When Erin Santana found herself teaching at a New York City public high school in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in 2013, she started wondering about the Jewish history of the neighborhood. After all, her great grandparents had lived there a century ago.
She had grown up in Brooklyn and West Nyack, where she now lives. Her father grew up in Hudson, 100 miles north, where his grandparents had settled after leaving Brooklyn; her mother had grown up in Detroit.
This exploration quickly led Ms. Santana to the events that marked Brownsville in the consciousness of American Jewry: The 1968 battle between the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board and the United Federation of Teachers. Local parents’ attempt to gain more control of the schools in their neighborhood led to racially tinged conflicts with the teacher’s union that included repeated teachers strikes — and made up the subject of the fourth chapter of “The New Anti-Semitism,” a 1974 volume by Anti-Defamation League leaders Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein. (A subsequent chapter warned of the antisemitism lurking in the cartoon Fritz the Cat, in a Woody Allen movie, in the Philip Roth novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and in the recently launched National Lampoon magazine.)
Intrigued by this fraught history of Brownsville, Ms. Santana decided to learn more — ended up enrolling in the Ph.D. program in American studies at Rutgers, Newark. She is now completing a dissertation on the conflict between the board and the teachers.
She will share reflections on her research in a Zoom session Sunday evening sponsored by her childhood synagogue, Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, in honor of Martin Luther King Day. (See below.)
As Ms. Santana notes, the conflict is remembered primarily as the clash between a predominately Black school district and a predominately white Jewish teaching staff.
But in her close reading of the events — and hundreds of newspaper articles — that the ADL summarized in a mere eight pages, she has discovered that the conflict actually revealed different understandings of anti-racism among white Jews, which often varied by generation and class.
“For decades there had been parents and educators fighting for equal educational opportunities for African American and Puerto Rican students in New York City public schools,” Ms. Santana said. After suggested integration reforms weren’t implemented, activists shifted to demanding community control. In 1967, the board of education set up Ocean Hill–Brownsville district as one of three pilot community-controlled districts.
Then the district tried to remove teachers who were not supportive of the new directions. The teacher’s union said this violated their contracts, and declared war.
The widely held notion that the teacher’s strike marked the breakdown of the Black-Jewish alliance of the civil rights movement “oversimplifies a lot of things,” Ms. Santana said. “Firstly, the conceptualization of a Black community and a Jewish community being mutually exclusive was not the case. For example, one of the principals in the district, Ralph Rogers, was Black and Jewish.”
Further, while the majority of the teachers the district tried to transfer out were white and Jewish, the majority of the teachers the district hired as replacements were white, and half of them were Jewish. “It wasn’t really about the fact that people were Jewish or white, it was about the sort of philosophy they were bringing to their teaching and their politics regarding this particular strike,” Ms. Santana said.
In the ADL’s telling — and in popular memory — the defining moment of the conflict between the school board and the teachers was when a leader of the African-American Teachers Association read a poem dedicated to the Jewish head of the teacher’s union, Albert Shanker, on a WBAI radio show. The poem, titled “Anti Semitism,” began: “Hey, Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head” and went downhill from there.
But in Ms. Santana’s read, “You see the school district explicitly denouncing the sort of antisemitic statements that were made by people in the broader community. The district made a point of educating its students about the Jewish holidays they were taking off from school. They explored the shared histories of the people now known as Black and Jewish. And the white and Jewish teachers of the district also publicly came out to object to this idea that the district was engaged in antisemitic practices, and brought evidence the district was working across the lines of race and religion and trying to demonstrate interreligious and interracial solidarity.”
Nonetheless, “the narrative that the district was at its root engaged in antisemitism was very potent, and a lot of Jews throughout New York and throughout the country found that narrative very persuasive.”
Ms. Santana read many hundreds of New York Times stories about the strike in the course of her research. “There were usually half a dozen every single day, for a three-month period,” she said. “It was on the front page of the Times every single day, except the day Nixon was elected and the next.”
The articles mostly looked at the politics of the strike, the conflicts among the mayor, the superintendent of schools, and Mr. Shanker, the head of the union. But occasionally, “you would see stories where people go into the district and talk about what is going on in the schools,” Ms. Santana said. “Those articles are almost incredibly positive. People talk about this transformation in the learning environment, these really positive relationships that are happening between students and teachers and parents who are helping out.”
One issue the ADL book did not address, but that Ms. Santana believes was central, was the issue of racism carried out by white or Jewish teachers and its effect on the students.
“Some of this had to do with the teacher,” she said. “Some of that had to do with the training the teachers were able to get. The issue is not about individual teachers saying they feel X, Y, or Z way about Black or brown students, but it absolutely was about how all of these different forces resulted in there being a far inferior education being provided.
“There was this longstanding feeling among a lot of students and parents and educators that a lot of the white and or Jewish teachers they were engaging with had these sort of underlying racist perceptions of them.
“I think that’s part of the reason it was so painful for a lot of the white Jewish UFT teachers, who felt really threatened and challenged by this idea that their behavior was being seen as having a racist impact on their students. It’s a hard thing for a lot of us to come around to, that whether we intended to or not, we can do things that have a racist impact on those around us.”
In her discussion with Congregation Sons of Israel on Sunday night — “I hope it’s somewhat of a discussion as opposed to a talk” — Ms. Santana hopes to wrestle with the question of why all of the on-site efforts toward interreligious and interactive solidarity in the district were unable to challenge the broader narrative of antisemitism. “How can we hold both of these things together? How can we sit with this complexity? We really struggled to sit with this complexity 50 years ago, and we’re still struggling.”
When: Sunday, January 16, 7-9:30 p.m.
Who: Erin Santana, doctoral student at Rutgers, Newark
What: Will offer reflections on her research into the New York City’s teacher’s strike of 1968
How much: Free
How to join the session: Call (845) 358-3767 or email email@example.com for zoom information