Black-Jewish dialogue is threatened by extremists

April 19, 1994|By Freeman A. Hrabowski & Walter Sondheim

NOT LONG ago at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Jewish students, faculty and staff sat down to a Seder. As their forebears had done for thousands of years, they broke bread, retelling the story of the Jews' deliverance from slavery.

They also broke tradition. That evening, they were joined by African-American students and staff, who read from their books and sang with the Gospel Choir, celebrating their liberation from slavery.

The issues for this Seder were race, ethnicity, religion and freedom -- and the problem of communication between these two groups, not only at UMBC, but everywhere.

Over the last half-century, we have worked hard to guarantee the rights of people of different races and religions. But now, remarks from extremists and firebrand books by radical academics are dividing us again, acting as a wedge to split the black and Jewish communities. These people use unfounded characterizations to condemn entire groups. And although freedom to make those statements is a basic right, many of the remarks go unchallenged. We must speak out against the extremists. We must ensure that our children know the value of respecting diversity, and we must show them how to respond to extremism.

We feel these undercurrents in colleges and universities everywhere. At UMBC, we are going through a period where students have been offended by language used in college newspaper articles written by both white and African-American students. The university, by its very nature, encourages open discussion, no matter how sensitive the issue. So it is inevitable that students express discomfort when friction arises, or even when they speak about race, ethnicity and religion. And as we attempt to foster among them the most constructive discussion, we, too, learn a lot about the sources of racial and ethnic intolerance.

Princeton scholar Cornel West, author of "Race Matters," and Michael Lerner, editor of the Jewish intellectual review Tikkun, are two of America's leading intellectuals who are co-authoring a book on black-Jewish relations. They speak eloquently on these issues, and both have done so recently at UMBC. Both have focused on the intertwined history of these minority groups. The two say that honest speech and sensitive listening must be coupled with opportunities for people from either group to learn about and respect the other.

This message is much more powerful and compelling than isolated diatribes. Remember that those who use hate-filled language are extremists, and the vast majority of us are offended.

National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" recently featured Bebe Moore Campbell, African-American author of "Your Blues Ain't Like Mine." She sharply countered "gangsta rappers" who say their lyrics simply reflect the realities of life in the " 'hood." Quite the contrary, Ms. Campbell insists, there are many people in the 'hood who want their children to have a good education, who have strong spiritual beliefs, who abhor violence and who think it distasteful to use profanity. Ms. Campbell asserts that "both the youngbloods and the public need to be reminded that gangsta rappers have been given no authority from the almighty 'hood to represent it or anyone who lives there. The only so-called 'ghetto' they can speak for is the one that's in their minds."

Unfortunately, far too many American children, who are so impressionable, and their parents do not know people from other back grounds. Not knowing one another means that it is almost impossible for one to trust another. History and current events have taught us that the terribly destructive power of ignorance and hate, if left unchecked, can prevail over reason and understanding.

An enlightened society is one in which people not only learn how to think critically, but also to understand and appreciate other people's points of view. Surely, this country needs much more, not less, dialogue between people of different backgrounds and beliefs. But in the wake of the recent stream of divisive statements and responses, mounting tension has caused people good will to feel reluctant to speak out.

All of us have a huge stake in ensuring that this atmosphere does not become so polluted that free expression -- the breath of life in a free society -- is not stifled. More dialogue will occur only if we can create a climate in which all of us feel free to express ourselves without fear of being misunderstood, intimidated or of being placed on the defensive. How we express ourselves -- always emphasizing civility and respect for one another -- will determine whether we elevate the level of discussion and mutual understanding or simply increase misunderstanding and tension.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Walter Sondheim is chairman of the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

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