The low point in relations between UCLA’s black and Jewish students was probably the time two years ago when a black student publication printed what many Jewish students and university administrators deemed to be anti-Semitic remarks.
That led to a succession of hearings and meetings, some of which degenerated into bitter shouting matches. Ill will and suspicion abounded.
It has been a slow climb since then, but with the help of Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel Jewish Student Center, students and faculty from both groups have opened up a dialogue and begun working to heal the wounds.
“The point is that the more you spend time with one another and learn about each other--not by reading about each other, but as a human being--the more the connections grow,” said Seidler-Feller, who has worked on campus since 1975.
Last year, Seidler-Feller organized meetings of Jewish and African-American faculty members. With the rabbi’s support, a similar effort formed among a small group of students.
In addition, Seidler-Feller has been the driving force behind discussions and other campus events designed to bring black and Jewish students and faculty together.
Among UCLA’s more than 32,000 students, African-American students number about 2,000, according to university officials. The university does not keep count of its Jewish students, but Hillel Center Assistant Director Kari Bower estimates that there are 4,000.
The faculty and student dialogues each have only about 15 active members. Nonetheless, participants say, the groups are a start toward better relations and could provide a forum for dealing at an early stage with any black-Jewish tensions that may arise--perhaps before shouting and name-calling start.
Seidler-Feller has enlisted African-American faculty members as co-sponsors of a series of public events, some of which have attracted as many as 150 people.
The most recent was a campus visit this month by Leon Bass, an African-American veteran of World War II who discussed his experiences helping Jewish concentration camp victims. Afterward, students and faculty viewed a controversial documentary featuring Bass, titled “The Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II.”
The PBS production examined the history of African-American soldiers who risked their lives fighting for a country that still enforced segregation between blacks and whites. Produced by William Miles, who is African-American, and Nina Rosenblum, who is Jewish, “Liberators” aired on public television stations across the country.
But articles in the New Republic, Newsday and other publications recently criticized “Liberators” for its assertion that all-black battalions freed the prisoners at the Buchenwald and Dachau camps. Photographs show that Bass and other African-Americans visited the camps, but the point of controversy is when. Were the black battalions among the liberators, or did they simply visit the camps afterward?
After the screening, a small group of students discussed the history of the controversy with Bass and Rosenblum. Several students said the evening affected their views on African-American-Jewish relations.
“The film forces us to confront each other’s feelings and our hurts and makes us listen to each other,” said history major Wendy Cabil, who is African-American. “Through that we should be able to unite on common ground.”
Jewish students agreed.
“The film shows black people that Jews were in danger and it shows that we have to help each other,” junior David Silver said. “If you want to make bad things stop, you have to stand up for others.”
Previous cooperative efforts organized by Seidler-Feller included delivery of food by UCLA students to South Los Angeles churches last spring after the riots. And in connection with African-American History Month, he organized a panel of black and Jewish experts to discuss images of both groups in film.
Participants say the events have helped African-American and Jewish students and faculty to meet each other, form friendships and correct stereotypes.
“The film panel made me see that these black leaders are open to ideas of black-Jewish cooperation and that they have support within their community,” said Philip Shaknis, president of the Jewish Student Union.
Today’s struggles contrast with a largely forgotten past of cooperation.
Many Jews supported and participated in the American civil rights movement, for example. And Seidler-Feller tries regularly to remind students that Jewish and African-American students at UCLA banded together in the 1960s and early ‘70s in what they called the “Third World Coalition” to pull control of campus politics away from fraternities and sororities, which then were mostly the province of white Gentiles.
But that relationship changed as Jews moved steadily into the mainstream at the university. By the early ‘70s, many Jews were active in student politics, and the university had hired significant numbers of Jewish administrators and professors, Seidler-Feller recalled. African-Americans often remained on the outside, the rabbi said.
“You had, in a short period of time, a movement from being an oppressed minority with brothers and sisters of similar fate to becoming part of the leadership elite who were viewed by the very same minority as the oppressors,” Seidler-Feller said.
Later, Jewish students took offense at appearances by some African-American speakers, such as Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader whose teachings have been widely construed as anti-Semitic. And there were frequent articles in student publications that were anti-Israel, the rabbi said.
Tension exploded in 1991 when UCLA’s black student magazine, Nommo, printed an article supporting a bookseller who distributed “The Protocols of Zion and the International Jew,” a book whose anti-Semitic theories have been conclusively debunked by scholars.
The article also stated that Judaism is an African religion and that blacks are the only true Jews, Seidler-Feller said, adding that the following issue of Nommo ran a story packed with expletives directed at Jews.
The UCLA Communications Board held a series of hearings to review the articles, but no action was taken, said Terrence Hsiao, director of student publications.
“These articles generated an enormous bitterness and anger and hostility,” Seidler-Feller said. “The Jewish students felt abused and abandoned. This is the sort of irony lost on the minority students who see the Jews as so powerful.”
For African-American students, campus troubles also stem from a general feeling of alienation, said doctoral student Peary Brug, an African-American.
“Because most Jews in America tend to be white, tensions between blacks and whites in America carry on to blacks and Jews,” said Brug, an organizer of the student dialogue.
Seidler-Feller said blacks and Jews share a struggle to carve out an identity amid a dominant culture that pushes them toward assimilation.
“We each have the same problem--we don’t know that we’re going to survive,” he said. “The heart of your individual struggle is something that the other person also experiences.”
At dialogue meetings, Seidler-Feller encourages discussions on these issues. As a result, the groups have come up with several plans for the future: a class on African-American and Jewish relations, a panel discussion on forming a political coalition in Los Angeles, and a group trip to Africa and Israel.
The activities teach students a sensitivity they will bring to the working world when they graduate, said Brug, who studies educational psychology.
“If you can accomplish dealing with this issue, it would enable you to deal with other issues, like conflicts between Koreans and Hispanics, Jews and Arabs, blacks and whites, gays and non-gays,” he said. “People need to realize that we have to get along. It’s not going to be easy but it’s important.”