New Jersey Jewish News
Series examines a troubled era in black-Jewish relations
Long after the teachers went back to work, the New York teachers strike of 1968 still affected the way blacks and Jews related to each other. The Highland Park Conservative Temple and Center hosted a weekend of events Jan. 21-22 examining the infamous Ocean Hill-Brownsville controversy and its decade-long impact.
Its a story of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and hubris on both sides each side asked for the impossible, ignoring the needs of each group, said Jerald Podair. An associate professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, Podair was one of two speakers included in the synagogues program The Strike that Changed New York: the 1968 Ocean Hill Brownsville School Crisis and the Transformation of Urban Race Relations and Liberal Politics in New York City and the Nation.
Included were a screening of the film Brownsville: Black and White, lectures by two historians, and a discussion session. Directed by the late filmmaker Richard Broadman, Brownsville: Black and White was completed posthumously by his colleagues and students.
The film describes how poor Jewish and African-American teens banded together in the 1940s and formed the Brownsville Boys Club, joining together on integrated sports teams. Broadmans film includes personal testimony of several members of the club and archival pictures as it describes how relations between the two groups foundered in 1968, when the United Federation of Teachers squared off with the Brownsville Board of Education. (Since then the clubs founding members have held two reunions one attended mostly by blacks, one by whites.)
The dispute began with a contract debate, moved into a job action when union leaders were notified they had lost their teaching jobs, and included several strikes before an agreement was reached in 1969. The strike pitted Jewish teachers against black parents and administrators in a dispute over who should control the schools and the hiring and firing of educators.
At the time the teachers union members were predominately white and Jewish while the school board and the students were black, Podair explained in his lecture at the synagogue. School officials felt that blacks should run the schools in their community, not the union, not the [white] teachers, he said. Meanwhile the white teachers were afraid they would lose their jobs under new school board policies.
During the dispute, black leaders circulated anti-Semitic literature and made anti-Semitic remarks publicly, further dividing the two camps. Jews were mocked and called Zionist dogs, Podair said. Julius Lester, then host of a black radio program in New York, read a poem on the air that stated: Hey, Jew boy with that yarmulke on your head, Hey Jew boy I wish you were dead. (Today Lester is a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about his conversion to Judaism.)
At no time did the black community acknowledge the anti-Semitism, Podair said. Years later, when he interviewed many of the players for his book, they still denied any anti-Semitism.
Labor historian Steve Golin discussed the film after its Jan. 21 screening at the synagogue. Podair, author of The Strike that Changed New York and an adviser on the documentary, spoke Jan. 22. In all, more than 120 people attended one or both of the weekends activities.
I want people to get beyond blame, Golin said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News. At the time the two sides genuinely, sincerely, and passionately blamed each other. The film was trying to get beyond that.
Golin is a labor historian who taught for 32 years at Bloomfield College. His most recent book, The Newark Teacher Strikes: Hopes on the Line, also is about a teachers strike that involved the blurring of class and racial issues and affected the status of Jewish teachers and administrators. At the time, the teachers union and its power was a new thing, Golin said. Teachers were feeling that they had just barely won their rights; at the same time, the black power movement was even newer.
It was two movements that were very young and very powerful, Golin said. The film showed how decent people can find themselves in potentially violent confrontations. Today a teacher walkout causes people to grumble, but its not something you want to beat someone up for.
Leslie Fishbein of Highland Park, who is on the organizing committee for the synagogues film series, said she chose the documentary because she had seen it and found it incredibly moving. It was a subject she thought would, and did, spark audience discussion on both evenings.
Its a critical issue I feel the Jewish community has not adequately explored, she said shortly before introducing Podair. The strike permanently changed the way politics were done, not just between Jews and blacks.
Fishbein added, It was interesting to me to figure out what promoted these alliances and how they survived despite black nation-building, she said. Were still facing the same kinds of issues discrimination.
Its a story of miscommunication, said Podair, referring to misunderstanding and hubris on both sides, each side asking for the impossible, ignoring the needs of each group.
Birth of multiculturalism
In his talk, Podair said the crisis gave birth to a host of issues, including the demand for multiculturalism within American education.
Many trace New York City race relations to this incident, Podair said. Ocean Hill-Brownsville is remembered today, not for what it did to blacks and whites, but for what it did to blacks and Jews. In 1968 Jews were more accustomed to [politically] battling white Catholics than blacks.
The teachers labor dispute also changed the way Jews related to white non-Jews, he added.
In the 60s in the Jewish community, there was a profound ambivalence of white identity, Podair said. Being white, to New Yorks Jewish community, meant identifying with white Catholics, who were predominately Irish and Italian. [Jews and Catholics] lived in two different worlds they went to different schools, held different kinds of jobs and vastly different religious traditions; they even read different newspapers. The liberal Jews read the Post and Catholics read the Daily News.
The teachers strike pushed those two worlds together. It was the Irish Catholic police officers who joked with the striking Jewish teachers they were protecting from picket line violence.
The strike pushed [Jews] closer to their neighbors, Podair said.
If anyone had asked in 1968 how Jews would have voted between a black Democrat and a white Italian Catholic, they never would have believed that in 1993 Jews would support Republican Rudolph Giuliani over black Democratic Mayor David Dinkins, he said.
Ocean Hill-Brownsville made these outcomes possible, Podair said. After Brownsville, the outer borough Jewish populations never again supported a liberal mayoral candidate.
The documentary and lectures were sponsored by the American Jerusalem Academy for Contemporary Judaic Studies, the adult education arm of the temple. The synagogue will offer three additional movies as part of its film series. Upcoming Saturday evening screenings in the film series include The Revolt of Job on March 4 and Hiding and Seeking on March 25. For more information, contact Udi Shorr or by telephone 732-819-9850.
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