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Florida count could revive former activism

NEW YORK, Nov. 29 (JTA) – It’s widely assumed that the black- Jewish coalition, which fought so many civil rights battles together, is a thing of the past.

But with tens of thousands of blacks, Haitian Americans and Holocaust survivors in South Florida allegedly disenfranchised in the presidential election, some activists are calling to resurrect the erstwhile bond.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson joined a handful of Jewish politicians and rabbis in a New York synagogue Wednesday and urged the crowd to “keep your eyes on the prize” and demand an accurate count of the Florida vote.

“These are real people,” Jackson bellowed to a mixed audience of about 1,000 Jews and blacks.

“It reminds us of our need to be together. We are inextricably bound,” said Jackson, who some Jews will always remember for referring to New York as “Hymietown” during his 1984 presidential campaign.

The event was hosted by the Steven Wise Free Synagogue, a Reform shul renowned for its tradition of social activism. It was organized within 48 hours, as local unions spread the word and brought out many members.

The line-up of speakers included a number of prominent local Jewish politicians and offered an indication of the event’s partisan slant: City Comptroller Alan Hevesi and Public Advocate Mark Green, both of whom are expected to run for mayor next year; U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Gary Ackerman; and Charles Rangel, a black congressman and senior leader of the House of Representatives. All are Democrats.

Speakers alternated between anger and frustration, while humoring the crowd with biting jabs at Republicans. Mention of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who certified Bush as the winner Sunday, drew a chorus of boos. Some in the audience held aloft placards that read “Count Every Vote,” but one was less benign: “Bush = Fascist; G.O.P. = Gutless Oppressive Pigs.”

Jackson clearly was the headline speaker.

He charged that black Floridians, in particular, were unfairly “targeted.” His contention seemed to be supported by an article in Wednesday’s New York Times, which said votes by blacks were disqualified at far higher rates than those cast by whites, because of the voting methods used in some heavily black districts.

Republicans, Jackson said, “want to discuss chad-ism and not racism.”

“This is not about hanging paper, it’s about hanging people’s right to vote,” he said, adding, We must be vigilant about protecting that right.”

However, this is a “Jewish issue” as much as it is a “black” issue, Jackson and other speakers said.

Jackson spoke of his visit to a Jewish retirement home, where a distraught elderly woman told him that “she would rather die tonight than have on her record that she voted for Pat Buchanan.”

“You, in New York, you cannot abandon the Jews in West Palm Beach,” Jackson intoned.

Aside from those Jewish voters, the Florida imbroglio is also a “Jewish issue” for ideological reasons, said Rabbi Balfour Brickner, senior rabbi emeritus at the Steven Wise.

“All justice is a Jewish issue, unless I’ve misread the prophets of Israel,” Brickner said.

“There was not a single prophet who did not have as his primary message the message of justice.”

However, prominent Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League view the Florida recount primarily as a partisan dispute and have not taken an official position.

Brickner said Jewish groups have “lost their guts,” and criticized his fellow rabbis in south Florida: “I’m astonished, astounded and amazed my colleagues aren’t speaking up. What are they afraid of, losing their jobs?”

At a time when polls seem to indicate the public has grown bored and impatient with the legal wrangling and want Vice President Al Gore to concede defeat, speakers exhorted the audience to mobilize and take to the streets. Rallies are planned for Friday in New York and Chicago, so far.

Whether Jewish and black activists really do revive their historic alliance, or whether the Florida recount is only a brief reprise, remains to be seen.

At the Steven Wise temple, at least, there seemed to be only true believers.

Afterward, four members of the Department Store Workers’ Union, Local 1-S, discussed future solidarity.

“Here we are, two Jews and two non-Jews” said Marilyn Ringel, a 50-something Jewish woman.

“We’ve got to stick together and fight for our rights as Americans. We fought too goddamn hard to get that right in the first place,” she said, adding, “I don’t know if you can print this, but W. can kiss my dimpled chad.”

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