BALTIMORE (Jun. 15)
There was a silent, unstated subtext to the black leadership summit convened in Baltimore this week by the NAACP: The tensions and suspicions between blacks and Jews emanating from Minister Louis Farrakhan’s presence at the top-level conclave.
The word “Jew” was never mentioned, but a string of veiled references to Jewish opposition pervaded every public session of the summit.
According to several delegates to the closed-door sessions, such allusions also dominated some of the private sessions as well.
The intensity — and the importance — which the black leaders attached to Jewish criticism of Farrakhan’s participation at the summit was apparent at their last news conference, held on Tuesday evening.
Benjamin Chavis Jr., executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, briefly announced that the 100-member summit had established three working committees to address broad goals for African Americans — economic development, youth and community empowerment, and moral and spiritual renewal.
He then firmly stated, “Never again will we allow any external forces to dictate to the African American community who we will meet with. The life-and-death issues of our people are crucially important to us. We have locked arms and the circle will not be broken.”
A few minutes later, as Farrakhan stood directly on his left and as members of the Nation of Islam’s paramilitary security force, the Fruit of Islam, ringed the NAACP’s campus in northwest Baltimore, Chavis referred to “threats” that had required summit organizers to “secure this compound. We did not let that intimidation and threats stop us.”
VICTORY OVER ‘CERTAIN FORCES’
Presumably, Chavis was referring to protests from Jewish organizations, although these had been scheduled only for Sunday outside the NAACP’s headquarters and for Monday outside the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore, where Mayor Kurt Schmoke hosted a breakfast for summit participants.
Chavis declared “victory” over “certain forces that did not want us to meet here” and reiterated several times that black leaders spoke with a “united” voice.
In doing so, Chavis presented an image of black leaders who had vanquished external foes and, partly by doing so, had been given a focal point around which to coalesce in their battle against the problems plaguing the black community.
Chavis was the only summit participant who spoke at the news conference, although about 50 summit participants stood behind or alongside him.
The outcome of the summit dismayed Jewish leaders, some of whom had hoped that, at a minimum, the conference would censure all bigotry and hate, regardless of its source.
“They set up a straw man,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “Instead of the real issues facing them, they set up the Jews as the unifying force.
“This is sad and pathetic. This says to me they couldn’t agree on anything of substance,” said Foxman. “The reason they got together was because their community is in crisis. The best they could was to say they will meet again,” which Chavis said summit members would do during the third week in August in Baltimore.
Arthur Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said, “It’s initially too soon to assess what the summit does to black-Jewish relations. Nothing I’ve learned so far about its outcome helps black-Jewish relations any.
“If the theme that’s offered is the one stated a number of times by Minister Farrakhan — that his community’s problems are due to ‘enemies’ out there — then clearly the summit will have been largely still-born, at least in alleviating the plight of African Americans,” he said.
Yet, neither Foxman nor Abramson was ready to foreclose future dialogue or working relationships with black leaders or black organizations, even those who had participated in the summit.
In a statement issued last Friday, the ADL affirmed that it “remains committed to working with the NAACP and other organizations toward a society free of prejudice and racism.” Foxman further elaborated to the Baltimore Jewish Times that blacks and Jews “can together help resolve racism that plagues both the black and Jewish worlds.”
FARRAKHAN’S PRESENCE WAS A MAGNET
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said that although Chavis “has done an enormous disservice” to African Americans, “we have to engage in dialogue with blacks: They’re our neighbors. But we’d be fools to close our eyes to the fact that a lot of black leaders are afraid to take on Farrakhan.”
Throughout the two-and-a-half-day summit, which began Sunday, Farrakhan’s presence — and the heat swirling around it — was a magnet for both the press and other conference leaders.
At a nationally televised town meeting on Monday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the black leader from New York, suggested that no one attending the summit had been compromised by Farrakhan’s participation.
During World War II, he said, President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been allies because “their worlds were in crisis. But Roosevelt did not become a communist.”
Repeatedly, African Americans’ crisis was upheld as the final standard that would determine black leaders’ allies. When asked at the town meeting about the criticism he had received when he entered into a “sacred covenant” with the Nation of Islam last fall as head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) said, “When I reached out, I was called many things — an anti-Semite, a hate-monger.
“We agree that anti-Semitism is wrong, that homophobia is wrong,” Mfume said. “I was responding to pain (that blacks suffer). We want to build a bridge over troubled waters.”
Sunday’s protest against Farrakhan’s involvement at the summit highlighted Jewish ire at the Nation of Islam leader. It also underscored the irony that such external threats are one of the few glues that can bring together a divided Jewish community.
Organized by Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, the New York-based Jewish progressive magazine, the rally attracted about 65 protesters, including Michael Meyers, formerly an assistant director of the NAACP and now executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.
“The founders of the NAACP are turning over in their graves,” said Meyers about the nation’s oldest civil rights organization embracing Farrakhan.
In mid-afternoon, the protesters were joined by Avi Weiss, the right-wing Riverdale, N.Y., rabbi who heads Amcha: The Coalition for Jewish Concerns. He carried a placard reading: “Shame On The NAACP For Embracing A Racist.”
For much of the protest, Lerner was heckled by Irv Rubin, national chairman of the Jewish Defense League who chanted, “Michael Lerner is a left-wing, self-hating Jew,” Rubin said — “and a three-dollar phoney. He doesn’t represent Jews. He represents Arabs.”
Rubin said he had flown in from Los Angeles to convince Jews at the rally that Farrakhan was softening his views on Jews.
On Monday morning, Weiss led about 25 supporters in a protest outside the World Trade Center in downtown Baltimore. As he walked by the protesters, the Rev. Jesse Jackson shook Weiss’ hand and said, “Thank you for coming.”
Later in the day, Jackson said it was possible to have disagreement without confrontation.
(Contributing to this report were editor Michael Davis and assistant editor Alan Feiler.)