The recent tragedy that took place outside the upscale Short Hills mall in northern New Jersey – where black men robbed a white couple of their luxury car and murdered the husband – featured a kind of culture clash between two ethnic groups of the United States that have otherwise been unified over the past century.
Four black men from urban Newark, N.J., area have since been arrested on charges of murder, weapons possession, carjacking and conspiracy, among other transgressions, in connection with the execution-style murder of Dustin Friedland, a 30-year-old man from Hoboken. Friedland’s wife, Jamie Schare, survived the attack of Dec. 15. The attackers then drove off in Friedland’s Range Rover automobile.
The four suspects -- Hanif Thompson of Irvington, and Karif Ford, Basim Henry and Kevin Roberts, all of Newark – were later captured. With long rap sheets – including such items as drug violations, weapons possession, assault, burglary and bank robbery -- they each face up to life imprisonment if convicted. They are currently being held on $2 million bail each.
"The sheer senselessness of this case outraged people from Millburn to Newark," said acting Essex County Prosecutor Carolyn Murray.
Murray told reporters that the four suspects targeted Friedland because he owned a desirable Range Rover vehicle (valued at about $70,000). According to Paul J. Fishman, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, Essex County has witnessed an “epidemic of carjackings” – with about 450 this year alone, versus only 200 four years ago.
Aside from the sheer brutality and horrific nature of the crime, I viewed it through the lens of U.S. history. This brief and bloody episode exhibited a violent clash between races, between social classes, between income segments and, more to the point, between blacks and Jews.
Dustin Friedland had earned a law degree from Syracuse University (as well as an engineering degree from Bucknell University) and was working as a project manager at his family-owned heating and air-conditioning company. He and his wife, also a lawyer, were returning from a holiday shopping trip at the mall in Short Hills mall, one of the most affluent parts of New Jersey and a place where such violent crime is relatively rare.
In stark contrast, the four suspects hail from the crime-infested urban jungles of Newark and Irvington – only about 10 miles east of Short Hills, but a million light-years away in spirit.
Obviously, the four carjackers/killers did not target Mr. Friedland because he was Jewish; they attacked him simply because he appeared to be wealthy and drove an expensive car.
However, this life-changing event in the lives of these six people may illustrate the drastically different paths taken by two erstwhile allies, African-Americans and Jews – groups of people who have each suffered discrimination and marginalization in the U.S.
I have long been fascinated by this African-American-Jewish unity and partnership, which has manifested itself in many forms. For example, the NAACP was formed in 1909 by a group of white activists in New York, including a Romanian Jewish immigrant named Henry Moskowitz. Since that time (and perhaps before that), Jews have played a significant role in the civil rights movement.
In the infamous Scottsboro case of 1931, where nine young black men were wrongly accused of raping two white women on a hobo train in Alabama, Jewish lawyers including Samuel Leibowitz represented the defendants. In fact, Jews around the country were outraged when Wade Wright, one of the prosecutors in the case, wondered in his summation "whether justice in this case is going to be bought and sold with Jew money from New York?"
A few decades later at the height of the civil rights movement in 1964, Ku Klux Klansmen killed three young activists in Philadelphia, Miss.: a black man named James Earl Chaney and two Jewish men from New York, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.
Jews and blacks have also formed deep unions in the areas of sports and entertainment – two of the few industries where blacks have been welcome over the decades. (Jews have also heavily participated and/or supported the unionist, feminist movements in the U.S.)
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, the once-close links between blacks and Jews appear to have weakened considerably, as the two communities (neither monolithic to begin with) have moved in different, sometime opposing, directions.
In terms of household income and social class, Jews (along with Asians) are among the highest-earning, best-educated communities in the country. According to the Jewish Federations of North America, more than half of all Jewish adults (55 percent) have received a college degree, and one-fourth have earned graduate degrees. (Both figures are far higher than the averages for the U.S. as a whole.) Moreover, three-fifths of all employed Jews have jobs in the highest status/categories (professional, management or executive). The median income for Jewish households clocks in at $54,000, 29 percent higher than the U.S. median figure. More than one-third (34 percent) of Jewish households earn at least $75,000 annually.
For African-Americans, despite years of civil rights triumphs and advances in education, jobs and housing, a far different picture emerges.
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median household income for Americans blacks is only $33,460, as of 2012. More than one-fourth (28.1 percent) of blacks live in poverty (up from 25.5 percent in 2005). Almost one-half (47.5 percent) of black families are headed by a single mother and live in poverty.
Black joblessness has generally been twice as high as the white unemployment rate over the past 50 years. Black youths currently suffer from an extraordinarily high unemployment rate of 36 percent (more than five times the overall national jobless rate).
In addition, blacks endure very high rates of incarceration, low rates of health insurance, and high rates of home mortgage foreclosures.
And yet, despite all these differences, blacks and Jews still share some interesting similarities. For one thing, they remain steadfastly loyal to the Democratic Party.
Since 1936, when Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt garnered 71 percent of the black vote, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, blacks have overwhelmingly supported the Democrats. FDR’s successor, Harry Truman, who desegregated the armed forces, did even better with black voters. By 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson snagged an astonishing 94 percent of the black electoral support, after LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act. Since that time, Republicans have failed to attract any more than 15 percent of the black vote.
Jews have also overwhelmingly supported the Democrats, forming one of the pillars of the party. In 2012, Barack Obama received 70 percent of the Jewish vote (despite concerns that his devotion to Israel was not sufficient), following a 74 percent tally in 2008.
Indeed, since 1972, when George McGovern lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon, Democratic candidates have, on average, scored about 70 percent of the Jewish vote. Democratic congressmen across the nation also receive similar amounts of Jewish support.
As it turns out, Israel does not play a large role in which candidates Jewish voters will pull the levers for.
“Campaigns to shift Jewish votes over Israel don’t work because the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters say the economy, not Israel, is their top electoral concern, followed by health care, Social Security and Medicare,” said an analysis in the New York Times. “When it comes to Israel, Jewish Americans are notably moderate in their views.”
The Times nonetheless added: “Of course, the vast majority of Jewish Americans care deeply about Israel and want their politicians to be pro-Israel. But they aren’t single-issue voters and they’re not uniformly hawkish when it comes to Israel.”
Jonathan Kay in the National Post explained why Jews tend to vote Democratic.
“Simple: Because U.S. Jews are overwhelmingly urban, educated and very, very liberal,” he asserted. “Moreover, women vote more than men — and American Jewish women are an especially liberal voting bloc. I once heard [political consultant] Dick Morris say in a speech that they are the most socially liberal group in the entire United States. Why, exactly, would these people vote for a Republican Party whose official position is anti-abortion and pro-gun, and whose cultural identity is defined in large part by rural Evangelical Christians?”
Hence, on a political basis, Jews and blacks have much in common. But on the cultural front, these two groups are seemingly at loggerheads. For example, many black Christians are quite conservative on issues like gay marriage and abortion (putting them in the same camp as Southern white Evangelical Republicans).
In addition, in recent years, leading black political figures, including Rev. Jesse (“Hymietown) Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton have openly criticized and demeaned the Jewish community. Such inter-ethnic conflicts led to violence and even murder on the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the early 1990s.
As such, Jews and blacks remain far apart – despite their shared loyalty to the Democrat Party and long history of cooperation in areas of civil rights.
For one Jewish man in the parking lot of a North Jersey shopping mall on a cold December night, that conflict resulted in death and tragedy.