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 Call noted 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.
"You should look at us as activists representing a universal opinion of Torah Jewry as it always was presented," Fryman added. "We wanted to counteract the negative influence of the media and Zionist lobby."
Farrakhan intimated that "the unfair and false attacks on him by members of the Jewish community were hurtful," the newspaper stated. "But when you try your best to serve the one God, He insulates you from the insults, the maligning, the evil spoken words and attitudes of those who either purposely misrepresent the truth or in ignorance misrepresent the truth," the minister said. Farrakhan reiterated that black Muslims display a profound respect for synagogues. "This is why no matter what we have suffered from the misrepresentation of the Zionist-controlled media, you have never heard of an incident where one of my followers ever attacked a person because of their faith tradition," he told the rabbis.
Over the years, Farrakhan has come to differ with Jesse Jackson on the definition of Zionism. Jackson has praised Zionism as "a liberation movement . . . whose goal it is to affirm the identity for its people, to develop a homeland for its people, a place free of persecution, must be seen as that, and not all the negative connotations attached to it." Based on The Final Call's interpretation of the minister's remarks at the meeting, Farrakhan is closer to Neturei Karta's view of Zionism. "The issue is the mistake in the notion that Judaism and Zionism are synonymous," said Rabbi Fryman, who, according to The Final Call, attended Israeli-Palestinian peace conferences in Madrid and Washington, D.C., to "rebut the Zionist Prime Minister [of Israel] that he is the representative of the Jews." Rabbi Fryman added: "I am overwhelmed by the terrible suffering and the crimes committed by the Zionist occupation and the settlers in the Holy Land, unspeakable crimes which the media are aware of."
** Winning the freedom of the Iranian Jews accused of spying certainly would help Farrakhan's image among American Jewry. But he might face opposition among some Orthodox Muslims, depending on their interpretation of a pastoral letter Farrakhan circulated to his followers at Saviour's Day services in February. "I am deeply concerned that you do not go dressing, in a superficial manner, merely imitating our brothers and sisters in the East," Farrakhan wrote in the February 27 missive. "I am deeply concerned that you do not fasten your minds so much on the Arabic language that you forget the Mission of the resurrection of the dead."
Although couched in the doublespeak typical of Nation of Islam pronouncements, the letter is viewed by some insiders as Farrakhan's latest attempt to rein in followers who may be gravitating toward Orthodox Islam. "I have attempted, over the last twelve or fourteen years, to forge links with the Muslim World without destroying the principles contained in the Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, which I believe totally to be correct," Farrakhan wrote, adding that he began to notice that "whenever the wisdom of one prophet or messenger is exhausted, then the people begin to cling to rituals." Since announcing last year that he has cancer, Farrakhan has struggled to maintain unity within his Nation. Disgruntled members began defecting to Orthodox Muslim groups like the American Muslim Mission, once considered the Nation's staunchest Islamic rival. Farrakhan has tried gingerly to woo back the so-called "Lost-Founds" while not appearing to discredit their new alliances.
"This Marvelous Book, Qur'an, was given to us by Allah, through Prophet Muhammad . . . who gave us a marvelous and noble example of how this Qur'an should be lived, but, beloved Muslims, that was fourteen hundred years ago," he wrote. "We have had many, many great and profound Islamic Scholars since then. They have done their best to bring out of the Holy Qur'an the gems of knowledge that would make the Muslims better, stronger, more united and a great spiritual, political, economic force for change in the World. But, now our great World of Islam is fragmented. Not because Prophet Muhammad was incorrect; not because the Holy Qur'an is incorrect; not because the Sunnah is incorrect . . . what has happened is that our interpretation of the Qur'an has run out of its time to do the job that it did fourteen hundred years ago. We need a new and better understanding of the scriptures."
Farrakhan urged his followers to "hold fast to the Teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and hold fast to what I am teaching of His Teachings, because it is as clear as day that He taught much and left much for us to study and develop more." While remaining true to Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan seemed to be trying to modify some of the patriarch's racist philosophy. "I am not saying these things for vain purpose," he declared. "I know why He said we are gods. I know why He said that the Caucasian is the devil. I know why He called us the original man. It is so much deeper than what we have understood of the past."
Farrakhan challenged followers who refuse to accept new scholarship regarding Elijah Muhammad's teachings. "If we are intellectual cowards and only want to repeat what we heard the Master say and not take into consideration the context in which He said what He said, the time in which He said it, and the forces that were present at the time He spoke it, then, we will stay in this level of comfortability in the past," the minister declared. "We will not grow. We will not grow into a mature understanding of the Word of Allah."
Indeed, Louis Farrakhan has matured over the years. Ironically, by meeting with extremist Jews and suggesting that it is the beginning of the end of a historic feud, Farrakhan may have inflamed tensions between himself and those secular Jewish leaders who further racial strife by continuing to isolate him.
Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas and wire services
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.