UMass Amherst Jewish Affairs

Jewish Affairs

History of Black/Jewish Relations in the U.S.

New course offers forum for discussion of controversial issue


In the Fall of 1999, a new course on the history of Black-Jewish relations, together with a major exhibition on the history of African Americans and American Jews, fundamentally altered the landscape of Black-Jewish relations on campus.

In contrast to the protests, rhetoric, and denunciations which had formerly dominated "discussion" of this charged issue, the course provided an academic forum for students to study this complex history in a dispassionate classroom setting, far removed from the tension surrounding campus visits by Minister Louis Farrakhan and other controversial African American leaders. (See "Historical Background" below)

Professor John Bracey, Jr.

The course was initially co-taught by UMass professors John Bracey, Jr. (Afro American Studies) and Maurianne Adams (Education). Bracey and Adams had facilitated a faculty seminar on this subject in 1996. The seminar helped shape what eventually became a three-credit course; and the new course was first offered to students in Fall 1999—and then triennially, in Spring 2003 and 2006.

Bracey and Adams subsequently published the source materials used in the faculty seminar, in an authoritative volume titled Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks & Jews in the United States.

Professor Maurianne Adams

The new course was the product of a four-year collaboration between the Office of Jewish Affairs, the Office of Human Relations, the Department of Afro-American Studies, and the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities—a very successful and unusual collaboration across administrative and departmental lines.

Historical background…

The conflicts between African American and Jewish students in the late 1980s and early 1990s were in part reflections of a broader national tension, and partly by-products of racism on campus.

There had been a series of racial incidents on campus in the mid-1980s, including several assaults on interracial couples and an anti-black riot following the seventh game of the 1986 World Series, when white Red Sox fans attacked a group of black Mets fan.

To empower themselves and draw attention to the hostile racial climate, black students brought several well-known and controversial speakers to campus—notably Minister Louis Farrakhan (2/89, 2/94), CCNY professor Leonard Jeffries (11/92) and Wellesley professor Tony Martin (12/94). Among other consequences, this strategy resulted in far greater access to the chancellor, who—as one black student put it—"never used to return our calls, but when we invited Farrakhan, the chancellor started calling us."

Jewish students—and for the most part, only Jewish students (and Jewish organizations)—protested when these black speakers came to campus, denouncing them as anti-Semitic and "hate-mongers." These two very different communities—separated by race, religion, and economic class, and with little day-to-day connection to each other—now found themselves locked in a cycle of protest and denunciation, debating the role of Jews in the slave trade and whether Minister Farrakhan, Jessie Jackson ("hymietown"), and other black leaders were anti-Semitic. Angry black students responded with allegations of Jewish racism.

In response to each wave of black/Jewish conflict, the University administration organized various dialogues for black and Jewish students. But these programs were doomed to fail, because they attempted the impossible—to bring these previously unrelated groups together in the midst of conflict.

Without any real prior relationship, let alone friendship, and lacking even the most basic knowledge of their complex history, black and Jewish students were cast in an inherently reactive drama—forced to respond to each other’s protests and allegations, but without the benefit of the relationship (for better or worse) that had existed for earlier generations of blacks and Jews. Black and Jewish students met each other in the midst of, and only because of, the conflict. It was a terrible way to meet.

The new course, together with the Bridges and Boundaries Exhibition and a new annual tradition, the UMass Freedom Seder—both initiatives of the Office of Jewish Affairs—contributed to a healthier, less polarized campus environment, and vastly improved relations between African American and Jewish students.

Photos: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, march for civil rights in 1964 (photo courtesy of UAHC). Professor John Bracey, Jr. (above left) and Professor Maurianne Adams (above right).


For more information...

Review of Strangers & Neighbors: Relations Between Blacks & Jews
in the United States
(Hampshire Gazette, 3/8/00)

Bridges and Boundaries Exhibition (University Gallery, Sept-Oct 1999)

UMass Freedom Seder
An annual celebration of multicultural unity and our desire for universal liberation

Celebrating Unity and Liberation: The Freedom Seder as an Antidote
to Black/Jewish Conflict
(PDF, 8pp, 28KB)
... a workshop presented by Larry Goldbaum, director of the Office of Jewish Affairs,
at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education (NCORE).

The workshop syllabus includes:
* a historical overview of Black/Jewish relations in the U.S. and at UMass Amherst;
* a discussion of the shared themes of the Passover and Freedom Seders;
* the challenges involved in organizing such a program;
* bibliography for further study.


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