Georgetown professor discusses topics explored in his book, ‘Blacks and Jews in America’ at QU

David Matos, Associate Arts & Life Editor

Dr. Terrence L. Johnson, associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University, discussed the complex relationship between Jewish and Black people in America during a dialogue event on April 5. Photo by (Daniel Passapera)

Having meaningful discussions on difficult topics can be challenging but necessary, especially on the correlation between Black and Jewish people in America.

Quinnipiac University’s Department of Cultural and Global Engagement and the Peter C. Hereld House for Jewish Life hosted a dialogue with Dr. Terrence L. Johnson, an associate professor of religion and politics at Georgetown University, in the Echlin Center’s Kresge Lecture Hall on April 5.

Reena Judd, the university rabbi, welcomed guests and expressed her initial experience learning about Johnson and his newest book at the beginning of the presentation.

“Three years ago in the summer, I was watching my favorite morning TV show with Gayle King and I heard this really interesting guy talking about Blacks and Jews,” Judd said. “Most of you know me, I just love the topic of Blacks and Jews. It’s electrifying to me. And Dr. Terrance Johnson was talking about his upcoming book, ‘Blacks and Jews in America,’ and I had this professional fantasy that I would bring him to my school and he would give his presentation.”

“Blacks and Jews in America: An Invitation to Dialogue,” written by Johnson and Jacques Berlinerbiau, a professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown, acts as a conversational piece between the professors as they broke down the heavy history between Black and Jewish Americans.

From the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter Movement, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Black anti-semitism to Jewish racism, the book features a series of interviews and essays on the common relationship between the two groups.

“Jews and Blacks, unlike any other groups in America, have been forced into a certain kind of relationship or set of conversations,” Johnson said. “In part because I don’t think there are any other two groups that have been put together and talked about in a very similar way.”

Johnson said Black and Jewish groups are differentiated by the bodies they were born into, something that is uncontrollable. Because of this, Black and Jewish people have suffered great discrimination from other groups in the U.S., like the Catholic Church, which has twisted the way Jewish and Black Americans are perceived and treated in the Church’s teachings.

“It has everything to do with their bodies,” Johnson said. “Jews are discriminated against and have been murdered in part because of something about their blood is tainted. Catholicism taught us that Jews are dirty. So, therefore, they should handle the money, and so they were forced to handle money.”

Johnson expressed that both Black and Jewish groups have had to confront the concept that physical attributes, like the color of someone’s skin, for example, are linked to false narratives.

“For African Americans, their very Blackness is a sign of their inhumanity or their kind of moral bankruptcy, and both groups that had tried to figure out how do we deal with this idea that our flesh is in many ways tainted,” Johnson said.

Johnson previously taught a class at Georgetown called “Blacks and Jews,” which stemmed from two students, one Palestinian and one Jewish, who wanted to start a reading group on the controversial topics intertwined with the histories of the two groups.

Johnson said though colleagues enjoyed speaking on the subject, many students didn’t just want the class to be a simple discussion on the material but “to actually then do something in an independent, profound way.”

“For a lot of academics, it’s difficult to move from theory to actual practice,” Johnson said. “And the Jewish and Black kids said, ‘Look, we see a connection here that we never knew before.’” 

He vocalized that many of his Jewish students saw the alliance between both groups as they share a history of oppression. However, his African American students failed to see the correlation as they saw their Jewish peers as “simply white.”

“We tried to complicate the history of Blacks and Jews and said, ‘Look, there’s a complicated way in which America created this kind of race project that both groups found difficult but also became conversation partners,’” Johnson said.

Johnson said having discussions on profound subject matters that are rarely discussed due to their controversial nature, like the ones on Blacks and Jews in America, can lead to topical discoveries.

“I want to argue that if we can actually have these difficult conversations around religion and politics that particularly deal with Blacks and Jews, we might actually sort of get some of the core issues,” Johnson said.