systemic way and I think antisemitism can, too, but it often shows up in circumstances between individuals,” he said. “The divergence is, with white Jews in particular, they have had much more proximity to whiteness.”
There has been a lot of coming together, but there has also been a lot of coming apart.
— Caren Press, co-organizer
When Jewish people arrived in the United States en masse from the turn of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, they were treated as “something other,” Weissman said.
“Within a generation or two, their ability to (be viewed as) white — in most cases — has been a huge divergence,” he added. “White Jews, specifically, have to understand and acknowledge their white privilege while also recognizing where we’ve been victimized and continue to be victimized. But we have to also deal with how we as white Jews are aligned with white supremacy and everything that comes with that.”
Weissman said he plans to discuss conspiracy theories Wednesday night, such as one commonly used against Jewish people, such as that they are overly materialistic and collectively control the world’s finances.
Conspiracy theorists often point to the seemingly high number of Jewish people in powerful positions in Hollywood, Weissman said. “And that’s because people don’t understand the history.”
Jewish immigrants were excluded from securing many jobs when they arrived in the U.S. “So, you had to do things that weren’t (excluded), such as learning how to be a doctor, or learning the legal code, or working at banks or in the arts,” he said.
“Those were things that used to not be valued and those were the only things open to Jews,” he said. “So there’s explanations for some of these things, and if you don’t know some of those explanations and if someone presents you with white supremacist conspiracy theories and those are championed by someone like Kanye, it can seem very real and true.”
Rise in white supremacy is not slowing down
The storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, showed extremist leaders can mobilize large numbers of Americans to use force and intimidation to impose their political will, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit specializing in civil rights and public interest litigation.
The group coalesced for the attack on the Capitol now is one of the “most powerfully forces shaping politics in the United State,” the SPLC wrote in a 2021 report posted on its website.
White nationalist groups adopt white supremacist or white separatist ideologies, often focusing on the alleged inferiority of people who are not white. The Ku Klux Klan, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, racist skinheads and many other groups are considered white nationalists, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The rise in neo-fascist white supremacy is not slowing down and it won’t slow down because economic conditions have worsened and the scarcity mindset breeds hostility,” Wilson said.
“As long as the population of people registered as white continues to shrink, the hostility will continue to grow,” he said. “They’re going to become more interested than ever in pitting us against each other. And historically speaking, the divide and conquer tactic really, really works because when we’re unified, things happen. We saw how things shifted during the civil rights movement when both of these groups operated as one.”
Press said there will be security at Wednesday’s event and that she is worried about hateful rhetoric making its way into the conversation.
The divide and conquer tactic really, really works because when we’re unified, things happen. We saw how things shifted during the civil rights movement when both of these groups operated as one.
— Theo E.J. Wilson, co-organizer
“We’re going to be prepared for everything that we can prepare for. It’s hard to say how it will land,” Wilson said. “Our concern is truth and making sure that the truth is out there, regardless of what powerful interests may be against it, or who may be offended by it. The best you can do is use tact, use your words, and operate out of love. It’s the love for people that makes this conversation happen.”
Wilson and Weissman have been friends for about a decade and their friendship has blossomed partly through their shared love for acting and theater. Both have been open about their opinions on how Black people and Jewish communities can unite and why their relationships are fractured, said Wilson, who is the grandson of a Tuskegee Airman and the son of a historian who worked at the Black American West Museum.
“So I’m not going to say anything that surprises him and vice versa,” Wilson added. “And that is a key component here: There is a friendship between a Black guy and a Jewish guy who knows their stuff and this friendship is based in truth. So we’re exemplifying what’s possible here, and that’s why I think we’re the guys to have this conversation.”