Marin black-Jewish coalition strives to educate, ease tensions

Arnie Scher and Kerry Pierson met three years ago on the tennis courts. But they say politics and social action — not Pierson's eight wins and 600-plus losses — cemented the friendship.

Pierson, a consultant living in subsidized housing in Mill Valley, accompanies Scher to affirmative action panels at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael. Scher, a retired psychotherapist living in Sausalito, joins Pierson at black cultural programs in Marin City. Both are appointed board members of Marin County's Affirmative Action Advisory Committee.

Recently, in response to a controversy at Antioch High School, Scher and Pierson formalized their cultural exchange and organized the Marin Coalition of Blacks and Jews. For information, call (415) 332-8704.

In May, an African American student at the Contra Costa County school tore down from a wall poster depicting a swastika. The poster was part of a student exhibit about art and war. The student did not discuss his distress with teachers or administrators either before or after taking action.

Scher "would have loved to go in and talk to the kids. Not just as a Jew telling black kids [about the Holocaust and] how to act," he said, "but as a team," in company with Pierson.

The student's actions, he explained, "were a catalyst. We'd been doing `black-Jewish things' for a while. But now we've written up a charter that lays out what we want to do — to work together for mutual benefit through education and scholarship, and to act as mediators in conflict between blacks and Jews."

Although the coalition formed just a month ago, some 25 individuals have expressed interest in joining. Scher and Pierson are especially pleased, considering the relatively small number of blacks living in Marin County.

The concept isn't new. Busloads of Jews traveled to the South to join blacks in the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. The coalition was formed "in the spirit of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner," said Scher, naming three civil rights activists who were murdered while helping register Southern blacks to vote.

Scher refers to the trio as famous "freedom riders who gave their lives for the struggle."

A wedge has been driven between the two racial groups over the last 30 years.

Some posit that the split is fueled by black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan's anti-Jewish rhetoric, coupled with so-called "white flight," in which Jews move from poorer urban neighborhoods to the suburbs. Regardless of the reasons, Pierson claims that both of these factors are "not reflective of local feelings.

"This rift you read about now, it's portrayed as a smoldering issue. But Farrakhan does not speak for a significant portion of the African American community," he said. "It seems to me [that Jews and blacks] have a greater common enemy — white supremacists."

White supremacists "don't distinguish between Jews and niggers. If they had the intelligence to make swastikas, and not just crosses, out of wood, they would. It's always seemed to me they'd eliminate both of us."

Scher is not aware of any ongoing black-Jewish tension in Marin County. Pierson maintains that black-Jewish angst does not much plague the West Coast, and specifically Marin, because both populations remain relatively small here.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census report, African Americans account for about 3.3 percent of Marin County's population. A 1986 study by Brandeis University's Institute for Community and Religion in San Francisco revealed that about 12 percent of the county's population is Jewish.

Should tensions surge, however, the coalition is ready. Meanwhile, Scher and Pierson are planning ways the group can educate others about black and Jewish culture and history, as well as address common issues and needs all around the Bay Area.

"I'm from Oakland. Growing up on the West Coast, there wasn't a Jewish community I was aware of," Pierson said. So for Bay Area blacks, "the idea of being anti-Semitic could occur only in a vacuum. It isn't that [my peers and I] were pro-Jewish. But our sense was that these were another oppressed people. If you grew up in the '60s, you knew Jews were allies."

Times have changed, Pierson admits, but hate has not.

"As we speak, somewhere there's another black church being burned and another synagogue being defaced. The enemy is the same," Pierson said. "How can we bicker when our very lives are literally being threatened? It's a fool's game that doesn't serve anyone well."