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Bridging the Differences of Blacks and Jews

January 23, 1986|TONY ROBINSON | Tony Robinson is a researcher in The Times' New York bureau

NEW YORK — On a videotape in a New York conference room, two black college students are confronting the ironies of the relationship between blacks and Jews.

Says James Bernard, a student at Brown University: "I don't see any groups in America who have so much in common."

Commenting on the perception that Jews hold a disproportionate share of the nation's money and power, fellow student Wilma Wallace explains, "It's the Jewish bourgeois that the blacks are aspiring to."

Role-Playing Workshop

The pair were role-playing in a workshop at Brown called "Working It Out: Blacks and Jews on the College Campus." Over the last two years, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI) have sponsored this program, and others like it, at nearly a dozen campuses across the country. Last week, to mark Martin Luther King Day, the AJC brought a number of black and Jewish leaders together here to discuss the program. Bernard and Wallace also participated.

Introducing the videotape at the gathering, NCBI executive director Cherie R. Brown, organizer of the "Working It Out" workshops, described the program's inception. At a meeting several years ago between black and Jewish leaders, she recalled, "One of the comments that one of the black leaders had made--he was speaking about Martin Luther King--'Martin knew Jews growing up. I didn't know Jews.' " At that very moment, Brown said, she "made a commitment that the next generation of Jews and blacks here in the United States could not make such a comment, that they didn't know each other."

The program Brown came up with sought first of all to identify and work through ethnic stereotypes, as well as to develop pride in one's own ethnic background. At each campus, Brown, who is Jewish, and associate Joyce C. Duncan, who is black, lead groups of 15 to 100 students in four-hour sessions aimed also at learning about the impact of prejudice by discussing personal incidents, attempting to better understand complex social issues by increasing mutual respect, and learning to handle ethnic jokes and slurs.

At many of the workshops, Brown said, the same political issues were raised. South Africa was a common topic, she said, as were Middle East relations, the comments of Chicago Muslim minister Louis Farrakhan and the campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Different Concerns

While Jewish students said they were offended by anti-Semitic statements attributed to Jackson, black students said Jackson's campaign had provided a much-needed sense of unity.

The program "was a real journey of self-discovery," Brown University student Simmie Kerman told the AJC presentation. While Kerman said she went to the workshops hoping to learn about issues of concern to black students, she found instead that "they (the black students) taught you what you're about." The time she spent in the "Working It Out" workshops, she said, were "the 16 most honest hours I spent in my college education."

A report on the program summarizing results at the campuses notes that black and Jewish students often come to recognize such significant similarities between the two cultures as periods of enslavement, disenfranchisement and dire poverty. Still, the report concluded, important differences exist.

On the videotape, for example, during a dialogue involving two women--one black, one Jewish--the Jewish woman says she never feels completely free from fear, and that she has "to fight just to be safe."

The black woman replies that she feels the same way, but, pointing to her face, said, "this black don't come off."

At the AJC gathering, it was City College of New York President Bernard W. Harleston who put the meaning of this kind of interaction into perspective. Many of the civil rights advances accomplished during the '60s, he suggested, are now being reversed. Harking back to King's famous "I have a dream" speech, Harleston said sadly that "It is, for many people, as if the dream lived and died with the dreamer."

Strengthening the Coalition

The "Working It Out" program "starts to get at the aspects of sensitivity," Harleston said, adding "We simply must, in any coalition, talk through our differences, and confirm our sensitivity if the coalition is to be effective."

Often, Brown and Duncan are invited to campuses in the wake of specific racial incidents. At Brown University, for instance, white students had thrown bottles at black students after several fraternity parties. The school also has been the site of protests charging its curriculum is too "Euro-centric."

Is the situation at Brown visibly better since the workshops?

"It's increased sensitivity," James Bernard said. "I can see differences in discussions and an increased understanding of issues."

Wilma Wallace agreed, saying that when she went to her first workshop, she began to spout rhetoric. "I didn't know what I was talking about. It wasn't political, it was emotional."

Wallace said she doubts the workshop produced any concrete change among the students who attended the workshops. But bringing the fingers on one hand to within an inch of one another, she said, "maybe 50 years from now, when one of them has this much power--they're going to remember."

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