Jewish Civil Rights Veterans Discuss Student Activism

On Tuesday, March 24th, four Jewish civil rights veterans spoke in a panel organized by the Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS) and Kehilah. In Bond Hall, Dorothy Zellner, Ira Grupper, Larry Rubin and Mark Levy shared their extensive experiences in civil rights and other activist issues. Zellner, Grupper and Rubin in particular worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key group involved in civil disobedience movements in the segregated South in the 1960s.  Levy was a coordinator in a Freedom School in Meridian, Mississippi during 1964.

Allison Alcena ‘17, the SASS Civil and Political Action Coordinator, moderated the panel and first asked them what lessons they learned from being activists. Levy said his first and quickest lesson was that the local people who invited the activists to come were extremely brave. Coming from the north, they had to “leave white middle class attitudes behind” and instead learn from the local population. Grupper warned against complacency, and that “you don’t get anything without fighting for it.” He also emphasized the importance to economic justice in the fight for racial equality. Rubin said that overcoming differences among communities were important and admonished the today’s generation where people may confuse disseminating information with active organizing efforts. Zellner highlighted the “incredible power” of ordinary people, which surprised her. She said SNCC grew from an organization of a few dozen to hundreds of thousands of people.

They then touched upon police brutality, in the light of the recent killings of African-American males such as Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Grupper noted that integration of police forces was insufficient.  Instead, what was needed was a monitoring of the police to meet the needs of the people. Rubin differentiated today’s police brutality and decades prior by noting that the police brutality of the 1960s was seen as illegal. Today, he believes the legal system proved insufficient when it came to civil rights. He characterized stand-your-ground laws and other legal norms as a “modern day lynching.” By contrast, Zellner noted that brutality was everywhere, and not just caused by the police. During segregation, she recalled that employers, shopkeepers, libraries and doctors were also sources of brutality. However, she warned against “the fiction that we have a post-racial society.” Levy showed disappointment at the fact Ferguson’s heavily reliance on issuing traffic tickets substituted for a fair tax system.

Next, they discussed effective ways to spread a message and the issue of apathy. Grupper recalled the difficulty of establishing rapport with the black community due to the fact that he was white and had to deal with such a historical legacy. Rubin emphasized getting together with people to find out their “genuine self-interest” and ensure people worked together to achieve them. He recalled an incident where a white deputy sheriff supported his union-organizing efforts as it helped his brother to get a raise in a plant, despite the plant having 80% black workers. Zellner noted that our generation “all have a very hard job” to get people to care about social issues. She emphasized engaging in issues because you truly care about it, instead of an attempt to help anyone. Levy said apathy “masks what people should be doing.” Instead, he said we should break down people into groups understand disagreements and examine who the person asking the question is.

The last topic was on allyship. Rubin again emphasized organizing people to act out of their own genuine self interest. He said the current generation is advantaged by having an increased vocabulary and language to discuss social justice issues. Whereas civil rights were seen as a fight for a “melting pot” previously, the idea of “diversity” better represents the goal of civil rights struggles. Levy noted the importance of having fun in allyship while agreeing to a cause. Grupper said that he had to first examine his own attitudes towards oppressed groups before dealing with those struggles. Ultimately, activists were but “one piece of the struggle,” Grupper noted.

Students asked questions at the end of the the panel. Two involved the question of social justice in the Jewish experience. “To believe in equality you need to recognize the differences between people,” Grupper said. He said that justice must be for all people, including those in Palestine. Zellner noted Judaism’s “amazing tradition of social justice,” but feared its distortion towards a “blind loyalty to Israel.” Rubin recalled his youth and said he was taught that “the only way Jews were safe is if everyone was safe.” He supported the establishment of Israel as a social justice movement, but noted today’s “explosion of progressive Jewish energy” as well.

The reactions to the panel were positive. “I appreciate that they very much focused on the idea of self-reflection. I think that especially at Swat that there’s this culture of activism without necessarily taking the time to understand what is my stake in this,” Alcena said. For her, this event was also an example of the cross-group partnership between SASS and Kehilah. “Our groups have been working together on the idea of intersectionality and will act as a model on other groups who may be unsure of how they can do an event such as this one, which can apply to so many different identities on campus,” she said.

Joshua Wolfsun ‘16, Kehilah’s Israel and Palestine Programming coordinator, also praised the event. “Their stories in particular are what I’ve found really fascinating because you don’t normally get to hear that first hand,” he said. Having heard that the four activists were touring American college campuses, he thought “there are a lot of Swatties who would be interested in hearing what they’d have to say and talking with them and hearing their stories and perspectives.” This is only one event of the many in Swarthmore involving the four civil rights veterans, they later spoke about Israel and Palestine and a held a workshop about effective organizing.

Featured image by Jenny Gao ’18/The Daily Gazette.


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Isaac Lee

Isaac is an economics and political science major. He is a Singaporean who grew up in Hong Kong. In America he discovered the wonders of Netflix and Uber. Other than devoting his time to The Daily Gazette, he is probably reading The Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal, or skim-reading the hundreds of pages assigned to typical Swatties.

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