Don't ask, don't tell

Neither Democrats nor the media wants to talk about past -- or current -- tensions between blacks and Jews.

By Jake Tapper
Published August 17, 2000 3:43AM (EDT)

It's tough to imagine this year's Republican National Convention featuring a prime-time speaker who once said that that "Zionism is a kind of poisonous weed that is choking Judaism." Or that he was "sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust." Or that traditional Democratic support for Israel is because of "the Jewish element in the party ... a kind of glorified form of bribery." And certainly not if he had ever referred to Jews as "Hymies" and New York as "Hymietown."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, of course, has made all of these comments, and more. Jackson said those things in his 30s and 40s, and has since apologized for them. But his speech at the Democratic Convention Tuesday evening is at the very least an interesting example of the double standard that clearly exists in the media's -- and the Democratic Party's -- sensitivity to anti-Semitism.

This is even more resonant against the backdrop of Vice President Al Gore's selection of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman as his running mate, the first Jew on a major party ticket.

There is a lot to admire about Jackson and his work, which at times are remarkable in their selflessness. And Jackson, as with all of us, should be taken at his word when it comes to his regret at the "Hymietown" comments.

But while Jackson has been forgiven by his party and the press, I wonder how forgiving anyone would be if Gov. George W. Bush had such a long history of questioning people's integrity because of their religion.

In 1973, for instance, Jackson condemned then President Richard Nixon as being insensitive to the poor, since "four out of five [of Nixon's top advisors] are German Jews and their priorities are on Europe and Asia." In 1979, Jackson said that he had "seen very few Jewish reporters that have the capacity to be objective about Arab affairs."

None of this has occurred in a vacuum. According to a 1998 Anti-Defamation League poll of Americans' attitudes about Jews, African-Americans are three times more likely to hold latently anti-Semitic views than whites. And, according to ADL director Abraham Foxman, these attitudes in the black community cut across age and economic and educational backgrounds. In the white community, such views are held chiefly by those who are older and less educated.

One certainly has to wonder whether Jackson, through his past comments, has in any way lent legitimacy to anti-Semitism in the black community. Jackson says that he has grown from the days of his anti-Semitic comments, and he has lauded the selection of Lieberman. But other black leaders have taken a different path. Last Friday, Louis Farrakhan questioned Lieberman's allegiance to the United States, asserting erroneously that "Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jew, is also a dual citizen of Israel." Israel's law of return allows Jews citizenship, but that is hardly the same thing as possessing dual citizenship.

That didn't stop Farrakhan from holding forth on one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards, however. "The state of Israel is not synonymous with the United States, and the test [Lieberman] would probably have to pass is: Would he be more faithful to the Constitution of the United States than to the ties that any Jewish person would have to the state of Israel?"

The loudest bigoted outburst against Lieberman came from Lee Alcorn, former president of the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In a radio interview, Alcorn said that he was "concerned about, you know, any kind of Jewish candidate" because African-Americans "need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we know that their interest primarily has to do with, you know, money."

NAACP president Kweisi Mfume immediately condemned Alcorn's remarks and suspended his chapter presidency. But it's naive to think that Alcorn was the only member of his chapter who felt that way.

You might think this issue would have been at least touched on Tuesday morning, when Lieberman met with the Democratic National Committee's black caucus. But the subject wasn't raised.

Alcorn was mentioned in passing by Washington NAACP bureau director Hilary Shelton, who said conservative journalists tried to goad Shelton into making anti-Semitic remarks after Alcorn had made his. But news from Tuesday's breakfast focused on Rep. Maxine Waters' continued reluctance to endorse Gore because of Lieberman's presence on the ticket. Waters' stated reasons have nothing to do with his faith, of course. Lieberman has expressed moderate to conservative views on a number of issues of concern to Waters: school vouchers, the most far-reaching examples of affirmative action and juvenile justice.

But it's wrong to pretend that Waters' stance won't strike a distant anti-Semitic chord among some of her South Central Los Angeles constituents.

Yet Lieberman's votes are almost uniformly in support of civil rights issues as approved by the NAACP, and he did spend some time in the '60s working to register black voters in the South, back when Jews were getting killed for such endeavors. To hear Waters express her concerns about Lieberman's views, however, you'd think Gore's running mate was Howard Stern.

"To ignore this rift [between blacks and Jews] -- to act as if it doesn't exist -- would be a serious mistake for Gore," African-American columnist Dewayne Wickham wrote in USA Today last week. "To win the presidency, Gore needs African-Americans to turn out in big numbers and vote overwhelmingly for him. That won't happen if his campaign fails to address the rift between blacks and Jews ... The real danger is that the low-level conflict between blacks and Jews will hold down black turnout and sap black voters' enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket."

Plenty of pundits and pols have said that anyone who wouldn't vote for Lieberman because he's Jewish probably wouldn't be voting for Gore to begin with, but that is simply wrong. Bigots and anti-Semites are certainly a healthy presence on the political right, but they are present and outspoken on the left as well.

There are lots of Democratic voters who view Gore and Lieberman differently because of the houses of worship they attend, and not because of their policies. Many of these individuals -- a disproportionate number, if you believe the ADL poll -- are African-American. And many of them have expressed suspicion of Jews, if not outright anti-Semitism. Just ask Jesse Jackson.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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