LOS ANGELES, Feb. 19 (JTA) — Louis Farrakhan made some beautiful music during the national convention of his Nation of Islam — but Jewish leaders, mindful of repeated dissonance in past performances, withheld their applause. Farrakhan, 69, an accomplished violinist, dedicated his concert on the first night of the four-day convention to his idol and inspiration, Jascha Heifetz, and let it be known that he was a great admirer of many Jewish musicians and composers. The volatile and often incendiary black leader was less successful in staging a reception at a different venue here, the Simon Wiesenthal Center´s Museum of Tolerance. In the week preceding the Feb. 13-17 convention, billed as "World Saviors´ Day," high-level intermediaries, including Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, had urged the two top leaders at the Wiesenthal Center, Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper, to formally receive Farrakhan at the museum. Hier said he responded by noting that the museum, which incidentally displays a photo of Farrakhan in its gallery of bigots, was open to anyone, but that "I would not greet him under any circumstances." The founder of the Wiesenthal Center said he based his refusal on Farrakhan´s long record of anti-Semitic rhetoric, including his description of Judaism as a "dirty religion." That was followed by conciliatory gestures, and then fresh insults. Cooper said that if Farrakhan sincerely sought better relations with the Jewish community, he would have to publicly apologize — in a major speech or in an Op-Ed article in a leading newspaper — for his many past slurs and distortions. Rabbi Garry Greenebaum, regional director of the American Jewish Committee, emphasized that one Nation of Islam publication charging Jews with a major role in the slave trade still was being heavily promoted at the group´s Chicago headquarters. Farrakhan himself, in his climactic Sunday address before 8,000 cheering Black Muslims at the Great Western Forum, displayed his more benign face toward Jews, couching even his criticism of Israel in more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tones. His wide-ranging speech, which lasted nearly three hours, concentrated on denouncing President Bush´s expanding "war on terrorism" and included a long lecture, complete with pointer and slides, on American foreign policy allegedly dictated by U.S. oil needs. In between, Farrakhan repeatedly rang the theme of Muslim and Jews as "children of Abraham," at one point preaching that good Muslims were duty bound to ally themselves "with Jews who want to establish the righteousness of the Torah." Addressing himself to his "Jewish friends," he defined true Jews as "not part of a race, not a nationality," but those in "a special covenant with God." Toward the end of the long speech, Farrakhan, in one of his wild oratorical swings, segued from endorsing mild spanking for disobedient children to an analysis of the Middle East conflict. In broad strokes, he painted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a frustrated peace-seeker, prevented by Israel´s harsh policies and American one-sidedness from cracking down on Hezbollah and Hamas extremists. As soon as Arafat puts extremists "in jail, the Israelis bomb the jail," he said. Nevertheless, even on this topic, Farrakhan sought to close on a statesman-like note. "As a Muslim, I feel the pain of the Muslims," he said. "As a human being, I feel the pain of the Jews."
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.