The rhetoric of Black Jewish identity construction in America and Israel, 1964-1972

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Fernheimer, Janice Wendi

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Throughout its history, the Western rhetorical tradition has promised an alternative to violence or, as I.A. Richards puts it, a way to reduce “misunderstanding.” The presumption is that understanding, listening, and analyzing lead to conflict mediation, resolution, and thus less violence. My dissertation questions how well rhetorical theory delivers on these promises. Employing primary archival documents (letters, memos, proposals) housed at the Schomburg Center in New York and interviews with Hebrew Israelites in Dimona, Israel, my project demonstrates how a variety of rhetorical theories help to explain, but not resolve, conflicting claims to Jewish identity in New York and Israel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These misunderstandings involve a number of inexorable conditions: those of race, identity, and the desire for multiple groups of people to claim the same status—“authentic” Jewishness and citizenship in Israel. Though several Black Jewish communities had been in close contact with white Jewish communities in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia throughout the early part of the twentieth century, Hatzaad Harishon (H.H.)—a non-profit organization founded by ix white, liberal Jews to promote unity among Jews of all races in Manhattan–was the first organization formed specifically to foster interaction and unity among the black and white Jewish communities. Hatzaad Harishon emphasized “klal Yisrael” and identification with the modern nation-state of Israel to facilitate improved relations between the races. Focusing on Black Jews, their interactions with other Jews, and the resulting conflicts over legitimate identity, I show how theories lauded as contemporary rhetoric’s most promising—those of Kenneth Burke, Wayne Booth, and Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrects-Tyteca—do not help us mediate competing claims when no clear means for authentication or legitimization exists, and when identity is precisely the issue at stake. My close, rhetorical analysis of primary materials challenges traditional assumptions about black-Jewish relations; Burke’s theories of identification and the dialectic of constitutions; Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s theory of antinomy, and Booth’s “listening rhetoric.” Each chapter explicates letters, memos, proposals, and other documents; analyzes an episode of conflict in Hatzaad Harishon’s short-lived history, 1964-1972; and illustrates the troubling questions such misunderstandings present for contemporary rhetorical theories.