Monday, June 15, 2020

  • Monday, June 15, 2020
  • Elder of Ziyon

Tensions between blacks and Jews in New York City increased dramatically during 1968.

The city started an experiment of a community-controlled school board in the largely black Ocean Hill/Brownsville neighborhood. That school board immediately fired 18 white, unionized  teachers, almost all Jewish (a 19th, who was black, was reinstated when the board realized they accidentally fired a black person.) Even though the teachers had no problems on their record, the new school superintendent said “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in the city. The black community will see to that.”

The heavily Jewish United Federation of Teachers, while liberal and sympathetic to the idea of having more black teachers, could not allow its teachers to be arbitrarily fired. So a teachers’ strike was called and for 36 days there was no school before an agreement was reached.

There was a lot of ugliness that happened during the strike, with the UFT accusing the black leaders of antisemitism in their lessons in Brownsville. Before the strike, one of the militant black leaders, Sonny Carson, and a group of blacks would go into schools and tell the Jewish teachers, “The Germans did not do a good enough job with the Jews.”

The strike ended on November 17, 1968, when the New York State Education Commissioner asserted state control over the Ocean Hill–Brownsville district. The dismissed teachers were reinstated. But the distrust and hate remained.

NEW YORK CITY - NOVEMBER 1966: Award-winning writer, distinguished academic and teacher, photographer, and musician Julius Lester poses for a portrait on November 29, 1966 in New York City, New York. This portrait was the cover image for Mr. Lester's 1967 folk album, Departures, for Vanguard Records. (Photo by David Gahr/Getty Images)

On December 26, the Julius Lester program which focused on black issues on user-supported WBAI radio had as a guest Lester Campbell,  one of the black teachers who was considered militant. He brought along an antisemitic poem that he said was written by a 14 year old black student of his. Lester thought it was important for him to read it, because he felt that the white community should know the feelings that the black community had about the episode. (Campbell thought Lester was crazy for wanting him to read it, knowing how incendiary it was.)

It is not easy to find the full text of this poem online nowadays, but here it is:

Hey, Jew boy, with that yamulka on your head

You pale faced Jew boy -- I wish you were dead

I can see you Jew boy -- no you can't hide

I got a scoop on you -- yeh, you gonna die

I'm sick of your stuff

Every time I turn 'round -- your pushin' my head deeper into the ground

I'm sick of hearing about your suffering in Germany

I'm sick about your escape from tyranny

I'm sick of seeing in everything I do

About the murder of 6 million Jews

Hitler's reign lasted for only 15 years

For that period of time you shed crocodile tears

My suffering lasted for over 400 years, Jew boy

And the white man only let me play with his toys

Jew boy, you took my religion and adopted it for you

But you know that black people were the original Hebrews

When the U.N. made Israel a free independent State

Little 4-and 5-year-old boys threw handgrenades

They hated the black Arabs with all their might

And you, Jew boy, said it was all right

Then you came to America, land of the free

And took over the school system to perpetrate white supremacy

Guess you know, Jew boy, there's only one reason you made it

You had a clean white face, colorless, and faded

I hated you Jew boy, because your hangup was the Torah

And my only hangup was my color.

Lester admitted that this was an ugly poem, but felt that if blacks and Jews should communicate, it should be based on honesty. He also felt that the hate expressed in the poem was not a fraction of the hate that black students experienced from their Jewish, white teachers (I saw accusations that teachers called black pupils the N-word, which seems unlikely.)

Notice how easily the poem moves from pure Jew hatred to libels against Israel, with obvious influences by the radical blacks who attempted in the 1960s to align with the Arabs against Israel.

The poem was discussed in the next couple of episodes of Lester’s show, with guests admitting that some blacks agreed with the sentiments of the poem but disagreeing on the extent of those feelings. Things got even uglier when a black parent leader said, “As far as I am concerned more power to Hitler. Hitler didn't make enough lampshades out of them. He didn't make enough belts out of them.”

Then the UFT issued a complaint against WBAI, demanding that its license be revoked, and the media jumped on the story that they weren’t aware of beforehand (showing how few blacks were in the media at the time.) This was the height of black and Jewish tensions in the city.

I don’t think that Julius Lester was antisemitic, and I take him at his word that he felt it was important that people hear the hate uncensored. But he did have some problematic justifications for black antisemitism:

            I'm willing to admit that anti-Semitism is a vile phenomenon. It's a phenomenon which I don't totally understand as it has existed in the world. It's a phenomenon which has caused millions upon millions of people to lose their lives. However, I think that it's a mistake to equate black anti-Semitism with the anti-Semitism which exists in Germany, in Eastern Europe, and in the Middle East. If black people had the capability of organizing and carrying out a pogrom against the Jews, then there would be quite a bit to fear. Black people do not have that capability. Not only do blacks not have the capability, I doubt very seriously if blacks even have the desire. Part of the present controversy is coming about because no one has bothered to try and see that black anti-Semitism, if it can be called that, and I'm not sure it can, is a much different phenomenon. It is a different phenomenon because the power relationships which exist in this country are different. In Germany, the Jews were the minority surrounded by a majority which carried out against them rather heinous crimes. In America, it is we who are the Jews. It is we who are surrounded by a hostile majority. It is we who are constantly under attack. There is no need for black people to wear yellow Stars of David on their sleeves; that Star of David is all over us. In the city of New York a situation exists where black people, being powerless, are seeking to gain a degree of power over their lives and in the institutions which affect their lives. It so happens that in many of those institutions, the people who hold the power are Jews. Now in the attempt to gain power, if there is resistance by Jews to that, then of course blacks are going to respond.

            When a powerless people begin to fight for the power to control, and have some say over their own lives, then the first thing they will do is to verbally hurt the most immediate enemy. In this particular instance, that hurt, the articulation, the demand that the colonizer listen, is accomplished in a violent manner, like the language of the poem. In this particular instance, the language sets off a historical response which has no relationship to what black people are talking about.

Lester’s attempt to downplay black antisemitism as merely a subset of blacks responding to being oppressed by whites is disingenuous. Black antisemites were attacking Jews as Jews, glorifying Hitler as a hero, deliberately choosing to find things to say that would maximize hurting Jews. Whether they had the ability to start a pogrom is hardly the issue – and, as we saw in Crown Heights years later, they gained that ability.

I do agree that I would rather see antisemitism and racism in all its ugliness, not sanitized by the media. The poem and quote indicate real hate for Jews (despite Lester’s apologetics) and it doesn’t help anyone to softpedal or minimize it, as news stories of the day did by only quoting the first two lines.

I don’t think that there was any reason to pull WBAI’s license, and the FCC agreed.

The most interesting postscript: Julius Lester had a Jewish great-grandfather who married a former slave in the US. And Lester himself converted to Judaism in 1982.



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Elder of Ziyon - حـكـيـم صـهـيـون



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