Reconciliation of Blacks and Jews


Washington. -- After years of swimming against a cold tide of Jewish rage and resentment, Jesse Jackson appears to be moving toward the warm waters of reconciliation.

Both sides want it. Mr. Jackson may not speak for all African-Americans, but he is respected enough that harmony between him and prominent Jewish leaders would calm much of the growing tension between African-Americans and American Jews.

But the road to reconciliation between these important historical allies is bumpy and blocked by historical debris, including, I believe, historical differences in the importance each group puts on words and deeds.

Mr. Jackson's deeds show he wants peace. He has visited synagogues, led a delegation to Dachau, marched arm-in-arm with Jews against neo-Nazis in Skokie, asked President Hafez el Assad to release Syrian Jews, and prodded Mikhail Gorbechev to do the same for Soviet Jews.

Still, Jewish leaders have refused, despite Mr. Jackson's apologies or explanations, to forgive his "Hymietown" remark, his appearances with Louis Farrakhan, his embrace of Yasser Arafat or his fervent support for Palestinian rights.

But after reading a New York Times column by A.M. Rosenthal that urged Jews to deal with Mr. Jackson, Edgar Bronfman, president of the 56-year-old World Jewish Congress, invited Mr. Jackson to address the organization's meeting in Brussels, just before the Democratic National Convention.

The decision angered a number of members, but Mr. Jackson eagerly appeared and made welcome headlines by strengthening his earlier denunciations of anti-Semitism with an unqualified endorsement of Zionism as "a liberation movement." He also attacked the stereotyping of Jews and praised "the changing winds of peace and democracy in Israel."

But many wanted him to go further. They wanted him to atone, repent and name names, particularly that of Mr. Farrakhan, in his denunciations.

Mr. Jackson would only go so far as to say at a later press conference, "These [Mr. Farrakhan's] are not my positions and should not be attributed to me. I do not believe any religion is a gutter religion."

Why did Mr. Jackson not repent? "There must be a sense of mutuality," he told Richard Goldstein of the Village Voice. "We must both come to some sense of repentance. It's deeper than just me."

Indeed, it is. Any effort by Mr. Jackson to openly condemn another black leader at a time when so much of the black community, particularly the young, feels it is living in a stage of political siege is bound to run up against the Gibraltar-sized rock of historical and current social realities.

For example, Jews understandably want to hear anti-Semites denounced because they have seen the holocausts and pogroms that an absence of denunciations can cause. (If responsible leaders denounced Hitler in his early thuggery, he might never have risen to power.)

But, just as Jewish memory has fostered an appreciation for words, black memory appreciates deeds. It is fair to say that most blacks view Mr. Farrakhan's beliefs, not just his anti-Semitic remarks, with great skepticism. Nevertheless, to borrow a phrase from Israeli diplomacy, many also respect the realities Black Muslims have created on the ground. They include helping drug addicts and prostitutes become productive citizens and helping provide a controversial but effective security force in crime-infested neighborhoods in several cities.

"Unity" also has a special and, in this case, obstructive meaning to African-Americans. Unlike those of other American ethnics, our families were divided on auction blocks (my own great-grandfather was sold "down river," never to see his brother again) and our leaders often lynched for speaking too loudly what everyone knew was "the truth." As a result, anyone who criticizes another "brother" or "sister" without ample cause invites great skepticism and even counterattacks.

As an African-American columnist who has denounced Mr. Farrakhan and others who traffic in the code words of anti-Semitism, I have felt the brunt of this yearning for "unity." I don't complain about it. It's my job. I want to be provocative. I am particularly gratified when I am accused of being an "Uncle Tom" by blacks and a "black racist" by whites -- for the same column!

But, even as I have received praise from blacks and whites alike, I have no delusions about how much easier it is for "courageous" black writers to denounce someone like Louis Farrakhan in mainstream newspapers that are easily ignored by the isolated and marginalized grass-roots blacks we most want to reach than it is for Mr. Jackson and other black leaders to reach them without turning them off.

It is an obvious predicament, even to some Jews who may not approve of Mr. Jackson's response to it. "I don't expect him to make a speech denouncing Sister Souljah any more than I would denounce those who would push the Arabs off the West Bank," Jewish historian Arthur Hertzberg told the Village Voice. "I realize we are both politically constrained."

In this realization there is hope. But many others remain apprehensive. According to Mr. Goldstein's Voice story, New Republic editor Martin Peretz, in a panel before Mr. Jackson spoke, defiantly quoted neoconservative Irving Kristol about the futility of pursuing a better relationship with blacks for its own sake: "Jews should not do anything else in American society than defend their own interests, because at this moment, the vision of the Jews is the vision of an incandescent society under siege."

So, for that matter, is the vision of many blacks. Like a marriage that fell apart after each of the partners began to take the other too much for granted, maybe blacks and Jews need to reintroduce themselves to each other. We might find that our self-interests are sufficiently intertwined with our mutual interests for us to figure out ways to deal with our differences.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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