WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (JTA) – Vice-presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman’s openness to meeting with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader condemned for his anti-Semitic remarks, has raised some eyebrows in the Jewish community.
Many Jews, alternately elated with the prospect of a Jewish vice president and embarrassed by any negative press Lieberman generates, are questioning the candidate’s motives and political savvy.
Lieberman’s outreach to Farrakhan is generally being seen as an effort to reach out to the wider black community, where Farrakhan stands on the fringe, but still has a following.
Ever since his nomination, Lieberman has taken pains to explain his positions to the black community and tout his record as an early supporter of civil rights.
At the Democratic convention in July, Lieberman was pressured into explaining his support for affirmative action to the Democratic National Committee’s Black Caucus before the group gave him its full backing.
Lieberman’s latest controversial remark came during an interview last week with a black-oriented radio station, American Urban Radio Networks, in which he said that he respected Farrakhan and his efforts to promote voter registration.
“I have respect for him and I have respect for the Muslim community generally,” Lieberman said.
Lieberman, who characterized some of Farrakhan’s past remarks as “not informed,” said he was looking forward to meeting with Farrakhan and wanted to work with him to promote racial and religious reconciliation.
Sources close to the situation say no meeting is scheduled and the prospect for such a meeting is unlikely.
Farrakhan has often been criticized for his inflammatory rhetoric, which includes calling Judaism a “gutter religion” and Hitler a great man, and referring to Jewish, Arab and Asian businessmen in black communities as “bloodsuckers.”
Farrakhan had questioned in August whether Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, might be more loyal to Israel to the United States.
In the Jewish community, the reaction to Lieberman’s comments was swift. Republican and some Jewish defense groups pounced on the statements as misguided and disastrous.
The Anti-Defamation League told Lieberman that if he were to meet with Farrakhan he would be “legitimizing a bigot, an anti-Semite and a racist.”
The American Jewish Congress said such a meeting would be a “disaster.”
Such a meeting, the AJCongress said, “would send a message that you are prepared to accept repeated insults to the Jewish people and minimize the danger to all America from those who advocate overt and blatant racism.”
The controversy also spilled into the political realm.
Calling Farrakhan a “virulent hatemonger,” Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Lieberman’s comments “give credibility and legitimacy” to Farrakhan’s message of anti-Semitism.
Lieberman’s Democratic supporters tried to downplay the issue.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Lieberman has a proven track record of commitment to the Jewish community’s interests, but admitted that he would not have suggested a meeting with Farrakhan.
When Farrakhan tried to ingratiate himself to Republicans in 1997, Forman seized the opportunity to say that “Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, must reject Farrakhan,” and that the NJDC condemned Farrakhan.
“We’ve worked within the Democratic Party to exclude Farrakhan from the political process and will continue to do so,” he said at the time.
Forman said he stands by his previous statements.
The Gore-Lieberman campaign, not surprisingly, also played down the whole issue.
His spokesman, Dan Gerstein, said Lieberman’s remarks were not new, since he had said the same thing after he was selected to be the vice presidential candidate.
Lieberman is not the first national candidate to run into controversy over Farrakhan.
Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential candidate in 1996, came under heavy fire from Jewish groups when he praised Farrakhan’s Million Man March and the Nation of Islam’s leader’s self-help philosophy for the black community.
Kemp said at the time he did not endorse the Nation of Islam.