American Studies 3212
Professor Jocelyn Wills
May 23, 2018
Clash of Radicalisms: Jews and People of Color at Brooklyn College
The Long 60s is marked by the confluence of multiple streams of social and political activism by different groups, each clamoring for change and demanding attention to their particular issues. These streams combined to form a turbulent river of change. Each group, in its own unique way, found their identity and their voice, and organized and banded together to demand change. Sometimes their methods were peaceful, and sometimes they were disruptive. Each group coalesced around one or more common causes. Some of these activist groups included Blacks, women, Latinos, gays and lesbians, veterans and anti-war protesters, and Jews. The details of each group’s agenda varied widely, as well as their choice of tactics. But the overarching term which sums up the entire process is “Identity Politics.”
One group of activists is harder to understand due to their lack of a single unifying identity. Jewish activists were unique among the radical groups of the 1960s for several reasons. They were not victims of segregation in the south but they were marching in Selma. Many were not survivors of the War in Vietnam, but they manned the antiwar barricades. Many were recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants. Memories of the Holocaust were fresh. Especially in Brooklyn, and especially among the Jews, there were a large number of Holocaust survivors, displaced persons and refugees from Europe. Jewish activists had a long history of involvement in radical and activist movements. The Communist Party of the USA, The Labor Movement, the anti-McCarthy movement, and the so-called “Old Left” were all heavily influenced by Jews. The Civil Rights Movement, even though it was mainly about Southern Blacks, attracted many Jews. The Feminist Movement was heavily influenced by (and heavily composed of) Jewish women.
An interesting perspective on Jewish involvement with the protest movements of the 1960’s is that of Atina Grossman, who wrote an essay called, “How the Ghosts of the Holocaust Haunted the 1960s, But Quietly.” Ms. Grossman recounts her odyssey through a sequence of memberships in different groups: “an American, a Jew, a child of German-Jewish refugees, and a quite young participant in the civil rights movement, the New Left, and then...the feminist movement that emerged out of the first two.” (Grossman 1) The fluid mobility with which she moved from movement to movement is reminiscent of a term which has been applied to the Jewish people as a whole: “cosmopolitan,” literally “a citizen of the world.” Cosmopolitan Jews might feel at home one day marching against segregation, and another day protesting against the Vietnam War. They would be lining up to join every protest movement.
From an entirely different perspective, Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz writes in The Colors of Jews: Racial Politics and Radical Diasporism about the Jewish tendency to insist on uniqueness rather than engage in solidarity. She observes that, “the common Jewish practice is to name our experience differently from those with whom we might share it. Jews say anti-Semitism, not racism against Jews; Jews say Zionism, not nationalism for Jews. We cling to the term Holocaust as ours only, anxious about whether other genocides deserve the name. All the separate naming makes it harder to identify and analyze commonality and difference.” (Kaye/Kantrowitz 11) This perspective can be expressed in another term which can be applied to the Jewish people: “separatism.”
So Jews act sometimes as cosmopolitans, “familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.” But other times they act as separatists, desiring “the separation of a particular group of people from a larger body on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or gender.” These two themes inform to positions of Jews in the radical movements of the 1960’s, behaving as cosmopolitan separatists: sometimes joining in with a particular movement, and sometimes remaining aloof and turning inward to their own group.
In the 1960s there was a movement to extend racial and educational justice to students who had been educationally and economically deprived and were unable to attain admission to College. While today it is generally accepted that increasing educational opportunity and diversity is an extremely important goal, at the time Jews were divided on the issue. One group, who might be called the left-wing Jews, supported programs like Open Admissions. The opposing group is typified by the JDL and could be called “right-wing” Jews.
From the point of view of the JDL, increasing minority admissions was a threat to the rights of Jewish students. “The City Colleges now saw an alliance of Blacks and Puerto Ricans, together with a handful of Jewish leftists who were demanding a quota system based on the percentage of ethnic groups in the city. This… would have entailed adding the adding of thousands of Blacks and other non-whites who had not been able to enter the school on merit, and the dropping of other thousands of Jews who had. (Kahane 114).
“Brooklyn College now became the next battleground. The school with a merit enrollment that included some 75% Jews had now become the target of 18 demands by Third World students and their Jewish leftist supporters.” (Kahane 116) These separatist Jews saw Open Admissions as an existential threat to their group. They saw it as, “part of a potential disaster for Jews of America. If the Merit system would be scrapped, it would be not only in schools but in jobs and every area of life. The Jew, with 3% of the total population of the United States, would face the same impossible situation that he had faced in Europe under numerus clausus. Jewish opportunity and power would be wrecked.” (Kahane 115) (Numerus clausus refers to quotas for admission to European Universities, which in some cases penalized Jews.)
Racial and ethnic quotas had been widespread in the United States in the earlier part of the 20th Century. In the book, A History of Yale’s School of Medicine, describing the situation in the early 1930s, “a member of the admissions committee, Harry Zimmerman, said that Winternitz's instructions to the committee were explicit: ‘never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no Blacks at all.’” (Burrow 107)
Jewish students at Brooklyn College who belonged to the right-wing or separatist camp felt that their rights were being attacked by the gains being made by Black and Latino students; admissions was a “zero-sum” game and any gains made by another group must occur at the expense of the Jews. An article from the Jewish Telegraph agency from 1971 describes a demonstration on the Brooklyn College campus in front of the Gershwin Theatre. Rabbi Meir Kahane and his followers expressed their opposition to what they called racism on campus. The JDL felt that their rights were being trampled upon by newly assertive black students. A JDL student activist named Yossi Templeton said, “if a Jew wants to sit in the basement area of the Student Union building he's going to sit. If people attack Jews, we will break their heads. Kneller, if you are not capable of keeping order we will keep order and you can leave.” (JTA 1)
Efforts at organizing and working for change continued through the 60s at Brooklyn College. “Among the small number of Black students at Brooklyn College a few key leaders emerged, notably Leroy Askia Davis and Orlando Pile. Both young men were involved in off-campus organizing and their efforts at Brooklyn College should be seen as part of the overall black Freedom struggle.… In 1968 Davis and Pyle began to reach out to the small number of black students--approaching them in the library, Davis recalled,-- and soon organized the Black League of Afro-American Collegians.” (Biondi 164) The organization fought for admitting more minority students, and eventually took over a faculty meeting and presented their 18 demands. The intensity of demonstrations increased and SDS students joined in. In addition to daily rallies, incidents of arson and vandalism occurred. Administration called in the police, and a number of demonstrators were arrested.
“By 1971 black and Puerto Rican students had a greater visibility and presence at Brooklyn College, and had begun to win seats in student government.” Askia Davis believes this growing political clout inspired an attack by the JDL. “...Kahane brought in a huge group to campus. Black and Puerto Rican students were meeting at the Student Center that day, and the two groups converged. It was really bad, Davis recalled. Several people went to the hospital.” ….Davis recalled the skirmish with the JDL did not reflect Black-Jewish relations on campus. “We had more support among the Jewish students than he did,” he said. (Biondi 177)
The JDL also turned their attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. To quote from Meir Kahane’s book The Story of the Jewish Defense League an event occurred in January of 1970 when the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra appeared for a concert at Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Auditorium. “It was part of the growing American-Soviet Cultural Exchange program for which both governments had such high hopes, and music lovers filled the auditorium for a night of culture. So did the JDL.”
“Outside the hall, tens of JDL people handed out leaflets to the arrivals urging them to return their tickets and not to attend the concert. “They played music at Auschwitz too, read the leaflets but, except for a handful, the words made little impression on the crowd. Being perhaps hooligans but hardly fools we had not expected them to and so as the curtain rose on the Moscow Philharmonic and the first notes burst upon the expected audience so did the JDL. From a back door onto the stage rushed the band of shouting youngsters. As the Russians fled the stage, two of the new entertainers began a series of Hebrew Liberation songs while others waved Israeli Flags.” (Kahane 5)
In conclusion, Jews participated in the activist 60s as left-wing Cosmopolitans who shared the goals of Blacks, Latinos and other disenfranchised groups, fighting racism. But another group of Jews (right-wing Separatists) felt that they themselves were the victims of racism, and needed to defend themselves at all costs against other groups.
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“Brooklyn College Faculty/Staff Bulletin.” Brooklyn College Faculty/Staff Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 17, 5 May 1971. From Brooklyn College Archives
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