Jewish-black Tensions Mount in Brooklyn College
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Jewish-black Tensions Mount in Brooklyn College

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The Strains of a current hit parade Israeli record, “B’shanah Habaah” (Next Year), being played on the jukebox in the canteen of the Student Union Building at Brooklyn College, filled the air. White and black, Jewish and non-Jewish students milled around between classes. The record finished playing and someone started it again. This continued several times and at the end of the record’s seventh consecutive play, according to eyewitnesses, several black students walked over to the jukebox, broke the cage, removed the record and broke it. Fists began to fly, but college security guards swiftly moved in and the fighting subsided. That was last Friday. On Tuesday, several hundred Jewish and black students were involved in a melee that began in the S.U. building and spilled out onto the campus grounds and streets outside the college. Some Jewish students said that the record-breaking episode “tore it for us.” An on-the-spot survey yesterday by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency showed Friday’s episode might have been the immediate cause of the melee but not its real cause. The fighting on Tuesday only disclosed the rancor, tensions, hostilities, misunderstandings and suspicions that have long existed between black and Jewish students at the college. In interviews with Jewish students, B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation officials and college administration spokesmen all expressed anxiety that the situation would continue to fester and deteriorate unless long-felt fears were put to rest. No black student leaders were available for interviews.

Rabbi Norman E. Frimmer, director of the Hillel Foundation chapter at the college and national coordinator for Hillel, affairs in the New York area and his associate, Rabbi Frank A. Fischer, expressed pessimism over the situation. “It’s building up steam, not cooling down, because both blacks and Jews feel put upon and neither are willing to compromise,” they said. Whatever the reasons given – and they differed among those interviewed – all agreed that the breaking of the record was only the “trigger” which released the pent up hostilities. Brooklyn College has one of the largest concentrations of Jewish students in any of the public colleges in the city. Of a total student body of some 28,000 in the day and evening sessions, some 18,000 are Jewish. Of these 18,000, some 5,000 are Orthodox Jews. For some Jewish students, the black-Jewish tensions have been caused by the continuing robbery of Jewish students by black students in the S.U. building. Robert De. Santis, college director of public relations and assistant to college president John W. Kneller, and Rabbi Frimmer, both agreed with this and said that the muggers were prosecuted when caught. Both denied, however, that the muggings were directed specifically against Jewish students. They said that since the majority of the students were Jewish, the greatest number of muggings, by the law of averages, would be suffered by Jews.


The Jewish Defense League, which has a chartered on-campus group, has long accused Kneller of “anti-Jewish bias and insensitivity to the needs of Jewish students.” A JDL member on campus said the tensions were caused by the “beatings and harassment” of Jews by blacks during the past two years. The JDL also claims that protests to the college administration have been ignored. De Santis, who said he was unaware that Jewish students had been protesting “beatings and harassment,” stated that he would look into the matter and report his findings to the JTA. But, he observed, the real causes of the existing tensions began when open enrollment was first proposed and supported by Kneller. The Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community, feared that open enrollment would result in the lowering of standards at the college and the “forcing out” of Jews to make room for black and Puerto Rican students. Neither has happened, De Santis observed. Rabbi Frimmer, who said he was aware of the black-white division at the S.U. canteen where, according to reports, Jewish and black students each have their own “territory,” noted that it was “natural” for different groups to congregate separately. He acknowledged that he had received reports from Jewish students of “muggings, beatings and harassment, but blacks were beaten and mugged too.” He said he knew of no blacks who “organized” to beat and harass Jews as Jews.

Rabbis Fischer and Frimmer expressed the belief that black-Jewish tensions on the campus began with the Ocean-Hill teachers’ union confrontation and the subsequent teachers’ strikes of 1968, and aggravated by the open enrollment controversy and the social and economic conditions in which blacks and Jews view each other as the “obstacle” to social aspirations. Several Jewish students, however, also recalled several incidents at the college that exacerbated tensions. A speech late last Oct, by a self-styled black educator, James Garrett, stirred up controversy when the director of the Center For Black Education in Washington, D.C., said among other things that, “It is the Jew in particular who has kept the black man under chains.” In Oct., also, one of two succahs erected at the college was toppled over by unknown persons, a swastika daubed on it and vandals stole paintings and other artifacts used as decorations. The melee on Tuesday was triggered when Rabbi Meir Kahane, national chairman of the JDL, after speaking on the campus about the plight of Soviet Jewry, marched with some 40 of his followers to the S.U. building and began to sing and dance in the “black section” of the canteen. JDL members told the JTA: “When by ‘hook or crook’ we got a Hebrew record into the jukebox and played it seven times, the blacks broke the record. They didn’t like the song on the record, so we decided to give it to them live.”

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