Jewish leaders and political officials from both major parties are warning Democratic vice presidential hopeful Joseph Lieberman not to pursue his idea of a conciliatory meeting with Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, an accused anti-Semite.
Lieberman described Farrakhan last week as a respectable leader during an interview with American Urban Radio, an African-American network.
Farrakhan, who has called Jews "bloodsuckers" and Judaism as a "gutter religion," raised questions about Lieberman’s loyalty to America over Israel when the Connecticut senator was named Al Gore’s running mate in August.
The controversy rages as Farrakhan’s Million Family March in Washington draws closer to its Oct. 16 date, followed soon after by Election Day.
Marking the fifth anniversary of his Million Man March, Farrakhan has called on people of all races and religions to "rise above their symbols" and gather at the Washington Mall in support of the American family.
Asked on the radio about setting up a meeting with Farrakhan, Lieberman responded: "I am very open to that. I have respect for him … I admire what Minister Farrakhan is doing" on voter registration.
"I look forward" to meeting Minister Farrakhan because "this is a time to sort of knit the country together more."
Regarding specifics for a meeting, a Lieberman spokesman said, "Nothing is in the works. There are no plans for a meeting at this point."
Still, Jewish officials responded swiftly, strenuously opposing the initiative. And while most Democratic leaders ducked the issue, Republicans seized it.
A spokesman for George W. Bush told The Jewish Week Monday that the GOP presidential nominee would flatly not meet with Farrakhan.
"Louis Farrakhan is a man to whom we need to stand up strong against, and not need to bend over backwards to," said Ari Fleischer.
Bush, however, was caught up in his own Farrakhan flap last February when he said the Nation of Islam is a faith-based organization that should be eligible to compete for federal funding for government services.
"I think it’s based upon some universal principles," the Texas governor said at the time.
But asked about the remarks Monday, Fleischer rejected the notion that Bush ever considered Farrakhan’s NOI eligible as a faith-based group.
"This is a myth," Fleischer said. "The governor was referring to the Islamic religion, not the Nation of Islam. The Islamic religion should be able to participate, but not any Nation of Islam that preaches hatred, like Louis Farrakhan."
Ira Forman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington, argued the apparent Bush flip-flop can be interpreted in one of two ways.
"Either Bush wanted to say the Nation of Islam should be eligible for government money," he said, "or George Bush did not know who the Nation of Islam is: and that for a president is very scary."
But Forman also disagreed with Lieberman’s pursuit of a Farrakhan dialogue. "I wouldn’t have raised the possibility of a meeting with Louis Farrakhan," he said.
An aide to Bush’s running mate, Dick Cheney, said Tuesday that "Louis Farrakhan would not be one of the people that Cheney would look to create better government and improve our culture.
"I think Secretary Cheney was disappointed to hear that Lieberman had agreed to meet with Farrakhan," Guliann Glover told The Jewish Week. "Leadership is about building bridges, but whatever Joe Lieberman’s goal might be in reaching out to Farrakhan, there are certainly less polarizing and better representatives to meet with across the country."
In New York, a spokeswoman for Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate would not meet with Farrakhan. But Clinton would not criticize Lieberman, an old friend whom she campaigned with several weeks ago.
Her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, said: "I don’t think I have a word to say to Louis Farrakhan."
"I would be happy to sit down with almost anybody in the African-American community, in the Hispanic community … I don’t care what background you’re from, as long as you have in your heart a will to heal and to bring people together," the Long Island congressman told "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "I don’t think that Louis Farrakhan has that in his heart."
Meanwhile, Jewish organization leaders voiced strong views against a meeting, even as some admitted to a "softening" of Farrakhan’s hate rhetoric in recent months.
Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, of which Lieberman is a board member, said: "I think Farrakhan is not an individual that responsible people should sit and meet with. This is not something our community would be happy that any candidate for national office would undertake voluntarily."
In a letter to Lieberman, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said a meeting with Farrakhan "would be legitimizing a bigot, an anti-Semite and a racist who continues to spout his message of hate." Foxman called on Lieberman to reconsider.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which promotes black-Jewish relations, also urged Lieberman to stay away from the minister.
"For those of us who are engaged in intergroup relations, there are certain lines we don’t cross, and I think meeting with Farrakhan is crossing the line," Rabbi Schneier said.
He said Farrakhan must first publicly renounce his anti-Semitism, "and by that I mean that he admits he is guilty of committing that wrong-doing. That is the benchmark."
Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also urged Lieberman to abandon the plan.
"Don’t do it," warned Abrams, a former Reagan administration official and currently chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Of all the Americans of the Islamic faith with whom you could meet, why choose the one whose name is a byword for hate and anti-Semitism?
"Joe, you never met with Farrakhan before you were on the ticket. No vice presidential candidate (much less a Jewish candidate) has ever met with him. To do so now is to accord him a legitimacy that will damage the American Jewish community and the fabric of American political life."
Responding to all the criticism, a spokesman for Lieberman said: "We’re not going to elaborate on anything Senator Lieberman said."