Ocean Hill-Brownsville and the Myth of “Black Antisemitism”

The co-producers of the new podcast School Colors discuss how a narrative of Black–Jewish conflict overshadowed an important example of community control of schools.

Leo Ferguson
February 12, 2020
Photo: Tamiment Library Archives, NYU

In the fall of 1968, the New York City teachers’ union staged what was then the longest teachers’ strike in US history, in the country’s largest school district. For 36 days, 1.1 million students were out of school as 54,000 teachers walked the picket lines. 

The strike was triggered by an experiment in community control of schools in a majority Black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in Brooklyn called Ocean Hill-Brownsville. As the civil rights movement evolved through the mid-1960s, activists had begun to confront racism and systemic inequity in public education. Responding to organizing by Black and Latinx parents, New York’s Board of Education created three experimental school districts. At the end of the first year of the experiment, the community-controlled governing board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville tried to transfer out 19 union teachers and supervisors whom they accused of sabotaging the promise of community control. This led to a vicious conflict between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), which represented a group of mostly Jewish public school teachers, and the mostly Black community control activists, many of them parents of children in the school system. The dispute was rife with racism and charges of antisemitism in ways that recall current accusations of “Black antisemitism” in progressive movements. 

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools crisis and the 1968 teachers’ strike are seminal events in the decade-spanning story told in School Colors, a new documentary podcast about how race, class, and power shape American cities and schools (the episodes that tell the story of Ocean Hill-Brownsville were recently featured on NPR’s Code Switch podcast). Weaving together original interviews, archival audio, and probing analysis, School Colors follows generations of parents and educators fighting for their children in a rapidly changing Black neighborhood in Brooklyn.

Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman are the co-producers of School Colors. Mark is a third-generation resident of Crown Heights, a journalist, and the Executive Director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a Black-led, membership-based organization building power and pursuing self-determination for low- and moderate-income residents of Central Brooklyn. Max is a journalist, teacher, and theater artist, a New York City transplant, and a self-admitted gentrifier. The remarkable sensitivity and insight on display in School Colors is a direct reflection of the disparate yet complementary backgrounds that Freedman and Griffith bring to the project.

I spoke with Freedman and Griffith about Ocean Hill-Brownsville and its legacy, both in Central Brooklyn and beyond. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Leo Ferguson: Why did you feel like you had to tell the story of Ocean Hill-Brownsville? 

Mark Winston Griffith: I grew up with this extended family, and my father, my uncle, all of them virtually worked for the Board of Education. And one of them—one of those people who I called Uncle Al—was Uncle Al Kisseloff, who was married to a Black woman. He was Jewish. The thing I heard is that you had to make a choice, and that my Uncle Al Kisseloff chose to be with the Black folks. That’s all I knew about this Black–Jewish thing in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. 

Max Freedman: I didn’t grow up with this story. But I came to understand that this event was understood, in the wider world, primarily as an event in the history of quote unquote “Black–Jewish relations.” Which I think matters much more to white Jews than it does to Black people. Why are Jews—myself included, to some degree—so obsessed with “Black–Jewish relations”? I think it’s because there’s a strain of thought in the Jewish community that says that we stand on the side of justice. And yet, most of us—certainly most white Jews—are just as segregated by race and class as anybody else. Yes, 75% of us vote for Democrats. Great. But if there ever was a point in time when the masses [of white Jews] really worked in solidarity with other oppressed people, it’s been a long time since that was true. And I think everybody knows that, and nobody knows how to deal with it emotionally. 

The first time I ever read about Ocean Hill-Brownsville, which speaks so directly to the dynamics of “Black–Jewish relations,” I was like, what the fuck? How have I never heard about this? And now that we’ve made School Colors, I keep talking to people who have lived here their entire lives who have never heard about it.

LF: What actually happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville? 

MF: The story that I think a lot of people think they know is this: there was a school “takeover” by Black parents and community members, and they tried to fire some white teachers because they were white or because they were Jewish. And in response to that, the teachers went on strike citywide, which inflamed tensions between the Black community and the Jewish community.

But that version of the story starts too late. What actually happened is that there was this experiment in community control of schools, and the community-controlled school governing board felt like certain teachers and supervisors were standing in the way of the experiment’s success. So at the end of the first year of the experiment, the governing board tried to transfer out—or fire, depending on who you ask—19 teachers and supervisors. And the union objected, first saying just that these teachers’ due process rights had been violated. When that didn’t seem to work—when that narrative didn’t capture hearts and minds—the teachers’ union, led by its president Albert Shanker, changed the story they were telling. The story became, “They tried to fire these teachers because they were Jewish.” 85% of the teachers’ union at this time was Jewish. 

They told this story in a variety of ways, sometimes very manipulative ways. Most infamously, there was a leaflet distributed around the city, attributed to allies of community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, that had some pretty ugly antisemitic sentiments in it. What not many people know is that Shanker reprinted half a million copies of it at UFT headquarters. The original provenance of the leaflet has never been definitely determined. But people who were in the community, teaching in those schools during the strike, said that it didn’t come from them.

MWG: What happened in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is about the struggle for community self-determination through education coming head-to-head with the labor rights of teachers and administrators. But that clash devolved into a conversation around “Black antisemitism,” and as a result, this bold and daring expression of community control was systematically dismantled and discredited.

LF: It seems like part of what you’re trying to do with the podcast is unearth that story about a very powerful movement for community control, which has been buried under this obsession with “Black–Jewish conflict.” 

MF: I wanted people to understand why there was a movement for community control in Ocean Hill-Brownsville in the first place. And that’s because of the trauma that resulted from the paltry attempts at school integration in New York City. The most common narratives about racism and segregation in the United States in the first half of the 20th century are all about the South. But there’s a strong history of racial exclusion and hatred in the North and in Northern cities, and that history needs to be told over and over again until people get that we’re not “better.” So the movement for community control came from people saying, “You know what, this isn’t working. We can’t get what we’re asking for, which is integration on a large scale, and what we do get is incredibly harmful.” 

MWG: Can I just pause on that for a minute? Because that is the one thing that can possibly get lost in all this: how desperate people were at the point that Ocean Hill-Brownsville occurred. You have to appreciate how overcrowded the schools were in Black and brown neighborhoods, how poor the educational experience was, and how disempowering it is to feel like you’ve got to be taken to a completely different neighborhood and get sprinkled with that white dust in order to have a legitimate educational experience. Not to mention the horrible, dehumanizing experience of this other institution when you get there. 

Max Freedman and Mark Winston Griffith, co-producers of School Colors.

LF: Why is self-determination important? Where does that strain of Black political thought come from? 

MWG: It comes from the moment Black people got to this country and were either second-class citizens or enslaved. It comes from this constant need to assert ourselves, our will, our interests, to be more fully human. 

You have such a large concentration of Black people here in Central Brooklyn—it’s actually even larger than Harlem—so what it meant for Black people in Brooklyn is, “Hey, we know that the government, civil society—all these things—are going to fail us, and so we have to figure out how to do for ourselves.” Schools became a central expression of that. Who are we hiring to be teachers? What are we teaching in the classroom? What are we preparing our next generation to be and to do? Particularly when you look at Ocean Hill-Brownsville and its pedagogy—it wasn’t just about the ABCs and math and science. It was about: “How am I going to prepare you to be something other than a self-hating Black person going forward? What tools am I giving you to make sure that future generations are completely liberated?” 

MF: Going back to the question you asked at the beginning, about what people should know about this story that they don’t know, one thing is around this narrative of “Black antisemitism”—

LF: I just want to say, there’s no such thing as “Black antisemitism.” For white Jews, we don’t talk about “Jewish racism”—it’s just plain racism. 

MF: Right. Black antisemitism was a story that was told, it was a narrative choice that the union and Shanker made in their organizing campaign, and it was a very effective one. I have a friend who’s organizing a union drive currently. And what he says is: “It’s my job to make people more angry than they are afraid.” If you think about Shanker structurally, not as an individual, he was just doing his job. And he was very good at his job, which was to make people angry. 

MWG: We talk about that in the episode. We say, look, Shanker had gotten only so far with one strategy—claiming that teachers’ due process rights had been violated—and then he had to pivot.

MF: Another question is: Why was it so effective? Something I was really interested to explore further is whether Ocean Hill-Brownsville would have gone down the same way if not for the Six-Day War. There’s something about Shanker’s militancy and then the Jewish community following him into that militancy, and I wonder if the community would’ve gone along in the same way if not for a surging spirit of Jewish militancy that accompanied Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War. Of course, “militancy” is a word we only ever use for Black people, but the white Jews were— 

LF: The JDL [Jewish Defense League] was coming up at the same time. 

MF: Yeah. The JDL literally is a militant group that was founded in Queens that same year, playing on feelings of insecurity heightened by Ocean Hill-Brownsville. But that choice, to use accusations of antisemitism for political gain, as Shanker did—and as has happened more recently with Tamika Mallory and Ilhan Omar—the more that white Jews employ the strategy, the more Black activists don’t take antisemitism seriously. If we want Black non-Jews to take antisemitism seriously, it’s entirely counterproductive to continue to use it to delegitimize Black activists.

LF: What did telling this story help you come to understand about power? 

MWG: I think for me, when you look at Central Brooklyn today, you see the remnants of community control there. There’s still people talking about self-determination, there’s still this sense that parents should be able to exert some power. But I think people are really disempowered by not knowing, not only what’s possible, but what we’ve actually done. The fact that we actually were in a position where we were making decisions over our own district. That there was a curriculum that valued Black people and Black genius, and really saw us at the center of the pedagogy. That not only was it practiced, but, according to some people, it was actually very successful. I think because that memory has been so thoroughly erased, we don’t have a sense of that possibility. 

MF: I would say the understanding that I brought into producing School Colors, and that’s been reinforced by our research and interviews, is that we’re all fighting for crumbs, and that power survives by making us fight for crumbs. Yes, obviously gentrifiers have more power than the people that they are gentrifying out. And also, it’s because we’re all fighting for crumbs that we don’t fight the big fights. It’s not to say that the fucked up interpersonal things that happen don’t matter. They do. But somehow we have to figure out how to work this shit out—not put it away, but really work shit out between us, and fight the people and institutions with real power at the same time. 

Leo Ferguson is the Movement Building Organizer atJews For Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ) and fights antisemitism and hate violence with theNYCAgainstHate coalition.