UMass Amherst Jewish Affairs

Jewish Affairs

Breaking down “Boundaries”

By Julie Burrell
Massachusetts Daily Collegian
September 22, 1999

Bridges and Boundaries Revisited: African Americans and American Jews, presented at the University Gallery from September 11 through October 22, is a glimpse into the past and present conflicts and commonalities between Jews and African Americans in the context of American history, and an examination of the reasons for the hostilities between these groups now.

Although both have their own distinct story of extreme hardship faced while coming to America, either as slaves or immigrants, a common bond can be drawn between the two groups. Diagrams on display of the slave ships that marked the start of trials faced in American by African Americans and diagrams from third class and steerage that brought many Jewish immigrants overseas are notably similar, as are the similarities between the “Middle Passage” and the Holocaust, marked by both photographs and sketches featured in the exhibit.

The accounts of African American enslavement and the biblical story of the Egyptian captivity of the Israelites also bear a remarkable resemblance to each other, which starts the history of intersection between the two [groups] in American history.

Another part of the exhibit chronicles what is referred to as “scientific racism,” or the use of [psuedo-]science, such as physiognomy and phrenology, the study of the shape of the skull, to discover differences between racial groups, often used as a rationalization in the inhuman treatment and killing of Jews and African Americans. Even though this method, and any method used to firmly establish distinct physical differences was discredited, these stereotypes, separating the two groups from whites and singling them out as objects of hatred and discrimination, still occur and continue to play a part in society.

Actual trading cards, magazines and posters were enlarged for this display, which have the “typical” Jew and African American depicted on them, the former shown as money-loving, and the latter, in tattered clothing, wielding a razor over his head.

The intolerance and segregation felt by the Jewish and African American communities are also similar, as photographs of actual store and restaurant signs show that many store owners catered only to the “white trade,” and pamphlets advertising hotels barred “Hebrews” from their establishments.

A particularly chilling part of the display is an authentic Ku Klux Klan uniform, and a picture background of a Klan meeting, a reminder of the common threats and enemies of the two communities.

During the Civil Rights Movements of the fifties and sixties, Jews and African Americans were also joined together in a fight for equality. Leaders of both communities stepped forward in collaboration with one another, noting the shared past of intolerance and hardships.

The tension between the groups, as Civil Rights leaders fought to keep white intervention away, mounted at this time. This tension continued into the seventies and eighties, as Jews, on the whole, had consistent economic success, and moved into the suburbs, populated by whites, while African Americans still faced mush racism and very little economic progress, and remained in urban areas.

This gap was further widened by leaders of both communities distancing themselves from the common struggle that forged the alliance of the two groups, such as when Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, spoke out against Judaism. But, even as the gap grew, neo-Nazism was on the rise, and a common enemy was a reminder, despite success in their struggles, that Jews and African Americans still faced common barriers in American.

The exhibit chronicles this legacy with pictures, paintings, sculpture and sketches.

Bridges and Boundaries Revisited explores ways in which two different groups can exist in harmony, prosper in a nation populated with many cultures, and gain strength from common bonds.

Despite the unique characters of the two communities, and the different hardships that were faced by both, documented and examined by the artwork and photographs in the exhibit, the message is one of hope and inspiration.

This exhibit celebrates the unique culture and religion of both groups, but also celebrates their common strengths in fighting injustice in America.

At the same time, it reminds all visitors to this display that this fight is not over, and will be only when cross cultures can learn tolerance and acceptance through shared experiences, as the Jewish and African American community have demonstrated in the past.

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