In the most stinging denunciation to date of Louis Farrakhan’s role as the prime mover behind the upcoming Million Man March on Washington, the Anti- Defamation League has assailed the Nation of Islam leader for aggressive and repeated promotion of anti-Semitism and racism.
In a full-page newspaper ad, the ADL said it, “cannot be ignored” that “this march will be the largest event led by an anti-Semite in recent American history.” The ad appeared last Friday in The New York Times and Tuesday in the Washington Post.
The Oct. 16 march has been billed by Farrakhan as a national “day of atonement.” He has called on African American men to take more responsibility for their communities and commit themselves to a restoration of values.
While acknowledging the need for African Americans to address problems plaguing their community at the march, Jewish groups remain concerned that the event could give further legitimacy to Farrakhan and the anti-Semitic views he espouses.
The ad reads, in part: “What if a white supremacist called for a march on Washington? If this happened, no matter what the cause, no matter how legitimate the issue, no one could ignore the fact that a hatemonger was the driving force behind the march. The same is true of minister Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March.”
The ADL’s sharp public criticism represents a departure from other Jewish groups, most of which have been hesitant to issue any public statements regarding the march. They have been mindful of averting tensions between Jews and blacks.
Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, said that for historical and moral reasons, the ADL finally decided that it could not maintain silence.
“I don’t think after World War II Jews have the luxury not to raise their voices and not to stand up when anti-Semitism moves into the mainstream of society,” Foxman said in an interview. “This is a major manifestation that anti-Semitism is moving into the mainstream of a very significant segment of our society.”
Foxman said the ADL decided to break its silence after the Hartford school system said it would grant excused absences to those who participate in the march, and invited Nation of Islam members to recruit participants in its classrooms.
In preparation for the march, Farrakhan has called on African Americans across the country to stay away from jobs and school on Oct. 16.
In Hartford, the Board of Education met Monday night and decided that public schools would remain open unless a significant number of teachers ask to be excused, at which point the superintendent would re-evaluate the matter. A committee of the board had recommended that all schools be closed to mark the day of the march.
The population of the city of Hartford is largely made up of minorities. State statistics show the school population to be more than 80 percent black and Hispanic.
“We have an obligation to educate about the racist and anti-Semitic messages of Louis Farrakhan, said Ethan Felson, director of the Community Relations Committee of the Greater Hartford Jewish Federation in an interview. “But a lot of urban legislators feel that there is no alternative for them but to support this march.”
There was mixed reaction among other Jewish groups to the ADL ad.
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said the ADL ad would have been more effective if it appeared “closer to the event and more directly related.” He added that it would have been better had in been done “in concert with a large grouping of Jewish organizations.”
Prior to the ADL ad, the AJCongress had issued a statement that contained a message similar to that of the ADL. It recognized the “profound crisis affecting the life of black America,” but at the same time reminding people the event is being convened by “one of our country’s most prominent and unrepentant public bigots.”
“We must express our deep concern that the march could enhance the legitimacy and stature of a person who has propagated the pernicious falsehoods of bigotry,” the statement said. “Because of this record, we cannot remain silent. History teaches that the importance of the message cannot permit us to overlook the nature of the messenger.”
Other Jewish groups distanced themselves from the ADL ad.
“We can’t condemn anyone for making public statements that in their judgment they felt were appropriate to make,” said Karen Senter, co-director for domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. “Our consensus opinion was that this was not the time” to issue public comment.
Responding to the criticism, Foxman said, “They’re entitled to be wrong.”
In a clear sign of how carefully the NJCRAC is approaching this issue, Senter issued an internal memo to member agencies, calling for a measured response “so as not to allow Farrakhan or the media to distort or make Jewish reaction an issue.”
Foxman said by running the ad, the ADL is not making Jewish reaction an issue. Farrakhan “is making an issue about it, every time he opens his mouth anti- Semitically and racially,” he said. “I’m not about to put my head in the sand and ignore it.”
A broad coalition has formed in support of the march, with endorsements from a number of community leaders and national black organizations, including the Congressional Black Caucus. The endorsements have proved worrisome, Foxman said, because no one appears to be objecting to Farrakhan’s role in the event.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People board, however, voted not to endorse the march, said Myrlie Evers-Williams, who heads the board, at a recent meeting of the World Jewish Congress in New York.
“I’d like to hear those who are going at least express themselves about the racism and anti-Semitism of the man’s who’s the Pied Piper,” Foxman said.
Baum also expressed his dismay at the endorsements.
“What troubles us is the fact that [Farrakhan] has attracted the endorsement and support of people in the past who would have seen it as abhorrent to be seen with him or identified with him in any way.”
Although Jewish groups remain divided over when and how to voice objections, organizational leaders did not rule out the possibility of speaking out jointly and publicly at the time of the march.