A majority of blacks agree with Jews that anti-Semitism is a problem in the African-American community, according to a national poll released this week.
But in a seemingly contradictory finding, 48.8 percent of blacks gave a “favorable” rating to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has a long history of comments and theories considered by Jewish leaders to be anti-Semitic.
The poll, commissioned by the New York-based Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, contains several mixed messages about the often polarized groups.
Members of both groups overwhelmingly said they agreed that “members of the African-American community can do more to silence those African Americans who preach or promote anti-Semitism”; some 68.7 percent of Jews and 61.5 percent of blacks agreed.
But only 26.8 percent of blacks said they had an “unfavorable” opinion of Farrakhan, while 18.7 had no opinion and 5.7 percent had “never heard” of him.The Nation of Islam, itself, garnered a 44 percent “favorable rating” from blacks. A majority of Jews — 61.2 percent — had an “unfavorable” opinion of Farrakhan.
“Farrakhan, within the black community, is a very complex figure,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder and president of the foundation, who suggested that a follow-up question in a future poll “might ask if more could be done to combat the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan.”
The rabbi insisted, however, that the poll findings were overwhelmingly positive. For instance, most blacks and Jews agreed that their relationship is getting stronger, and that efforts to enhance their cooperation should continue, he pointed out.
The national survey of 556 Jews and 563 blacks, conducted by Kieran Mahoney of Horizon Communications, found agreement on the need for better understanding and cooperation. Most said the relationship was “fair,” as opposed to “excellent,” “good” or “poor.” More blacks than Jews said the relationship had improved. But the two groups seem to have a lot to learn about each other, and wide gaps in perceptions remain.
A plurality of blacks, 35.9 percent, said they did not know how many Jews died in the Holocaust, and most — 42.8 percent — had never heard of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A 32.9 percent plurality of blacks also had a favorable opinion of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, while 52 percent of Jews registered an unfavorable opinion.
On the bright side, majorities of both groups agreed that more should be taught in public schools about both the Holocaust and American slavery, that blacks were still affected by slavery (although they differed on the degree) and that “African Americans and Jews should form a partnership to work on civil rights issues.”
Rabbi Schneier said the poll was a “demonstration not only of the relationship having improved between African Americans and Jews, but of a greater sensitivity among African Americans and Jews for issues and concerns outside their respective communities.”
The poll, which has a 4 percent margin of error and was conducted earlier this month, was formally released Tuesday at the foundation’s second annual conference on black-Jewish relations at Yeshiva University.
The conference’s keynote speaker was Martin Luther King III, son of the martyred civil rights pioneer, who in January assumed his father’s title as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In his address, King pledged to use his position to combat anti-Semitism in all its manifestations, even within the black community.
“I will always condemn racism and anti-Semitism because it is as vile and shameful as racism, and I believe all responsible African Americans must do the same,” he said. “Even passive toleration of anti-Semitism serves the evils of prejudice and bigotry my father fought against.”
In a later interview with The Jewish Week, King was asked if that commitment would include taking Farrakhan to task. “Instead of discrediting the individual, my father would condemn the individual’s sin,” he replied. “Communication with Mr. Farrakhan is important because he does command a presence and has a following … I hope I can build that bridge.”
Asked if he considered such statements as Farrakhan’s infamous “gutter religion” comment anti-Semitic — Farrakhan has insisted they are not — King said “based on what I have seen his statements have been, from time to time, anti-Semitic.”
Rabbi Schneier, standing at King’s side, said he supported the King family’s quest to reopen the investigation of the senior King’s murder. Insisting that the convicted assassin, James Earl Ray — who died of cancer last week — was innocent, the family has called for a federal inquiry into a possible government conspiracy.
That stance has led one black participant in Rabbi Schneier’s conference, Michael Meyers of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, to declare in his New York Post column that the Kings had been “snookered by [Ray], a career criminal and a racist liar.”
But Rabbi Schneier said the Kings “were the ones who suffered the most from the tragedy. If they want to take it down that road, we should be supportive.”
Tuesday’s seminar also included panel discussions on whether America is a “level playing field” and on grassroots cooperative efforts.
The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding poll and seminar follow a less-scientific report issued in February which found anecdotal evidence that cooperation between blacks and Jews overshadowed conflict.
The poll also comes on the heels of several recent local flashpoints, including:
# Reaction to the $1.5 million settlement of a lawsuit against New York City by the Crown Heights Jewish community stemming from the 1991 race riots. Many blacks consider the settlement unfair without a similar award for the family of accident victim Gavin Cato, whose death sparked the riots.
# Appearances by City College African studies professor Leonard Jeffries, who considers Jews responsible for black slavery, at the College of Staten Island, which have caused strife on two occasions.
# The recent burning of a Jewish-owned store in Harlem following an argument with a black customer, which raised fears of new tensions on 125th Street, where a racially charged shooting spree and arson at a Jewish store left eight dead in 1995.
“We have to look at the bigger picture,” said Rabbi Schneier. “On the one hand there are extremists who want to exacerbate [tensions]. But what the poll shows is that the majority of blacks and Jews are not buying what the extremists are selling.”