After years of being branded by Jewish organizations as an antagonist who has used anti-Semitic rhetoric, controversial activist Lenora Fulani wants to mend fences, she declared in an ad campaign this week.
“I am a bridge-builder,” Fulani wrote in an open letter that appeared Sunday in The New York Times as a full-page ad, and was to appear this week in other publications.
“It was a moment to speak out,” Fulani decided, because of recent criticism of a play staged by the All Stars Project theater troupe she helped found.
The play, “Crown Heights,” was perceived in the Jewish community as distorting the events surrounding the 1991 riots in that neighborhood. (A Jewish Week review titled “ ‘Crown Heights’ Fires Rekindled?” ran Jan. 30.)
Fulani noted that the play was “written by my Jewish mentor, Fred Newman, and his long-time theatrical collaborator, Dan Friedman, who is also Jewish … Far from renewing antagonism, this theater experience brought people together.”
But according to an Anti-Defamation League statement, the play “distorts history and refuels hatred.”
Fulani, the former New Alliance political operative now active in the state’s fast-growing Independence Party, did not address in her message any of the controversial statements that led to criticism over the years from Jewish leaders, but simply said it “seems almost ridiculous for me to have to say that I am not an anti-Semite. But given the charges being made, I will. I am not.”
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which has extensively documented the activities of Fulani and Newman, said the ad changed little in his eyes.
“I’m impressed that she does recognize that she needs to come to grips with the issue,” Foxman said. “But she doesn’t do it there [in the ad].”
Foxman said that as recently as January 2003, Fulani chastised the Rev. Jesse Jackson for having apologized to the Jewish community for his “Hymietown” remarks in the 1980s, according to a New York Post article. The newspaper quoted Fulani as saying “The remark was, of course, no more or less anti-Semitic than millions of remarks made every day in the black community — just as millions of racist remarks are made in the white and Jewish communities.”
But the quotation most often cited by critics of Fulani is her assertion in the National Alliance newspaper on Nov. 16, 1989 that “Jews had to sell their souls to acquire Israel and are required to do the dirtiest work of capitalism — to function as mass murderers of people of color — in order to keep it.”
Foxman said, “We always welcome epiphanies, but one hasn’t come. She hasn’t dealt with the comments of the past.”
Michael Miller, who heads the New York Jewish Community Relations Council, also cited some of her past comments and said, “She calls herself a bridge-builder, but I’m not prepared to cross any bridge that Lenora Fulani would put up.”
In an interview Tuesday, Fulani said, “I don’t think I have said anything in the past that has been anti-Semitic. So many of these statements have been taken out of context … You can’t measure a person’s worth by identifying sentences, and you certainly can’t do it in the very conflicted and tense-filled environment that has been race relations in this country.”
Fulani’s ad campaign coincided with a gala held Monday night for the All Stars Theater project at Lincoln Center attended by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. Both men have received Fulani’s support in the Independence Party, in which she has become a major player.
Fulani said the success of the All Stars Project, which attracted 2,000 people to see “Crown Heights” and recently opened a $12 million center on West 42nd Street, had led her to publish her message.
“As we serve more communities and gain more visibility, I thought it was a good time to make these statements,” she said. “It was a moment I was comfortable with.”
Fulani said the ad would appear in the Amsterdam News, a black weekly, as well as some local community publications.
Roger Grunwald, a spokesman for the All Stars, declined to provide a list of media solicited to run the ad or the cost. Both Fulani and Grunwald mentioned that many of the board members of the All Stars Project who sponsored the campaign are Jewish.
The Jewish Week declined to run the ad because of “concern for the sensitivity of our readers,” according to editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt. The Forward, a Jewish weekly, also turned down the ad, Grunwald said.
Asked about her view of the state of black-Jewish relations, Fulani said, “We have to recognize that in this country we have been taught to relate to each other in ways that are not particularly nice. We have a lot of work to do and a long way to go.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding said Fulani “is not representative of the current state of black-Jewish relations. I would use the term ‘cooperation’ as the defining element in black-Jewish relations. She is on the fringe.”