The aroma of allspice wafted through the air as calypso melodies and gospel voices brought more than four dozen people to their feet, a typical community gathering in the heavily West Indian neighborhood of East Flatbush, Brooklyn.
But no one could remember a meeting like this happening before. Inside a former Seventh-day Adventist church, there were the beginnings of what some hope is a budding relationship between American blacks and Jews, with a major assist from some Christian Zionists.
The late October meeting was billed as “A Gathering of Solidarity with the State of Israel,” sponsored by Christians United for Israel, the biggest Christian Zionist group in the country.
Until relatively recently, “there wasn’t a voice for Christian Zionism in the black church,” said Pastor Michael Stevens, the African-American outreach coordinator for Christians United for Israel, speaking to the mostly West Indian crowd in Brooklyn.
“Because of that, you heard from Farrakhan, Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – they became the poster children for the African-American community as it related to black-Jewish relationships,” Stevens said. “If there is no outreach, this is all our community knows.”
Black leaders like Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan and Jackson have been sharply critical of Israel, decrying its treatment of Palestinians.
Stevens’ mission, by contrast, is to build a bridge between the nation’s black and Jewish communities based on support for Israel, partly by pointing out what he calls parallels between the two groups.
Christians United for Israel, which hired Stevens last year, isn’t alone in promoting the alliance.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has begun building relationships with rising leaders at historically black campuses like Spelman College and Morehouse College, both in Atlanta.
The outreach comes at a time when Israel has become increasingly isolated on the international stage and is looking for new allies.
“We’re pursuing these relationships now because Israel’s need is now,” Christians United for Israel Executive Director David Brog wrote in an e-mail. “It is only natural that the African-American church would be a part of our outreach.”
Jews and African-Americans share historical narratives of persecution and worked together during the political crusades of the 1960s. But after civil rights success, the ties between the two groups weakened, sometimes giving way to hostility and violence.
In Brooklyn, though, Stevens’ message seemed to be resonating.
“I’m black, and I can say we aren’t as united as the Jews,” said Denise Cooper of East Flatbush, a supporter of the Voices of Praise Ministry, which hosted the event. “We should learn from example. They look out for and protect their community, and we could use more of that in ours.”
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Heather M. Higgins