Black anti-Semitism "hardly exists," the Rev. Jesse Jackson insisted during a visit to New York last week to discuss relations between Jews and African Americans.
"There is no black philosophical anti-Semitic ideology, like the Germans supported race ideology," said the civil rights leader and founder of Operation PUSH. "Blacks don’t like some Jews, Jews don’t like some blacks. That is personal and not ideology."
In an address at Yeshiva University, and in a Jewish Week interview, Jackson painted a rosy picture of the potential of black-Jewish cooperation, punctuated by their success in the struggles for civil rights and Soviet Jewry.
"We have mountains and oceans behind us and by comparison mere rivers and hills ahead of us," he told an audience of YU students and Jewish and black leaders.
Jackson’s remarks did not address what some see as the growing problem of black anti-Semitism. A poll by the Anti-Defamation League last year found that blacks are four times more likely than whites to harbor anti-Semitic attitudes, although black leaders and others have disputed the poll’s validity.
Jackson did, however, sound an alarm about what he seems to consider a larger threat to Jews: Pat Buchanan’s right-wing, neo-populist movement. He frequently alluded to Buchanan’s published view that it was not in the interest of the United States to fight Hitler’s Germany in the 1940s.
"Some think we got into it too early or might have forgotten about it completely," said Jackson of World War II.
Of the Buchanan movement, he said: "They are well-financed. They’re not black. They have a platform and now they have a leader."
Delivering the keynote address at a forum cosponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the World Jewish Congress, Jackson called on blacks and Jews to join forces to close "structural gaps" between haves and have-nots: wealthy white communities and minority areas in the inner city.
"People you trade with, you don’t fight," he said. "The issue today is not so much the black-Jewish horizontal gap but the vertical gap between surplus and deficit culture."
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, announced that a black-Jewish econmic roundtable would convene to develop mentoring programs, economic initiatives and peer support networks. He also said the roundtable would take part in Jackson’s Wall Street Program in January aimed at increasing black participation in the stock boom.
Following his address, Jackson defended the recent comments by the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, who worked with Jackson on the staff of the Rev. Martin Luther King during the 1960s. In a recent panel discussion, Rev. Walker said black anti-Semitism was a "misnomer" that is "created for discussions" and exaggerated by the media.
"What he is saying is that any time a black or Jewish group says something out of anger, the media takes it and runs with it and that becomes the definition of who we are at that moment," said Jackson, while en route to LaGuardia Airport after the conference. "Anti-Semitism is an ideology, not just a curse word. It is a worldview, theology and a form of idolatry."
Jackson, who remains a controversial figure in some Jewish quarters for having once referred to New York as "Hymietown," said the reportage of controversial comments by blacks about Jews obfuscates the positive relations between black and Jewish members of Congress and other legislative bodies.
"Why ignore congressional, legislative, mayoral, ministerial, religious relations for a guy who says something offensive?" he said. "[It] is almost an insult because it disrespects our capacity to think and also ignores the structure of our institutions."
Jackson insisted that "no theological thinker, ethicist or religious head" had publicly espoused anti-Semitic views. Asked about Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who has inculcated anti-Jewish philosophy as a staple of his sermons, Jackson said: "When you look at his point of view up against the main-line denominations … that is not a prevailing view among black people; no more than taking the JDL [as] representing main-line Jewish thought."
Jackson insisted the more viable anti-Semitic threat was Buchanan. "This guy’s going to win the Reform nomination financed by [billionaire Ross] Perot. Now that is serious," he said. "People read that book and they believe it. So don’t compare the two."
Asked about former Farrakhan disciple Khalid Muhammad, who has roiled the racial waters in New York over the past two years with his attacks on Jews during his Harlem youth rallies, Jackson said: "I don’t know him real well. I think his attacks on leaders with whom he disagrees are not healthy. He’s attacked me. I don’t respond to it because I think to respond exacerbates. Good hitters don’t swing at every pitch. Sometimes you have to take a pass."
Reacting to Jackson’s view that anti-Semitism among blacks "hardly exists," Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, called it "wishful thinking." Foxman noted that ADL’s survey found black anti-Semitism bucking the trend of waning hatred against Jews in general society.
"African Americans learned of anti-Semitism primarily from their white masters and imbued it from white America," he said. "However, in recent years they developed their own strain of anti-Semitism."
Rabbi Schneier said he believed black anti-Semitism was diminishing. "There is a greater sense of optimism," he said, citing his own poll that found a majority of blacks support more Holocaust education and increased black-Jewish cooperation. (The same poll, however, found that a plurality of respondents have a favorable view of Farrakhan.)
Jackson said he was continuing to push the case of 13 Iranian Jews arrested on charges of espionage, a cause that has won him praise from Jewish leaders. He said the case was "more difficult" than his successful negotiation for the release of three captured U.S. servicemen during the recent conflict in Kosovo.
"[Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic was one guy who had the power to say yes or no, and we convinced him to say yes," said Jackson at a press conference. "Within Iran there is a rivalry between the religious/judicial order and the political order."
But Jackson told The Jewish Week he would take no role in efforts to secure the release of Jonathan Pollard, who passed U.S. intelligence data to Israel. "I am not aware of the technical details of making such a judgment," he said. "There is still yet classified information and those who have it must perceive him as very threatening. I don’t understand the dynamics of it."
Jackson’s warm reception at Yeshiva University (he posed for photos with high school students) was in contrast to his last major address before a Jewish audience in New York, in December, 1994 at the Park Avenue Synagogue.
During that speech, a handful of protesters from the Jewish Action Alliance repeatedly heckled Jackson, to the shock and embarrassment of his hosts, disrupting his address with criticism of his ties with Farrakhan and his views on the Middle East.
YU President Norman Lamm introduced Jackson as a "leading, vibrant" activist who has "performed miracles in fostering racial harmony."