November 26th, 2011
10:00 PM ET
By Heather M. Higgins, CNN
Brooklyn, New York (CNN) – 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.”
The Brooklyn gathering was one of two “solidarity” events Stevens hosted in New York last month.
Christians United for Israel was founded almost six years ago, organizing American churches, mostly in the white evangelical community, to actively support Israel.
The group has 850,000 members and says it has seen a significant recent increase in black participation, though it does not break membership numbers down by race.
From a podium draped with the Israeli flag, Stevens - the pastor of a Pentecostal church in Charlotte, North Carolina - rallied the East Flatbush crowd by making the argument for supporting Israel in biblical terms.
“God blesses those who bless Israel,” he said, asking the audience to link hands and bow their heads to pray.
Some evangelicals support Israel because they believe that its existence as a Jewish state will speed the arrival of the end times and Jesus' second coming.
A 2003 Pew poll found that "Roughly half of blacks (51%) believe that Israel is a fulfillment of a biblical prophesy about Jesus' second coming."
Christians United for Israel does not officially promote such apocalyptic thinking about Israel, though its founder, the Rev. John Hagee, often sounds such themes in his books.
Stevens, for his part, also pointed to strategic motives for supporting Israel, arguing in Brooklyn that every threat to Israel is a threat against the United States. He compared Adolf Hitler in 1933 to Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad today.
Despite positive reaction to the New York events, there are obvious challenges to strengthening the African-American-Jewish relationship.
Many American blacks are sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians, seeing the state of Israel as a continuation of the same European colonialism that once put much of Africa under white control.
“I think that African-Americans should support the human rights of Palestinians,” said Gerald Lenoir, executive director of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, an education and advocacy group.
Lenoir has visited Israel and the Palestinian territories.
“As an African-American who was a leader in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement, I see the separate and unequal treatment of Palestinians as a form of apartheid and a crime against humanity,” Lenoir said.
Dina Omar, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Columbia University and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, has spoken out against the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s overtures to black student leaders.
“AIPAC is exploiting the skin color and the history of blacks in America to justify the continued oppression of the Palestinians by Israel,” she said.
There is some hesitation in the Jewish community as well.
Many Jews are wary of Christian Zionist support, period. They suspect ulterior theological motives among Christian supporters.
“There is an idea in the Jewish community that one should be careful who one takes on as a friend because evangelical beliefs are fundamentally different,” said Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University.
“What is the price tag that comes with this support for Israel?” she asked. “It could be a potentially dangerous game to play.”
But Mike Cohen, a self-described Zionist preacher who attended the New York meetings sponsored by Christians United for Israel, says the Jewish community needs to learn not to fear.
“A secret agenda does not exist,” said Cohen, who speaks at universities and churches but is not affiliated with Christians United for Israel.
“Both communities deeply believe in the word of the Bible, in democracy and in the rule of law as it correlates to international law,” he said. “This all points to one thing: Israel has a right to exist. It’s a simple thing to unite around.”
But the relationship between Jews and African-Americans also has domestic historical baggage. The 1991 Crown Heights riots, sparked by an automobile accident in which a Jewish driver killed a young Guyanese boy, happened not more than three miles from the Christians United for Israel Brooklyn event.
The black college students on whom the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is focusing its minority outreach efforts are too young to remember the riots.
Many students involved with the committee's effort are members of the Vanguard Leadership Group, which comprises around 50 African-American student leaders.
The group’s managing director, Domonique James, says it initiated contact with the committee out of a desire to re-engage with a community that had been an ally during the civil rights movement.
In 2008, the committee invited the first student delegation from the Vanguard Leadership Group to attend its annual conference in Washington. The group now sends up to 10 students a year to the conference, while 20 Vanguard members have gone on educational trips to Israel.
“Hearing the stories of (David) Ben Gurion's vision for the nation and learning of (Yitzhak) Rabin's courageous struggle for peace equally inspired me to champion the noble cause of strengthening the relationship between the U.S. and Israel,” said Chantel Morant, 23, a graduate student at American University, referring to two of Israel's most notable prime ministers.
But the Vanguard Leadership Group’s executive director, Jarrod Jordan, says he has received a lot of hate mail on Twitter and Facebook about the partnership.
“They’re slamming us, saying how could we be sympathetic to people committing atrocities to Palestinians; it’s a betrayal of the civil rights movement,” Jordan said.
“A lot of African-Americans see the Palestinians as the underdog," he continued. "And in seeing someone as an underdog and yourself as an underdog in this country, they expect you to be sympathetic to the cause.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.