Surrounded by wooded hilltops, the wide-open spaces and low-lying buildings of the College of Staten Island seem a world away from the urban tensions that sometimes embroil campuses in the boroughs on the other side of New York Harbor.
But the appearance of Leonard Jeffries there last week left the normally serene campus riddled with the type of racial tension associated with the City College professor since his controversial views on slavery and other topics were made public in 1989.
Jeffries, whose theories on Jewish involvement in the slave trade and Catholic complicity in the oppression of blacks led to his ouster as chair of the African American Studies department at City College, was invited to the Willowbrook campus for a forum on the City University of New York’s open admissions policy. When the scheduled event was canceled suddenly, he spoke instead at an impromptu gathering for nearly three hours on a wide range of topics.
Surrounded by bodyguards in a crowded classroom, Jeffries initially noted the profound role of Jews in shaping the City University into one with “a global vision.” He praised the Jewish former president of City College, Robert Marshak, for his strides in opening the university to minorities.
But before long he was decrying Jewish conspiracies in everything from building the slave trade to killing off the father figure on the 1970s sitcom “Good Times” because he had become a positive role model for blacks. He claimed black entertainers like “that nut” Keenan Ivory Wayans and “the simpleton Sinbad” were placed on TV to keep blacks from watching the late news.
Jeffries dismissed charges of anti-Semitism as a plot to stifle his message. “If Jewish people want to identify with their gangsters and movie moguls who denigrate black folks and slavers, that’s their problem,” he said. “I have to expose them, just as you go around the world trying to expose every Nazi, even those who are dead or dying.”
When a Jewish student interrupted a Jeffries tirade, asking “What about the Holocaust?” Jeffries responded “Which Holocaust?”
Insisting he would rather die in Hitler’s ovens than suffer under slavery — “the black Holocaust” — Jeffries said blacks had no culpability for the persecution of Jews. “Build your Holocaust memorials on every street corner in Germany … but don’t bring them to the black community. [It] had nothing to do with that devastation. I’m not going to let the blood of Jews prevent me from speaking for the blood of my people.”
Pointing at the Jewish student, he said, “My Nazis look like you.”
The remarks were later condemned by college president Marlene Springer as “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic [and] racially divisive.”
While decorum was maintained, an air of tension hung over the mostly white campus prior to the lecture. A large contingent of campus security guards gathered around the Center for the Arts as students and members of Staten Island’s Jewish community awaited Jeffries’ arrival.
“There is definitely the potential for violence here,” said Steven Garfinkel, a Jewish student activist. “I’ve heard statements from people like ‘I hope he comes here so I can shoot him.’ ’’The student government president, William Wharton, said he invited Jeffries in response to demand for a public discussion on open admissions.
Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has proposed that students pass a stricter entrance exam as well as meet requirements of good grades and attendance in order to receive a subsidized CUNY education.
But the forum was not to be a debate on the topic. The other scheduled speaker was attorney Robert McGuire, whom Jeffries called his “brother.” McGuire, who is white, has represented students at Hostos Community College in the Bronx who were barred from graduating because they could not pass an English exam.
The forum was to be moderated by Calvin Holder, a professor of history, to ensure that the speakers stuck to their topic. When Holder canceled, for unknown reasons, the student government decided to postpone the event. But Jeffries was already en route, and was not barred from speaking informally despite the cancellation.
The campus Hillel chapter initially planned a protest but decided instead to hold a multicultural club fair in another building, where numerous ethnic clubs served food and recruited members.
“We tried to focus attention away from Jeffries,” said Fran Gidalowitz, the Hillel director. “We’ve taken a response that is unified and positive.”
The Jewish club distributed black-and-white cookies as a sign of unity and hired a DJ who played a mixture of rap and pop tunes. But as the music played, one black student took it as a sign of condescension.“They knows the black people likes their music,” he said mockingly.
Overall, though, more people attended the club fair than Jeffries’ later lecture, which Springer took as a sign that “solidarity … for unity and against bigotry is the true reflection of the college.”
Some dozen residents of the Willowbrook Jewish community came to the lecture at the urging of Rabbi Jay Marcus of the Young Israel of Staten Island.
“A lot of our children go to school here and a lot of people from the neighborhood work here,” said the Young Israel’s assistant rabbi, Eli Kaufman. “We view the campus as a force in our community and a source of blessing.”
A Jewish chemistry professor, Fred Naider, said he was dissatisfied with the administration’s response to Jeffries’ invitation. While Springer issued a statement that many of Jeffries’ theories were objectionable, she did not outline those differences, he said.
“She could have made a clear statement of how reprehensible his views are,” said Naider, a member of the Young Israel.
According to the campus newspaper, The Banner, students at CSI were incensed that the student government and its president, Wharton, were to pay Jeffries $1,000. Jeffries planned to turn over the fee to McGuire for use in legal proceedings against CUNY, including one case on behalf of Wharton stemming from last year’s student election.
Some of the black students who wanted to hear Jeffries speak did not deny that his views are anti-Semitic.
“Everybody has a prejudice against somebody,” said Curtis Thomas, a sophomore. “But we’re grown adults. We can make up our own minds.”