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Jews and African-Americans Strive for Harmony at UCLA : Race relations: Rabbi leads students and faculty from both groups in the search for what they have in common.

March 21, 1993|LISA KLUG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WESTWOOD — 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."

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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.

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