NEW YORK (Oct. 6)
New ties between the Congressional Black Caucus and the controversial Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan have cast a shadow on the future of black-Jewish cooperation on legislative issues of mutual concern.
For the moment, at least, the future of such coalition work remains ambiguous, as the Jewish community sorts out the implications and the extent of the warming relationship between the caucus and Farrakhan, who is viewed as anti-Semitic by many in the Jewish community.
Jewish groups and legislators have long worked closely with the caucus on such issues as civil rights, aid to cities, public education and the fight against poverty. And the caucus, which currently comprises 39 members of the House of Representatives and one senator, has a long history of solid support for Israel.
But that relationship has been strained since mid-September, when the Black Caucus invited Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, to participate in a panel discussion as part of its annual Legislative Weekend.
During a panel discussion on “Race in America,” the caucus chairman, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), said the group would “enter a sacred covenant” with the Nation of Islam, among other groups, on legislative concerns.
In a statement issued after meeting subsequently with Jewish groups, Mfume reiterated the caucus’s intention of forging ahead with a relationship with Farrakhan and any others who “we feel are as committed as we are to real and meaningful social change for our people.”
Their new cooperation is the latest evidence of a growing acceptance Farrakhan seems to be enjoying in the mainstream black community. His cadre of Muslim guards, known as the Fruit of Islam, has won wide acclaim among African Americans for ridding low-income housing projects of drug dealers.
Still, Farrakhan is considered by Jews across the political spectrum to be anti-Semitic and one of the most divisive forces in race relations in America. All representatives of mainstream Jewish organizations refuse to be part of any coalition that includes him.
‘SERIOUS RIFT’ POSSIBLE
The caucus’s embrace of Farrakhan “signals the declining importance of the Jewish community to black community interests,” said one Jewish organizational official who met with Mfume.
“The implications of this could be a serious rift with the Jewish community. If it does mean that, then we have to seriously assess what we will do,” he said.
Jewish groups and legislators, concerned at the direction the Congressional Black Caucus was taking after its gathering last month, quickly sought private meetings with black members of Congress and, soon afterward, with Mfume.
Two such meetings were held in Washington last week: one with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and another with representatives of other national agencies.
Several participants in the broader group meeting, held Sept. 28, left feeling reassured.
The caucus chairman told them that he had been quoted out of context and that he had spoken of a covenant with Farrakhan, as well as with churches, mosques and synagogues.
During the meeting, Mfume “clarified what had actually happened. The caucus did not embrace Farrakhan,” said Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who orchestrated the session.
“There was a ground for meeting with Minister Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam about the drug problem because their activities in that regard have been effective,” he said.
“We explained to the congressman that the Jewish community at this point cannot work in coalition with Farrakhan. Mfume understood it.”
“That was the whole point: to reconfirm where we are and to sensitize each other. There has been a broadening of perspective,” he said.
Another participant in the Sept. 28 meeting described Mfume as “sympathetic,” but he said it “remains to be seen what effect this has on black-Jewish relations.
“If other black groups don’t pick it up and invite Farrakhan to participate in other multiracial coalitions, it won’t be that big a flap.”
RESPECTING EACH OTHER’S SENSITIVITIES
Yet that seems unlikely, as Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam is brought in to work with other elements of black leadership.
In his Sept. 29 statement, Mfume affirmed the caucus’ intention of developing a relationship with Farrakhan and seemed to issue a gentle rebuke to Jewish groups and, possibly, the Nation of Islam.
“We both realize and support the ongoing need for coalitions between African Americans and Jewish Americans,” he said. “Although we may differ on some issues, we must nevertheless continue to work together toward the betterment of relations between and among our people.
“The Congressional Black Caucus will also continue to seek a dialogue and to work where possible with those who we feel are as committed as we are to real and meaningful social change for our people, including the Nation of Islam,” Mfume said.
“Particularly as it relates to the cessation of violence and killings and drugs in our communities, we will support the efforts of anyone committed to the restoration of hope through self-help and self-empowerment, while at the same time reserving the right to disagree on other matters of policy and principle,” he said.
“We must at least try to find new solutions to old problems,” Mfume added. “We can only do that by reducing the rhetoric and reaching out and mutually respecting others’ religions, cultures and sensitivities.”
A source close to the congressman said he was attempting to build a bridge between the Nation of Islam and the Jewish community.
Meanwhile, the American Jewish Congress has criticized other Jewish groups for pressing Mfume on the Farrakhan issue.
“It is up to (the caucus) to decide who they wish to associate with, and if they want Minister Farrakhan around their table, that is their decision,” Henry Siegman, the group’s executive director, said in a Sept. 28 statement.
“They understand us well enough to know that we will not sit down at a table with Mr. Farrakhan, who believes that Judaism is a ‘gutter religion,’” said Siegman. “If our inability to come to a table at which Mr. Farrakhan is sitting is not a problem for the Black Caucus, so be it.”