Al Sharpton’s Jewish Problem

So What’s Not to Like?

That Sharpton finds it necessary to mend fences with the Jews—even as he insists he's never wronged them—shows how complex and contradictory this relationship is. That mainstream Jewish groups are willing to schmooze with Sharpton—even as they publicly disparage him—shows that the complexity is mutual. Blacks and Jews may not need each other to achieve political power, but both groups are too entangled in each other's destiny to go their separate ways. No one arouses this ambivalence like the rev.

At this point, Sharpton has met with so many Jewish leaders that he is practically a member of the minyan. But few of these machers are willing to be seen shaking his hand. Their more conservative constituents might not appreciate that, and besides, as Michael Nussbaum, president of the American Jewish Congress Metropolitan Region, notes, "he says one thing behind closed doors and another in public." Of course, trustworthiness is not a quality Sharpton is known for. You don't have to be Jewish to be betrayed by the trickster prince.

Yet despite his slippery embrace and the reluctance of many Jews to return the hug, Sharpton's attempts at reconciliation have had an effect. After he sued the Republican National Committee last year, and won a retraction from them for calling him "a racist anti-Semite with blood on his hands," Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League sprang to Sharpton's defense—sort of. He may be "a rabble-rouser who plays on the fringes of anti-Semitism," Foxman said, "but he is not an enemy of the Jewish people."

Illustration by Gary Aagaard

Sharpton has his haimisher allies, especially on the left. The surprise is that on the right there are Jews with a more nuanced view of him than you might expect. "I know he has said certain things," says sociologist Nathan Glazer, a major neoconservative thinker, "but he has been defending blacks he thinks are victimized by whites, and in New York that means Catholics and Jews. So I see no reason for special animosity."

The bottom line is that "Sharpton has made a determined effort to improve his relations with the community," says Adam Dickter, a staff reporter for The Jewish Week. "But he wants to do it without renouncing anything in the past, and people want him to address his actions, or, in the word of some, atone." The concept of repentance has a deep resonance, for blacks as well as Jews. But it's a deal-breaker for Sharpton, who insists, "You only repent when you mean it, and I have done nothing wrong."

The resulting stalemate suits a lot of people. It keeps Sharpton's black-nationalist flank intact, and it allows Jewish nationalists like Hikind to maintain that "the Sharpton of today is the same as the Sharpton of yesterday." The black-Jewish conflict makes repentance a political trap—no less for Sharpton than for someone like Ed Koch. "No one in the black community is asking Koch to apologize for saying that a Jew would have to be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson," says attorney Alan Dershowitz. "Sharpton at his worst never said anything like that."

After Jackson's "hymie-town" remark, Dershowitz spent three days working with him on a gesture of repentance. "I insisted that he make a statement in a black church. He did, and that's when we became friends." Yet, as Dershowitz admits, "Jews have a long memory." Many have yet to forgive Jackson—and his ordeal did not play well on the black street. The fallout wasn't lost on Sharpton. "What I'm going through, Jackson went through and so did Dinkins," he says. "The danger, as I've said to many Jewish leaders, is that every time a black leader becomes prominent, they're charged with anti-Semitism. Don't you think there will come a point when people stop trying?"

So Sharpton won't apologize. But he has gone further in that direction than meets the media eye. As Ruth Messinger, who faced him in the 1997 Democratic mayoral primary, notes, "He has said many things that ought to have been reported. But with a figure like Sharpton, it's no plus to report it when he tries to define his role another way." To hear him tell it, that's why Sharpton made the ultimate New York political trek last month: He went to Israel.

"Was it a politically risky trip? Absolutely," he says. "Since Durban [where the recent UN conference on racism was held], who has been willing to extend a hand to Israel? It's not like I got in line." This is certainly true at Sharpton's end of the political spectrum. And even if it weren't, the trip met the standard set by Lubavitcher educator Shimon Hecht, when asked what Sharpton should do to make amends: "Moses Maimonides [the medieval Jewish philosopher] says you have to be in the same situation again and not do the same thing." This time, Sharpton would not refer to Israel as hell, but he might be forgiven for thinking he was in purgatory.

The trip had been planned with input from the Israeli foreign ministry. An American Jewish group called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding was directly involved. But Sharpton hoped for larger auspices, so he approached the World Jewish Congress. Elan Steinberg, WJC's executive director, says Sharpton was offered a chance to address the congress's meeting in Jerusalem (as Jesse Jackson had in Belgium years before). The hitch was that Sharpton must sign a mutually agreed-upon declaration stating, among other things, that those who "used anti-Zionism at the Durban conference were engaging in anti-Semitism." The rev declined to sign, so WJC "wished him luck and withdrew our offer."

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