Try to see it my way

March 31, 1995

Elona Kibler believes that the new animosity between blacks and Jews can be attributed partly to the way in which American Jewry has changed.

Where once Jews were seen as an oppressed minority - like blacks - they are today viewed as assimilated. More than that, they are viewed, rightly, she believes, as supremely successful, at the top of their chosen fields. In short, they have made it, and black Americans have not.

Ms Kibler is a 23-year-old black student at Howard University, Washington, the United States' premier black university, and one of a group of 14 students on a unique one-semester course set up in partnership with American University to help black and Jewish students to understand one another better.

"I wanted to learn for myself the history of black-Jewish relations and make my own decisions instead of reading some column somewhere and hearing what the trend of the decade is," says Ms Kibler, who is majoring in African-American studies.

Relations between blacks and Jews are thought to be at an all-time low in the US, and the tension is being played out on university campuses. Howard University was at the centre of a row last year after Nation of Islam spokesman, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, gave one of his characteristically inflammatory speeches.

A few years earlier the City University of New York was rocked by controversy after Leonard Jeffries, then chairman of the black studies department at City College, claimed that Jews were involved in the slave trade and that Jewish film-makers were responsible for denigrating blacks in the movies. That row still simmers.

Ms Kibler knows such claims are untrue or, at any rate, wildly exaggerated. But she says of Jews: "A lot of blacks feel they have changed. As they have become more accepted, they have become more like the majority."

Students on the course are learning about the things which bind the two communities, the similarities in voting patterns, for example, as well as what separates them. They are learning about the other's history of persecution - the details of slavery and the Holocaust.

The course has been taught in four three-hour sessions. Topics have covered black history, Jewish history, black-Jewish relations, and in the fourth session students chose a project to study in depth.

Ms Kibler is undertaking a project with Sarra Schaab, 21, a Jewish student from AU, on black and Jewish identities. Other students are looking at affirmative action, blacks and Jews in the movies (Woody Allen and Spike Lee will figure large), blacks and Jews in literature, and the media's treatment of relations between the two communities.

Ms Schaab says that her reading, which has been voluminous, has enabled her to understand the black point of view. Previously she had simply thought blacks were wrong in their view of Jews. Now she has a better understanding.

Historically Jews rooted for blacks because American Jews were social activists, according to Ms Schaab. When they saw oppression, they acted on it. But during the 1960s Jewish people recoiled at black separatism, and became scared. "There began the end of an excellent alliance."

Despite her tolerance, she says there are some things which still anger her about the views that blacks have of Jews. One is the claim that Jews' involvement in black movements is often paternalistic. "I still don't see it as that," she says.

There have been some tense moments on the course, as when one student compared the Holocaust unfavourably with slavery. There have also been some sublime occasions. One was when two students - one black, one Jewish - decided spontaneously to go and visit Washington's new Holocaust Museum together.

The black student was bowled over by what he saw: "He said he couldn't say enough and he couldn't put it into words," Ms Schaab explains.

The course was conceived by David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organisation which campaigns against bigotry, in a brainstorming session with academics from Howard University and AU.

These students really hungered for knowledge, Mr Friedman said. "They were sick of rhetoric, they were sick of propaganda, they were sick of ideology. The only thing they really cared for is they wanted facts, they wanted information, they wanted understanding. So in a sense it's a triumph of young people over a situation that looked as though it was going to create greater divisions."

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