JESSE JACKSON came to New York the other day to speak at Yeshiva University, which was hosting a daylong conference on economic cooperation between blacks and Jews. That he received a standing ovation was startling, as much because of his past history with the Jewish community as for his actual remarks that day.
In calling for a resumption of the historic black-Jewish alliance of the early civil-rights movement, Jackson took great pains to dismiss what has remained a constant irritant in relations between the two communities. Black anti-Semitism, he claimed, "hardly exists"—unlike the dogma of Nazism, Jackson contended, "there is no black philosophical anti-Semitic ideology."
His bizarre argument continued: Anti-Semitic statements espoused by blacks are strictly "personal," because hatred of Jews can only exist within the context of anti-Semitism as "a worldview, [a] theology and a form of idolatry."
Asked about the rantings of Louis Farrakhan, Khalid Muhammad, and Leonard Jeffries, Jackson insisted that the attention paid them "is almost an insult because it disrespects our capacity to think and also ignores the structure of our institutions."
Actually, it does nothing of the kind. Sadly, anti-Semitism has long been widespread in the black community: As far back as 1948, James Baldwin was writing that "Georgia has the Negro [as a target of hatred]; Harlem has the Jew." Few black leaders today will admit that black anti-Semitism exists—or even disassociate from those who practice it. Instead, like Jackson, most angrily denounce those who raise the issue.
"Anytime a black or Jewish group says something out of anger"—note: anger, not hatred—"the media takes it and runs with it and that becomes the definition of who we are at that moment," Jackson told the Jewish Week's Adam Dickter.
Jackson himself tried to turn the tables on his critics back in 1984, when he was quoted (by a black reporter) as having privately referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown." For two weeks, he denied even having made the remarks; finally he admitted it, offered a limp apology, but complained that he was "being taken advantage of."
Black anti-Semitism remains a problem today because too many people who indulge in its vitriol have risen to positions of leadership in the black community. Their status and influence have not suffered one iota because of the hatred they've spewed. On the contrary—Al Sharpton, who has labeled Hasidim as "diamond dealers" and denounced the Jewish owner of Freddy's Fashion Mart as "a white interloper" (while leading picketers who screamed out their hatred of "bloodsucking Jews") is now courted by presidential candidates.
As for Louis Farrakhan, Jackson contends that his is "not the prevailing view among black people." But that didn't stop the Congressional Black Caucus from forging a "sacred covenant" with Farrakhan, citing his "prestige" in the black community. According to the noted black academic Henry Louis Gates Jr., Farrakhan's screed The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which accuses Jews of dominating the African slave trade "may well be one of the most influential books published in the black community." In fact, adds Gates—one of the few prominent blacks willing to attack the subject head-on—anti-Semitism has become "a weapon in the tragic battle of who will speak for black America."
And yet people like Jackson remain reluctant to acknowledge that people like Farrakhan or Leonard Jeffries or rap artists or even Michael Jackson (remember his "Sue me, Jew me, kike me" lyrics?) can be guilty of anti-Semitism.
Back in 1995, in the wake of the Freddy's Fashion Mart massacre, Jackson was asked about Sharpton's "interloper" remarks. "There is so much pain in black America," he said—not just refusing to hold the Reverend to task for his racial language, but calling concern over it "a journalistic attempt to make a long story short."
As Joyce Purnick lamented in a New York Times column, Jackson may have denounced hate, but he would "not say who expressed the hate or what they said."
The sad part is that attempts at reconciliation remain, by and large, a one-way street. Not a single black group co-sponsored the conference on black-Jewish economic cooperation at which Jackson spoke.
Michael Meyers, whose outspoken and courageous voice New York Post columnist, noted to the Long Island Jewish World that "the only group that's interested in black-Jewish relations is the Jews, not the blacks," adding: "I don't see the point in black-Jewish dialogue when Jews are sitting down with blacks whose friends are their enemies."
Happily, black-Jewish relations in New York have improved greatly since the dark days of the Crown Heights riots. But the problem remains, and it won't be solved if only people on one side genuinely reach out for rapprochement while those on the other side stick their heads in the sand and refuse to confront some basic realities.
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