The right answer on Farrakhan

When it comes to anti-Semites, Jews don't want to hear about good deeds.

us special 2 224 (photo credit:)
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
I've spent the week looking for a Jewish leader to denounce and reject. With Meir Kahane dead and former president Moshe Katsav set to plead guilty to several sexual harassment charges, it's slim pickings. Jews have their controversial figures - Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas party, comes to mind for a series of outrageous statements directed at Arabs and Ashkenazim. And yes, we have plenty of mainstream figures who take positions guaranteed to offend some major constituencies (homosexuality is a taboo within Orthodoxy and pockets of Conservative Judaism, for example). But we lack the kind of figure who both embodies bigotry or calumny and can summon extensive communal loyalty despite or because of it. That doesn't mean Jews are discriminating, just factious. For every Jewish leader who would claim a large and influential following, there are dozens of others ready to explain how he or she doesn't speak for anybody. Jewish leadership is not like herding cats; it's like herding cats, feminist cats, traditionalist cats, liberal cats, fundamentalist cats, and cats who start their own synagogue because the rabbi forgot to return a phone call. That, anyway, is the story we tell ourselves when we ask black leaders to repudiate Louis Farrakhan. And many black people resent it. "Bullying black leaders to represent the entire black race and to speak and think as one," writes Marjorie Valbrun, "while also treating every loud-mouthed, controversial black leader as if they represent the opinions, political views, and personal aspirations of every black American seemed to me to be a journalistic and political double-standard that was rarely, if ever, applied to white leaders and politicians." Valbrun writes for TheRoot.com, an online magazine of African-American affairs. Responding to the heat Barack Obama was getting for having been "endorsed" by Farrakhan, Valbrun expresses the frustration of every black leader being asked to pass the media's Farrakhan "litmus test." "Yes, his history of anti-Semitism - and make no mistake about it, that's what it is - is ugly, hateful, and counterproductive," she writes of Farrakhan. "If Farrakhan were a white man who said about black Baptists what he said about Jewish people, many of us would call for his head. But would we ask every prominent white politician to stand up and publicly repudiate and reject him?" She also asks that the statute of limitations be allowed to run out on Farrakhan, whose Nation of Islam following is "minute" and whose influence has been on the wane since he organized the Million Man March in 1995. Fair enough - although Farrakhan is still able to inspire accolades from the likes of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who "forgave" Obama for "denigrating Farrakhan's legacy." But Valbrun undermines her own argument when mulling why many black leaders, when called on to denounce Farrakhan, do so either reluctantly or carefully. "MAYBE BLACK people have a hard time denouncing - at the command of whites - other black people, especially those who despite their worst characteristics have also done some good for the larger black community," she explains. That sentence points to the still yawning divide between blacks and Jews when it comes to Farrakhan. When it comes to anti-Semitism - especially of the consistent, baiting brand practiced by Farrakhan - many Jews don't want to hear "despite...." They don't want to hear about extenuating circumstances, or group loyalty, or how anti-Semitic acts or deeds need to be judged against the purveyors' complete public record. And they have little patience for political calculations that weigh the number of votes a candidate will win or lose depending on how he or she couches the answer to the Farrakhan question. That suggests why many Jews were underwhelmed by Obama's response when pestered on the issue by Tim Russert last month. I have not a single doubt that Obama meant it when he characterized Farrakhan's views as "reprehensible and inappropriate," and when he said he would not "tolerate anti-Semitism in any form." I was genuinely moved when he said he hoped to "rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community." But I sensed his politician's gears turning during the now-famous parsing of the words "denounce" and "reject." He seemed to be searching for a formula that could win the Jews' confidence without sacrificing too many votes from blacks who see acknowledgement of Farrakhan's "accomplishments" - the Million Man March, his message of self-empowerment - as a litmus test of their own. (A test, by the way, that Obama failed, according to Mitchell. "Although Obama scored points for defusing a political bomb," she wrote, "his answer was insulting.") SO WHAT do so many Jews want to hear when it comes to the Farrakhan question? I think a clue is found in Valbrun's phrase: "ugly, hateful, and counterproductive." A strong response would go something like this: "Ignored and vilified for centuries for the color of our skin, black people in this country have turned to our own leaders and institutions for inspiration and change. The best of these institutions give us hope, and help us find real solutions to the social and economic disparities that have been the bane of our communities. "And because such institutions are a response to an immoral legacy, a legacy of racism and violence, they must in turn be unassailably moral in their words and deeds. Both the Talmud and the Christian Bible contain the metaphor of the man who points out the splinter in his brother's eye but ignores the wooden beam in his own. It is a homely and powerful statement of moral consistency. "For centuries we have asked America to judge us by the content of our characters, not by the color of our skin. It is nothing less than hypocrisy for us then to embrace, or even fail to denounce, someone who traffics in the kinds of ugly and hateful statements that are but a mirror of those directed against us. "Sometimes leaders emerge who seem to offer us the inspiration and solutions we seek. And like a stopped clock, these leaders can sometimes appear to be providing true answers. But also like a stopped clock, these leaders are broken at their core. Louis Farrakhan is such a 'leader.' "We cannot embrace such people, or apologize for them, or defend them out of a misdirected sense of loyalty. It is counterproductive, because it drives a wedge between us and our potential allies. It is self-defeating, because it paints us as no better than those who have preyed on us. But most of all, it is immoral, because a movement for justice cannot be based on injustice." That's the long version. The short version is this: "Of course I denounce Farrakhan and reject all he stands for. That's because we're better than he is." The writer is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. He blogs at http://njjewishnews.com/justASC/.