Behind the Headlines: Jackson’s Appeal for Iranian Jews Signals a Long Way from ‘hymietown’
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Behind the Headlines: Jackson’s Appeal for Iranian Jews Signals a Long Way from ‘hymietown’

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Those who remember the Rev. Jesse Jackson referring to New York as “Hymietown” in 1984 or embracing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1979, taboo at the time, may be surprised to see the African American leader taking up the cause of 13 Iranian Jews facing possible execution on charges of spying for Israel.

But the Jesse Jackson of 1999 looks back on decades of activism on behalf of the Jewish community, whose leadership last week turned to Jackson for help on behalf of the Iranian Jews.

Jackson himself reminded Jewish leaders of this work before a news conference Sunday in New York, where he reiterated his commitment to lobby the Iranian government for the Jewish prisoners’ release.

Introducing Jackson, Ronald Lauder, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of 55 Jewish groups, highlighted examples of the pro-Jewish advocacy by the Baptist minister and former Democratic presidential candidate.

Jackson stood with Jews in Skokie, Ill., in 1978, when neo-Nazis marched, Lauder said.

He went to Geneva to confront Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev about the plight of Soviet Jewry. And when President Ronald Reagan laid a memorial wreath at a SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, in 1985 Jackson led a protest at the Dachau concentration camp.

Taking the podium at the Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Jackson, the president and founder of the Chicago-based ecumenical Rainbow/PUSH Coalition committed himself to a new interfaith partnership on behalf of the “moral issue” of the Iranian Jews.

He told the assembly, which included Jewish leaders, synagogue members and the families of two of the prisoners, that today “we work together to set the captives free.”

Jackson said he had already started to set up a network of contacts to the religious leadership in Iran. Surrounded on the pulpit by the heads of leading Jewish organizations, Jackson said “the world needs to know” of the Iranian Jews’ plight.

Jackson called on the pope and “leaders of the caliber of Nelson Mandela” to “blend their voices in the chorus” of moral appeals.

On Monday, Jackson sought to meet with the Iranian representative to the United Nations as a first step to “mobilize world opinion.”

But at an ecumenical prayer vigil near the United Nations on Monday, he conceded that the meeting had not yet been arranged, although “we hope that one day it will be granted.”

Although there are still disagreements between Jackson and the Jews – – including a lingering sense by some that he has failed to sufficiently renounce anti-Semitism and to distance himself from controversial figures such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan — there appeared to be no opposition to approaching Jackson on this issue.

Since word of the Iranian arrests reached U.S. shores over two months ago, a task force of American Jewish organizations — working together with the prisoners’ relatives living in the United States — has launched a campaign of quiet diplomacy to bring about the release of the prisoners, who were being held without being charged.

Last week, however, the Iranian government announced that the prisoners – – including rabbis, religious teachers and community activists aged 16 to 49 – – would be tried as Zionist spies. Espionage is punishable by death in Iran.

At that point, the American relatives of several of the prisoners decided to go public with their appeal for clemency, and Jewish leaders responded.

While the task force continues to pursue formal diplomatic channels, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, approached Jackson, a public figure with a record of softening hard-line regimes and the proven ability to get media attention.

Although Foxman himself has never shrunk from criticizing Jackson’s controversial actions and statements, he said Sunday that opposing Jackson’s involvement on the basis of his controversial past would be “unproductive.”

“There is no greater commandment” than “saving a Jewish life,” Foxman said.

In this case, Foxman said, one has to ask, “Who is most capable of saving someone’s life?”

Jackson’s reply to the families’ request for assistance was immediate, positive and unconditional, Foxman said.

In April, Jackson led a delegation of religious leaders to Yugoslavia, where they convinced President Slobodan Milosevic to release three captured U.S. soldiers.

As he did in the Balkans, Jackson has enlisted the support of the National Council of Churches in his new appeal, and Joan Brown Campbell, the secretary- general of the protestant group, said she would fly to Tehran if a trip materialized.

But no trip is currently planned, and Jackson would first have to obtain a visa from the Islamic state.

“We are working on that process now,” Jackson said Monday.

Jackson said he plans to make an appeal based on humanitarian and religious rather than political grounds.

Beyond the moral and humanitarian issues involved, Jackson said he hopes Iran will see the practical benefits of granting the prisoners’ release.

“When we choose peace over war, when we choose life over death, the entire human family benefits.

“This is a great moment for Iran as it makes a step toward its rightful place in the family of nations.”

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