Minister Louis Farrakhan’s new point man in New York is calling for improved ties with the Jewish community as he works to strengthen the Nation of Islam’s base in the area.
But Minister Benjamin Chavis Muhammad, like Farrakhan, refuses to repudiate — or even acknowledge — the black Muslim movement’s links to anti-Semitism, a task Jewish leaders say is a necessary first step to opening dialogue.
Muhammad, formerly known as the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., who resigned last year amid controversy as director of the NAACP, comes to New York with a full agenda. This month he will begin a major push to enlist Hispanics into the ranks of the organization and increase the number of mosques in the New York area. A Million Youth March in Central Park is being planned for the fall of 1998, and days of study and prayer groups will be introduced throughout the city.
There are currently three Nation of Islam mosques in New York, with a dozen more study groups, which plant the seeds for new mosques. The Nation of Islam will not release information about its membership, but monitoring groups believe there are between 10,000 and 20,000 members nationwide.
Muhammad insists his and Farrakhan’s philosophy centers on “the oneness of God and the oneness of humanity” and abhors bigotry.
But in an interview with The Jewish Week, the new East Coast regional minister of the Nation of Islam refused to repudiate such statements as Farrakhan’s “gutter religion” disparagement of Judaism or disavow the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” often distributed at Nation of Islam events. The forgery, supposedly a blueprint for Jewish world domination, has been used to defame Jews since the late 19th century.
“I have not read that book thoroughly and would not want to make a judgment on its veracity or its value,” said Muhammad over coffee at Sylvia’s soul food restaurant in Harlem, across the street from Muhammad Mosque No. 7, the East Coast regional headquarters of the Nation of Islam. “We should encourage people to read all kinds of books. There is a lot of ignorance. I’m not going to make a judgment on the value of one book over another.”
Irrespective of the “Protocols,” Muhammad refused to comment on whether or not a cabal of Jews controls the world.
Muhammad, who resigned from the NAACP after settling a sexual harassment suit against him without the permission of his board, joined the Nation of Islam in February and was dispatched by Farrakhan this month to invigorate activity here.
Most Jewish groups have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
“We will continue to monitor their activities and monitor issues of anti-Semitism that come up,” said Adam Segall, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “As they do, we will publicize what we find.”
Martin Begun, president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, suggested a more internal focus. “There is nothing we can do about it,” he said. “What we can do is strengthen our communal ties. … Jewish community and Jewish heritage in this city is well-established and secure and we ought to intensify our own profile.”
But Mordechai Levy, leader of the militant Jewish Defense Organization, said his group would react to increased Nation of Islam activity by “going after them full force.” Levy promised a campaign of embarrassing members of the group at their homes and places of business, as he claims to have done to members of white supremacist groups.
“Their plans are to do to whites and Jews what the KKK did to innocent blacks — slaughter them,” said Levy. “Anyone who pretends otherwise is either a liar or a knave.”
Muhammad blames “miscommunication and myths” for troubles between the Nation of Islam and the Jewish community. “I want to send the right signals as I begin my tenure,” he said, promising to reach out to Jewish leaders to “sit at the table of dialogue.” But few are likely to clear their calendars.
“Before they can even entertain such a meeting, [the Nation of Islam] must renounce their anti-Semitic rhetoric,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “Renouncing means pleading guilty that you have committed the sin of anti-Semitic behavior.”
Rabbi Schneier likened the process to the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, which came about only after Yasir Arafat acknowledged that he had engaged in terrorism.
But Muhammad virtually ruled out that prospect, repeating Farrakhan’s policy that dialogue cannot take place with preconditions. “It has been Jewish leaders that have articulated preconditions on him that prevent the dialogue from taking place,” he said.
In an hourlong interview, Muhammad cited “forces of racial injustice that profit from polarization and bigotry.” He cited the media as one such force. But after being presented with an editorial from the weekly New York Observer, which denounced him as the “anti-Semites’ new man in town,” Muhammad was unfazed.
“It just shows me we have work to do,” he said. “I’m not dissuaded at all or dismayed. … I’m not here for political debate with those who oppose us.”
He added that despite claims of anti-Semitism, no member of the Nation of Islam has ever been charged with carrying out an attack on Jews, a claim he said cannot be made by most other faith groups.
“The Nation of Islam is over 60 years old and never has anyone who followed the teachings of Elijah Muhammad been charged with a hate crime. That is because we do not teach hate,” Muhammad said. “We teach love of God, love of self.”
Muhammad called for a “trialogue” between Jews, Muslims and Christians — “the sons and daughters of Abraham” — to work on healing the world. When told that Jews, Muslims and Christians are already involved in dialogue groups on a local and national level, Muhammad questioned the efficacy of such groups.
“You’ve still got misunderstanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims, not only in America but in the world,” he said. “Is the character of the present trialogue leading to peace and better racial harmony?”
Michael Miller, executive vice president of the JCRC, whose group has forged ties with the local Muslim population, counters: “We don’t need a Nation of Islam to facilitate discussions with people of the Muslim faith. So long as it remains associated with Louis Farrakhan and his anti-Semitic rhetoric, we have nothing to talk about.”
Muhammad said Jews, like all other members of the world community, should atone for past sins, such as alleged involvement in black slavery. He dismissed the notion that contemporary Jews should not be held responsible for what may have been done by their ancestors, citing Jewish attempts at restitution for the Holocaust.
“Some Jews are responsible, some whites are responsible, some Arabs are responsible, some Africans are responsible [for slavery],” he declared. “Is it relevant who participated in the Holocaust? Yes. Is it relevant who stole gold that belonged to the Jews? Yes. … So why is not just as just and as right to seek out those responsible for slavery?”
Muhammad’s posting in New York comes at a time when Farrakhan is struggling to be seen as a world figure. On the day before the interview, Farrakhan embarked on a worldwide “friendship tour” of 52 countries that includes stops in such anti-democratic states as Iraq, Syria, Libya and Cuba. The itinerary was condemned by the State Department and, for some Jewish leaders, is further indication of Farrakhan’s malevolence.
“It shows his true colors,” said Rabbi Schneier. “And that’s why we’re seeing within the African-American community more and more people beginning to distance themselves from him … because of his insults to the American people.”
Farrakhan has expressed interest in including Israel on his tour, citing a desire to boost the peace process.
Israel’s embassy in Washington has yet to decide on whether to grant Farrakhan a visa, according to Yehuda Yaakov, a spokesman for its New York consulate. But Yaakov added that officials would “take into consideration his opinions and his comments made in the past” as part of the consideration process.