A Fresh Voice in the Black Community ‘comes out on the Side of the Angels’

The new president of the Urban League has taken a fresh stand on black-Jewish relations, praising Jews as “longstanding allies” of the African American community and mapping out an inclusive road to black empowerment.

Hugh Price, who became president and CEO of the black civil rights group on July 5, said in a recent speech that a weakened economy and a lack of communal infrastructure — not white racism — are the major obstacles confronting poor blacks in the United States.

And at a time of heightened tensions between black and Jewish groups, Price stressed that Jews have been key players in the civil rights struggle.

“Many whites of good will have accompanied us on our long journey for racial, social and economic justice,” Price said. “None has matched the Jewish community as long distance runners in the civil rights movement.”

Price, 52, a former member of the New York Times editorial board, was a senior officer at the Rockefeller Foundation before joining the Urban League, a group traditionally supported by the black middle class.

In his keynote address to the Urban League’s national convention in Indianapolis on July 24, Price said that looking at social and economic problems exclusively through the filter of race is simply bad business.

“It’s suicidal economically to become so bitter that we isolate ourselves from others,” Price said.

“For all our suffering, we cannot become so fixated on our problems that we ignore our commonality of interests with others.”

“What constructive purpose is served by driving deeper wedges between races?” he asked. “Of course we must root out vestiges of racism, but let’s not wallow forever in real or perceived grievances, lest we become Bosnia some day.”

In his speech, Price called on middle-class blacks to fund “prevention strategies” in the inner cities, including a youth development fund, and to work within the African American community for economic self-sufficiency.

In a clear reference to Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, whose incendiary racist and anti-Semitic statements have been the subject of recent controversy, Price stressed the need to denounce racism wherever it occurs.

“Just as we denounce misleading stereotypes of African Americans, it is morally repugnant as well to impugn an entire people, especially longstanding allies, like Jews, because of the unconscionable behavior of some of them,” he said.

But in another reference to Farrakhan, Price defended the right of African Americans to dialogue with all black groups, even those who espouse racist or anti-Semitic ideas.

He said the sheer magnitude of the problems facing the black community make such dialogues imperative.

“Would there ever have been a Camp David accord had Begin refused to dialogue with Sadat?” he asked in his address, referring to the former prime minister of Israel and former president of Egypt who made peace in 1979.

“Did Yitzhak Rabin compromise his moral integrity by meeting with Yasser Arafat as a prelude to today’s Middle East peace?” he asked.

‘LOWER THE DECIBEL LEVEL’

Price acknowledged that recent tensions between blacks and Jews are real.

He stressed the need to “lower the decibel level” of discussions.

In a telephone interview this week, Price said it is important to move debate from the oped pages of newspapers to closed-door meetings between black and Jewish groups.

“The real work of intergroup relations is on the ground,” said Price. “If you don’t talk, you can’t have civil discourse.”

Amid concern over the growing appeal of separatist and anti-Semitic messages in the black community, Jewish leaders warmly welcomed Price’s remarks.

“He’s really talking tachlis,” said Kent Schiner, international president of B’nai B’rith. “Finally someone’s making some sense.”

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has had a long working relationship with the Urban League, praised Price.

Price “said things that needed saying,” Foxman said.

And Foxman, who is among those Jewish leaders who have long been critical of the inclusion of Farrakhan in dialogue with mainstream black leaders, said he understood the context of Price’s willingness to include Farrakhan in such discussions.

“(Price) is carrying water on both shoulders,” said Foxman, “but it comes out on the side of the angels.”

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