Jewish organization leaders are beginning to rethink their approach to the issue of black anti-Semitism in the wake of recent clashes with the mainstream black community over Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Their reappraisal became apparent during interviews and sessions held here this week as part of the annual plenum of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
Communal officials said it was becoming increasingly clear to them that calling on black leaders to condemn and distance themselves from Farrakhan may not be the most effective means to counter the effect of his anti-Semitism in the black community.
Such pressure itself becomes an issue in the black community, “an issue of blacks attacking their own on behest of whites,” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said at a session here.
Saperstein, who has long maintained this position, added that black leaders who denounce anti-Semites in their community are seem as bowing to outsiders.
The black leaders thereby “undermine their credibility in segments like college campuses which we hope they would most influence. It’s a Catch-22,” he said.
Moreover, most African Americans do not see Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic words as a real threat to the Jewish community, said Burton Siegel, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia.
These blacks wonder whether just ignoring Farrakhan might be a more effective Jewish response, added Siegel, who spoke at the same session as Saperstein.
These concerns over how to deal with anti-Semitism in the black community have come to the fore in recent weeks, as the Anti-Defamation League and other groups have had to deal with efforts by the mainstream black leadership to reach out to Farrakhan, even as Farrakhan’s disavowals of anti-Semitism are repeatedly shown up as lip service.
Mindful of these concerns, the ADL chose in January to place a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to publicize anti-Semitic remarks made by Farrakhan aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad, rather than ask black leaders to condemn them.
The result was spontaneous revulsion and condemnation by mainstream black leadership across the board and pressure on Farrakhan to renounce Muhammad.
After Farrakhan disciplined Muhammad at a Feb. 3 news conference, the NAACP accepted that renunciation, even though the National of Islam leader also affirmed the anti-Semitic “truths” spoken by his aide.
American Jewish groups were outraged at Farrakhan’s press conference and the ADL and the American Jewish Committee criticized the NAACP’s response.
The whole triangular relationship between Farrakhan, mainstream black groups such as the NAACP and the Jewish community “is not a simple dance. It’s a complex minuet,” said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director
So despite the fact that the NAACP re-extended its invitation to Farrakhan to join in an as-yet unscheduled black leadership summit, the ADL is not making a public fuss.
Instead, the Jewish civil rights group is taking the position that, in effect, whatever Farrakhan’s place on the black civil rights group’s dance card, the Jewish community’s relationship with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peopled is longer and stronger.
After all, two weeks after Farrakhan, in his Feb. 3 news conference, attacked the ADL as anti-black and anti-American, the NAACP initiated a meeting with the ADL to help smooth relations between the two groups.
The closed-door meeting ended with a news conference in which the two civil rights resolved.
To Foxman, the fact that the groups were evidently unable to agree about Farrakhan is not important.
“The significance of that meeting is when it happened,” he said. It took place “two weeks after Farrakhan called the ADL anti-black and anti-American and warned, threatened other groups not to meet with the ADL.”
The NAACP “meeting with us then, and putting in motion future meetings, I believe is very significant,” said Foxman.
And while the ADL issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” with the NAACP’s response to Farrakhan, Foxman seems to be resolutely looking on the positive side.
“We respect the desire of the NAACP to invite whoever in their community they wish,” he said.
“We hope and believe contacts between black leadership and Minister Farrakhan on important issues will also include dialogue on issues of racism and anti- Semitism,” said Foxman.
In its statement after Farrakhan’s news conference, the NAACP said it looked forward “to concrete deeds in the future that would affirm his statements” that he is neither anti-Semitic nor racist.
The statement also called on white leaders “to vigorously condemn, now and in the future, bigoted and racist remarks as they are directed against African- American and Jewish-Americans by white politicians, academics, corporate leaders and various public figures in the same way that Black leaders have repudiated Mr. Khalid Muhammad’s outrageous statements.”
The NAACP’s remarks reflect a perception among black leadership that the black community is being held to a higher standard by the Jewish community than are other groups, said Siegel, of the Philadelphia JCRC.
Black leaders feel that no matter how many times they condemn anti-Semitism, it is never seen as enough by some sections of the Jewish community, Siegel said.
Siegel told the NJCRAC session that he had made an informal survey of African Americans and found that they could not understand the Jewish concern over Farrakhan.
“Stop acting so frightened,” a school teacher told him.
“Don’t worry,” said a minister. “He can’t hurt you.”
And they noted, said Siegel, that while City College of New York Professor Leonard Jeffries had attacked Italians during an anti-Semitic speech, and Nation of Islam spokesman Muhammad attacked whites and gays and Catholics, none of those groups felt the need to seek condemnation of the bigotry against them.
The implication of Siegel’s survey was that the Jewish reaction could be encouraging the anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“A black family therapist said we make a good target,” he said. “We are seen as very powerful, but very scared.”
Saperstein said there is a serious tactical question for the Jewish community, of “how not to legitimize and give attention to propagators of hate while not allowing bigotry to be sanctioned by silence.”