Written by Aubrey Lurie May 28, 2013
At a recent visit to the fairly new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Penn., I discovered an exhibit on a subject I had absolutely no knowledge of previously. The exhibit displayed an interaction between Jews and blacks beginning in the South in the 1930s. At least 12 percent of faculty members at German universities were Jewish.
After the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, many Jewish academicians in German universities were summarily dismissed from their faculty positions. Universities such as Princeton, Harvard and Stanford snapped up top German-Jewish scientists or physicists like Albert Einstein. Most academicians, however, encountered great difficulties finding positions in the United States or Great Britian. The Great Depression, unemployment, restrictive immigration laws, difficulties of acquiring exit visas, xenophobia and anti-Semitism were prevalent. Fifty-three Jewish scholars were offered positions in traditionally black colleges, mostly in the South, such as Tougaloo in Jackson, Tenn., Talladega in Alabama, Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark., the Hampton Institute in Virginia and Howard University in Washington, D.C. Many of the black colleges were started after the Civil War by Christian groups to educate freed slaves. The Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars funded 10 scholars to find positions, but younger and lesser-known academicians had to find jobs on their own.
Ironically, the refugee scholars who found work in black colleges were often more comfortable in the black colleges and communities than others in white universities who encountered anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant prejudices.
The exhibit at the NMAJH focused on a few of the refugee professors – Ernst Borinski, Ernst Manasse, Lore and Donald Rasmussen and George Iggers. Their tenures occurred from the late 1930s through the 1960s including the Civil Rights era.
Ernst Borinski had worked as a magistrate, judge and professor in Germany, leaving in 1938. He joined Tougaloo as a professor of Ssociology in 1947, remaining there until his death in 1983, and is buried on the campus. George Iggers taught at Philander Smith College in Little Rock in the 1950s, and was active in the NAACP. Iggers fought for the opening of all library facilities to African-Americans and was one of the first white members of the black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma. Iggers stated that “racial segregation reminded me a lot of Nazi Germany, except that I wasn’t the victim — the black population was.” He and his wife, Wilma, also a refugee, led an undercover investigation of conditions at local black and white high schools, and their report of unequal education was used by the NAACP in the Brown v. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court that struck down segregation in public schools. John Herz taught at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Herz described himself becoming “color blind” explaining that after spending a short time teaching black students in the South, “I didn’t have the impression any more that there were different people sitting in front of me.”
The German scholars taught their students in the highly formal and rigorous academic standards of German education teaching methods. They introduced students to the rich world of European literature, classical music, poetry and art. They also emphasized the importance of physical labor like picking cotton. Donald Rasmussen and Lore Rasmussen were arrested having lunch at a blacks-only cafe in Birmingham, Ala. Lore Rasmussen was freed to go but was not allowed to ride home alone with her black student, and so she stayed in jail with her husband, until a black dentist posted bail.
Borinski was labeled a “race agitator” for promoting integration on and off campus. He created the Social Science Forums that hosted lectures and discussion with top thinkers of the time. He asked the Tougaloo students to arrive early and to scatter themselves in the room so that white participants would have to sit amongst the black students, often for their first time. The Mississippi branch of the ACLU gives out an annual award in Borinski’s name.
Borinski emphasized his students not to be victims, and stated, “I am not from here, I am not even from America, but when I see the kinds of laws you have here, I assure you that they cannot last very long. I don’t want you to accept any one of them.”
The exhibit is based on the book “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black College” by Gabrielle Simon Edgecombe published in 1993, as well as a PBS documentary in 2000. I was not able to consult either, nor could I find a list of all 53 scholars who taught at Black colleges.
Lettie Cottin Pgrebin in her 1991 autobiography, “Deborah, Golda and Me,” stated that Black-Jewish relationships rested on a common history of oppression. The Rabbi-historian, Arthur Hertzberg, termed the shared vital interests, the “comradeship of excluded peoples.” However, Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine, stated in 1988, that American Jews were no longer among the oppressed, but should still continue to see themselves among the threatened. Yet, Edward S. Shapiro, writing in “First Things” writes that the major problems facing American Jews today is maintaining Jewish identity in the midst of affluence, acculturation and declining anti-Semitism. The major problems facing most Blacks are economic survival, family breakdown and continuing racial prejudice.
What of present day Jewish-black attitudes to each other? I discern a disinterest of blacks to the history of anti-Jewish prejudice, be it as far-back as the Christian concept of Jews being the killers of Christ, or the mass murder in Europe of Jews in the Holocaust. My perception is that to blacks Jews are affluent whites with white prejudices. Blacks are not particularly partial to Israel and likely question the large monetary support given by the U.S. to Israel. If blacks convert to Islam, then there is definite antagonism to Israel and much support of the Palestinian/Arab populations.
I perceive, in second- and third-generation American Jews, a lukewarm support of blacks, if not overt racism. Of interest to me is that the “Jewish vote” which traditionally was solidly Democratic is nowadays split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, with more growth amongst the latter as Jews get more integrated, affluent and acculturated.
Thus, the exhibit at the NMAJH reflects an interesting and little-known aspect of Jewish life in the 3½ centuries of Jewish life in this country.