Howard Vote On Divestiture Is Notable for Lack of Outcry

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

The comparatively muted response to a recent Howard University vote critical of Israel highlights how past controversies between blacks and Jews have lost some of their strength.

Local leaders from both communities say their relationship has neither the affection of the civil rights era, when the two groups found intertwined cause, nor the tensions of the 1980s and '90s, when dialogue groups proliferated after comments by black leaders Louis Farrakhan and Jesse Jackson. The two communities have simply drifted, leaders said, as they have become focused inward and on different things.

So when Howard's College of Arts and Sciences faculty, at the urging of a Jewish professor, voted March 8 to recommend that the university divest in companies supporting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the reaction was notable because it was so restrained.

The local branch of the American Jewish Committee issued a condemnation a week after the vote, but most other local Jewish groups and activists said they didn't know about it even then and made no formal statements.

"Ten or 20 years ago, the reaction would have been much worse because then you still had a lot of residual effects" of controversies including Jackson's use of a Jewish slur, said Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the region's main Jewish public affairs group. "By now, some of that has become a historical memory . . . hot-button issues subsided."

Some who have been involved in black-Jewish efforts in the past found the vote more surprising than worrisome source of potential friction.

"I was like: Who was out of the room when that mickey got slipped in?" said E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet who directs the African American Resource Center at Howard.

Activists and leaders from both communities say the dearth of controversy reflects a changing landscape for their relationship. With Jews and many blacks moving out of cities --where they once lived in closer proximity--and the socio-economic disparities between them growing, the communities are less obvious allies on urban and poverty issues. Often-explosive personalities, such as Farrakhan, have faded in prominence. And it has become less clear which organizations "speak" for blacks and Jews -- making it more complex to build powerful coalitions.

"There's been a long hiatus between African Americans and Jews," said Ann Schaffer, director of the American Jewish Committee's Belfer Center for American Pluralism. After having a close relationship in decades past, she said, both communities went into a period of looking inward.

Yet activists say a new crop of black-Jewish alliances is surfacing. Officials with the Jewish Committee, the Urban League and the NAACP in Washington just restarted meeting in recent months, and Schaffer said she has told branches of her group across the country to move forward on similar partnerships. The Jewish Community Relations Council and the Montgomery County branch of the NAACP revived their work together just last year, Halber said.

Activists say minority groups need to form partnerships if they want to be heard in an increasingly diverse environment where more players are jockeying for influence.

"We recognize as we look at all these issues that those who we held hands with in the '60s -- we need to go back and rethink those relationships," said Maudine R. Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League.

The measure urging Howard to divest in "companies materially supporting Israeli Occupation" was proposed by David Schwartzman, a biogeochemist. He said he asked the office of the college's dean, James A. Donaldson, repeatedly to put the measure on the Arts and Sciences faculty meeting agenda, but his calls went unreturned and then he was simply told no. He raised the measure under "new business," and it passed 25 to 2 with six abstentions. There are at least 400 members of the college faculty, Schwartzman said.

In a March 14 letter to Howard President H. Patrick Swygert, the American Jewish Committee's Washington office called the vote "profoundly troubling," noted the recent revival of black-Jewish dialogue in the city and asked him to speak out. The next day, he did, saying in a letter that the vote was not taken under proper college procedures: "I deeply regret that this matter has arisen," he wrote. Also on March 15, Donaldson sent faculty an e-mail saying a quorum was not present at the meeting and that the resolution was not on the agenda, thus it was "taken improperly."

Howard officials initially said they would comment but did not respond to questions e-mailed to them by The Washington Post.

On Howard's campus, some students said they were annoyed at the subject that the faculty had picked to protest.

"Why would you support something that has such little interest to your students?" said Drew Costley, campus editor of the student-run Hilltop newspaper. "Why didn't we back affirmative action?"

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