Rabbi Offers View of Farrakhan Legacy

Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles talks about the final public speech of Minister Louis Farakhan of the Nation of Islam. In the past, the minister had attacked the Jewish community. Some critics still regard him as anti-Semitic.

TONY COX, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Tony Cox in for Farai Chideya.

Before we get to our regular Roundtable, we want to continue our discussion on the final speech of Minister Louis Farrakhan. In the past, the minister has verbally attacked the Jewish community, and many still regard him and the Nation of Islam as anti-Semitic. Now that his words will be history, we can't help but wonder how the past might affect the future. Joining me now to briefly talk about this is Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. Rabbi, welcome.

Rabbi STEVEN LEDER (Pastor, Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Los Angeles): Thank you.

COX: His words - I'm speaking now, of course, about Minister Farrakhan - helped spark a divisiveness between the black community and the Jewish community. Have we overcome?

Rabbi LEDER: I would say yes and no. I didn't listen to the entire speech yesterday. I did listened to a fair portion of it. And I think it was notable for what was not there, as much as for what was there. What was not there was some of the virulent and poisonous anti-Semitism that we've heard in the past from Minister Farrakhan.

So I was pleased that at the end of his leadership of the Nation of Islam, he seems to be taking a more conciliatory tone, or certainly less inflammatory tone toward the Jewish people, and Judaism and Israel for that matter. So in that sense, it seems as if in a way he has moved on. So I would have to say that's extremely positive.

COX: What was your reaction to the news that he was retiring?

Rabbi LEDER: You know, I'm not surprised. He's at a point in his life, you know, it's interesting he and my father shared the exact same birthday. So I see sort of what's happening to my father, physically and psychologically at his age. And, I think, you know, that I wasn't all that surprised by it. And I think that it is time for new leadership.

Nation of Islam has been marginalized, I think in many ways, partially due to some of his inflammatory rhetoric. And as the previous guest pointed out, you know, there are some very important agenda items for the African-American community in this country that need to be attended to, and they certainly won't be accomplished through hate.

COX: Do you think, this is my final question - we have about 30 seconds - that the conditions that led to the kinds of remarks that Louis Farrakhan made. Do you think those conditions still exist?

Rabbi LEDER: I don't think the conditions were real. I think they were a part of Farrakhan's imagination. And, I think, he was certainly playing the role of victim when there was no victimizer, as he saw it, vis-a-vis the Jewish people in Israel. So I don't think the conditions were real in the first place. I think they were a part of his rather exuberant and extravagant imagination.

COX: That was Rabbi Steven Leder, senior pastor of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California. Rabbi, thank you so much for coming on.

Rabbi LEDER: Thank you.

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Ailing Farrakhan Bids Adieu to Public Role

In a speech billed as his last major public address, Minister Louis Farrakhan, ailing leader of the Nation of Islam, lambasted the Bush administration's foreign policy.

Farrakhan was speaking Sunday night to tens of thousands of Nation of Islam members in Detroit, where the movement began.

"God is angry because of the ideas of neoconservatives," Farrakhan said. "Many so-called Jews and Christians have accepted the philosophy of an imperialist America, even without any aggression or provocation."

With all the drama and rhetorical flair his audiences have come to expect from him, Farrakhan told the crowd to turn its back on the war in Iraq and what he called the false promises of military recruiters.

Farrakhan recently underwent surgery for complications from prostate cancer. And even though many within the Nation were hesitant to call this a good-bye speech, Farrakhan himself, his voice quivering, said it was just that.

"My time is up. The final call can't last forever."

That's a difficult message for some loyal followers to hear. Minister Jeffrey Muhammad has been a member of the Nation for 17 years and works in the group's Chicago offices. For him, and many people at the speech, Farrakhan represents much more than a spiritual leader.

"Minister Farrakhan is a living example for me of how to be a father, of how to be a brother, of how to be a man, of how to be a man striving to life his life right," Muhammad said.

Muhammad said the message keeps attracting followers. It's hard to gauge membership in the group, which insiders describe as a religious movement with a political and economic agenda to improve the condition of blacks in America.

But many credit Farrakhan with breathing new life into the Nation of Islam in the early 1980s. His greatest public success was the Million Man March in 1995, when hundreds of thousands of African-American men flooded Washington, D.C., in a powerful act of solidarity. That never could have happened without Louis Farrakhan, says one of his biographers, Arthur Magida.

The Nation of Islam "has thrived, ever since its founding in the 1930s by Elijah Muhammad, on a single charismatic authority and someone whose enunciations and edicts you don't breach," Magida said. "There's nobody right now within the nation who can muster that same kind of aura that Louis Farrakhan does. Nobody comes close."

So a big question remains: What happens to the Nation of Islam now that Farrakhan is stepping away?

"If the principles that he taught us from the Hon. Elijah Muhammad have been internalized by the brothers and sisters who make up the Nation of Islam, then when God takes [Farrakhan], this struggle will go on," said Akbar Muhammad, the Nation of Islam's head of international affairs.

A successor to Farrakhan hasn't been named yet. But as he spoke for more than an hour, on his feet, the 73-year-old appeared vigorous. In his final remarks he said he doesn't see expiration in his future, but rather exultation.

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