Al Sharpton’s Jewish Problem

So What’s Not to Like?

"I was going there to deal with victims of terror," Sharpton explains. "To have signed the declaration would have made the trip political." Yet political is precisely what the trip turned out to be. When Sharpton decided to meet with Yasir Arafat, the one remaining rabbi in his entourage pulled out. Never mind that Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had facilitated the encounter, as the Israeli consulate confirms. "The night we landed, Peres said it would be helpful if I met with Arafat," Sharpton insists. But the ensuing photo-op played in Borough Park like a plate of ribs. "Is he kosher now?" asks Hikind. "No more than six years ago."

Still, as Dershowitz points out, "No one gives the hechsher [kosher certification] in the Jewish community." A number of Jewish leaders say they weren't particularly upset by Sharpton's meeting with Arafat. "Those who were not happy with him are still not happy," says Steinberg. "I think we're back where we started."

Perhaps the key question is not whether Jews mistrust Sharpton, but whether they mistrust him more than white Catholics do. Exit polls before last month's Democratic run-off showed that about a quarter of Green's white supporters intended to vote for him because they didn't like Freddy Ferrer. "No way is anybody going to dislike Ferrer," says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute. "It was Sharpton's endorsement, guaranteed." Yet, Jews and white Catholics expressed virtually identical feelings about Sharpton. According to the Marist poll, a whopping 63 percent of both groups said Sharpton's support made it less likely that they would vote for Ferrer.

Illustration by Gary Aagaard

But as political consultant Norman Adler notes, polls don't really tell this story. "You have to go to qualitative stuff, and it seems to me that Catholics see Sharpton as anti-white while Jews see him as anti-Semitic. And to a lot of Jews there's a big difference between being against whites and being against Jews. Jews see themselves as selected out for special treatment, so they have a sharper sense of the hostility directed toward them than other white people do."

It's this enduring sensitivity that makes it hard for a black leader to criticize Jewish attitudes without being labeled a bigot. Yet criticism is inevitable at a time when blacks are bumping up against Jews in more and more ways. As African Americans move up in professions where Jews create openings but also stand in their way; as Hasidim demand housing grants that might otherwise go to people of color; as both groups clash over everything from police protection to education funds, these nodes of conflict become inflamed. The pain makes it hard to see the material reasons for tension. It makes hate seem like courage and healing seem like cowardice. These contradictions make tricksters of us all.

It's easy to see the tangible reasons why an entente between Sharpton and the Jews is in their mutual interest. "Elite anti-Semitism I don't think exists anymore in the United States," says Dershowitz. "The only real anti-Semitism is from the bottom up." At his best, Sharpton offers a nationalist alternative to black bigotry, and at their best, Jews offer him a path to growth. "American politics in the last 30 years proves that the key to success for black politicians is to make alliances with Jews," Dershowitz maintains. "And it's also true the other way around."

The reason blacks and Jews keep trying to build bridges—and there are hundreds of councils, programs, and affinity groups, not to mention organizations like Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, devoted to this task—is the importance of social justice to both communities. "It's the legacy of Jewish values that leads us to vote against our economic interest—and no other group votes this way," says Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive publication Tikkun. "So for Sharpton, if there's any group that can bring him a larger constituency in the white world, it's Jews. If he can't win that population, how is he going to win any white population?"

Atonement—or tshuvah in Hebrew—is a central concept in Judaism, and it doesn't just mean apologizing. The word also instructs Jews to redeem the world. "To do tshuvah is to act in a way that actualizes God's presence," says Lerner. "In that sense, to repent is to reconnect with one's highest inner place." This is what Sharpton calls his "moral center," and it's why he must pursue redemption "even in the face of those who will not welcome it." More than any two groups in American society, blacks and Jews share a theology that places social justice at the heart of righteousness. "Both of us have in our cultures the essential story of slavery," says Lerner. "That story says there is something fundamentally wrong with the world and it needs to be changed."

We profane that mandate at every turn, but the myth of redemption remains. It's as real as the struggle for political power, and it compels blacks and Jews to see each other in a special way. To insult each other with a special intensity. To tangle with and torment each other—and not let go. Al Sharpton is a true barometer of the state of this union. The trickster is as close to righteousness as we can get these days.

Research: Adrian Leung and Lisa Schneider

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