July 18, 2024

Black college president says it's time to fix Black-Jewish relations – The Washington Post

NEW ORLEANS — After two Black celebrities were accused of antisemitism in late 2022, the new president of Dillard University, a historically Black college, worried the relationship between Black and Jewish Americans was being tested.
Dillard had once run a national center that promoted research on the historical alliance between these two communities, Rochelle Ford had learned. That center was needed again, she decided, launching a fundraising campaign for its $200,000-a-year budget among religious groups and academic leaders.
Ford’s work had just begun when it become entangled by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Israeli response and the subsequent fallout between many in the Jewish community and Black-led organizations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Movement for Black Lives, which have been critical of the Israeli government.
The relaunch of the once-lauded center — and her subsequent speech at a rally for Israel — ushered Ford, 52, into a tense national debate on U.S. support for Israel that has rocked college campuses across the country, upset some Dillard students and alumni and raised larger questions about the alliance between the Black community and Jewish Americans.
At Dillard, meanwhile, some students and alumni complained that the administration appeared to be putting the desires of potential donors ahead of their concerns for the Palestinian people.
“All the alumni I was talking to were trying to figure out what’s going on. Is the president trying to get a big donation?,” said Leslie Grover, a 1998 graduate who remembers the center from her time on campus. Many in the Black community see a parallel between the historical mistreatment of Black Americans and the plight of Muslims in Israel and the Palestinian territories, she said.
Recent polling has shown that Black Americans are less likely to be supportive of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians than White Americans. While 38 percent of White Americans side mostly or entirely with Israel in the war in Gaza, just 13 percent of Black Americans do, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll.
During the civil rights movement, the majority of Black Americans were pro-Israel and saw their interests as aligned because “if we can have Jewish nationalism, that legitimizes Black nationalism,” Adam S. Meyer, associate professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University, said. Jewish leaders were often at the front lines of the movement, including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish men killed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 after they helped register Black voters in Mississippi.
Indeed, Dillard itself has had a long relationship with the local Jewish community. When the university was founded in 1930, much of the money to open the school came from local Jewish supporters.
But more recently Black Lives Matters supporters and Palestinian activists have formed an alliance, launched amid the protests in Ferguson, Mo., after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown.
Myers said those views hardened as Israel began to be viewed more as an occupying force in Gaza and Black sympathies shifted to Palestinians. “I think that’s still where that is today,” he said.
Those sentiments have riled many in the Jewish community, including Julianna Margulies, the actress known for “The Good Wife,” who voiced frustration that more Black Americans weren’t supporting Israel.
“The fact that the entire Black community isn’t standing with us, to me, says either they just don’t know, or they’ve been brainwashed to hate Jews,” she said on the podcast “The Back Room With Andy Ostroy.”
Margulies later apologized, but her statement underlined the delicate nature of the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities.
“Blacks and Jews have been more reliable allies for each other than Blacks and any other White group,” said Samuel Freedman, whose recent book “Into the Bright Sunshine” traced the origins of the alliance. “And I think it’s partly because they’ve been such strong allies that there’s an unrealistic expectation that they’ll be in sync all the time.”
Ford, who was named Dillard president in 2022, was still getting to know the school’s history when she was thrust into the national debate. She had been recruited from Elon University, a small predominantly White private college in North Carolina, to take over leadership of the college just two miles from New Orleans’s famous French Quarter.
Ford was facing a big challenge. Hurricane Katrina had devastated the 55-acre, oak-tree-filled Dillard campus and drove the university, which has about 1,200 students, to the brink of financial collapse. The campus has been rebuilt, but the budget remains tight. There is still no degree program in history.
That meant Ford would need outside donors to help relaunch the university’s National Center for Black-Jewish Relations.
Dillard’s original center was founded in 1989 to address what Samuel DuBois Cook, then Dillard’s president and a veteran of the civil rights movement, saw as rising hostilities between the African American and Jewish communities.
At the time, many Jewish people were upset that some Black Americans had embraced the presidential run of Jesse Jackson, who disparagingly referred to New York City as “Hymietown,” a slur against Jewish people, and drew the support of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam whose statements have been condemned as antisemitic.
For more than a decade, the center hosted an annual conference that brought together scholars from the Jewish and Black communities to discuss how to mend their divide. The first conference’s theme was “Healing the Broken Community.”
Through a center program, Shirley Williams-Kane, who graduated from Dillard in 1997, said she attended several weekend classes at a New Orleans synagogue and watched as students were taught about their Jewish history. “That was one of the experiences that inspired me to start teaching Black history classes in my community on my own,” said Kane, who now works as a college educational consultant.
Since Ford relaunched the center last year, Dillard has held joint service programs with local Jewish students and documentary screenings on campus, including a film on the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, which resulted in 11 deaths.
It also sent a small group of Dillard students to Israel.
“That trip was life-changing,” said Derrick Webb, who graduated from Dillard in May. “To actually understand someone else’s experiences and traumas, you have to immerse yourself in their culture.”
During that time, Ford was also traveling the country to raise money and build relationships with peers at Yeshiva University, a private Orthodox Jewish university in New York City, and Brandeis University in Massachusetts, which was founded by the Jewish community.
Ford estimated that a national center would need a $200,000 yearly operating budget. So far, she has been able to secure a few small grants from Interfaith America, a nonprofit that promotes cooperation across religious groups. She is still looking for major funding.
The center could help raise the overall profile of the college among all types of potential donors, she said. “And that means that we’ll have better facilities and that means people might want to invest in us to help our faculty to learn and grow and do better,” Ford said.
But that all came to a screeching halt on Oct. 7, when about 1,200 people in Israel were killed in an attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Since then, more than 34,000 people have been killed and 77,000 injured during the resulting warfare in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
“We paused on aggressively seeking funds because of the terrorist attack and the ensuing war because I didn’t want it to seem opportunistic,” Ford said.
She still had a months-planned meeting on her calendar to speak with Ari Berman, the president of Yeshiva University, on Oct. 11.
“I could feel his pain,” Ford said. “So I said, ‘Listen, you are not alone. You have people like me who are going to be here praying for you and helping to lift you up.’”
Berman said he agreed to have Yeshiva partner with Dillard on the center, which he considers a critical opportunity to strengthen the bond between the Jewish and Black communities.
“Perhaps we need to express better to the Black community, the multiracial, diverse Jewish community,” he said in an interview. “And to grow the Jewish community’s understanding of the Black American experience both past and present.”
After their call, Ford and Berman began working on a letter titled “We Stand Together With Israel Against Hamas.” The organizers of the March for Israel, planning a demonstration on the National Mall, soon invited Ford to speak at a November event, which drew a crowd of thousands. One segment of the march was dedicated to the rise of antisemitism on college campuses.
Organizers wanted to include a university president and thought of Ford’s letter with Berman, said Eric Fingerhut, president of Jewish Federations of North America, one of the groups that organized the march. “When I talked to her she shared with me her faith-based approach to this issue … and it was just so beautiful and moving,” he said.
Ford spoke for about five minutes, asking the crowd to pray for not just Israeli victims but also the Palestinians who had lost their lives since the Israeli offensive began.
“I ask you to join me in pausing to acknowledge that there have been too many innocent people in Gaza and in Israel who have died,” she said.
Praise came pouring in.
Her speech was “brave,” said Bill Hess, a member of the Dillard’s board of trustees, whose family has had a four-generation-long relationship with Dillard, starting with his great-grandfather Julius Rosenwald, a part-owner of Sears, Roebuck and Co., who used his fortune to support education for Black Americans. “She was one of the few college presidents who right away condemned the attack that happened on October 7th and she has stood with that,” he said.
The revived center’s work is critical, said Hess, who sits on its advisory committee. “There’s apprehension in some quarters of the Jewish community that African Americans have the wrong impression of us and sort of abandoned the Jewish community,” Hess said.
But the backlash to Ford’s appearance in Washington was swift.
On social media, students and alumni criticized her for attending what they saw as an event that dehumanized Palestinians and an affront to the university’s civil rights legacy. Some students led a silent walkout.
“I want to make it abundantly clear that myself and many other students at Dillard University do not support the stance of our president,” one student posted on X.
Skye Spencer, a political science major at Dillard, and a small group of other students met with Ford soon after she returned to campus. But the meeting felt like a gesture rather than a substantive conversation, she said. “All she would say is ‘I hear you and I understand,’ but she wouldn’t really give us meaningful feedback or apologize.”
Spencer said she supports Ford’s efforts to revitalize the center but is worried it will conflate issues facing Jewish Americans with those facing Israel. “The center needs to focus on the hate that is currently being spewed towards Black people and towards Jewish people,” she said.
Grover, the 1998 Dillard graduate, said she was upset by Ford’s presence at the march, which she considered part of an effort to justify Israel’s actions in Gaza. But then she noticed that the university had closed the comments section on some of its social media posts about the event. That was “the final straw for me,” she said.
“It felt like they were telling students their voices didn’t matter, and that’s the very opposite of what I was taught at Dillard,” said Grover, managing editor of PushBlack, a nonprofit media organization focused on Black Americans.
A lot has changed since the 1980s, when the center was initially launched and Dillard’s leaders should think hard about what a 21st-century center for Black-Jewish relations should look like, she said.
“A lot of Jewish people contributed to the campus, a lot of them took a role in civil rights, there was a lot of schooling for Black people that Jewish people paid for, and I completely understand and appreciate that allyship from the Jewish community,” Grover said.
But times have changed, she said. “That historical allyship definitely does not give them the right to expect us to center Israel and Zionism just because they do.”
The backlash from students and alumni was surprising, Ford said, but it also strengthened her belief in the need for the center. Fundraising remains on pause, she said, but she is still trying to build new relationships between Black and Jewish leaders to support the effort.
Relaunching the center is about “ending hate and trying to build bridges between our two communities,” she said.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said Dillard doesn’t have a degree program in mathematics. It has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and actuarial science. The article has been corrected.

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