Seeking broad support for his initiative to fight slavery in Sudan, the Rev. Al Sharpton is turning to Jewish philanthropists for help and challenging communal leaders to end their ban on meeting with him, asserting that Jews and blacks should work together for this cause.
“I will meet with them any time, anywhere, and whatever things I have said or done that are injurious or wrong, I will deal with because that’s real leadership,” said Rev. Sharpton in an interview last week. “Give me the bill of particulars.”
But in a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion at The Jewish Week — his most extensive dialogue with a Jewish publication — the activist denied any responsibility for contributing to black-Jewish tensions, placing him at an impasse with mainstream communal organizations who feel he has.
“I’m like the guy who’s been indicted with no charges,” he said, complaining that perceptions of him as a rabble-rouser are unfounded.
Jewish leaders “may say I contributed to negativity,” he added, but in a spirited defense Rev. Sharpton insisted that he has been a promoter of nonviolence and unfairly maligned.
“He’s playing games,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “If he wants rapprochement with the Jewish community, he knows what it’s all about.”
Sharpton’s challenge comes at a time when he is reaching out to influential leaders and philanthropists, including Michael Steinhardt of the Center for Jewish Life, in his effort to end tribal bondage in the war-torn African country of Sudan, where he journeyed last month. “It was an inconclusive meeting,” said Steinhardt. “I listened to what he said and told him his image in the Jewish world was not good.” Steinhardt said he advised Rev. Sharpton to “do a lot more to relate to the idea of Jews and blacks being neighbors [and] correct some of the statements of other black leaders. … I don’t know if he’s prepared to do that.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, an author and lecturer Rev. Sharpton debated on black-Jewish issues last month, has been advising him.
“I’ve always worked to bring Jews and blacks together,” the rabbi said, adding that the Jewish community “makes a mistake when it lumps together” people like Minister Louis Farrakhan and Professor Leonard Jeffries, “who have made vulgar, anti-Semitic statements,” with Rev. Sharpton, whose past statements have been “inflammatory and inciteful, but never undeniably anti-Semitic, and who is now showing a willingness to work together.” Rabbi Boteach questioned how mainstream Jewish leaders could have applauded Israel for dealing with Yasir Arafat, with so much Jewish blood on his hands, yet resist meeting with Rev. Sharpton.
Some observers believe Rev. Sharpton is convinced the anti-slavery issue is ideal for bringing blacks and Jews together in common cause, and if he cannot persuade Jewish establishment professionals to meet with him, he will bypass them and go directly to those with the funds to support him.
At the same time, Rev. Sharpton is increasing his national profile in the wake of a scandal that weakened his mentor, the Rev. Jesse Jackson. And Rev. Sharpton has also not ruled out a second bid for mayor of New York.
“One day I’m saying no, the next day yeah,” he said, though many observers believe he will conclude that any political position will be more confining than the national leadership of the black community, which he aspires to at times.
Rev. Sharpton acknowledged that what he alternately referred to as “lies” and “misperceptions” about his activism — particularly his role during the 1991 Crown Heights riots and prior to a 1995 deadly attack on a Jewish-owned Harlem store — may stand in the way of his making inroads in the Jewish community. He said his goals transcend politics and speak to moral imperatives.
“Given the history that African Americans and Jews share in terms of dealing with slavery and dealing with mass discrimination, that should make us particularly sensitive to this issue,” he said. “There is no question that the Jewish community has been a positive influence in this city … and contributed toward world progress. There is a lot we can learn from each other if we can get past some of our mistrust.”
Rev. Sharpton said he had “aided and abetted” those who have negative perceptions about him by refusing to challenge them. “I’m no longer taking that position. I’m aggressively saying that we cannot allow these lies to continue.”
On some occasions, Rev. Sharpton alluded to a conspiracy to harm the influence of black leadership. “There is a feeling among some that if you develop a large following there is an element that is going to tag you as anti-Semitic,” he said.
But Rev. Sharpton, who came to The Jewish Week alone, appeared more conciliatory and introspective than he had been at the forum with Rabbi Boteach a month ago, in which he was often testy and defiant. That event was attended by both Jews and blacks, including members of Rev. Sharpton’s National Action Alliance.
“I regret not taking time in many cases to explain what I was doing and why, having an attitude of I don’t care, I don’t give a damn kind of attitude,” he said of his earlier activist days, which he referred to as his “jumpsuit and medallion” era. (He wore a natty three-piece suit to the interview.)
“Sometimes the tendency to be flippant and defensive and to not try to really explain with some kind of clarity and balance what you are saying … that is something I most regret.”
Later in the interview, discussing his sermon at the funeral of Gavin Cato, the black child whose accidental death sparked the four-day Crown Heights riots in the summer of 1991, Rev. Sharpton expressed regret about remarks concerning Jews who bought diamonds from South Africa during apartheid.
“Maybe because of the sensitivity at that time, that was not the right time to say it,” he said.
But Rev. Sharpton continued to dismiss any allegation that he incited the crowds that attacked Jews and their homes. He said he came to the neighborhood only after the Cato family asked him to represent them.
While several Jewish leaders who attended the Cato funeral said Rev. Sharpton’s remarks were incendiary, he said his goal was to reflect the anger of the Cato family and give dignity to the child while assuring no violence would take place. Proof of his success, he said, was that there was no violence during the long funeral march after the service.
“There was not one incident of violence that was connected to me,” he asserted. “In fact, the contrary is true. The only peaceful marches that took place” were led by him, he insisted.
An analysis of the four days of rioting by the state’s division of criminal justice services, known as the Girgenti Report, contains only scattered references to Rev. Sharpton. It mentions that Rev. Sharpton on the second day of the rioting was part of a demonstration outside the police station in Crown Heights that became the target of rocks and bricks.
The report also notes that Rev. Sharpton and attorney C. Vernon Mason held a press conference on the third day demanding the arrest of the driver who struck Cato and threatening to mobilize a citizen’s arrest. On the fourth day, Rev. Sharpton met with Mayor David Dinkins at a Crown Heights public school where the mayor called on him, unsuccessfully, to cancel a protest march through the neighborhood following Cato’s funeral.
Rabbi Joseph Spielman, who was chairman of the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council at the time, insisted Rev. Sharpton had played the role of agitator.
“He didn’t throw a stone, but he ratcheted up the mob to act to violence, and then he left,” said the rabbi.
Another Crown Heights activist, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, claims he saw Rev. Sharpton at the center of a crowd that later turned violent.
“Right after he walked up Eastern Parkway and Schenectady, all hell broke loose,” said Rabbi Goldstein, chairman of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights. “Everybody ran.”
Rabbi Spielman was skeptical about Rev. Sharpton’s overtures, saying he wanted an end to the criticism, not a resolution of the conflict.
“At the time, he said: ‘These people don’t want peace — they want quiet.’ That’s what he’s asking for now.”
As for the incident at Freddy’s in Harlem, Rev. Sharpton insisted that the gunman who opened fire in the store and burned it down, killing eight workers, had only briefly wandered by a rally in which Rev. Sharpton decried the merchant, Fred Harari, as a “white interloper.” He now regrets using the word white, but insists he had no influence over the perpetrator, Roland Smith.
“The victims’ families sued everybody but me,” he said.
Rev. Sharpton, who notes that he supports the release of Jonathan Pollard and came to show his support when Gideon Busch, an Orthodox man, was killed by police, is not without contacts in the Jewish community. In addition to Rabbi Boteach, he has an ongoing dialogue with Howard Teich, a former president of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region, and with Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He has also worked with the grassroots group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which joined his protests against police misconduct after the Amadou Diallo killing.
“Of course there should meetings between Al Rev. Sharpton and Jewish leadership, and whatever details need to be worked out beforehand should be worked out to make it a constructive dialogue,” said Teich.
But most leaders seem content to avoid him.
Foxman said he believed Rev. Sharpton’s outreach to the Jewish community showed that he has matured over the years, but accused him of using “sophistry” to avoid taking responsibility for his past.
“He hasn’t made up his mind yet that he wants to clear the slate,” said the ADL leader, who believes Rev. Sharpton must offer an explicit apology for his role in Crown Heights, Harlem and the Tawana Brawley hoax — an incident of anti-white racism, he says — to end the stigma.
“He flirts with it and then reverts back to Farrakhanism,” Foxman said. “He knows what it’s all about. If he is waiting for us to parse it out for him, he’s going to have to wait a long time.”
Foxman’s skepticism was echoed by Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“Rev. Sharpton’s ‘not having taken time to explain what he was doing’ has caused our community, among others, much grief,” said Miller, reacting to the activist’s expression of regret. “If he indeed is coming to grips with his irresponsible past activities and statements, he should confront those issues and incidents directly and not obliquely.”
Rev. Sharpton said that approach was akin to being handed an empty indictment. “You ask, ‘What are the charges’ and they say, ‘OK, we’ll get back to you?”
Miller, who was present at Cato’s funeral, insisted “he knows full well how he has offended the Jewish community and worse. The ball is still in his court.”
Addressing other topics in the interview, Rev. Sharpton said he and Rabbi Schneier had arranged for a meeting with Charlie Ward following controversial comments by the Knicks guard, in a biblical context, about Jews and Christianity. The meeting will take place following the playoffs.
“When we read Scriptures, always remember we’re addressing a spirit of sin and not any group,” he said.
Rev. Sharpton said he would be meeting with Farrakhan to seek his support in the anti-slavery fight. As in the past, the reverend refused to criticize Farrakhan, as Dinkins and Martin Luther King III have done.
“I don’t think he is anti-Semitic,” Rev. Sharpton said. “ I don’t agree with some of the things he has said, but I have always taken a position that I am not going to be responsible for what other people say.”
Discussing the mayoral race, he insisted that he had settled on no candidate to endorse in the Democratic Party should he decide not to run. He said, however, that City Council Speaker Peter Vallone “doesn’t have the fire in his belly,” and that Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer’s decision not to endorse him for mayor in 1997 would factor in his decision.
“I’m the one guy Ferrer can’t make the argument of black-Latino unity [to] because he had that opportunity in 1997,” said Rev. Sharpton.
While asserting that he and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi “have had our differences,” he praised the candidate for opening a dialogue with him, “the kind of dialogue I think this city needs.