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."

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."

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."

"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.

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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