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Worried About Access, Jews Largely Silent on Lott Remarks

December 18, 2002
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Jewish leaders are condemning recent statements by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) that have widely been seen as racist, but — with a few exceptions — they are doing so privately.

Speaking of Thurmond’s 1948 run for the White House on a platform endorsing racial segregation, Lott praised the fact that Mississippi had voted for Thurmond.

If Thurmond had won, Lott said, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

The remarks caused a stir, and reports of other comments and actions by Lott have since led some to claim a pattern of racism.

Jewish groups normally are quick to condemn comments that are considered racist or defamatory of minorities. But while many Jewish leaders are criticizing Lott privately, only a few Jewish groups — including the Anti-Defamation League, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the National Jewish Democratic Council — have spoken out publicly against Lott’s comments.

“The senator’s praise for a candidacy based on segregationist policies was irresponsible and unacceptable, and unbecoming of a leader of his stature in Congress,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director. “Although Sen. Lott subsequently disavowed the notion that he embraced these policies, his disavowal only underscores the imperative for responsible leaders to speak about these issues with clarity and sensitivity.”

Other Jewish groups have stayed silent.

Kenneth Bandler, director of communications for the American Jewish Committee, expressed disappointment with Lott’s comments, but said his group would not take a public stand.

“We were surprised and shocked by Sen. Lott’s statements at Sen. Thurmond’s birthday party, statements that take us back to a more restrictive America, a period that is a blotch on our history and a time that is not where American political leadership should be today,” Bandler said.

Republican senators are expected to meet next month to vote again for majority leader, a position Lott won just last month.

Jewish leaders say that they’re wary of antagonizing Lott: After all, if he keeps his post as majority leader, they will need to work with him.

“Why get involved?” one Jewish leader asked. “It’s a fight now within the Republican Party.”

One Jewish official said the decision not to speak out was “all about access.”

“Most Jewish groups want access to the Republican leadership,” he said. “They are not about to burn that bridge.”

What makes the Jewish community’s silence more noteworthy is the fact that many others — including President Bush — have publicly condemned Lott.

The Republican Party has been working to make inroads into minority communities, including the American Jewish community.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the comments were “indefensible” and don’t represent the views of his organization.

“I think you can speak out on what you feel about his comments, but ultimately this is a decision that 51 members of the Senate need to make,” said Brooks, referring to the Republican caucus. “I’m not sure weighing in or not weighing in accomplishes anything.”

For Jewish groups — who often are among the first to speak out on racist or bigoted comments against minorities — the silence is unusual.

“Jewish groups better have in their purview issues of race and bigotry if they are to be taken seriously on issues of anti-Semitism,” Foxman said.

The ADL had an exchange with Lott in 1999 after he spoke to the Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization widely considered racist.

“I can’t imagine being associated with an organization that promotes any form of racial supremacy,” Lott said in the 1999 letter to Foxman.

He also said he could never support a group that “disdained or demeaned my friends, my neighbors, my staffers or my constituents because of their race or religion.”

Foxman said Monday that he believed Lott’s words to him over the years were sincere.

But that did not stop him from calling on other groups to speak out against Lott’s latest gaffe.

“I don’t understand what’s political about it,” he said. “Whether he remains chairman of the party, that’s political.”

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