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Justice Department Recognizes Jewish American Heritage Month

May is Jewish American Heritage Month, a celebration of the contributions of Jewish Americans to the great tapestry of American history. The threads for Jews and Black Americans in that tapestry are interwoven in essential ways. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told the American Jewish Congress in 1958:

“My people were brought to America in chains. Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle for centuries, not only to rid ourselves of bondage but to make oppression of any people by others an impossibility.”

An example of the unity forged by common bonds of oppression is the often-overlooked actions of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), in hiring Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany as professors. Most HBCUs were founded after the Civil War to educate newly-emancipated Black people in the South. The schools offered their students an education that was otherwise closed to them. They exemplified both the pervasive discrimination against Black people and their resolve nonetheless to better their lives.

Across the ocean, when Hitler came to power in 1933, he moved quickly to oust Jews from German life. In devising their antisemitic legislation, the Nazis went to school on the Jim Crow laws in the South that were the kindling for HBCUs. The German government removed Jews from the civil service and excluded them from positions as teachers and professors. They barred Jews from positions of influence in the arts, broadcasting and the press. The Nuremberg Laws in 1935 revoked Jewish citizenship. The Nazis closed Jewish-owned businesses, forced Jews to wear yellow stars and restricted their movement, presaging the mass deportations into death camps.

Persecuted and stripped of their livelihood, even the most successful Jewish scholars sought to flee the country. But shamefully, the United States and European countries turned away hundreds of thousands of immigrants, which condemned many to death. Jews usually could not find refuge in the United States unless they had already lined up a job in this country. That was a formidable challenge for Jewish scholars. Rampant antisemitism in academic institutions was a significant barrier to employment. Many schools, including Harvard and Yale, had Jewish quotas for students and faculty.

HBCUs, however, were experienced in mining opportunities from prejudice and discrimination. They saw the opportunity in the influx of Jewish scholars — a chance to stand against antisemitism, to help people in dire need and, at the same time, to advance their students’ education.

HBCUs thus opened their arms to Jewish scholars fleeing the Nazi terror. Schools including Howard University in Washington, D.C.; Tougaloo College in Mississippi; North Carolina Central; and Hampton Roads in Virginia — 19 schools in all — took in 53 professors. These were more than just job offers. They enabled the scholars to emigrate to this country and saved their lives. Ernst Manasse, a renowned philosopher who found a job at North Carolina Central, recalled that “If I had not found a refuge at the time, I would have been arrested, deported to a Nazi concentration camp, tortured, and eventually killed.” Instead, Manasse taught at the school until 1973.

One can only imagine the culture shock these new faculty members and their students must have experienced. The scholars had lost their homes, their jobs and their culture. Few spoke fluent English. Many had never even seen a Black person. And many of the Black students had never met a Jew. Nevertheless, they found common ground in the ubiquitous discrimination and hatred they all had faced.

Those commonalities and the mutual empathy they fostered broadened the vision of both students and teachers. Georg Iggers, a history professor at Philander Smith College in Arkansas, said, “Racial segregation reminded me a lot of Nazi Germany, except that I wasn’t a victim; the Black population was.” John Herz, who taught at Howard University, stated that, “Mutual sympathy as victims of persecution and discrimination united the mostly Jewish refuges who had barely escaped the impending Holocaust with black Americans. The helping hand stretched out by the black colleges and black scholars should not be forgotten.”

Austrian-born education professor Viktor Lowenfeld found a teaching post at Hampton College in Virginia, where he mentored Black muralist John Biggers, helping Biggers discover his talent as an artist and educator. Biggers later described this help as, “the gift of Victor Lowenfeld.”

Dr. Ernst Borinski came to Tougaloo College in 1947. A former lawyer and judge in Germany, he organized meetings between white and Black groups in defiance of segregation rules. Joyce Ladner, later interim President of Howard, said that Borinski paid for her application to graduate school. She recalled him as one of the greatest influences in her life.

Former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, a graduate of Philander Smith, and civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, a graduate of North Carolina Central, also credit their success to the mentorship of Jewish professors at their HBCUs.

As we navigate the troubled waters of our era, it is helpful to remember that these teachers and their students faced difficult obstacles that are even more difficult to imagine today. Their example should fortify our determination never to cede our gains in civil rights, to give the forces of hate no foothold and to carry forward the fight for equal justice.

At the Civil Rights Division, that determination is reflected in the more than 110 hate crimes prosecutions we have brought since January 2021 against more than 120 defendants, including the guilty plea to a hate crime by a Cornell student who posted threats to kill or injure Jewish students at the university after Oct. 7, and the hate crime prosecution of a man for defacing a synagogue in Eugene, Oregon.

It is reflected in the conviction we secured of three Georgia men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery just because he was Black and the conviction of a Texas man who shot and killed 23 people and injured 22 more just because they were Hispanic.

It is reflected in our steadfast protection of the rule of law, with over 150 prosecutions against more than 200 law enforcement defendants for violating the legal and constitutional rights of the people they are supposed to serve.

It is reflected in the more than $120 million we have recovered as a part of the department’s Combating Redlining Initiative for victims of discrimination in lending and the work we do every day to protect the right to vote and advance equal opportunity in employment, housing, education and more.

It is reflected in our engagement with underserved communities in Louisiana, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Arkansas, California, Maryland, and South Carolina, particularly HBCUs.

Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” The resurgence in antisemitism, hate crimes and many forms of discrimination is profoundly disturbing. But we can take heart that good people of all races, genders, religions and backgrounds have not been neutral or silent even in the darkest times. At the Civil Rights Division, we will do all we can to honor their legacy.

Updated May 29, 2024

Civil Rights