Time Is On My Side
(The Governor’s Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes)

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

As tempers seem to have calmed down somewhat, I thought it would be an appropriate time to re-visit the controversy surrounding the Governor’s Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes which has tragically added to the further destabilization of relationships between the African American and Jewish communities of Greater Chicago and beyond.

As I understand it, individuals were appointed to the Commission by the Governor’s staff representative of various community organizations. It was hoped that the “new blood” would reinvigorate a basically moribund institution. Representation included a number of Jewish institutions – the Anti-Defamation League, the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois as well as a former Chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Also appointed was Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad, Minister of Protocol for the Nation of Islam. At its inception in its reinvigorated form, no Commissioners objected to any of their number being a part of the Commission. Meetings were held.

Along came Savior’s Day and, true to form, the racist and anti-Semitic spiritual leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, launched into one of his diatribes against the Jews. In this instance he stated in part, “These false Jews promote the fifth of Hollywood that is seeding American people and the people of the world and bringing you down in moral strength. It’s the wicked Jews, false Jews that make it a crime for you to preach the word of God, then they call you homophobic.” His remarks came as no surprise to me as they shouldn’t to anyone else who has followed his decades long career of hatred aimed at White America and the Jewish People. Repeated attempts to curb his vicious and bigoted remarks over the years have met with little success. He is a true racist and Anti-Semite. And while he is at the “fringes of society,” he does garner respect in the African-American community as a result of his campaigns against narcotics abuse, support for the nuclear family as a building block of society and his extolling of the virtue of the work ethic. Ask anyone who is relegated to residing in public housing and they will tell you of the positive work done by the young “bow tied” adherents of the Nation of Islam.

His diatribe immediately received a strong response in Jewish quarters, one of which was a demand from her fellow Jewish Commissioners that Sister Claudette Muhammad denounce Minister Farrakhan.

From what I have been able to learn, Sister Claudette prepared several drafts of a statement that was shared with her Jewish colleagues. Unfortunately not one of these drafts was to their liking and they resigned their positions on the Commission. Sister Claudette did issue a statement that said in part, “I respect those who practice the true tenets of their faith, be it Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism or any other religion.” The Jewish “spin doctors” found this statement disingenuous, comparing it to similar ones made by Farrakhan himself.

I vividly recall that, years ago, Farrakhan had already dubbed Judaism a “gutter religion.” As far as he was concerned, even those Jews who did practice the tenets of Judaism deserved no respect. To the contrary, they should be denounced for that very commitment. Sister Claudette had distanced herself from her own Minister by giving respect to those who practice the true tenets of Judaism. For as we well know, as in any community, there are Jews among us who do not adhere to the tenets of Judaism as they have been given to us in the Torah and the Oral tradition. Worse yet, there are Jews who do pervert the moral and ethical values of Judaism to advance their own agendas.

Included as well in her statement was her support for “gay rights,” a position in clear opposition to Farrakhan’s Savior’s Day speech in which he condemned Hollywood’s legitimization of the gay life style as it was represented in several recent movies.

Finally, her accepting a seat on a Commission premised upon the important value of mutual respect for all Americans, no matter their race, religion or ethnicity, is significantly a departure from the decades long racism, and anti-Semitism of her Minister. And, while I would have preferred her statement to include a clear condemnation of Farrakhan, I feel, given the context of the situation, it was adequate. For the fact that the Jewish Commissioners sat with her at several meetings during a half year period and did not voice any formal objection to her presence nor, it would seem, to anything she may have said during these sessions leads me to believe that she came to the table sincerely, willing to work toward better community relations in our State. To believe otherwise, that is that she accepted to serve to advance Farrakhan’s racism and anti-Semitism is ludicrous!

In truth, I would never sit on a Commission to better human relations together with an official representative of the Nation of Islam. I think it important to underscore the fact no one in the Jewish community denies that the Jewish Commissioners did sit with Ms. Muhammad for half a year. Their concern had nothing to do with anything Ms. Muhammad had said or done. It centered on the Savior’s Day diatribe of her Minister, Louis Farrakhan, and how they felt she should respond to it.

Let me stress again my personal disgust for Farrakhan’s decades long bigotry and anti-Semitism. However, the painful reality is that there are few in Black leadership today who go beyond doing little else than self-promotion and lining their own pockets. Farrakhan’s positive work is both respected and desperately needed. His racism and anti-Semitism is deplored by most Black Americans. Yet they feel unable to fully reject him.

Jews have always understood that we must present measured responses to situations; responses that consider all the elements present. To have responded to this particular issue with a “knee jerk” reaction premised on our disgust for Farrakhan’s bigotry and anti-Semitism was a mistake. In the future, I hope that the Jewish community will return to its time honored methodology of measured response based upon the totality of the issue before us.

Many African-Americans view the collective Jewish response as an unfounded attack upon a sweet and cordial individual who has a record of championing the cause of human relations. Their question is simple, “If the Jewish community found Farrakhan so reprehensible, why did the Jews sit with a representative of the Nation of Islam on the Commission for half a year?”