Two decades ago, Rev. Al Sharpton was the ultimate civic iconoclast, speaking what he called truth to power, organizing rallies and attacking the establishment on behalf of the oppressed.
Today, he’s under fire for being too mainstream. Last summer, another prominent black voice, Cornell West, attacked the National Action Network founder in a radio interview as a too-complacent “house negro” of Barack Obama’s “plantation,” failing to hold the president accountable for drone strikes or talk about “Wall Street criminality.”
And as he emerges as a key insider in the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, with better access to City Hall than he’s had in years and with a top ally appointed as the first lady’s chief of staff, Jewish leaders who have long been wary of him and his agenda, and scornful of his past activism, are wondering how to react.
“He’s not an individual who can be avoided within the public arena,” said Michael Miller, CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “And yet, in terms of the hurt within the Jewish community, it has not yet healed.”
At 59, making his living as host of “PoliticsNation” on MSNBC, Rev. Sharpton is a changed man in every sense of the word from the days he wore jogging suits and medallions. Slimmed down and somewhat mellowed with age, he marked the 20th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots in August 2011, by accepting criticism that the role he played in the early hours of the melee was misguided and provocative.
“Our language and tone sometimes exacerbated tensions and played to the extremists rather than raising the issue of the value of this young man whom we were so concerned about,” he wrote in the Daily News, referring to Gavin Cato, the child whose accidental death sparked the violence.
Late last year, Rev. Sharpton spoke out passionately against so-called “knockout game” attacks by black men in Crown Heights and elsewhere that targeted Jews, calling them “insane thuggery.”
One Jewish leader noted, off the record, that Sharpton has never emerged as a major critic of Israel at times when other left-wing voices have piled on.
Still, some note that his Crown Heights mea culpa did not include the word apology and that he never brought it directly to the Jewish community there or to the family of Yankel Rosenbaum, who died on the first night of the violence (before Sharpton entered the neighborhood).
While calling the 2011 Daily News op-ed a “a positive development,” Miller said he agreed with Norman Rosenbaum, Yankel’s brother, who said in a response in the same paper that “he has given us no genuine expression of remorse. No real regret for what he did.”
“As I have said over a period of decades, Rev. Sharpton still owes the Rosenbaum family and the community an apology for his actions during that time,” Miller said.
In Crown Heights, the wounds can still be raw. Chanina Sperlin, a board member of the area’s Jewish community council, said he recently refused to participate in a press conference against the knockout attacks if Rev. Sharpton was included.
“He has to apologize, plain and simple, for what he has done, not just to our community but to the Jewish community at large,” Sperlin said. “Not only for making the mob come out but for giving the Lubavitcher rebbe a lawsuit that had no basis.” (Sharpton and his allies launched a wrongful death suit against the Lubavitch because the car that struck Cato was part of the rebbe’s motorcade and went through a light.)
“Until he does that, I don’t want to speak to or know the guy.”
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, who said at the time that reverend’s apology did not go far enough, now says some “in the [Jewish] community believe issues remain, but I think to the overwhelming majority Al Sharpton is part of the mainstream New York political scene. I don’t think those things that bother some … are of significance today.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier, founder of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, agrees.
“He has expanded his horizons and demonstrated a greater commitment to the Jewish community and the state of Israel,” said Rabbi Schneier, who has spoken at the National Action Network’s annual Martin Luther King Day gathering. “I am of the school of thought that people grow in life and a wonderful example of that is the Rev. Al Sharpton. His evolution has been genuine and sincere.”
Around the same time as Sharpton’s Daily News op-ed, author and lecturer Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a piece in the Jerusalem Post calling for an end to “the Sharpton wars.” He noted the time the reverend blindsided him during a joint trip to Israel with a side trip to visit Yasir Arafat in Gaza. But he also noted subsequent acts of contrition and cooperation. “Sharpton can do that, just when you think he’s only interested in himself,” Rabbi Boteach wrote.
Miller said the ties Reverend Sharpton seems to have with de Blasio, while poles apart from the flammable relationship he had with Rudolph Giuliani, is not much different than that of the past 12 years. “Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought Rev. Sharpton’s guidance, and others have as well,” he said.
But a story on the politics website Capital New York this week, headlined “Al Sharpton, insider,” noted de Blasio’s four appearances with Sharpton since he won the election. Sharpton told reporter Azi Paybarah he’d urge the mayor to focus on “job creation, education and police reform, stopping the stop-and-frisk [policy] and racial profiling.”
On Monday the mayor’s office announced that Sharpton’s longtime NAN spokeswoman and adviser, Rachel Noerdlinger, would be chief of staff to First Lady Chirlane McCray.
“I would say wherever we have access to get people in, that have been raised and nurtured in the movement, that I feel will represent what is good for the community,” Sharpton told Capital New York… “I think that is a good thing.”
Rev. Sharpton, for his part, has regularly extended his hand for dialogue with Jews.
“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,” he said in a May 2001 Jewish Week interview. “Give me the bill of particulars.”
Few took him up on it. Instead, the JCRC routinely tried to marginalize him while embracing other African-American clergy and political leaders. But the media, as well as elected officials, still looked to Rev. Sharpton as the voice of the black community.
Teich was one of a handful of Jewish organizational leaders to meet with Sharpton and Cato’s father, Carmel, shortly after the riots.
“I saw an opportunity to heal rifts between the two communities,” said Teich. “I faced a lot of heat. I didn’t see him as opposed to the Jewish community but as standing up for his community.” He said it was appropriate for Jewish leaders to remember, “but to hold onto the past when the reality today is different makes no sense to me.”
He recalled that in 1994 the reverend denounced the killing of Ari Halberstam, a 16-year-old chasid, by a Lebanese-born terrorist on the Brooklyn Bridge, and joined with local imams and rabbis to condemn the crime.
Teich recalled that after the press conference, Rev. Sharpton put a hand on Teich’s shoulder, then said, “I bet you were nervous about what I was going to say.”