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ADL-inspired course fosters black-Jewish understanding

Washington Jewish Week
WASHINGTON, March 10 (JTA) — While their most pressing concerns may differ, 16 students from American and Howard universities have come together with one goal in mind. The Jewish students are concerned about anti-Semitism, intermarriage, church-state separation, the Holocaust and Israel. The black students are focused on economic issues, understanding slavery in America and the contemporary issues surrounding affirmative action. These students — eight Jews, seven African Americans and one Asian American — are trying to learn about and understand one another better than they do now. They are enrolled in a class, offered for credit by the two universities in conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League. The course combines academics, awareness training and research projects. The students study African American history, the Jewish experience in America and the history of black-Jewish relations. The idea for the class came as a response to several anti-Semitic, anti-white speeches given at Howard University in 1993 and 1994 by former Nation of Islam official Khalid Abdul Muhammad, law student Malik Zulu Shabazz and others. David Friedman, director of the ADL’s Washington regional office, brought together Pamela Nadell, director of American’s Jewish studies program, and Russell Adams, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Howard, to develop the class. Lesley Weiss, associate director of the ADL’s regional office, said the course is not designed “just for the sake of dialogue” between black and Jewish students. “It is a way to provide historical context for why Jews react or act the way they do today and why African Americans take the stand that they do.” Weiss spoke as the students worked on an exercise at ADL’s Washington offices. “We show what we have in common through the historical connection and also why we may disagree on issues we disagree on. But it is based on fact, not rumor or stereotype.” The structure of the class, first offered during the spring of 1995, is important, according to Nadell, because an ongoing discussion will have more impact than a one-time event. “Rather than just doing a program or meeting or having a conference, we wanted to do something where [the students] have to make a commitment to it for 15 weeks and treat it like a regular university course,” Nadell said. The class meets weekly, alternating between American, Howard and the ADL’s offices. The class allows the students to form, in a structured setting, a better understanding of each other, said Adams, co-editor of CommonQuest, a magazine published by Howard and the American Jewish Committee devoted to black-Jewish relations. Most black and Jewish students, said Adams, “don’t have an opportunity, with support, to talk, so they yell at each other through the media, through sound bites,” which does not enable them to get a clear picture of one another. During a recent class at the ADL office, which focused on African American and Jewish communal relations, the students, who munched on chips and cookies, sat around a large, rectangular table discussing the topic in a friendly manner. Friedman said that when people talk about the alliance between blacks and Jews, they are usually referring to the specific period between 1957 and 1965, during the American civil rights movement. “So much of what happened then holds the prism through which people see black-Jewish relations now,” he said. In discussing how the model of political relationships between countries relates to the relationship between blacks and Jews, Kevin Kabumoto, an Asian American student from American, said the relationship between the two should be seen in terms of “two martyrs” rather than nations. “You have two groups of people who suffered tremendously in the course of history and consequently should feel extraordinarily empathetic with anyone else’s suffering, which is true in many cases,” Kabumoto said. “On the other hand, it also leads unfortunately into a competition of victimhood, of who’s been humanity’s biggest doormat — as if that gives them special divine sanctity over everyone else.” He said that while nations usually trumpet their victories, blacks and Jews point to “how many times they have been harassed or stepped on.” Ellie Klein, an American University student, said understanding and support should be the keys to the relationship, not dependency. She dismissed the notion that African Americans are mad at Jews for “abandoning” them as Jews moved up the economic and political ladder in American society. “I don’t think either group can be dependent on the other one,” she said. Ivon Alcime, who was born in the Bahamas and grew up in Haiti, has a different perspective on the relationship between African Americans and American Jews. “I am learning all about the issues involved, so my opinions will be based on fact,” said Alcime, a Howard student majoring in philosophy. While Alcime is not officially in the class, he attends in his capacity as an ADL intern. Alcime pointed out during the class that while the two groups came together during the civil rights movement, they still do not know each other. “We are missing the fundamentals of knowing each other,” he said. Michael Twitty, a Howard student with a major in Afro-American studies and a minor in anthropology, said he wanted to learn about what the two groups have in common and what they do not. “I’m really here like an anthropologist,” he said. “Observing folks, that’s what makes me excited.”

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