As Rep. Kweise Mfume prepares to take on the daunting task of rebuilding the NAACP, Jews are hoping that the former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus can play a healing role in black-Jewish relations.
The appointment of Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, to the helm of the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization comes at a pivotal time for black- Jewish relations.
Historically supportive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – indeed, Jews joined with blacks to found the association – Jews have been alarmed in recent years by the group’s overtures to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is openly anti-Semitic.
Mfume himself has reached out to Farrakhan in the past, and even though he has moved to distance himself, his association with the NOI leader continues to trouble many Jews.
At a news conference Monday, Mfume called for the NAACP to respect the Nation of Islam, saying that the “African American community is not monolithic.”
Because of that relationship, Jewish leaders have been cautious in praising Mfume’s selection. For now, however, Mfume’s ties to Farrakhan remain an issue on which he and Jews have agreed to disagree.
“While Mfume is someone with whom we don’t always agree, he’s always been available for discussion and rational disagreement,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
Indeed, Jewish leaders say Mfume’s accessibility and skills in coalition- building may prove to be one of his most valuable attributes, particularly when it comes to forming new partnerships with the Jewish community.
“I believe it’s an excellent move for everybody,” said Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, who has established “long-standing ties of friendship” with Mfume and hailed him as a leader who has recognized the need to work with the organized Jewish community.
A Jewish board member of the NAACP, Rabbi David Saperstein, said, “He has a solid track record as a very adroit coalition-builder, forging relations with the Jewish community in his district.”
“In the long run this is going to be a very positive step” toward strengthening black-Jewish relations, said Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’ Religious Action Center.
Faced with a $3.2 million deficit and deep internal divisions as it struggles to define its role in the modern civil rights movement, the NAACP on Saturday unanimously appointed Mfume to serve as president and chief executive officer.
The post has remained vacant since August, 1994, when Benjamin Chavis was fired amid revelations that he paid more than $330,000 in NAACP funds to a former aide to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Jews have welcomed Mfume as a dramatic improvement over Chavis, whom many said shunned the Jewish community and alienated whites and blacks alike in his attempts to align the NAACP with Farrakhan and his black separatist ideology.
A five-term representative, Mfume will resign from his seat in Congress and assume the leadership post Feb. 15.
Chief among his goals is increasing black political and economic power, while promoting racial inclusion and greater tolerance in society.
Speaking to reporters after his appointment, Mfume took aim at what he called the “Draconian and punitive” policies of the far right-wing in America – policies that “punish the elderly, restrict the poor and deny opportunities to children.”
The best way to counter the assault, he said, is “by reinvigorating the age-old concept of coalition, where people work together for the common good.
“Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism cannot and will not be allowed to enjoy a comfortable and quiet existence. If anything propels me, it is the desire to chip away at those things that hurt all of us and polarize us.”
An influential voice in Congress, Mfume served as chairman of the black caucus from 1992 to 1994, but his tenure was not without controversy.
When he announced in late 1993 that the caucus would “enter a sacred covenant” with the Nation of Islam on legislative concerns, Jewish groups and some members of the caucus soundly lambasted him.
Stung by the criticism, which escalated after a highly publicized hate speech delivered by Farrakhan aide Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Mfume disavowed any formal association between the caucus and the Nation of Islam.
“It is clear that the Congressional Black Caucus’ ability to work for change with the Nation of Islam [is] severely jeopardized as long as there remains a question by some of our membership about the Nation of Islam’s sensitivity to the right of all people and all religions to be free from attacks, vilification and defamation,” Mfume said in early 1994, as he sought to distance himself from his overture to Farrakhan.
But he has since continued his association with the Nation of Islam leader, sharing the podium with Farrakhan at the first African American Leadership Summit in Baltimore last year, and at October’s Million Man March in Washington, an event organized by the Nation of islam.
“The basic concern we’ve had is that apparently he has not been sensitive enough to the danger that extremists in the black community represent,” said Baum.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Mfume’s ties to Farrakhan should not necessarily be used as a “litmus test” that disqualifies him from working with Jews.
“I have no problem when he says that he wants to reach out to everybody – and that of course means Farrakhan,” Foxman said. “I will have a problem if he looks to Farrakhan for leadership. I hope and believe he will not.”
Abramanson of the Baltimore Jewish Council agreed.
“I think we’re way beyond the point that Jewish leaders should be telling African American leaders where they should or should not be and who they should or should not meet with,” Abramson said.
Mfume, he added, “does not share the abominable views of Farrakhan and he understands how vital it is that we participate with the African American community on matters of great concern to both of our communities.”
Although Mfume stands poised to emerge as a leading partner for the Jewish community, Saperstein of the Religious Action Center emphasized that Jews and blacks must go beyond forging ties between leaders.
Coalition-building, to be truly effective, must also occur at the grass-roots level, with Jews and blacks standing on common ground to defend shared interests, he said.
“We’re both threatened today by the far right,” Saperstein said.
“The values we’ve worked to establish in the last 50 years are now under attack, the values of tolerance and civil rights and equal rights for minorities and women.”
Jews and blacks, he said, have an imperative to work together in pursuit of common goals, such as fighting for civil rights, combating anti-Semitism, building better schools, creating job opportunities and guaranteeing a social safety net for nation’s poor.
“We have to build bridges of trust that come with working together,” he said.
In that respect, Jews and the NAACP’s new leader appear to be on the same page.
“We can all be quiet and sit in comfortable perches,” Mfume told reporters this week, “but I guarantee you, when they put us in the ground and shovel that last piece of dirt on us, the world will not change on its own. It will only change when we find ways to reach out toward each other.”