Al Sharpton’s Jewish Problem

So What’s Not to Like?

Making peace with the Jews wasn't high on Al Sharpton's agenda last week. On election eve, he sat with top Democrats at a large round table in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, where he sometimes holds court these days. The purpose of this Hail Mary huddle was to get Sharpton to endorse Mark Green. But, for whatever reason, the main deal maker—Bill Clinton—failed to show. So Sharpton left for the studios of NY1, where he repeated a nuanced invitation to his supporters to sit out the race. It was another cunning maneuver by New York's trickster prince.

In the end, blacks were much more loyal to the Democrats than Jews were, and they voted in the usual numbers, despite Sharpton's advice. No one can claim that he cost Green the election, but neither was he incidental to Green's defeat. With City Hall in Republican hands, it can now be argued—as does urbanologist Fred Siegel, one of the reverend's harshest critics—that Sharpton is "the most important Democrat in the city, the man whose ring must be kissed if you want to run for higher office."

Yet, even in the midst of the tumult on election eve, Sharpton found time to talk about his not-so-secret relationship with the Jews. But why does it matter what the 12 Tribes think of the rev, now that a black-Latino coalition has shown its power to break, if not make, a liberal mayor?

Illustration by Gary Aagaard

"Why does it matter?" Sharpton says. "For the same reason it was important to visit the guy who tried to kill me." He's referring to the man who stabbed him during a march through Bensonhurst in 1991. At the trial, Sharpton pled for clemency on his behalf. "I visited him in jail, and I told him the reason I had come wasn't for you, it was for me. In order to be part of the generation of leaders after Martin Luther King, I have to be big enough to accept redemption. I have to do it even in the face of those who will not welcome it, and will even condemn it." Just as he embraced his assailant, he will reach out to his critics among the Jews.

Affecting? Yes. Arrogant? That too. It wouldn't be a Sharpton statement if you could put your finger on its true intention.

As students of anthropology can attest, the trickster—who appears in many of the world's mythologies—is not just a rogue but a powerful provider of essential things. He can be a benefactor or a bane, and sometimes both at once. With his prodigious energy and eloquence, Sharpton embodies this archetype. He's a trickster for a tricky time.

So what's not to like? The question, asked of some three dozen Jewish leaders, activists, and commentators, produced very different answers. Three dozen Jews, 300 opinions—especially of Al Sharpton.

There was a consensus about one thing: that he is not an anti-Semite. "I have been with him on numerous times over 15 years, and I have never heard him engage in anti-Semitic actions or words," says civil libertarian Norman Siegel, who ran for public advocate with Sharpton's blessing. Even Dov Hikind, a leader of the Orthodox community and a longstanding Sharpton nemesis, prefers to call him a "racist" who has "indulged in anti-Semitism." Moderate Jewish leaders made this point more decorously. "Having talked to him and looked into his eyes, I feel that he is not an anti-Semite," says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. "But I think he has used anti-Semitism."

Sharpton is ready and eager to dispute this allegation, point by point. Take the infamous statement attributed to him during the Crown Heights riot of 1991: "Don't just talk about the jeweler [whose store was burned] on Utica. Talk about how Oppenheimer in South Africa sends diamonds straight to Tel Aviv and deals with the diamond merchants right here." Sharpton insists: "I never said it. I said we've got to stop black guys snatching purses on Utica Avenue, and we've got to stop the diamond merchants in South Africa. That was about trade."

As for the remark about the "white interloper" he made several months before the 1995 arson attack on a Jewish merchant's shop in Harlem—which resulted in eight deaths—Sharpton points out that he has apologized. ("I would not use 'white' again," he told the Daily News in 1996, "because his sin was not based on his whiteness, but his practices.") And as for his comment during a 1991 trip to Israel, when he answered a heckler yelling "Go to hell" by retorting, "I already am in hell," Sharpton maintains, "I was talking about my reception. As a Christian, I would never say that about the holy land."

Time after time, Sharpton insists, he has defended Jews despite ridicule from militants in his own camp. "Khalid Muhammad used to make speeches against me," he notes. "I spoke up for Gidone Busch [a Hasid killed by police in 1999] even though I knew I'd be booed." (Indeed, an angry Hasidic crowd forced the reverend to flee.) Why has he been willing to take such risks? Not for political advantage, Sharpton explains. "I know that even if I did a million reach-outs, I'll never get the majority of Jewish votes. It's only because I have a moral center."

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