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To Invite Farrakhan Is to Invite Racism : Anti-Semitism: The NAACP embrace of the Nation of Islam leader will in the end harm black people as well as Jews.

June 08, 1994|MICHAEL LERNER | Michael Lerner's book "Jewish Renewal" will be published in September by Putnam. He is publisher of Tikkun magazine, based in New York.

But African American leaders should also be vocal about the fact that Jews were, by and large, the only group to side with black people in opposition to Ronald Reagan and George Bush in the 1980s and continue to back liberal programs of which they are the major beneficiaries. Moreover, if black people ignore racism in their own community, how can they expect others to fight its inevitable resurgence in the larger American polity should economic conditions worsen? Many Americans, caught up in the ethos of selfishness that continues to dominate this society, are only too happy to find excuses to lower their own taxes by voting against candidates who support social programs for the poor. It has often been Jews who have been in the vanguard of groups reminding their fellow citizens of their moral responsibility toward the oppressed. While many of us will continue to play this role out of commitment to Torah values, there are many more, torn between idealism and self-interest, who are increasingly resistant to a social-justice agenda when they perceive that the most oppressed are spitting in their faces.

Farrakhan may be marginal at the moment, but the NAACP invitation has given him new avenues of entrance to more respectable communities. Taking the hint from its national office, the Fresno chapter of the NAACP sponsored a major rally at the Fresno Convention Center at which Farrakhan was the featured speaker, and Arsenio Hall hosted him on national television. The more his voice is legitimized, the more his poison will seem acceptable.

Yet Farrakhan is only the tip of the iceberg, as was made clear last month when black students at San Francisco State University unveiled a mural portrait of Malcolm X, decorated in the margins with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel symbols. So we who will be demonstrating against Farrakhan will also be making a much more positive demand: that black leadership join with us and other progressive Jews to instigate a joint campaign against racism in the Jewish community and anti-Semitism in the black community. To keep it honest, the anti-racism campaign in the Jewish community should be supervised by black people, and the campaign against anti-Semitism in the black community should be supervised by Jews.

I continue to respect the NAACP and support its leadership. But we Jews want the black community to assure us that Farrakhan and a culture of anti-Semitism are not the wave of the future and that Jews will not be alone in facing this kind of racist assault. While some black leaders have been reluctant to challenge anti-Semitism publicly, fearing that they will be seen as "giving in to Jewish pressure," others realize that anti-Semitism is a poison that does damage to blacks as well, providing an excuse to those who wish to ignore the continuing economic deprivation and police brutality facing a significant percentage of black people. Joining with Jews to combat black anti-Semitism should in no way weaken the credibility of black leaders, except among people so hostile to Jews that they are willing to sacrifice the best interests of the black community.

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