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Blacks' AIDS Fears Fuel Anti-Semitism

June 10, 1988|BOB SECTER | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Black extremists here are stepping up efforts to blame the AIDS epidemic on Jews and in one case have obtained small grants of state and city funds that could be used to further that goal.

State Rep. Douglas Huff, a Chicago Democrat who is black, told The Times that he gave more than $500 from his office allowance fund to a local officer of the Black Hebrew sect to help the group investigate its claim that Israel and South Africa concocted the AIDS virus in a South African laboratory.

Meanwhile, the same sect was awarded a $14,000 grant from the city last year to, as health department documents describe it, "develop and implement AIDS education and risk-reduction information for the black community." The money has yet to be turned over, but city health officials say that it will be as soon as the group completes paper work required for insurance purposes.

Many Seen as Receptive

It is unlikely that such scientifically unfounded notions hold wide sway. But even influential blacks who reject the claims acknowledge that many blacks, seeking scapegoats for community ills and mindful of incidents in which minorities have been used as medical guinea pigs, are receptive to theories of mistreatment that border on the paranoid.

"There are all kinds of conspiracy theories running around the community about who, what, where, how and why are blacks disproportionately impacted (by AIDS), why are more black children infected, why are more black women infected," said Tim Offutt of the Kupona Network, which provides support services for black AIDS victims in Chicago.

What is clear is that the AIDS controversy has become another pawn in a black-Jewish rift, which has widened in the wake of growing political turmoil and racial tensions in the nation's third largest city.

Relations between the two groups soured considerably in recent weeks over disclosures that Steve Cokely, a key aide to Mayor Eugene Sawyer, had made a series of anti-white, anti-Semitic statements in lectures to the Nation of Islam, an organization run by controversial black separatist Louis Farrakhan. Among statements attributed to Cokely was a charge that Jewish doctors were injecting the AIDS virus into black babies.

Jewish Leaders Outraged

Jewish leaders here were outraged that leading blacks were slow to condemn the remarks and that Sawyer, clearly worried about angering black militants whose support could be critical in a battle next year to retain his seat, waited several days before moving to fire Cokely. Many blacks, on the other hand, charged that Cokely was being persecuted for his beliefs and said that the Jewish pressure against him only served to elevate his stature in the black community.

Indeed, Cokely has become something of a star on the talk show and lecture circuit in recent days, with large numbers of reporters and followers hanging on to his every word. Earlier this week, he took center stage at a broadcast forum on black-Jewish relations at which he repeated suggestions that Jews somehow are linked to a deliberate spread of AIDS even as he protested that reports of similar remarks to the Nation of Islam had been taken out of context.

"I'm saying there's evidence of truth," he said of the AIDS story. "And there is room for speculation."

Some prominent blacks insist that fear of rampant black anti-Semitism is overblown. "The masses of black people in this country, in this city, are not anywhere near the point of stupidity that some black spokesmen, so-called, would have them be," said Vernon Jarrett, an influential black political commentator. ". . . I'm disappointed in some of my leadership friends in the Jewish community who speak of black anti-Semitism as though it is a raging concern in the black community. Do you think black people don't have anything else to think about?"

Reluctant to Reject Views

Yet, other black leaders, although not embracing controversial views on AIDS, seem reluctant to categorically reject them. "There are some interesting beliefs about how this whole AIDS virus came into being and how it's being used against black people," said Lu Palmer, a community organizer whose support was instrumental in the 1983 election of the late Harold Washington as the city's first black mayor.

The origins of AIDS are not fully understood, but researchers believe that the virus spread in at least two forms from somewhere in Africa after mutating naturally into deadly substances that attack the body's immune system and can be transmitted by semen or blood.

Cokely, Huff and other militants reject such conclusions, expressing variations of conspiracy theories that appear to emanate from a 1984 charge by Tass, the Soviet news agency, that Israel and South Africa were engaged in a joint genetic weapons research program. Although admitting that he knew little about the subject, Huff insisted that AIDS was "clearly an ethnic weapon, a biological weapon" engineered specifically to attack nonwhites.

"Yeah, it'll kill whites, too," he said. "But it really goes for the nonwhite DNA structure."

State records show that Huff last December gave $550 from his office allowance fund to Thomas Mitchell, who describes himself as the biographer for the Black Hebrews, a Chicago-based sect that claims to be descended from one of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Despite its religious beliefs, the group is opposed to the modern Israeli state and its members subscribe to the notion that the AIDS virus is a man-made substance designed to kill off blacks.

Mitchell said that Huff gave him the money to help conduct a study on the origin of AIDS. The $14,000 city grant was awarded to the group through a subsidiary known as the Mahaneh Yisrael Valley Community Mental Health Center on the city's near West Side.

Staff writer Larry Green and researcher Ruth Lopez contributed to this story.

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