Jackson and Conservative Leaders Call for Conference on Tolerance
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Jackson and Conservative Leaders Call for Conference on Tolerance

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson and the rabbis of the Conservative movement are calling on other religious and Jewish communal leaders to join them at a conference on tolerance and social justice that they hope to convene in Washington late this year or in early 1994.

The plan was announced at the 93rd convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, held here March 21-24, exactly 25 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel addressed Conservative rabbis at the same gathering in 1968.

Blacks and Jews must work together for the future because they form “a coalition that has shared blood and common graves, bound by history and destiny,” Jackson told the convention audience of about 1,000 rabbis and guests.

He was referring to the 1964 killings of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three young men — two Jewish and one black — who were murdered while in Mississippi helping register blacks to vote.

We must form the “core of a non-exclusive coalition of conscience for change,” he said, citing the fact that blacks and Jews are the first groups to be attacked by bigots.

“The same group that comes after one of us in the morning comes after the other in the afternoon. We have no choice but to coalesce for mutual survival,” he said.

The goal of the proposed conference, according to Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, president of the 1,400-member rabbinic body, will be to bring together the “leadership of all religions to reduce ethnic and religious stereotypes in this country.”


He said that Jackson and the Rabbinical Assembly will ask President Clinton to host the conference, but that even if he declines it will be convened.

“We need to draw our constituents back into the sacred partnership,” said Zelizer, who then quoted Heschel by saying that “to be deaf to the cry is to condemn ourselves.”

Jackson articulated an agenda for the conference which echoes the priorities he has long attempted to bring to national attention: police brutality; the war against drugs; the negative impact on U.S workers of the North American Free Trade Agreement; the Religious Freedom Restoration Act; and the plight of the Haitians fleeing their native island who are being turned away by the United States.

He also cited the problems of racism and bigotry among young people of different ethnic groups on college campuses as an issue requiring the attention of religious leaders.

In a private interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency held in his hotel suite before he spoke to the assembled rabbis, Jackson said he has not yet scheduled the dates for the trip to Israel he is planning to make at the invitation of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

When asked what he wants to see in Israel, and with whom he wants to meet, Jackson said that he plans to “maximize dialogue with the broadest cross-section of people,” and to “be a contributing factor to peace.”

Jackson was condemned by almost every leader in the Jewish community for meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat and for calling New York “Hymietown” during the 1984 presidential campaign.

Despite an apology for the Hymietown remark and repeated attempts on his part to reach out to the Jewish community over the last few years, Jackson is still considered suspect by some.

An Orthodox man attending the convention disrupted Jackson’s address by screaming, “If you were white you’d be called a Nazi and a fascist, but because you’re black you’re not.”

Two members of the audience tried to remove the heckler, Rabbi Nachum Shifren, director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Jewish Activism, but he resisted and had to be nearly wrestled to the ground before being dragged out.

Hotel security guards finally escorted Shifren off the premises.

Jackson seemed frustrated by the fact that even some more moderate members of the Jewish community cling to his past offensive remarks and are suspicious of working with him on issues of common concern.

He responded tersely to a Conservative rabbi, Steven Lerner of New York, who asked him about addressing anti-Semitism in the black community.

“Let me be. I didn’t come to give an analysis of black issues,” said Jackson.

And before his address, he met privately with 10 Rabbinical Assembly members who objected to his being asked to speak.

One of the participants, Rabbi David Ebstein, of Congregation Beth Emet in Herndon, Va., said he was pleased with what Jackson had said during their meeting.

“If he’s done teshuvah (repented), that’s great. We can help him and he can help us.”

When asked in the interview with JTA why recently he seems to be addressing many more Jewish groups than he has in the past, Jackson said that he was only responding to the invitations he gets.

He acknowledged that since his speech condemning anti-Semitism in Brussels last September at a conference sponsored by the World Jewish Congress, he had gotten more invitations from Jewish organizations.

“I don’t know why,” he said. “Our positions have been kind of consistent. If you endure in a struggle to build bridges, you begin to see the fruits of your labors.

“I have always advocated a must-talk policy,” he said. “There’s no hope in not talking.”

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