Jackson Reaches out Again to Jews and Receives Another Mixed Review

For the second time in just over a week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has reached out publicly to Jews, speaking movingly about the Holocaust and proffering optimistic phrases about Israel’s new government.

But like his address in Brussels last week to a conference on anti-Semitism, his speech here Tuesday to the Democratic National Convention got mixed reviews from the Jewish community.

While many saw the speech as a heartfelt step forward to heal his longstanding wounds with the Jewish community, others felt the black civil rights leader still has a long way to go.

Jackson’s address focused largely on the country’s domestic ills: unemployment, poverty, homelessness, discrimination. But touching on foreign policy matters, he took an opportunity to praise the election of a Labor Party government in Israel as “a step toward greater security and peace for the entire region.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s “wisdom in affirming negotiation over confrontation, land for peace, bargaining table over battlefield, has inspired hope, not only in the hearts of democratic Israel, but on the West Bank,” he said.

Striving for balance, Jackson told the thousands of delegates gathered in Madison Square Garden: “Israeli security and Palestinian self-determination are inextricably bound, two sides of the same coin.

“We must stop talk about driving Jews into the sea and Palestinians from land,” he said. “Let’s stop war talk and have peace talk. There must be a new Israel where Jews and Palestinians can live together as brother and sister.”

Jackson also referred to some of the great moral wrongs perpetrated by the U.S. government against minority groups, including Jews:

“Let us not forget that in 1939, 900 Jews were turned away from the shores of Miami by the U.S. government, sent back to Germany haunted by Hitler,” he said, referring to the tragic odyssey of the S.S. St. Louis.

‘WE HAVE TO GIVE HIM CREDIT’

“It was anti-Semitic and wrong in 1939 to lock the Jews out,” he said. “It was racist and wrong in 1942 to lock the Japanese-Americans out. And it is racist and wrong in 1992 to lock the Haitians out and abandon Nelson Mandela in South Africa.”

Many Jewish organizational leaders said Jackson’s remarks reflected a heightened sensitivity to Jewish concerns.

“What he said about Israel and Zionism are quite different than what he said a few years ago,” said Albert Vorspan, senior vice president emeritus of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “We have to give him credit for thinking and growing, and reaching out.”

But Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he found the speech “disturbing and full of moral equivalencies.

“It’s one thing for Jews to say we support the effort of the Haitians” fleeing a military dictatorship to find safety in the United States, because we remember how Jews were turned away, said Foxman.

“It’s another thing to compare the Holocaust, where millions died, to as infamous an act as the incarceration of the Japanese, where no one was killed. It is this simplistic moral equation that I find continuously disturbing,” he said.

Foxman said he sees “an almost embarrassing desire on the part of the Jewish community to find reasons to embrace Jackson.

“I’m ready to reach out and embrace, but I don’t see very much there,” he said in a telephone interview from Copenhagen.

‘OPPORTUNITY TO MOVE FORWARD’

Ann Lewis, who served as an adviser to Jackson during his 1988 presidential campaign and as political director for the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1984, had a sharply different view of Jackson’s remarks, calling them “a historic opportunity to move forward.”

She rejected the contention that Jackson posed a “moral equivalency” in his speech and said she viewed the mention of Jews on the S.S. St. Louis, the Japanese and the Haitians as “a historical parallel that was useful and positive.”

One reason it was valuable, she said, is that “there’s a whole generation of young people who don’t know the history of the St. Louis, and he’s helping them learn it.”

Lewis said that she views the evolution in Jackson’s sensitivity to Jewish concerns as part of a process of education.

“Jesse Jackson said to this convention in 1984 that ‘God isn’t finished with me yet.’ He was always able to listen and to learn, qualities which should not be taken for granted in politics.

“These are issues he has been thinking about for years, and they have become real for him in ways that make it possible for him to make them real for others,” said Lewis, who also chairs the American Jewish Congress Commission on Women’s Equality.

In the view of Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a grass-roots political group, Jackson “really does recognize that there’s a lot of repair that has to be done” to make amends with the Jewish community for his earlier remarks and actions, which included embracing Yasir Arafat and calling New York “Hymietown.”

In June, in an address to the California Democratic Convention, Jackson called on Jews and blacks to work together, according to Gutow.

But the black civil rights leader “doesn’t seem to be willing to denounce people like (Nation of Islam leader Louis) Farrakhan, people who are viscerally anti-Semitic,” he said.

“If Jackson continues the way he’s been,” said Gutow, “he’ll certainly ameliorate some of the tension, but he’s got to be willing to take that step if he’s finally going to put the concerns of the Jewish community to rest.”

“Most Jews are very uneasy and wary about Jesse Jackson, and they won’t recover from those traumas that easily,” said Vorspan of the UAHC.

“But it makes sense to move on,” he argued. “We can’t spend the rest of our lives, in this great time of crisis, nursing every pain of yesterday.”

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