1960s civil rights activists discuss current movements

Rita Morris/Daily
Larry Rubin, a past member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a Freedom Summer activist, talks about his experiences demonstrating for equal rights and how it resonates with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy on Monday. Buy this photo

By Emma Kinery, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 30, 2015

A panel of three Jewish civil rights activists discussed their experiences combatting racism in the segregated South with about 100 members of the University community in Weill Hall Monday evening. The speakers paralleled their activism 50 years ago to current activist work centered around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The event is part of a nationwide tour sponsored by Open Hillel, a national student group advocating for increased inclusivity of political viewpoints within the Hillel International organization. The event was sponsored by Jews Allied for Social Justice, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Community Action and Social Change program, the Organizational Studies Program and Open Hillel.

Rackham student Sam Shuman, one of the event’s organizers, said the purpose of the event was not to sway views as much as it was to open discussion.

“The goal of this panel is not to agree with everything that is said, but to be open to hearing,” Shuman said.

The panelists included Larry Rubin, Dorothy Zellner and Ira Grupper, who were all members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Rubin said his drive to work with the civil rights movement in the South stemmed from his belief that freedom cannot exist until it is experienced by everyone. He said he did not leave this belief behind when he left the South, he sees these injustices still occurring throughout the United States and abroad.

“Jewish people will not be safe until all peoples are safe,” Rubin said.

Each of the speakers spoke on the importance of coalitions and overcoming barriers. Many speakers said while it was important for people to overcome discrimination based on race to make progress in the 1960s, today it is important to overcome religious differences in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Grupper said he found that he had more in common with people of different upbringings and beliefs at times than those of his own when it came to viewpoints on civil rights.

“Culture and religion are reflections of a historical moment: that there are those who accommodate, and those who resist,” Grupper said. “I went to a Holocaust commemoration at the Jewish community center in Louisville a few decades ago. The speaker said the lesson of the Holocaust was that Jews could only trust Jews. I was sitting next to a woman whose father, a non-Jew, had landed in Normandy during the World War II the day the ship, the Susan B. Anthony was sunk by the German navy, and I knew I had more in common with this woman’s father, a gentile, than the Jew speaking.”

Rubin said he was appalled by the economic inequality he witnessed during his visit to the West Bank last year. He paralleled the racial oppression in the South during the 1960s to what he saw as religious oppression in West Bank today.

He said one of the most shocking scenes from his trip was when he visited Bethlehem and saw the 26-foot-high guarded wall that is topped with barbed wire and surrounds the city. Zellner said she sobbed for hours when she saw the daunting wall with the Israeli flag on it, and compared the wall around Bethlehem to the walls of concentration camps during the Holocaust.

“If you say, like some students said to me the other day, ‘Oh, you’re evoking the Holocaust,’ that’s what one of them said to us, and whether it’s unfair or not, I am, because I am of that age,” Zellner said. “I do have that kind of context, and most Jewish people have that kind of context, and we should have that kind of context; it did happen to us.”

Zellner’s portion of the lecture emphasized how the Jewish community has a long standing history of social activism, which she believes is not talked about enough. Zellner said she left her civil rights work in the South with the lingering feeling that there was something else that she had not completed, but found it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after hearing an Israeli-leftist talk. She visited the West Bank the following year.

“As civil rights workers we have the nerve to talk about the people of Palestine,” Zellner said. “We learned it was important to stand up then, and, guess what, we think it’s important to stand up now.”

Both Rubin and Zellner said they noticed in the last five years a resurgence in social activism compared to the lull that they noted in the previous 30 years.

“The past five years, there has been a real explosion of collective action amongst students,” Rubin said. “I think the students today are more knowledgeable, strategic and more disciplined than we ever were.”