South Africa helped bring them closer. Black and Jewish students from the United States realized during recent study seminar that they had more in common that they originally thought.
“Our principal differences were conceptions,” said Matthew Schwartz, a sophomore at George Washington University who participated in the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange.
“Once we started talking, we realized the similarities and highlighted them. We then became just students, not Jewish or African Americans, but young people pursuing the same goals in our lives and careers.”
The primary objective of the program — which uses South Africa and Israel as its settings — is to enhance black-Jewish relations among the participants so that they will return to their campuses, share their experiences and embark on cooperative projects and programs, Andrea Hillman Rifkind, assistant director of the project, said in an interview here.
Comprised of black and Jewish student leaders, faculty at Howard and George Washington universities and project coordinators, the group spent a week in South Africa and a week in Israel, where they met with political and religious leaders, students and activists.
The students, who returned to the United States earlier this month, seemed to have reached similar viewpoints, though they did so via their different backgrounds.
Schwartz said he found that South African blacks and African Americans are in the “same struggle” in the fight against poverty and for education.
Unlike many of his travel companions, Schwartz said he was not shocked by substandard living conditions in parts of the black township of Soweto.
“It is unrealistic to expect instant changes under the new government,” he said.
“Members of the local government with whom we met made it clear that they [intend] to effect real changes that will take place over time — not instant solutions that will be temporary.”
Terry Bruner, a junior at the predominantly black Howard University, said he has “always had a fascination with South Africa and Israel.”
“I have followed South African politics very closely and will never forget watching Nelson Mandela being set free,” said Bruner, who added that his biblical interest in Israel stems from the fact that he comes from a family of four Baptist ministers.
During the tour, Bruner said, he was particularly struck by the level of optimism in South Africa.
He said he shared his fellow students’ surprise that Jews involved in the anti- apartheid struggle had done so as individuals, without any significant mainstream Jewish activism.
“Students told us that many in the Jewish mainstream were viewed as sellouts, with large numbers of Jews emigrating,” he said. “But it doesn’t serve anybody’s purpose to dwell on this.”
Bruner added: “Now the Jews are playing a very crucial part in the redevelopment of the infrastructure businesswise. I do sense there is a coalition being built.”
Tasha Hardy, a junior at Howard University, said he found the students at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg “very unified.”
“Although I was told that pockets of racism do exist among the white, colored and black students, I expected more racial tension” because of the recent changes in the South African government, she said.
David Sloan, a junior at George Washington University, likened the squalor of squatter camps in the Soweto area to ghettos.
“Although they weren’t established under the same conditions, it is amazing what oppression can lead to in terms of everyday living,” said Sloan, who is Jewish.
Sloan said he found South Africans “much more mature and realistic about their problems” than people in the United States, “where we tend to blow up when ethnic relations are tested.”
He said Americans could learn a lot from South Africa — its frank confrontation of problems and “the move away from retribution and deep commitment to negotiation rather than violence.”