Time to put the Sharpton wars behind us

After September 11 I called Al Sharpton, suggested we travel to Israel, visit terror victims as a means of healing our two communities.

'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'NY Post' coverage of Crown Heights riots 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Twenty years ago, race riots erupted in Crown Heights and an innocent Jewish student was murdered in response to the accidental killing of an African-American child.
After the murder, the Rev. Al Sharpton came to Crown Heights and further whipped up an already incensed crowd, leaving some in the Jewish community to demand, 20 years later, that Sharpton be forever shunned by Jewry, and criticizing my friend Rabbi Marc Schneier for inviting him to the Hampton Synagogue.
Ten years after the Crown Heights riots, I challenged Sharpton to a public debate, which he accepted, and following our volatile, take-no-prisoners exchange, I invited him to a kosher restaurant for dinner. He surprised me by accepting. After the September 11 attacks, I called Sharpton and suggested we travel together to Israel to visit victims of Islamic terror as a means of healing our two communities. Again, he surprised my by agreeing. The trip was moving, as Sharpton offered genuine comfort to maimed Israelis. But it was all undone when he arranged to visit, without informing the trip organizers, arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat in Gaza. The trip thereafter became a fiasco, and Sharpton and I returned barely speaking to each other.
But just as I was about to write him off, he again surprised me when he invited me to the Hyatt Hotel and essentially apologized for putting me in such an awkward position. Sharpton can do that, just when you think he’s only interested in himself. Fast forward to New Year’s Eve of this year, a Friday afternoon, with Shabbat coming in at 4:30 p.m. I received a call from the truly outstanding Aleph Institute seeking to help a gravely ill Jewish doctor imprisoned for many years on a charge of manslaughter. Activists were seeking a pardon from outgoing New York governor David Patterson. They connected me with Sharpton to ask that he intercede with the governor.
Though all of New York was shut down, Sharpton graciously got on the line.
I said, “Reverend Al, you and I have had our ups and downs. But we have essentially always respected each other, and I know you have a good heart.
There is a Jewish doctor who has served more than 17 years for the death of a patient. He is extremely ill and has recently buried a child. Would you speak to governor Patterson on his behalf?” Sharpton instantly agreed and asked that the details be sent to him, as time was of the essence. I later heard that the doctor wasn’t pardoned, but was moved to a more comfortable facility.
There can be no doubt that many of Sharpton’s actions at the beginning of his career were incendiary, from Tawana Brawley to Crown Heights. But there can likewise be little doubt that he has shown immense personal and professional growth. Indeed, in his recent letter to Schneier, Sharpton wrote, “I have made mistakes in my career,” a mea culpa of sorts. Sadly, he quickly followed by saying, “But the allegations around Crown Heights… was not one of them.” It is to his discredit that he has never accepted responsibility for the rabble-rousing role he played in Crown Heights, even though he was not responsible for the death of Yankel Rosenbaum. But at the risk of angering many in my community, including the Rosenbaum family (who are the real bearers of the Crown Heights pain), it’s time to move on and not allow that glaring omission to undermine our new relationship with Reverend Al. Since our trip together to the Jewish state, he has never uttered a word against Jewry or Israel.
The great black-Jewish conflicts of recent memory are largely behind us, and highlighting a decades-old argument removes the focus from how black-Jewish relations have been redefined by outstanding new leaders like Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, who served as president of my Jewish student organization while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.
African-American leaders are seeking to thwart a perceived diminished relevance in an age where America has elected an African-American president and black-Jewish animosities are the last thing on their agenda. Should we allow Jew-haters like Louis Farrakhan – who supported Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi to the bitter end, and has yet to explain his role in the murder of Malcolm X – to trap us in the past? As a community, our posture must always be to offer praise where it is earned, criticism where it is warranted, and encouragement when a former antagonist leans toward becoming an ally.
The writer is founding the Global Institute for Values Education. The author of 26 books, he will shortly publish Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself and Kosher Jesus.