Less than one month before the Nation of Islam’s planned “Million Man March” on Washington, Jewish leaders are struggling to come up with an appropriate response.
Concerned that the event could legitimize Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, Jewish leaders say they feel a responsibility to voice their objections to the march.
At the same time, they are finding it hard to denounce the event when they essentially support its goals.
“It’s a situation full of potential pitfalls,” said Stephen Steinlight, director of national affairs for the American Jewish Committee. It’s going to require all of the wisdom we can muster.”
Farrakhan has declared Oct. 16 a national “day of atonement,” borrowing from the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
He is calling on African American men to “straighten their backs,” take more responsibility for their communities and commit themselves to a restoration of values.
In addition to marching on the nation’s capital, he is asking African Americans across the country to stay away from jobs, shopping malls and schools as part of an economic boycott.
Although acknowledging that the event “in itself presents a laudable goal which all Americans of conscience can support,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it simultaneously “holds the potential for advancing the influence of one of America’s most vocal hatemongers and anti- Semites.”
“We think people of good will who are opposed to bigotry should not march with a bigot,” Foxman said.
But he added that no one should infringe on African Americans’ right to choose their own leaders and chart their own political course.
In weighing a response, Jewish leaders say they must also remain sensitive to the potential strain an antagonistic stance could put on black-Jewish relations.
“It’s highly complex problem of community relations,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
“We’re trying to do our best to maintain Jewish dignity and self-assertiveness without at the same time contributing” to misunderstanding and antipathy between blacks and Jews, he said.
Foxman said the Jewish community “genuinely desires” an improvement in African Americans’ quality of life, but he added, “We can and must ask under what banner will African Americans be more likely to succeed – the banner of divisiveness and hate, or of harmony and tolerance?”
In coordinating strategy, said Baum, Jewish leaders are adhering to the adage “above all, do no harm.”
“Part of our concern in that we don’t want to do anything to elevate Farrakhan,” Baum said. “The wisest course might be to do nothing.”
Support for the march comes from a number of community leaders, though major national black groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League have not expressed support.
Among the march’s supporter is Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, who is Jewish.
Although he has not endorsed the march, Rendell said he supports the goals of the event, downplaying Farrakhan’s sponsorship. His position has been sharply criticized by some segments of the Philadelphia Jewish community, who say support for the march and support for Farrakhan are inseparable.
People familiar with the event say it could draw more people than the famed 1963 March on Washington, which brought out 250,000 to demonstrate for civil rights.
One of the Nation of Islam’s most vocal critics in Congress, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), said African Americans should question the wisdom of heeding Farrakhan’s call to action.
“Anyone who skips school or work to allow themselves to be used by a bigot should really think twice about that,” King said through a spokesman.
Indicative of the apprehension surrounding the event, leaders of Washington’s Jewish community say they have been discussing security issues.
“We expect and hope that it will be a peaceful march, which is certainly it’s avowed intention, but we certainly want to be prepared and want to make sure that our synagogues and people are safe and protected,” said Peter Krauser, president of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.
Tensions between Jews and the Nation of Islam recently flared in Washington when the two Jewish members of Mayor Marion Barry’s religious advisory committee resigned after a representative of the Nation of Islam was invited to attend meetings.
“Inviting the Nation of Islam to sit on the mayor’s advisory committee is essentially granting them a badge of legitimacy that they do not deserve,” said Jeff Weintraub, who, with Rabbi Ethan Seidel, resigned from the commission.
“This is an indecent group that is being invited into a decent society,” he said, adding, “I do not by my presence want to give my sanction to a group of that nature.”
The Rev. Terry Wingate, director of Barry’s Office of Religious Affairs, said he was “pained” by the resignations. The committee is reportedly considering establishing a code of conduct that would deal with issues of tolerance and mutual respect.
Regarding the march, Jewish organizations said they would continue to coordinate strategy in coming weeks and would also seek advice in private meetings with African American leaders “whose opinions we value and trust,” Steinlight of the American Jewish Committee said.
He declined to specify with whom they are meeting.