'How numb we are toward violence'

February 09, 1994|By Frank Rich

IN A WEEK in which Louis Farrakhan endorsed the "truths" in his aide's Kean College aria of hate about Jewish "bloodsuckers," here's one story about an angry confrontation between blacks and Jews with a tentatively happy ending.

On Martin Luther King Day last month, 69 students from Castlemont High School in Oakland, Calif., most of them black and Latino, went on a field trip to see "Schindler's List." An hour into the movie, a small but loud group of the students laughed and joked during a scene in which a Nazi shoots a Jewish woman in the head. When others in the audience stormed out to complain, the theater's management stopped the film and ejected all the students. Then someone called the press, throwing the story onto the front page and the community into an uproar.

"I've never seen such furious, hurt customers," Allen Michaan, the theater's owner, told the Los Angeles Times. "Some were Holocaust survivors, and one woman was sobbing."

One of the ejected students, Shalon Paige, 14, said that her friends didn't want to see a three-hour black-and-white movie "about that war." She added: "It was long ago and far away and about people we never met. We don't know about those concentration camps, but I do hear a lot of Jew jokes."

These ugly flames were fanned by radio talk shows. The besieged Castlemont students held crisis forums. By week's end, they delivered a stirring public apology at a news conference, saying that they sympathized "with those we offended" and asking for a chance "to rise above this."

Simultaneously, local Jewish organizations offered that chance, pitching in to help develop an elaborate new Holocaust curriculum for Castlemont.

More than 30 camp survivors volunteered to visit the school to speak about their experiences.

"This incident had nothing to do with anti-Semitism," concluded Rabbi Allen Bennett of the local Jewish Community Relations Council. He and other Jewish leaders took the students at their word when they blamed the disruption at "Schindler's List" on their ignorance of history, their immaturity and their desensitization to violence.

"We see death and violence in our community all the time," explained Mirabel Corral, 16, one of the students ejected from the movie. "People cannot understand how numb we are toward violence." Next to the real thing, the black-and-white bloodshed of "Schindler's List" looked laughably fake.

There is nothing fake about the happy ending at Castlemont. The school earned the "Courage to Care Award" it received Monday night at a dinner attended by Gov. Pete Wilson at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Yet this battle in the larger war for the future of American teen-agers like Shalon Paige and Mirabel Corral continues.

On one side are committed adults, black and Jewish alike, who pull together to quell a potential disaster like the one in Oakland. On the other are demagogues who will try to fill the heads of the desensitized inner-city young with paranoid fantasies.

Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the Farrakhan aide whose diatribe at Kean College included a rationalization of Hitler's extermination of the Jews, is hardly wilting in the face of his new notoriety; his audience is growing. He played to an overflow crowd of 900 at the University of Florida in Gainesville last Tuesday night and to a full house at Baltimore City Community College last Saturday night.

In its coverage of the speeches, the Jewish newspaper The Forward wrote: "That Mr. Muhammad is continuing to attract large numbers of followers on college campuses is a testament to the widespread acceptance of his anti-Semitic, anti-white message -- and to the difficulties college officials are having in trying to curb such hatred."

Mr. Muhammad would have a harder time selling his hate at Castlemont High or anywhere else where Jews and blacks have joined together to fill the vacuum of ignorance with education. But battling demagogy requires time and hands-on work as well as good will, from the ground up.

Young people who have never heard of concentration camps are no more likely to be reached by remote politicians' condemnations of Mr. Muhammad than they are to be moved by the cinematic Holocaust of "Schindler's List."

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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