Khalid Abdul Muhammad's hate-filled rantings have been allowed to obscure the numerous positive undertakings shared by African-Americans and Jews.
His diatribe against Jews, whites, homosexuals and the pope was given prominent attention in the national media. Unfortunately, steps toward cooperative friendship and joint political action in countless American cities, involving black and Jews discovering one another and sharing common concerns, do not receive the same prominent coverage.
The absence of attention to the host of constructive activities, contrasted with the headlines given to bigots, creates an unbalanced impression of current relationships between the two groups.
Noteworthy joint projects in Baltimore, similar to those in many other cities, have included pulpit exchanges between churches and synagogues and joint choir presentations of spirituals and Jewish music. Grace Presbyterian Church, under the leadership of its pastor, the Rev. Arthurt Reynolds, has had several programs in which lay people from the church and from the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation have come together to study their respective traditions and theology. Recently, the U.S. solicitor general, Drew Days III, spoke to African-American and Jewish leadership during a Shabbat service at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation dealing with mutual relationships and a shared social-justice agenda.
The Black-Jewish Forum of Baltimore (familiarly known as BLEWS) has brought young professionals together for weekly dinners and conversations, which often deal with controversial topics from the differing perspectives of the two groups. At public meetings that bring African-Americans and Jews together, speakers will examine "The Crisis in Public Education in Greater Baltimore," "The Future of Baltimore and the role of Blacks and Jews in Shaping a Better City" and "The Holocaust and the Middle Passage: Sagas of Survival Despite Disaster."
No less significant are the efforts by institutions such as Dillard University's National Conference on Black-Jewish relations. For five years it has sponsored national programs bringing together distinguished black and Jewish clergy to learn about each other. Dillard's president, Samuel DuBois Cook, a classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College, is dedicated to the rejuvenation of the black-Jewish alliance that made such a difference during the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s.
Dr. Harold Carter, pastor of one of Baltimore's largest black churches, has brought his adult confirmation class to the synagogue, explaining that his students must understand Judaism to fully appreciate their Christian faith. Coppin State College annually sponsors a Holocaust program on its campus, with outstanding attendance by its student body.
Such programs are not sufficient. The agenda of the black and Jewish communities must address action to promote the nation's freedom, the constitutional guarantees of opportunity and equality, the ability of both groups to pursue their heritages and their distinctive richness, which has so grandly benefited American society.
The social problems that afflict the nation are the seed bed for the venomous racism and anti-Semitism that surface in both the Jewish and black communities, let alone in the community at large. Violence, crime, hunger, homelessness, family breakdown, teen-age despair, insecurity and joblessness are national issues. They represent the caldron which ignites fires of hatred with especial impact on minorities. In this sense the destinies of the African-American and Jewish communities are inextricably linked. Both will burn in the fires of a hostile, despairing nation.
We have a common agenda, like it or not: the success of American democracy.
We must not allow the sensationalism of the hate mongers to poison our feelings for one another, or to disrupt our commitment to the vision of an America which promises to all its citizens "the pursuit of happiness."
Murray Saltzman is senior rabbi of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. Calvin Burnett is president of Coppin State College.