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The 'Hymie' Incident : Jesse Jackson Claimed His Comments Were Harmless. But With a Few Phrases, He Tore at the Fragile Bonds Between Blacks and Jews. An Excerpt From a New Book Chronicling the Jackson Campaign.

October 19, 1986|BOB FAW and NANCY SKELTON | Adapted from "Thunder in America," by Bob Faw, a CBS News correspondent, and the late Nancy Skelton, a Times staff writer, to be published this month by Texas Monthly Press.

When the Bakke affirmative-action case reached the Supreme Court, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith were opposed to the NAACP, Urban League, and other black organizations. The resignation of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young in August, 1979, was another source of irritation. Many American Jews were outraged to learn that Young had met privately with a representative of the PLO, and many blacks felt that Young had been forced to step down because of Jewish pressure. The incident triggered a historic meeting of 200 black leaders at NAACP headquarters in New York, where they released a statement that condemned the opposition of Jewish groups to affirmative action and complained that Jews had supported blacks in the past only when "it was in their best interest to do so."

"We are on different sides of the table. . . . There is a brokenness" is how Jackson described black-Jewish relations on "Meet the Press" on Aug. 26, 1979. He had grown wary himself not just because the two sides had parted company on several important issues, but also because he personally felt betrayed. One of his advisers, the Rev. Bill Howard, likened Jackson to a jilted lover: "When you are black, and have had a certain expectation or assumption that the Jews are your natural allies, and you woke up one day to discover that they were out to do you in like everybody else, then you become even more angry about them."

There would be one final chance for Jackson to mollify Jewish feelings and help mend the rift between blacks and Jews. It happened quietly, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Months later, Cuyahoga (Ohio) County Commissioner Tim Hagen remembered the incident very clearly. It was just before midnight on Sunday, July 15, 1984. In just a few hours the convention would officially open on what could be a stormy session. A group led by Ohio Rep. Edward F. Feighan and Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles wanted the party to adopt a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and racism, but Jackson was firmly opposed. This was just one more attempt to revive the "Hymie" dispute and a not-so-veiled effort to embarrass him, Jackson argued.

Hagen felt that Jackson didn't understand the issues. The commissioner decided to use the direct approach to try to convince the candidate that the resolution made good political sense, that hate--not Jackson--was the target. So Hagen went to the candidate's hotel room. "The reverend had already retired; he was lying on his bed, in his pajamas, silk pajamas I think. His head was propped up against the pillows . . . sort of like the emperor holding court, in his PJs," Hagen recalled. The commissioner began to plead his case.

Hagen carried his Irish name proudly. He was accustomed to speaking bluntly. One of 14 children who'd grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in an Ohio mill town, he was no Johnny-come-lately on civil rights. Hagen's family had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., the commissioner argued to Jackson, and he had earned his stripes.

Remembering the scene later, the commissioner gave his presentation high marks: He had covered all the bases, had been precise and tough-minded yet impassioned. Maybe, he thought, this is sinking in. "Reverend," Hagen almost begged, "you once asked how you could tell a black kid in Hough (a black area in Cleveland) to support a party that condoned racism. I want you to tell me, reverend, how I can tell a kid in Shaker Heights (a predominantly white, upper-class Cleveland suburb) to support a party that doesn't denounce anti-Semitism."

But Jackson wasn't impressed. He felt strong-armed. And he was angry. No, he would not support the resolution, Jackson told the commissioner. "You should derive no pleasure whatsoever from this meeting. . . . You cannot leave here with any satisfaction that you have influenced anything I'm going to say," he added. He got off his bed and strolled over to where Hagen was sitting. "You Jews are much too sensitive," Jackson said, nonchalantly patting his Irish-Italian visitor on the arm.

From "Thunder in America." Copyright 1986 by Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton. Reprinted by permission of Texas Monthly Press, Austin, Tex.

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