The majority of participants in the Million Man March cheered when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan called for a dialogue with Jewish leaders.
But calling the gesture a “public relations stunt” and “a gimmick,” Jewish leaders have categorically rejected meeting with Farrakhan until he changes his ways.
“I don’t like this squabble with members of the Jewish community,” Farrakhan told more than 400,000 black men gathered on the National Mall here Monday for a day of atonement and reconciliation.
“It’s time to sit down and talk, not with any preconditions,” he said.
“You got pain, but we got pain, too. You hurt; we hurt, too,” he said. “The question is, if the dialogue is proper, then we might be able to end the pain. And ending the pain may be good for both and ultimately good for the nation.”
Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, was one of many Jewish leaders to reject the invitation.
“The notion that he can summon us to a meeting is offensive,” Baum said. “It would be a terrible mistake to meet with Farrakhan. We would be placed in a defensive position of defending our history and we’re not going to do that.”
Farrakhan has charged, among other things, that Jews financed the slave trade and the Holocaust and that Jews are “bloodsuckers” for not reinvesting in the black community.
In rejecting the call for dialogue, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “What am I going to discuss with him – which of my neighbors are bloodsuckers, which of my ancestors had slaves in Minsk?”
Jewish leaders have said that before any meeting takes place, Farrakhan and his deputies must publicly renounce anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry and stop distributing anti-Semitic literature.
The idea of a meeting was first broached by Farrakhan’s chief of staff in a letter sent to Foxman last week. It came after the ADL ran full-page ads in major newspapers denouncing Farrakhan as a bigot.
“Your repeated attacks, verbal and otherwise on Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam contributes substantially to the divisions in this country along racial lines,” Leonard Muhammad wrote, asking for a meeting with the ADL and “other appropriate Jewish leaders.”
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson reiterated the invitation on NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
“I want to reach out to the leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Jews and try to problem, not just wallow in it,” Jackson said. “I’m not going to give up on dialogue here.”
In a letter refusing the meeting, Foxman wrote that Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam “represent the very opposite of reconciliation.”
“We believe that individuals and institutions can change, no matter the hatred they have exhibited,” Foxman wrote. “When there are indications of change that are real, substantial and ongoing, we will be more than ready to reassess our position.”
Farrakhan’s call for an unconditional dialogue with American Jews was denounced outside the Jewish community as well.
“To talk, as he did, of unconditional negotiations with the leaders of Jewish groups is ludicrous,” the Washington Post said in its featured editorial the day after the march. “This is Minister Farrakhan’s fight, not theirs; the abuse directed toward another group has been directed by him, not them.”
But Farrakhan has stood firm.
“If people are waiting for me to come to my knees, I’m sorry, that will never happen,” Farrakhan told reporters after the march when asked about the ADL’s response to his offer.
Jewish leaders also took issue with Farrakhan’s analogy to Israel sitting down with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.
“If you could sit down with Arafat, where there are rivers of blood between you, why can’t you sit down with us, and there’s no blood between us,” Farrakhan said during his two-hour speech at the march.
Responded Foxman: “I’ve got news for him. There were preconditions for Arafat and there are for him.”
Before Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin sat down with Arafat, the PLO leader “recognized Israel’s right to exist, renounced terrorism, and agreed to speak out against terrorism,” Foxman said.
As he calls for a dialogue, Farrakhan also seems to want to debate his version of history with the Jewish community.
In an interview on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Monday night, Farrakhan reiterated his longstanding claim that he has only spoken the truth.
“If the Jewish leaders can show me in truth where I spoke other than the truth, then I would have to apologize, and I’m not too big to do that. But I can never apologize for speaking the truth,” he said.
Foxman fired back, saying, “Adolf Hitler and David Duke also said they were only telling the truth.”
During his speech, which was peppered with biblical references to Jews, Farrakhan denied that he harbors anti-Semitic views and declared himself a prophet.
“Whether you like it or not, God brought the idea [for the march] through me, and he didn’t bring it through me because my heart was dark with hatred and anti-Semitism,” he said.
Expressing the view of many in the Jewish community, Baum said he was ‘deeply troubled” and “shocked” that more than 400,000 people “could come to march knowing that it is being organized against a backdrop of anti-Semitism.”
“There is a rise in the willingness to tolerate anti-Semitism,” Baum said. “You can now say anti-Semitic statements and it won’t be held against you.”