How Do We Move Past History?

This is the last piece in Exodus and Equity: Reconciling the History of Minneapolis’ Jewish North Side, a series exploring how Twin Cities Jews were unwitting participants in racist real estate policies that shape today’s inequality in Minneapolis and other Midwestern American cities. In Minneapolis, that history is predominantly tied to two regions — Near North Minneapolis and St. Louis Park — and centered around civil unrest on Plymouth Avenue, in Near North, in the late 1960s.


Many words and several pieces later, the story of this series is full of dissonance for the Jewish community. 

American Jews overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Are more liberal than most other religious groups. Tend to speak with pride about Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement. And have an expectation, driven by the Civil Rights-era image of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King, Jr, that Jews and Black people are natural allies in the fight for equality. 

And yet, the Jewish community benefited from systemic inequality. It is thanks to racist real estate policies like covenants and redlining (which were also, for a time, aimed against Jews) that Jews in Midwestern cities like Minneapolis were able to move out of immigrant city neighborhoods, and into the affluent white suburbs.

After World War II the process of this movement ghettoized the neighborhoods that Jews left —  where Black Americans, fleeing the South, were trapped and exploited.

The legacy of these policies, ingrained as they were across federal, state, and local levels, continues. The ZIP codes that contain the childhood homes of elderly American Jews lead, today, to disenfranchised city neighborhoods — and to severe disparities between Black America and white America.

In the 20th century, Jewish liberalism did not matter. Nor did it matter that some Jews marched for Civil Rights.

In North Minneapolis, like elsewhere, real estate policies turned the Jewish community into a tool for Black disenfranchisement, anyway. And divided Jewish and Black Americans, even as the two communities continued organizing and collaborating for civil rights work.

And Minneapolis was hardly alone. Two of the key people in the rise of Jewish Community Action — co-founder State Rep. Frank Hornstein and Vic Rosenthal, the first full-time executive director — saw this same story play out in their hometowns.

“The story of the Jews leaving North [Minneapolis] is the story of white people leaving inner cities; my parents left the Bronx for Westchester,” Rosenthal said. “The story can be repeated elsewhere.”

For Hornstein, it happened in his native Cincinnati.

“There was blockbusting. And there was racism and fear and white flight. And, you know, that was happening everywhere,” he said. But his own research found minutes from JCRC meetings where the hat was passed to raise money to send African Americans to the March On Washington in 1963. 

“JCA is simply building on some of the priorities that the Jewish community had in the early to mid-60s on civil rights and housing,” Hornstein said.

But the dissonance of this story is also a guide to addressing the damage of systemic racism, and to moving past this history to strengthen the Black-Jewish relationship.

“There is something about the fact that, even though we’re talking about these large [policy] systems and structures, sometimes the best way to understand it is to feel it really personally,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of Jewish history at Temple University who wrote “Metropolitan Jews,” a book about the Jewish urban history of Detroit.

There are no easy or simple answers, however, on what to do with that understanding. In the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd, there are all kinds of ideas on how the Jewish community can reckon with its urban history.

At its most basic, understanding the way policies drive systemic inequality can help Jews address prejudice in the community, like the idea that Black people don’t work hard to reach success as Jews did.

“The way the narrative has gone is, ‘Blacks and Jews were both discriminated against, Jews were able to overcome that for various reasons, and Blacks were not,’” says Dr. Kirsten Delegard, a historian and co-founder of the Mapping Prejudice Project, which tracks the history of covenants in the Twin Cities area. “I hope that understanding more of this structural history will help people nuance [that narrative].”

Another idea of reckoning: Having a better sense of accountability in the Jewish community for Jews who actively benefit from systemic racism.

Though this series has focused on the policy-driven Jewish urban story of the 20th century, there continue to be Jewish realtors with shady practices, and Jews in other jobs behaving in unethical ways, taking advantage of today’s unequal policies across a range of fields.

Many of these Jews are prominent philanthropists and community members, and raise the uncomfortable question of just how much money from exploited Black families has flowed into Jewish communal infrastructure. 

(Lest Twin Cities Jews forget: Harvey Katzovitz, head of Hark Realty on Minneapolis’ North Side in the 1950s and 60s, was a board member of the Beth El Synagogue Men’s Club. Morris Klugman, another North Side realtor, was vice president of the Twin Cities B’nai Brith Council.)

“I think we need to be willing to critique the professions that people have taken on,” says Hannah Lebovits, a former member of the Cleveland Jewish community who is now a professor at the University of Texas-Arlington. “And I mean that really seriously. I think our rabbis, our community leaders, our lay leaders, our institutions need to speak more openly about which professions are kosher. Or how do you engage in a profession in a way that doesn’t exacerbate these systemic issues.”

Lebovits echoes the suggestion of a Jewish realtor in Detroit in the 1940s, whose appeal to local Jewish leadership was captured in Berman’s book “Metropolitan Jews.” The realtor’s concern? That he and his peers were sowing “dislike for the Hebrew people” among Black Americans, which would only get worse if Jewish leaders didn’t pressure the realtors to stop their exploitative practices.

Berman, reflecting on this anecdote, poses yet another way to reckon with urban history: Focusing Jewish communal advocacy against inequality on systemic policies.

“Basically what that real estate agent is saying is ‘Yes, I’m exploiting these African American homebuyers because I know that they will buy a house for a lot more money than other people…I’m not necessarily happy about this, but I’m operating in this system, right, so I’m not going to change the way that I, as an individual, operate, unless the system changes,’” Berman said. “He, in a sense, is pointing out, ‘I could rah-rah and say we’re better than this kind of behavior, or this kind of racism isn’t good, but unless we’re actually trying to overthrow this entire system, that just doesn’t matter.’”

It is here that Jewish urban history is, in a way, a microcosm for why systemic change is so slow in America. The dissonance of civil rights-supporting liberals accepting policies that create inequality still defines cities like Minneapolis — something former Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges wrote about in a recent New York Times op-ed, describing in part why the city has some of the largest Black-white disparities in the country.

“White liberals, despite believing we are saying and doing the right things, have resisted the systemic changes our cities have needed for decades,” Hodges wrote. “The white liberals I represented as a Council member and mayor were very supportive of summer jobs programs that benefited young people of color. I also saw them fight every proposal to fundamentally change how we provide education to those same young people. They applauded restoring funding for the rental assistance hotline. They also signed petitions and brought lawsuits against sweeping reform to zoning laws that would promote housing affordability and integration.”

Of course, Jews are only a fraction of white liberals, let alone the voting population of the Twin Cities or the United States. But in the conversation about Black-Jewish unity, the larger lesson of this urban history may simply be that it’s long past time for the Jewish community to be up-front with itself. 

However, it takes more than personal reflection to build a real discourse with the Black community about this history, said Steven Belton, president and CEO of the Twin Cities Urban League.

“Having this conversation internally is nothing but navel-gazing,” he said. “My advice is, if [the Jewish community] is going to engage on this path, is to stop immediately and go back and ask the question: Are you co-creating this? [Or] are you imposing this?”

A consistent challenge of Black-Jewish relations is “the assumption on the part of the Jewish community that they are the ones doing the helping and that we are the ones that are being helped,” Belton said. That attitude is patronizing, and at times makes the Black community unwilling to engage with Jewish priorities. 

Reconciling has to be a mutual process, and not one driven by Jewish guilt over an uncomfortable communal past.

“What’s our stake in doing this? And more importantly, what does the Jewish community value in the African American community from this engagement?” Belton said.

Navigating the reconciliation process — and Black-Jewish relations more broadly — will mean going beyond the typical collaboration of Black and Jewish organizations, to rebuild something both communities lost over 50 years ago when living together in North Minneapolis: Personal relationships.

“It’s a lot easier for you and I to write a manifesto and edit each other’s work to agree on this broad movement of policy and people than it is for you and me to sit down and have a beer, or coffee, or tea,” Belton said. “That, frankly, is what was lost in the 60s: Knowing each other by name.”

If we accept the proud legacy of Jews in the Civil Rights movement, then we have to accept the bitter facts of the community’s urban history, too. And learn to have more humility in our demands of the Black community — be it our demand for allyship in times of trouble, or our demand to know how to be allies.

“It’s understanding and admitting that we have benefitted from white supremacy as a people, as much as any other group of whites, and it doesn’t matter that Heschel marched with King,” says Russell Star-Lack, a recent graduate of Carleton College who studied the Jewish urban history of Minneapolis for his senior thesis.

“We don’t always get to be the heroes and the underdogs, and we are a part of the system,” he said. “And I really think that it’s only by recognizing that, that true allyship and a…reconciliation with people of color is possible for our community.”