Tikkun Interview Shows Gap Remains Between Jews and Jesse Jackson

In an interview in the November issue of Oakland-based Tikkun magazine, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has criticized Israel for doing business with South Africa, declined to take issue with Pope John Paul II for meeting with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim and blamed many Jewish groups for taking a leading role in opposing affirmative action to aid minorities.

National Jewish leaders who were given copies of the article in advance say that Jackson, the leading Democratic presidential contender, has failed to heal the rift with American Jews that followed in the wake of his last presidential bid.

In fact, says Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, director of international relations for the American Jewish Committee, Jackson’s positions “raise questions of credibility and truthfulness,” and represent “a regressive step in what many had seen as a genuine effort to build bridges between himself and the Jewish community.”

While less inflamatory than Jackson’s off hand reference to New York City in 1984 as “Hymietown,” or his belated disassociation from Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, who called Judaism a “gutter religion,” Jackson’s views in the interview are seen as undermining his support by more liberal Jews who otherwise might be attracted to his progressive social agenda.

“I think there are many American Jews who would like to have a strong, positive relationship with the Jackson forces and the Rainbow Coalition,” said Tikkun editor Michael Lerner, who conducted what the liberal Jewish magazine called “A Dialogue with Jesse Jackson.”

But Lerner labeled some of the front-running Democratic presidential candidate’s comments as shocking, and observed, “If he can’t satisfy liberal Jews in this country, he’ll have a very difficult time satisfying other Jews” whose support he seeks. Jackson did not return calls placed to elicit his comment.

In the interview, Jackson:

Took Israel to task for providing military and economic aid to South Africa, comparing that country’s Botha regime to Hitler’s Third Reich But Jackson failed to acknowledge the trade stoppages the Israeli government recently pledged in regard to South Africa.

Refrained from criticizing the pope for his meeting with Waldheim because “that was the decision that the sovereign head of the Catholic church had to make…because Waldheim was Catholic, and (because) of the pope’s obligation to give private counsel.”

Declined to directly repudiate Farrakhan, calling “an overreaction” the controversy surrounding that black leader’s reference to Judaism as a “gutter religion” and his continued anti-Semitic posturing.

Said he has “not found any anti-Semitism among black students that needed to be stood up against” on American college campuses.

Said he apologized for his own prejudicial remarks during the 1984 campaign at the Democratic Convention, but declared, “I’m not going to wallow in that” during 1988.

Called it unfortunate that some Jewish groups took a leading role in opposing affirmative action policies aimed at aiding minorities, specifically citing the controversial Bakke case that came before the Supreme Court.

Supported “Israel’s right to exist within secure boundaries,” and a “homeland or state” for the Palestinian people; normalized U.S. trade relations with Arab nations; and an expansion of the Camp David peace process to include other Arab nations, including a representative of the Palestinians.

Jackson’s comments had a ripple effect on official Jewish leadership before the magazine had even gone out in the mail. At its quarterly meeting in St. Louis last week, the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (NJCRAC) handed out advance copies of the interview at a session to plan strategies for the months ahead.

Kenneth Bandler, NJCRAC director of public information, reported that members of his organization were disappointed by Jackson’s rhetoric. “Jackson will be coming to major cities and requesting meetings with local Jewish communities,” he said, and “we want to give him a better understanding of Jewish concerns.”

Tanenbaum of AJCommittee suggested that while the door should be left open to further talks with Jackson, “we don’t need more meetings to hear him repeat (his) distortions.”

The rabbi said he was most disappointed at what he saw a reversal of Jackson’s position regarding Israel and South Africa. In March, he and Jackson appeared together at a debate at Queens College, where Jackson, at a news conference, admitted that it was unfair to single Israel out among those doing trade with South Africa.

The vast majority of trade with South Africa takes place between the United States, Great Britain and Saudi Arabia, which, Tanenbaum said, “fuels South Africa’s industrial economy by providing 75 percent of its oil supply.”

Tanenbaum went so far to say that, in that connection, Jackson was operating on a “double standard,” and conjectured “whether these attacks on Israel might not be a way of paying off his support from Arab sponsors.”

In addition to his well-documented ties to Third World countries, Jackson recently was reported to have received $200,000 from the Arab League for his Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity).

In light of those revelations, Tanenbaum said, Jackson himself has cast into doubt whether his words are those of “credibility and truthfulness, or anti-Israel demagoguery.”

Not all responses to the Tikkun interview lay the blame on Jackson alone, however.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in Washington, called the interview “narrowly focused,” and said it failed to give credit to the changes in Jackson’s positions since the last presidential election.

Writing in one of six essays that accompany the interview, Saperstein explained that the Democratic presidential hopeful should be given credit for making a concerted effort over the past two years to reach out, and to sensitize himself to Jewish issues.

As examples, Saperstein cited Jackson’s open support of the Camp David accords, his confrontation with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev last year at Reykjavik on behalf of Soviet Jewry, his previous refusal to single out Israel in criticizing relations with South Africa and his efforts on a national level to improve black-Jewish relations.

NEXT STORY