Thursday, December 30, 2010

1968: Destruction in Chicago and the Birth of West Bank Settlements - Part 1

Martin Luther King addressing a crowd about school segregation
Chicago - July, 1965
Where did all the Jewish lefties go? Jews feature prominently in the annals of American socialism and progressive activism. From Emma Lazarus to Saul Alinsky, from the sweatshops of the Lower East Side to the communes of the 60s, Jews were at the forefront of progressive politics.
Much has been written about the Jewish neocons and about how success has moved Jews to the right.
One of the unhealed wounds in the Jewish narrative is the exodus to the suburbs in the 50s and 60s. The so-called "white flight" from America's cities involved Jews in a particular way. Rabbi Robert Marx, a well-known progressive activist in Chicago from that era (and beyond) recommended Dr. Beryl Satter's book, "Family Properties" to me. She is an historian. Her book is well written and is thoroughly researched. But this book also reads like a thriller. Dr. Satter follows the trail of her father, an activist lawyer and landlord on Chicago's West Side who died prematurely of stress-related heart disease. Satter tries to piece together her father's life, tracking how he became the victim of his own idealism and circumstances.

What I found compelling about the book was how she depersonalizes loaded issues. Satter describes how individuals became enmeshed in much greater forces, particularly institutional racism. During the 50s and 60s, federal agencies regulated a racist system against Blacks. This took decades to undo.  Anecdotally, my experience is that Jews tend to remember Black violence and the destruction of solid, middle class by Black homeowners and tenants. Satter shows how Whites' collective memory of the inner city riots is highly selective. Whites do not remember the extensive, officially tolerated White attacks on Blacks. Rampaging white hordes received police protection as Blacks were intimidated and Black property was attacked. A universal principle applies here. Just as in Israel/Palestine and British Raj India, the onus of non-violence was placed entirely on the oppressed minority. Any occurrence of Black violence dominates our memories. All the White violence - which was far more prevalent and was backed by racist government and business policies - was deleted from the White narrative.
Rabbi Marx tells me how anti-Semitism played into the tragedy that Whites know as "white flight." The WASP establishment knowingly directed the Black migration from the South to Jewish neighborhoods such as Lawndale on the West Side of Chicago. Their assumption was that Jews were the only minority that would tolerate racial integration. This brought Blacks and Jews into conflict. Jews became the interface between the African-Americans and non-Black Chicago.

The most inflammatory federal policy was the infamous "redlining." A neighborhood block had to be 100% White to receive the highest credit rating. As soon as one Black family moved in, the entire block was downgraded. Entire communities of White lower middle class Catholics saw their hard-earned equity evaporate overnight. The so-called "blockbusters" who brought in Black families to White blocks were vilified by the White community.

Westlawn and other West Side and South Side neighborhoods became almost 100% African-American in a few years. Jews fled northward to the north side of Chicago and to the far north suburbs of the city.

Chicago 1968 riots
The climax was 1968, with the the assassination of Martin Luther King. King had moved from Alabama to Chicago in 1965 from Alabama to establish a base for the northern States. His assassination in April 1964 triggered massive riots hat lasted for days. Mayor Daley called in thousands of national guardsman. 28 city blocks were destroyed in the fired and violence. The physical scars are visible to this in the city's vacant lots. Lawndale was etched in White consciousness as a place too dangerous to visit.

For Jews (and other White people), the memory of that time shaped their relationship to the city as they escaped from the city's melting pot to White suburbia.

In part 2, I will suggest how the Jews flight from the city has shaped American Jewish attitudes to Israel.

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