Lessons Learned from Jewish-Black Tensions

Tensions between the Jewish and black communities recently came to a head during an episode involving the Nation of Islam. Commentator Robin Washington, who is both black and Jewish, says an important lesson can be learned from the incident. Washington is an editorial page editor at The News Tribune in Duluth, Minn.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

When a Nation of Islam Member was appointed to an Illinois Hate Crimes Commission, the resulting up roar led five other commission members to resign. It also has commentator Robin Washington asking, “can't we all just get along?”

ROBIN WASHINGTON reporting:

You probably have never heard of the Illinois Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes. And it has nothing to do with if you ever set foot in Chicago or Peoria. The state has had Civil Rights Laws for more than a century. But the important sounding commission wasn't started until 1999, and has been dormant for most of that time.

That changed less than a year ago when the governor, Rod Blagojevich, who's up for reelection, appointed some two dozen people to revive the group. They were from all walks of life: black, Asian-American, Latino, Jewish. And one of the black members appointed six months ago six months ago is Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad. On the commission's Web site, her affiliation is listed clearly as representing the Nation of Islam, for which she serves as Chief of Protocol.

Whether it said so on the site six months ago, I can't say. But for anyone familiar with the black community, it would be pretty hard to mistake a Sister Muhammad for a Catholic Nun. Regardless, she managed to serve just fine on the do-nothing board, with no one paying any mind to her connection to Minister Luis Farrakhan. That is until last month, when in the spirit of brotherhood that the commission is supposed to be all about, she invited her fellow commissioners to a speech by Farrakhan for Savior's Day.

Jewish members suddenly, aware that Muhammad was that kind of Sister, were outraged. They demanded the Governor drop Muhammad from the commission, or that she disassociate herself from Farrakhan's often-inflammatory remarks. When both refused, two Jewish members quit, though a state rep who is also Jewish volunteered to take one of the spots, saying it made more sense to work within the system than outside of it.

Yet the states major Jewish Organizations, including Chicago's Jewish Community Relations Counsel, that's supposed to be all about interethnic understanding, got to him to. He also resigned, as did three more Jews.

As an African-American Jew, and I am by the way, a 100 percent Jewish, and a 100 percent black, it pains me to see my people and my other people going at it like cats and dogs. But it's nothing new. In fact, during my years in Boston, relations between the Anti-Defoliation League and the local Nation of Islam Mosque often reminded me of my cat and dog, who would get along fine if no one was looking, but sent fur flying as soon as someone walked into the room.

I can remember more than one community meeting where leaders of both groups actually agreed on several issues, until they realized they were doing so. There's no question the Jewish groups have a point about Farrakhan. In his Savior's Day speech, he again trotted out rhetoric insulting the Jews, such as statements about True Jews and Wicked Jews. But since when does Farrakhan become an expert on who is a Jew? Though identity can be partially defined by how people perceive you, whatever people say about you certainly takes a back seat to how you perceive yourself.

If Farrakhan wants to call me a Wicked Jew and not a True one, I'd have to tell the brother he's misinformed. But if I'm going to do so, it won't be by walking out and taking my ball and going home. Organizational politics 101 says it's far more effective to work inside the system then out. And the Jewish members who stalked out missed the opportunity to have their four or five votes on a commission outweigh what ever Sister Muhammad would have to say. That's assuming she would be foolish enough to quote Farrakhan's theories on Jewish identity on the commission floor.

Not that any of that matters, because the commission didn't do anything, anyway. As one member whose smart enough to stay out of all the fray told me, “they did give us one lesson, though. How not to get along”.

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CHIDEYA: Robin Washington, who hails from four generations of black and Jewish ancestors in Chicago, is editorial page editor of the Duluth, Minnesota News Tribune.

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