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Facing Each Other: Teaching about Black-Jewish Relations and the Media

Laurie Zoloth-Dorfman, Chair, Jewish Studies Department, San Francisco State University
Erna Smith, Chair, Department of Journalism, San Francisco State University

How can the complex social and historical relationship between African Americans and American Jews be addressed? The tense dynamics of this relationship have transformed several geographies into critical stories in the media narrative: Mississippi, Crown Heights, Oceanhill-Brownsville, and San Francisco State University's Malcolm X Plaza, where in 1994 a controversial mural of Malcolm X bordered with dollar signs, pools of blood, and Stars of David was painted by students and then removed by the university.

It was precisely because of this history that we decided to offer together a course that took a careful and scholarly look at how and why the news media seemed to focus so determinedly on the discord between Blacks and Jews.

Here is how we described the course in the syllabus: "Over the past several years, there has been a continuing theme reflected in the popular media: that of intractable tension between the Black and the Jewish communities. This theme is repeated throughout the press accounts of such events as the coverage of the Million Man March, the Crown Heights events, and the career of Louis Farrakhan. But to what extent is the theme a diversion from other, perhaps underreported, content, such as underlying social and structural conditions that both communities face? To what extent is the coverage missing the deeper story that is actually revealed in the advocacy press of each community? The class will explore through a close textual analysis the press accounts of specific contemporary events, look at accounts of parallel events in other historical periods, and monitor the ongoing press coverage as the class proceeds. "The class will focus on three historical events--the Civil Rights movement, the Crown Heights events, and the Million Man March--and monitor the ongoing press accounts of the semester's news."

In the contentious discourse about Black-Jewish relations, attention is drawn to action in the public square-speeches to crowds, pronouncements about groups, relations between strangers. But as we taught the class, a different dynamic began to emerge. The class offered a rare opportunity for pedagogical collaboration, a teaching of the epistemological issues that shaped the academic disciplines of journalism and of moral philosophy. Students saw how these different disciplines offered starting points to understand this complex set of issues. In thinking through the class, we knew that several things were central. We assured students that argument was not only permitted but was a core feature of the scholarship. Further, the analysis of the social and cultural "frames" in every portrayal was also a primary part of our work together.

We were intrigued by how our emerging colleagueship began to model for students-in many cases longstanding campus activists and antagonists-that alliances could be made precisely at the junction of difference. We came to argue that a close focus on this friendship--intimate, particular, and gender-specific-might allow a different approach to debate. Rather than a concern for rights and rhetoric alone, such an approach allows for an attention to relationships, lived experience--the classic commitments of the feminist method.

Our emerging colleagueship began to model for the students-in many cases longstanding campus activists and antagonists-that alliances could be made precisely at the junction of difference.

Teaching about race on an American campus is not easy. It was fall 1996 and the anti-affirmative action proposition swept to victory in the state as we taught. We made a pedagogical decision in the beginning to invite to the class a variety of actors in the discourse: the ADL came, as did a representative from the Nation of Islam. We invited participants in a local Black-Jewish dialogue group and Alan Boesak, who spoke both of the common theological commitments in prophetic and exilic traditions, and we invited Gary Lapow, a Jew who performed in the Freedom Singers throughout the voter registration drives in the Civil Rights movement. We asked the class to explore the Internet, and in addition to the assigned texts we asked the students to read two presses every week--The Final Call and The Forward--pto track how the contemporary news events of the semester were analyzed, framed, and reported.

Each day that we taught we were altered by the gesture-rare and infinitely fragile-of solidarity across race in America. Thinking about the complexities of the social construction of race, obligations toward the other, and the struggle to control narrative is a large and unfinished project. The possibilities of the creation of public discourse in the midst of this subject became for all of us, both teachers and students alike, the strongest possible argument for how to reimagine, without sentimentality or falsity, the distinction and the cause of the other.

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