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Chicago Blacks and Jews Reach out to Heal Wounds of Anti-semitism

August 1, 1988
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Clergy and lay leaders representing Chicago’s blacks and Jews met last week to denounce “all expressions of anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry, to prevent them from gaining legitimacy.”

Four black leaders and seven Jewish leaders met Thursday and agreed to organize a series of meetings in churches and synagogues stressing the “historic ties” between the two groups.

The meeting was the latest in a series of attempts to heal the breach in black-Jewish relations in Chicago, a breach blown open by disclosures in April of a local black politician’s virulently anti-Semitic remarks and what Jews felt was a conspicuously silent reaction on the part of black leaders in the ensuing months.

Although Chicago’s Jewish leaders said in interviews last week that passions have cooled since the spring, the tension there is still said to be palpable and troubling.

The Chicago situation raises the question of how Jews should best respond to this latest strain of black anti-Semitism, which seems to scapegoat the Jews for black frustrations with whites.

While some leaders press for intergroup meetings that emphasize, as one rabbi put it, “the real needs and frustrations of the black community,” others call such efforts “breast-beating” and advocate a call for greater accountability among blacks.

Hostility between the two groups was first touched off in April, after disclosures that Steve Cokely, an aide to acting Mayor Eugene Sawyer, had delivered a series of anti-Semitic lectures to followers of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan between 1985 and 1987.


Among other assertions, Cokely charged that Jews are involved in a worldwide conspiracy “to rule the world,” and that Jewish doctors inject black babies with the virus that causes AIDS.

Although Cokely was eventually dismissed by Sawyer, Jews were outraged that the mayor waited more than a week after the aide’s charges were made public before doing so.

Jews also resented that, among the 18 blacks on the City Council, only three black aldermen called for Cokely’s dismissal.

Jewish leaders interviewed last week, however, disagree that Chicago has degenerated to a point where “if I were Jewish, I would be terrified,” as Andrew Greeley, the Roman Catholic priest and writer, said in May.

“I don’t think at the present moment things are critical,” said Rabbi Herman Schaalman, who as president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis has been asked by Mayor Sawyer to serve on an ad hoc interfaith committee to explore the issue.

“But I don’t want to create the impression that there is nothing to worry about,” he added. “There are basic problems and injustices that are not amenable to a quick fix. At the same time, to roll the waters is to no one’s advantage.”

Michael Kotzin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, said, “It’s not accurate to say that (anti-Semitism) has gripped the entire black community.”

He quoted a Chicago Tribune poll taken in June, which found that only 8 percent of the blacks surveyed felt Cokely should have been allowed to keep his job.

According to Kotzin and others, anti-Semites represent a “fringe” of the black community.

Nevertheless, Kotzin criticized black politicians for their silence after the Cokely affair.

While Sawyer and others have since made statements of the “desirable kind,” Kotzin said, “silence has become too prevalent a factor.”


Richard Wexler, chairman of Chicago’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was harsher in his criticism of Sawyer, calling him a “quisling mayor who can’t bring himself to any decisive action.”

But while Wexler also believes anti-Semitism is prevalent in only a portion of the black community, he is reluctant to offer a blanket endorsement of black-Jewish dialogue efforts.

He said some efforts at dialogue that at tempt to blame the Jews for black resentment are “a kind of breast-beating,” which is “basically wrong and unacceptable.

“The fact is that most of the Jewish community represented by the 36 groups of the JCRC feels we’ve made attempts at dialogue, that we are willing to (go) further, but we will await an emergence of responsible (black) leaders who will reach out to us.”

A chairman of one of the dialogue groups, Rabbi Robert Marx of Congregation Hakafa, a Reform temple in Glencoe, III., said in reference to black leaders that he is unwilling “to write them off.

“That sort of attitude becomes tragic,” Marx said, “and the breeding ground of another Lebanon or Northern Ireland.” Black anti-Semitism, he said, is a “euphemism for black rage against the white community.”


Marx said his efforts to reach out to blacks, and to remind them that words, like a cross-burning, “become very reminiscent of past tragedies,” have been extended even to Farrakhan.

At a dinner last year with the Black Muslim leader, Marx said that they “talked about the utter urgency of conveying whatever good message he had without anti-Semitism.”

For one Chicago politician, Alderman Bernard Stone of the city’s North Shore, recent events have ominous implications for Jews.

“There exists a clear and present danger within the black community for Jews. And anybody who denies it is a fool,” said Stone, whose ward includes the city’s largest percentage of Jewish voters, at 35 percent.

Like many Jews, Stone said, black anti-Semitism urged him to switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party last year.

But others feel cynics are manipulating black-Jewish tensions in order to boost their own candidates, especially in what will be a hard fought mayoral race next spring.

Some observers feel the current controversy could lead white Republicans to discredit black Democrats and woo Jewish voters.

In spite of all this, Maynard Wishner, president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, hopeful about the short-term future of black-Jewish relations in Chicago.

“What is really happening now is really sort of a consolidation and opening of communication,” he said. “The extreme nonsense of Cokely — that’s not around now.”

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