By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It wasn't long ago that Louis Farrakhan adamantly advocated that Jews, like whites, are 'devils' and partly responsible for the ills of the black community. Now the Nation of Islam leader, once perilously close to death, finds himself navigating an ever-changing coursefrom hatemonger to crafty politicianby consorting with some of Israel's fiercest enemies, anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The banner head-line in the November 30 issue of The Final Call, the NOI's official weekly, is perhaps the most shocking in the publication's 20-year history. "JEWISH RABBIS & FARRAKHAN MEET," it proclaims, adding, "Dialogue opened; Distinction made between Orthodox Judaism and Zionism." Beneath the headline is a photo of Farrakhan flanked by seven bearded Hasidim in black felt hats and long dark coats. On a slow news day, the historic meeting might have been front page. But except for black Muslim readers and the handful of believers who dodged traffic near the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge hawking The Final Call and the ubiquitous bean pies, news about the largely symbolic step toward closer relations between Farrakhan and Jews have gone unnoticed in the mainstream media.
The November 9 meeting with the Jews at the NOI palace in Chicago's Hyde Park was the first high-level contact between outsiders and the 66-year-old Farrakhan since a sabbatical the minister took, beginning in March. Farrakhan has been recuperating from the side effects of radiation treatments for prostate cancer. "We have believed all along that a day like this would come," Final Call editor James Muhammad quoted Farrakhan as telling the Jewish delegation. "The Honorable Elijah Muhammad hinted to us in one of his writings that the problem between the Jewish community and us in the United States would be worked out. So we believe that this [meeting] is not accidentalthis is a part of God's divine planning for us."
By the time his enemies got wind of it, Minister Farrakhan had pulled off another public-relations coup. For years, Jewish groups such as the powerful Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have dismissed Farrakhan's offers to reconcile. His troubles with Jews are well-documented. The rift reached its apogee during Jesse Jackson's 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Farrakhan rallied to Jackson's defense after Jackson made remarks many Jews considered anti-Semitic, including a derogatory reference to New York as "Hymie town." Farrakhan was accused of labeling Judaism a "gutter religion" and praising Hitler. Jackson was at first reluctant to respond to calls to distance himself from Farrakhan but later repudiated the minister's statements as "reprehensible and morally indefensible."
Jewish leaders maintain that Farrakhan has refused their requests to soften his rhetoric and retract past, offensive statements. Farrakhan has insisted that he does not hate Jews and is willing to visit rabbis and to speak with Jewish scholars. That overture culminated with his meeting with the seven rabbis, who, like "Reagan Democrats," are now being referred to as "Farrakhan Jews."
So who are these brazen Hasidim who would defy the ADL's ban on associating with members of the Nation of Islam? They are leaders of the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta, a Jerusalem-based group with a large following in Brooklyn. The group's name stems from the Aramaic for "Guardians of the City," a reference to a holy Jewish text that contends that scholars are the true defenders of Jerusalem.
When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, Neturei Karta printed its own money to avoid touching Israeli bills. Followers believe that the establishment of a secular state is heresy because a Jewish state can only be created when the Messiah arrives. The movement's most hard-line members refuse to carry Israeli identification cards, recognize Israeli courts, or vote in elections. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have pelted non-Orthodox men and women with bags of excrement and rocks because they prayed together near Jerusalem's Western Wall; they believe men and women must worship separately. In 1994, at a ceremony in Jericho marking the inauguration of Yasser Arafat's self-rule government, members of Neturei Kartawho identified with the Palestinian cause by repeatedly going to East Jerusalem hospitals to visit Arabs wounded during the Intifadaembraced and kissed Arafat.
** Minister Farrakhan's relations with this anti-Zionist strain of Judaism began to solidify after some of Neturei Karta's leaders met secretly with his aides earlier this summer.
According to The Final Call, the deputation huddled first with NOI chief of staff Leonard F. Muhammad over the fate of 13 Iranian Jews accused by Tehran of spying for Israel. The 13along with several Iranian Muslims also accused of espionageface the death penalty. After the Iranian government rejected calls from around the world to spare them, Rabbi Moshe Beck of Neturei Karta petitioned Farrakhan, who has strong ties to some Middle East regimes, to intercede.
At the meeting, "the Jewish delegation appealed for whatever help the Nation of Islam could provide in seeking a resolution to the crisis," the newspaper reported.
When the rabbis met again with Farrakhan on November 9, they presented him with a plaque that they said reflected how "representatives of Torah Jewry" feel about the minister. The Final Callnoted that Rabbi David Weiss, a spokesman for the group, "regretted that some members of the Jewish community had attacked Min. Farrakhan and vilified his name in the media, and that the orthodox community should have spoken out against the attack." Another rabbi, Chaim Fryman, described the meeting with Farrakhan as "a landmark that should have come about earlier.