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Philadelphia’s Jewish mayor, community split over Farrakhan

PHILADELPHIA, April 16 (Jewish Exponent) — Philadelphia’s organized Jewish community is boiling over Mayor Ed Rendell”s granting credibility to Louis Farrakhan, and then charging the Jews with not caring about combating bigotry.

Rendell’s thinly veiled criticism of Jews capped a bizarre week in which the mayor of the fifth largest city in America invited the inflammatory leader of the Nation of Islam to speak at an “ecumenical” service — a service called to heal racial and ethnic divisiveness in the city’s Grays Ferry neighborhood.

Jewish and Roman Catholic leaders made a point of being absent from the Monday event in response to Farrakhan”s long and well-documented history of anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic rhetoric.

While not referring to leaders of the Jewish or Catholic groups by name, Rendell said during his remarks at the rally at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, “If everyone cares, they should have been here. They should have been here to talk, and they should have been here to listen.”

Jewish leaders maintain that they do not belong on a stage with someone who as recently as Sunday has claimed that Jews control blacks and funded Hitler. “I have never felt quite so frustrated,” said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia. “Normally, you understand the motives of people in situations of conflict,” Siegel said, but he added that he did not understand Rendell”s cozying up to Farrakhan nor the mayor’s criticism of Jewish leaders who earlier had objected to Rendell’s course of action.

“I found it totally incomprehensible,” Siegel said of the mayor’s invitation to Farrakhan.

Rendell billed the rally and invitation to Farrakhan as an effort to pre-empt a threatened Nation of Islam march through racially tense Grays Ferry. The march took place anyway, though without the participation of the Nation of Islam and without incident. In recent months, Grays Ferry has been the site of an alleged beating of three blacks by white men and the murder of a white teen-ager allegedly by two black men.

Siegel said that for Rendell to suggest it was something of “a litmus test” for groups who want to end bigotry to be on the dais on Monday with Farrakhan was “totally unfair.”

“We have been saying all along that the Jewish community doesn’t have to apologize regarding the willingness of our agencies to combat racism and bigotry in all forms, not just anti-Semitism,” Siegel said.

Barry Morrison, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that the mayor had handed Farrakhan “a victory.”

He said Rendell gave Farrakhan “the appearance of being pro-unity, pro-tolerance, pro-apple pie and all things good.”

Rendell’s overtures to Farrakhan galvanized the Jewish community. Officials of the JCRC, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Chapter of American Jewish Committee, Pennsylvania Region of American Jewish Congress, Eastern Pennsylvania-Delaware Region of the ADL and Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia signed on to a letter last week to Rendell. In the April 11 letter, they expressed “our profound concern to you, to provide clarification of our position and to request a meeting to discuss the invitation to Louis Farrakhan to participate in a city-sponsored unity rally.”

They wrote that comments from Rendell in the local press describing them as “so-called Jewish leaders” were “highly inappropriate.”

Rendell’s condemnation of the Jewish community began after he announced his invitation to Farrakhan on Tuesday, April 8, and Jewish leadership responded critically.

The mayor reportedly told radio talk-show host Mary Mason and her listeners later that week: “I think the outcry from some of the so-called Jewish leaders is ridiculous.”

David Cohen, who until last week was the mayor’s chief of staff, was equally critical of Jewish leaders. Cohen told The Philadelphia Inquirer: “You”ve got the leadership of some organizations who live and die in such a narrow world, where unfortunately, they’re incapable of focusing on a broader picture. But they live and die for the chance to discredit and distance themselves from Louis Farrakhan. That’s the prism through which they look at everything.”

Monday’s rally turned into a test of endurance for the audience, as most of the 3,000-plus attendees were seated for more than five hours while a parade of about two dozen speakers — Protestant leaders, three members of Philadelphia City Council, black and Asian business leaders and others — denounced bigotry and praised Rendell for putting the program together. Several speakers also thanked Farrakhan for his presence at the event and for his sentiments. Rendell sat on the dais with Farrakhan to his immediate right and City Council President John Street seated to his left. Frequently, Rendell made friendly comments to the Nation of Islam leader, and several times the two shared a laugh.

Farrakhan’s speech, which lasted well over an hour, was comparatively mild in terms of divisiveness and anti-Semitic rhetoric. In addition to being a Muslim, Farrakhan said he is also Jewish and Christian, all faiths that derive from Abraham. “To be a Jew is a very special thing, because to be a Jew is to have a special covenant, an intimate relationship with God,” he said. When his audience started to laugh, he told them, “Wait, the punch line hasn”t come yet.” He went on to tell them that Jews have a special duty toward God. Being a Jew “is not a nationality or a race. It’s a state of being” that obligates its followers to obey God’s laws, Farrakhan said. He added that when Jesus violated one such law — healing on the Sabbath — he was persecuted. Farrakhan said, “I’m sorry that the leaders of the synagogues are not here.” Then he added that if he were as “evil” as they claim he is, “I’d go out and hang myself.” But he said he is not a hater, and Farrakhan challenged his critics to name any of his followers who have committed hate crimes.

The event was under the control of Farrakhan”s Nation of Islam organization. “Fruit of Islam” guards frisked all who entered the church, and served as security, keeping a watchful eye on the crowd. No uniformed Philadelphia police were observed inside the sanctuary. “If this were a regular Philadelphia-run event, what other group would have the opportunity to run the security? It is astonishing,” said the JCRC’s Siegel.

The ADL’s Morrison said, “The mayor was co-opted into giving Farrakhan a prominent platform.” Of those who sat on the dais with Farrakhan, said Morrison, “the well-meaning people of our community” were duped into believing this rally would end violence. “We should expect more ugly hatred and demagoguery.”

This is not the first time the city of Philadelphia and Farrakhan have been linked. In 1990, a proclamation signed by former Mayor W. Wilson Goode was presented to Farrakhan during a speech here recognizing the Nation of Islam’s efforts to combat drugs and drug-related violence. The citation read: “The City of Philadelphia recognizes and applauds the Nation of Islam’s National Stop the Killing Campaign which calls for an end to the violence in the African-American communities.”

As for published reports that Rendell would like to bridge the gulf between the Jewish community and Farrakhan, Siegel of the JCRC said, “Louis Farrakhan is not a partner by any stretch of the imagination. He has continued to demonstrate his hostility to the Jewish community.”

Siegel said that Jewish groups will discuss the next steps the community will take, and still want to meet with the mayor.

“We don”t expect to forget about this,” Morrison said.

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