VIOLENT INCIDENTS ARE `WAKE-UP CALL’ FOR COOPERATION BETWEEN BLACKS, JEWS. When his phone started ringing after the shooting of four Chasidic students Tuesday, Howard Teich was told that the Rev. Al sharpton was on the line.
Teich, co-president of the New York metropolitan region of American Jewish Congress, said the controversial black activist, who recently announced his bid for the U.S. Senate, was outraged about the shooting and wanted to do something.
Within 24 hours, Teich and Sharpton had gathered more than 30 grass-roots representatives of the Jewish and black communities at the AJCongress offices where they discussed strategies to defuse the kind of racial tensions that may have motivated Tuesday’s attack.
Among the participants were students, pastors, heads of local Islamic groups, ministers who run anti-drug programs, as well as academics and political representatives.
Henry Siegman, executive director of the AJCongress, said the meeting was most significant because it brought together local leaders who ordinarily leave it to national and high-level representatives to carry on interfaith and inter- racial dialogue.
Despite lasting tensions between Sharpton and Jews, including ongoing charges of anti-Semitism, Siegman said the time has come for all interested parties to start talking about what they have in common.
“Rather than standing in our separate corners hurling epithets at each other, we wanted to explore the possibility of doing something concrete together,” he said.
Siegman said the Hebron mosque murders and the shooing of Chasidic students on the Brooklyn Bridge served as a “wake-up call” to New Yorks minority communities that a further escalation in ethnic violence threatened to “Balkanize” the region, referring to the ethnic strife that has ravaged through the former Yugoslavia.
“We’re learning the dark underside of what we thought was an attractive principle, that the world is a global village,” Siegman said of speculations that the attack in New York came in retaliation for last week’s murders of dozens of worshipers in Hebron by a Jewish settler.
Many who were at the meeting said the major breakthrough was that members of the Jewish and black communities who ordinarily have little or no contact with each other were able to sit down, explain a little bit about themselves and then exchange telephone numbers.
Siegman said some Muslims at the meeting were shocked to hear that the Hebron killings had been summarily denounced by nearly every major Jewish organization in America.
Many had heard only reports from Israel of militant Jewish groups who were praising the attack, Siegman said.
Likewise, Siegman said Jewish leaders were surprised t hear from black Muslim leaders that their communities were “revolted” by the hate rhetoric of black separatist Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
“Their communities discuss this in churches and clubs, but it’s not reported in The New York Times,” Siegman said. “We only know it when we sit down and talk.”
The Rev. Johnnie McCann, pastor of St. Luke’s Baptist Church in Harlem, said he left the meeting with a “sense of unity” and a feeling that things were “starting to heal.”
McCann, who had never before participated in a meeting with Jewish groups, said he was surprised to learn that the diversity of Jewish sects and movements parallels that in the African American community.
A college student from Brooklyn’s fervently Orthodox Lubavitch community suggested that blacks and Jews get together to publish an underground newspaper, Siegman said.
Tuesday’s attack on the Chasidic students sparked fear and concern throughout the Jewish community. A police department spokesman said security has been stepped up at Jewish institutions throughout the city, including synagogues and schools.
Rabbi Moshe Krupka, director or national programs for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, said there is a tremendous fear in the Jewish community of further racially motivated attacks.
“In the back of your mind,” he said, “you’re wondering, should we allow our children to walk home from school unattended? Are men with beards and payot (sidecurls) walking targets now?”
There are plans for a second meeting to be hosted by Muslim representatives in Brooklyn, focusing on tolerance and economic problems.
But Siegman and others say the real fruit of the meeting would be an easing of informal relations between members of all groups.