Students Get Lesson in History
March 19, 2002Comments (0)
| E-mail this to a friendBy Allen Benn
Selma's Jewish merchants were caught in the middle of a dilemma during the 1965 voting rights demonstrations - pinched between the moral code of their ancestors and money.
All too often, they chose the money, the leader of Selma's Jewish community told a biracial student group Sunday afternoon.
"They felt it on the inside, but they also were very fearful for the economic livelihoods of their families," said Ed Ember, president of Congregation Mishkan Israel.
Nine students from the University of Pennsylvania visited several Alabama cities as part of an "Alliance and Understanding" program that fosters racial harmony.
They attended services at Ward Chapel, a black church, on Sunday morning, and then stopped by Mishkan Israel in the afternoon. Ember greeted them and provided a history of one of Alabama's oldest Jewish communities.
After a few minutes, some of the questions became pointed and Ember found himself trying to explain why the town's middle class Jewish community did not do more to help blacks who were working toward voter equality.
One merchant who did try to fight the system and work toward racial harmony was forced out of business when other whites in Selma boycotted his establishment, said Ember.
Activist Joann Bland, who works at the National Voting Rights Museum, commended Ember for his understanding of the situation, but said she was in Selma in 1965 and received "the worst treatment" in Jewish-owned stores.
"If you treat me like I'm subhuman, how do you expect me to react," she said. "We boycotted the bus system here and it never came back. We also boycotted stores that refused to hire blacks."
As the discussion continued, Ember and Bland wound up in the spotlight and the students sat back to listen and learn. One black student wondered why Jewish merchants didn't do more to end racism in Selma "especially after the lessons of the Holocaust."
"We need intelligent conversation to make sure that ugliness doesn't come back," Bland said. "Our souls have to be bare and ready for acceptance. We have to be ready for the truth."
Ember, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., said his hometown was segregated, but pointed out it was a different situation there. Segregation was the law in the South until after Selma and other civil rights battlefields made it illegal.
When Ember said some Jewish merchants who had businesses began as "peddlers" who worked their way up the ladder of success, Bland countered with: "That sounds so self-serving."
"Our livelihoods depended on our oppressors," Bland said, adding that poor blacks risked "everything" to protest inequities of that time. "We took a stand, and for you to say 'we didn't want to lose our livelihoods' doesn't impress me very much."
Please visit the Montgomery Advertiser at http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com.