Sharpton and Jews: At A Crossroads?

Sharpton and Jews: At A Crossroads?

At the headquarters of the National Action Network in Harlem last week, Rev. Al Sharpton punched his access code into a telephone, and replayed an unusual voice-mail message.

"This is one of your Jewish brothers in Brooklyn," said a voice. "We’re a minority, just like you. They pumped 12 bullets into this guy … I guess they wanted to get rid of him. Come on guys. We need your help. Get some buses over here. No justice, no peace!"

The message, from a man identifying himself as Ari Goldstein, was one of two replayed for reporters on the morning after police killed a mentally disturbed man in Borough Park, and shortly before Sharpton made a brief visit to the heavily Orthodox neighborhood. Upon arrival, he was heckled with chants of "anti-Semite, go home," and did so without stepping out of his minivan. "Sometimes you have to take the risk of reaching out, knowing you are not going to get a banquet," he said.

But the messages, left in apparent hopes of attracting media attention to the killing, seem to demonstrate that even in those segments of the Jewish community where Sharpton is despised as a racial arsonist, there is a realization that he is a force to be reckoned with in New York.

In an interview last week, Sharpton said concern over police brutality has become a unifying force between blacks and Jews, 125 of whom were arrested with him during protests against the Amadou Diallo shooting in March.

"More and more, we see people coming together around issues," he said, "which is really what happened in the civil rights movement. People didn’t jump up and say ‘let’s have unity.’ Issues brought them together."

But other than his open alliance with the liberal group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, which urged him to go to Borough Park last week, Sharpton has no ties to speak of with organized Jewry. That could change. Sharpton’s media-driven success at steering the debate on important city issues (like the Diallo shooting) has some Jewish leaders questioning whether they can continue to keep the activist and perennial political candidate at arms distance. The majority, however, believe there can be no public dialogue with Sharpton until he renounces past behavior they perceive as anti-Semitic.

Reaction to Sharpton’s Borough Park foray, and his call for a federal investigation of the shooting, pointed up the dividing lines of the debate.

"This appears to be some public indication of his desire to reach out to the Jewish community," said Howard Teich, regional president of the American Jewish Congress and one of four Jewish leaders who drew controversy last year by attending a meeting with the father of Gavin Cato in the company of Sharpton. Cato was the Haitian child whose death sparked the Crown Heights riots eight summers ago.

The executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York has a different view, insisting Sharpton could have reached out to the Borough Park community through proper channels to express his concern, rather than seek a publicity stunt.

"Until Rev. Sharpton apologizes to the Jewish community for his behavior and conduct in Crown Heights and Harlem and other episodes, his appearance in Borough Park was unwelcome and offensive" said Michael Miller, among the most vociferous of leaders who believe Sharpton’s conduct during the Crown Heights riots, and preceding the 1995 deadly fire at Freddy’s Fashion Mart, contributed to anti-Semitic violence.

"Tell me what they want me to apologize for," Sharpton testily challenged. "There was a full investigation [of Crown Heights] by the governor’s office that found no misconduct, so what conduct are they talking about? What did I do besides preach at the eulogy of Gavin Cato and lead the only peaceful march during the riots?"

Sharpton insists the notorious "diamond merchant" comment attributed to him at the Cato eulogy was taken out of context. He says he was referring to a specific diamond merchant who dealt with South African mines, and was not referring to all chasidim. "I also said we need to stop blacks who mug people on Utica Avenue," he said. "Did I call all blacks muggers? What people do is create a myth about my involvement in Crown Heights and then turn around and ask me to apologize for their myth."

Miller, who heard the remark firsthand, insists Sharpton was using it as a "Shylock-oriented stereotype. The impression left was that Jews were mining South Africa and exploiting blacks."

Ester Fuchs, director of the Center for Urban Policy at Columbia University, sees ties between Sharpton and the Jewish community as mutually beneficial. "The Jewish community should find a way to give him an opportunity to atone," she said. "It’s very difficult, but it’s in everybody’s interest."

But Sharpton didn’t seem concerned about bridging boundaries last week, when he declined to join numerous black elected officials in denouncing the rhetoric of Khalid Muhammad and his Harlem youth rally.

"I’m not going to, every time someone comes into town, be ordered into making attacks," he said. Asked if he considered Muhammad an anti-Semite, Sharpton said, "I don’t consider him anything. I’m not going to get into that." Sharpton says he denounced Muhammad with Rev. Jesse Jackson following a notorious 1994 speech at Kean College in New Jersey by Muhammad. "I stand by my statement," he said.

In opposing the clemency of Puerto Rican nationalists convicted of terror activities, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said this week that "It doesn’t make sense to give clemency to people who are not remorseful."

But might that category include an American who spied for Israel, Jonathan Pollard, whose release Giuliani supports? In 1994, Pollard wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton declaring that what he had done was "not only repugnant to American law, but was equally repugnant to God’s Torah and to natural law." He later told Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, however, that he had signed the letter out of respect for Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, an Orthodox leader who formulated its wording, and that it did not reflect his true feelings. Whether Pollard considers his crime a mistake in judgment or an act of heroism on behalf of Israel has been a subject of debate throughout his 13-year incarceration. In a phone conversation Tuesday, Giulianiís campaign director and Jewish liaison, Bruce Teitelbaum, declined to address the topic on the record.

Line items

A Bronx assemblyman is accusing Giuliani of a "double standard" for meeting with Jewish leaders following the recent Borough Park shooting while taking several months to meet with black elected officials following the Bronx shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo.

"The swiftness with which this latest incident has been dealt gives the appearance that a race-based double standard exists at City Hall," said Ruben Diaz Jr. of Hunts Point. "The official silence and lack of outreach to my constituents and to their elected representatives displayed a shocking lack of cultural sensitivity and civic responsibility."

A source close to Giuliani said the mayor met with an African immigrant group within days of the Diallo shooting, and that his meeting with Borough Park leaders was intended to dispel false rumors that were circulating about the shooting.

Diaz also extended his "heartfelt sympathy" to the family of shooting victim Gary Busch.

Could there be another Congresswoman Abzug in New York’s future? Liz Abzug, daughter of Manhattan icon Bella, is mulling a challenge to GOP refugee Mike Forbes, now a Democrat. Also likely to enter the race are Tony Bullock, chief of staff to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

State Sen. Seymour Lachman (D-Brooklyn) is accusing the "Nightline" program and ABC News of bias for neglecting to mention Israel’s role in earthquake relief efforts in Turkey.

"Alone among major national and local news media, ‘Nightline’ and ABC News failed to report that the State of Israel dispatched the first and initially the largest rescue team to Turkey," said the senator.

The network, said Lachman, showed "poor editorial judgment regarding an example of unstinting humanitarian cooperation in the face of overwhelming loss of life."

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