Jews in America have been important partners for African-Americans and their universities, said administrators of five Historically Black Colleges and Universities on Wednesday.
“There are certainly many examples through our history of the collaboration between the Jewish community and African American communities and HBCUs,” said Colonel Alexander Conyers, president of South Carolina State University, in Jerusalem.
He pointed to the example of “Rosenwald schools,” the 5,000 schools built across 15 Southern states from 1912 to 1932. The effort was an outgrowth of a collaboration between Julius Rosenwald, the son of German Jewish immigrants and Sears executive, and Booker T. Washington, the renowned educator born into slavery in Virginia.
In the years they operated, Rosenwald schools educated one-third of rural Black children in the South, estimated at more than 663,000 students, including writer Maya Angelou, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and playwright and director George Wolfe.
Rosenwald believed that Jews should uniquely sympathize with the plight of African-Americans, writing, “The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race, on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer.”
“On our campus today is still an original Rosenwald school that we maintained in honor of his contributions to educating African American youth,” said Conyers.
“Strategic partnerships were born between those individuals in the civil rights movement and the Jewish population,” added David Wilson, president of Morgan State University in Baltimore.
The Civil Rights Movement was the high water mark for an alliance of Jews and Blacks who saw a common cause. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched from Selma to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr., and two Jewish activists, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and the Black civil rights worker James Chaney were murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan when they were registering Mississippi’s Black citizens to vote as part of 1964’s Freedom Summer.
The educators were in Israel as part of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s second annual capacity-building mission to the country.
The aim of the trip, according to TMCF, is to “forge relationships with Israeli institutions of higher learning, advance TMCF member school strategic plan goals of expanding student study abroad and research programs, and faculty research and exchange opportunities.”
They met with leaders of Tel Aviv University, The Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Hai Academic College, MIGAL Galilee Research Institute, Volcani Research Center, and Shenkar Academic College.
The trip comes after several high-profile incidents that, to many, indicated that the Black-Jewish relationship in the US is in need of urgent work.
Last year, rapper Kanye West made headlines for antisemitic comments and Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving promoted an antisemitic film.
There has also been violence. In 2019, an attack by two Black Hebrew Israelites — a movement that sees contemporary Jews as imposters — on a New Jersey kosher grocery store left six people dead.
But the academic leaders visiting Israel said they did not sense a crisis in the relationship.
“I think you have probably had instances where an incident has been characterized as a much more significant event than it really was from a national perspective,” said Harold Martin, chancellor of North Carolina A&T State University.
“I’ve not seen any evidence of a significant level of tension in America related to African Americans and the Jewish community.”
Quinton Ross, president of Alabama State University, noted that Montgomery — what he called “the birthplace of the civil rights movement” — had recently elected Phillip Ensler, a Jewish attorney, to the Alabama House of Representatives.
It was an honor to join other Jewish leaders from throughout the country for Jewish American Heritage month at the White House!
Ross added that Alabama State athletic teams visit local communities and institutions, including the historic Temple Beth Or in Montgomery.
“We have this philosophy we have to go to know,” said Ross. “Relations are those of intimate respect for one another and understanding the trials and tribulations of each other.”
Martin said that in Greensboro, North Carolina, “amongst our partners have been members of the Jewish community — Emmanuel Temple, which sits in Greensboro, and the Rabbi, who has driven much of that discussion and views themselves as a partner of our institution today.”
On Juneteenth last year, Temple Emanuel held an event telling the story of one of its congregants who was involved in desegregating local businesses during the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement.
Though there is work to be done in deepening the understanding of Israelis around Black history in the US, the group was impressed by what they encountered.
“There is a perspective that is not as fully thought through in terms of the African American experience in America,” said Martin. “But what has been evident to us is that there is a clear embracing of diversity and inclusion in this country from a different perspective, from the Jewish, Arab, Ethiopian, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. There’s inclusivity in a nation that knows it’s going to be dependent on this very diverse workforce well into the future.
“It’s a nation that’s making investments into helping that diversity, even through conflict,” Martin continued.
They were especially struck by the personal stories of Ethiopian Israelis they heard at the Batae Cultural Center in Tel Aviv.
“I think we came away with the understanding that there is a desire on the part of students at the institutions we visited to understand the African American experience,” said Wilson.
The group emphasized the role HCBUs play in that history, and in creating opportunity and prosperity for African-Americans.
“There was no window of opportunity for the sons and daughters of newly freed slaves to taste the ideals embedded in the Constitution,” Wilson said.
“These institutions have not just survived, they have thrived and they have given rise to the Black middle class in America,” said Harry Williams, TMCF president and CEO. “There’s no question about that. There’s no argument about that. If indeed the United States did not have the 100-plus HBCUs, it would need to invent them.”
“One cannot have a serious conversation about the long-term competitiveness of the United States without having HBCUs to be at the center of that discussion. HBCUs have transformed America,” he said.
Some 40% of Black lawmakers and engineers graduated from HBCUs, as did 50% of Black lawyers, and 80% of Black doctors.
“That’s why when we talk about HBCUs, we don’t stumble, we don’t stutter,” said Wilson. “We are very clear about their impact.”
JTA contributed to this report.
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