When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ousted its chairman earlier this year, there was an audible sigh of relief from the Jewish community.
Observers from all racial and religious backgrounds predicted the move would weaken Louis Farrakhan, the virulently anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam, who had been warmly embraced by the former chairman, Benjamin Chavis Jr., during his brief and turbulent tenure at the helm of NAACP.
Chavis may be out of the mainstream black organization, but Farrakhan has come roaring back to rise in the ranks of black leaders.
This week’s Million Man March has catapulted Farrakhan to the forefront of the African American community and has secured him the seat he long has coveted at the table of black leadership. “Louis Farrakhan has gained legitimacy and captured the limelight,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, who in the weeks preceding the march was the Jewish community’s most vocal critic of its leadership.
Murray Friedman, author of a book on black-Jewish relations and a former vice chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, agreed.
“Farrakhan has now found a way of koshering himself with the black community,” Friedman said.
Farrakhan’s rehabilitation has thrown new doubts on the future of already strained black-Jewish relations.
“Should Louis Farrakhan emerge as a leader of the black community, that would be a problem that cannot be understated,” said Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chairman of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.
“It would be impossible for members of the Jewish community to sit down with members of the black community if Farrakhan were included,” Rubin said.
In fact, that very scenario has already occurred in Washington. A member of the local American Jewish Committee and a local rabbi publicly and loudly resigned from Mayor Marion Barry’s religious advisory committee when officials invited Nation of Islam representatives to participate.
Although many Jewish organizations lauded the goals of the march, especially the effort to address the problems in the black community, they criticized – some publicly, some privately – Farrakhan’s role.
Many black leaders have faced a similar dilemma. The NAACP did not officially endorse Monday’s march, although many members of its leadership expressed support.
The dilemma was compounded by the enormous amount of enthusiasm in the black community generated by Farrakhan’s event.
Farrakhan is filling a leadership vacuum in the black community, according to Arthur Magida, who is writing a biography of Farrakhan.
“Farrakhan wields enormous power, influence and has extraordinary charisma,” said Magida, who has interviewed the Nation of Islam leader several times for his book.
“No one else in the black community has been able to harvest this type of energy,” said Magida, a former writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times.
This latest crisis has only reaffirmed divisions in the Jewish community over how to proceed with a once fruitful, but increasingly problematic relationship between African Americans and Jews.
Foxman speaks for many when he says, “The march will not change the fact that blacks and Jews have to sit together to fight bigotry and racism.”
Others, however, argue that blacks and Jews need a cooling off period.
“The struggle now is internal for the black community,” Friedman said, referring to the most difficult economic and social issues facing African Americans.
“It may very well be that blacks and Jews need a pause from each other,” he said.
But there is a line which Foxman strongly urged the black community not to cross.
“If Farrakhan becomes part of the package I will not sit at the table,” he said. “We will not sit with a bigot to fight bigotry. We will not sit with a racist to fight racism.”
For his part, Farrakhan has backtracked on earlier pledges never to talk with the ADL.
His chief of staff told reporters that he had issued an invitation last week to Foxman to meet to work at mending rifts between blacks and Jews.
While Farrakhan may be ready for such a meeting, Foxman clearly is not.
Before any such meeting, Foxman said, Farrakhan must publicly apologize and denounce racism, bigotry and anti-Semitism.
But Farrakhan’s deputies had a stern warning for the ADL in the days leading up to the march.
“We believe that the American people are being held hostage somewhat as a result of the debate constantly between the Nation of Islam and certain Jewish leaders,” said Leonard Muhammad, Farrakhan’s chief of staff.
“I would say to the Jewish people who continue to attack” Farrakhan that “it’s unwise to continue to take out full-page ads and attack this man and call him names because apparently millions of black people do not agree with you.”
He was referring to a series of ads the ADL ran in major newspapers prior to the march, criticizing its leadership.
For all the uncertainty in the Jewish community, many African American leaders also seem unsure how to proceed.
“Many people are going to the march pretending Farrakhan is not there,” Friedman said before the event. “In a sense this is even more dangerous for the black community than Jews. If Farrakhan emerges as `the’ black leader, their position will be undermined.”
Indeed, while most black leaders endorsed Farrakhan’s march, many have tried to distance themselves from the main himself.
Prior to the event, Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) said he is “not marching to support” Farrakhan. The outspoken member of the Congressional Black Caucus said he strongly disagrees with Farrakhan’s “anti-Semitic and racist statements.”
The former chairman of the caucus, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.) who has embraced Farrakhan in the past, said unless Farrakhan has “a million legs, it is not his march.”
But Chavis, the national director of the march, made clear at a news conference just days before the gathering that the “the attempt to separate the message from the messenger is not going to work.” And Muhammad said, “The people that are coming to Washington, D.C. whether they are in a position to say it nor not, are coming because they support the Honorable Louis Farrakhan, and that’s a fact.”
“I assure you, if they didn’t support Louis Farrakhan they wouldn’t be in Washington,” he said, adding that the march “confirms” Farrakhan as a “leader of black people.”
A few lone black leaders voiced opposition to the march. Rep. Gary Franks (R- Conn.) was the only black member of Congress to denounce the march.
The Nation of Islam is an organization “that hides behind a veiled shield of doing what’s good for their race while increasing the racial divide via their hatred for others,” he said.
“To give Minister Farrakhan and his organization more prominence would be one of the worst things to happen to race relations,” Franks said.
But Farrakhan has already gained that prominence.
Once shunned by the national media, Farrakhan appeared prior to the march on a myriad of popular shows, including “Donahue,” “Meet the Press,” “This Week with David Brinkley” and “Larry King Live.”
Although Farrakhan may have toned down his rhetoric from the days when he was quoted as calling Judaism a “gutter religion,” he has not, in the view of those who study him, changed his ways.
“What Farrakhan says privately is at odds with how he acts and speaks publicly,” said Magida, who recounted that Farrakhan had apologized in private to him for that notorious comment. Farrakhan had claimed he used the term “dirty” rather than “gutter” to describe Judaism.
Magida described Farrakhan as a “practical anti-Semite.” “A classic anti-Semite would not behave with civility to a Jew. He has been a gentleman to me and a few others that I know he has spoken to in his house,” Magida said.
In fact, Farrakhan has on at least two separate occasions dined with Chicago area, Magida said.
But these meetings do not mean he is not an anti-Semite, Magida said.
Magida believes that Farrakhan’s private apologies do not help racial tensions in the United States.
“This is a country of many quilts and it is frayed right now in part because of Louis Farrakhan’s vitriol and verbiage,” Magida said. “For him to continue to yank at the quilt in the absence of an equally strong black leadership can only hurt the United States.”
No matter how intense the fallout from the march in the coming months, NJCRAC’s Rubin believes that blacks and Jews can continue to work together.
“There are strong relationships in many communities between the Jewish community and black community that are strong enough to withstand the efforts of Louis Farrakhan to divide the communities,” Rubin said.