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Dillard University revitalizes National Center on Black-Jewish Relations

The documentary "Shared Legacies" was screened Tuesday in New Orleans and aims to emphasize the unity and cooperation between black and jewish activists.

NEW ORLEANS — Last year, after the rapper formerly known as Kanye West and NBA superstar Kyrie Irving spread antisemitic hate to millions of followers on social media, the fractured relationship between Black and Jewish Americans was thrust in the spotlight.

It’s even at the heart of a new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Jonah Hill called “You People,” debuting this month on Netflix.

But the issue is also the subject of serious scholarship and community-building at what educators, religious leaders and the lions of the Civil Rights movement call a fraught moment in history. 

A feature-length documentary called “Shared Legacies” was produced by a foundation called Spill the Honey, which has been screening the film at webinars and events across the country.

The latest screening was Tuesday at Dillard University in New Orleans, and the school seized the moment to announce its renewed commitment to run a National Center on Black-Jewish Relations that had lain fallow for decades.

Former Dillard President Samuel DuBois Cook, who was a classmate of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., founded the center in 1989, and new Dillard President Rochelle Ford said now is the time to resume the center’s work.

“Part of the reason why we had this center before was to open up dialogue to help people to interrogate the past of America, but also to understand the common journeys of the African-American people and the Jewish community,” Ford said. “How similar that those journeys have been and how we have more in common than we have things that actually can divide us.”

The announcement drew praise from King’s lawyer and draft speechwriter, Clarence Jones, 92.

“This is exactly the kind of leadership that Dr. King would want a university, particularly a historically Black institution, to take. He would be so proud of what Dillard is doing,” Jones said in an interview with WWL-TV from his home in California.

Jones is featured prominently in “Shared Legacies,” championing the deep friendship Black and Jewish leaders formed through most of the 20th century.

“The enactment of the 1964 and 1965 civil rights bills would not have been possible without the active support of the Jewish community -- would not have been possible,” Jones said.

“Shared Legacies” focuses mostly on the alliance, from the Jews who founded the NAACP, to the Black soldiers who entered concentration camps to document the horrors of the Holocaust, to King’s activism on behalf of Soviet Jews and Holocaust survivor and Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s call to action at the 1963 March on Washington.

“The most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence!” Prinz said in his address, which immediately preceded King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

The film also shows how silence and mistrust have plagued the relationship in recent decades, even before the West and Irving controversies.

West’s threats on Twitter against Jewish people and his statements in support of Adolf Hitler were mostly dismissed as a product of his acknowledged mental illness. 

But Irving’s promotion of a film espousing long-debunked White supremacist tropes about an international Jewish conspiracy against Black people led to his suspension by the Brooklyn Nets and the loss of his lucrative shoe contract.

The punishment was condemned by some as excessive. But Jones said Black celebrities have a responsibility to speak out against antisemitism, just as key Jewish leaders did against segregation and the lack of full rights for Black people.

“If I remain silent in the face of something that is so obvious and I don't say anything, then the only way I can say it is I'm complicit. So, I say there is an affirmative obligation for every celebrity, every athlete, every person, every African American” to speak out, Jones said.

Dillard senior Jerika Edwards said she is already inspired.

“Kanye and Kyrie have brought a lot of awareness and attention to it, but obviously it hasn't been positive attention,” said Edwards, who is from Alabama and was named “Ms. Dillard” this school year. “So, I think restarting the center would be something really impactful and powerful for not only Dillard students, but the entire community of New Orleans.”

Hip-hop artist Zarina, a Spellman College graduate, composed an original rap song for “Shared Legacies” highlighting the cooperative work of King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

“I wasn't aware of the African American and Jewish alliance and how prominent that was during the Civil Rights movement, so, honestly, it was pretty mind-blowing for me,” she said.

Zarina said the current divide can be traced to a lack of awareness in both communities.

“I think that it's a strategic tool to divide communities,” she said. “If we knew the power that we had together and how we could work together to make actual change, I think that we would view each other…as assets as opposed to enemies.”

Rabbi Katie Bauman of Touro Synagogue says this kind of renewed dialogue is critical.

“It is even more urgent now than maybe it ever was before that we form strong relationships,” she said. “That's the only antidote to that kind of hate is to say, ‘Actually, I know that community. I know that person. They're my sibling. They're my friend.’”

Shari Rogers, the president of Spill the Honey and director of “Shared Legacies,” said that’s why she produced the film.

“I hope the film can just be a prompt to start conversations that need to happen about the power of humanity,” she said.

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