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  • Jewish Liberalism and Racial Grievance in the Sixties:The Ordeal of Brandeis University
  • Stephen J. Whitfield (bio) and Jonathan B. Krasner (bio)


The sixties constituted the most tumultuous decade in the second half of the twentieth century, and not even the Great Depression exposed more directly the tensions inherent in American liberalism. In the sixties, the civil rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the crises on university campuses posed an ideological challenge to progressive hopes. No minorities were more committed to liberal ideals than were black and Jewish Americans, and by the end of the decade their tangled relationship ignited conflict at the only Jewish-sponsored, non-denominational institution of higher learning in the Diaspora. What occurred in 1969 ranks as the most traumatic political event in the history of Brandeis University.

In this essay, we offer a full account of an episode that was saturated with symbolism. From its origins, Brandeis was presumed to offer distinctive hospitality to students who belonged to groups that had historically suffered from discrimination. However, what happened when black students seized Ford Hall in January, 1969 seemed to belie such claims. This confrontation represented a key episode in the era of how to address, within a liberal academic atmosphere, the challenge of black militancy—a political stance that could not have been imagined at the beginning of the decade. To be sure, what erupted on the Waltham, Massachusetts campus was less dramatic than the protests at Berkeley in 1964–1965, at Columbia University in 1968, and at Cornell University in 1969. Nor did Brandeis suffer the violence that was inflicted at Ole Miss in 1962, at Orangeburg State in 1968, and at Kent State University in 1970. But because the conflict at Brandeis belongs to a larger story of black-Jewish relations, the incident merits historical scrutiny. [End Page 18]


That legatees of the civil rights revolution would target this particular institution could hardly have been foreseen. Located in a Boston suburb, Brandeis was founded so that qualified Jewish applicants for admission would always find a refugee from discrimination. Quotas that the Ivy League universities and the Seven Sisters colleges had inflicted upon Jewish candidates for admission and employment were hardly a distant memory. Such barriers to advancement ensured that the heritage of Judaism would be defined at Brandeis as virtually seamless with the appeal for social justice. In the immediate postwar period, that activation of conscience invariably tended to highlight enlightened opposition not only to religious prejudice, but to racism as well. While enjoying the comforts of middle-class life, many American Jews harbored a commitment to a vision of an expanding democracy, and tended to make egalitarianism integral to their interpretation of Judaism itself.

Here the work of Marshall Sklare, a sociologist who began teaching at Brandeis in the fall of 1969, is relevant. In the mid-1950s, he asked selected residents of suburban “Lakeville” (a.k.a. Highland Park, Illinois) what it meant to be a “good Jew.” Of the respondents, 67 percent answered that they considered “support [for] all humanitarian causes” essential, as was “work for equality for Negroes,” according to 44 percent of those polled. Such percentages easily trumped the obligations of endogamy (23 percent), or High Holiday worship (24 percent), or even the desirability of support for the nascent state of Israel (21 percent).1 The ethical demands of Judaism, rather than its theological claims or its ritualistic mandates, were integral to the sermons of Reform rabbis in the immediate postwar period, and the most urgent challenge that they proposed from their pulpits was to help achieve equal rights for black Americans. “This was true on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” and not merely on Friday night. “Nearly every rabbi preached on civil rights repeatedly,” according to Marc Lee Raphael, a historian (and a rabbi) who has extensively studied such homiletics. The moral authority whom Reform rabbis most frequently cited in this era was a Baptist minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., followed by two supremely secular Jews (Einstein and Freud). At least until the Six-Day War, Raphael notes, the struggle for racial justice in the U.S., “was still the Jews’ fight...


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