WASHINGTON, D.C. — Allen Rothenberg believes it is "ridiculous" for Jews not to sit down with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
The Philadelphia attorney has decided to accept the call for dialogue Farrakhan issued at last month's Million Man March.
"He is the de facto leader of the African American community today," said Rothenberg, president of the Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA), a national organization that represents the interests of observant Jews in courts and legislatures.
"What he has said has been obnoxious, repulsive and unconscionable, but he is the leader."
While Rothenberg awaits a response from Farrakhan, his initiative has been sharply criticized by Jewish organizational leaders.
However, Rothenberg is not the only Jew suggesting a need for dialogue with Farrakhan. In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Jewish author and journalist J.J. Goldberg made a case for dialogue.
"Talking with an enemy is not surrender; it is a way to begin solving problems," Goldberg wrote. "It took years of informal dialogue between the Palestine Liberation Organization and individual Jews before Yasser Arafat renounced terror and recognized Israel.
"Mr. Farrakhan can do considerable damage to Jews — and he is doing it. It is time to sit down with him and find out what it will take to make him stop."
But the call for dialogue continues to be rejected by most mainstream Jewish organizations, who say they will not meet with him until he publicly renounces anti-Semitism and atones for his litany of bigoted rhetoric.
New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal made a similar argument, as did the American Jewish Committee in a recent newspaper ad. So did Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a letter to the Times two weeks ago.
American Jewish Congress executive director Phil Baum said Rothenberg's outreach to Farrakhan was "outrageous."
Sitting down with Farrakhan "implies that he's a credible partner and represents a segment of the African-American community that is amenable to some sort of rational and civil discourse, and I don't think he is," Baum said. "To lend [Farrakhan] legitimacy is a terrible mistake."
Farrakhan's rise to prominence presents him with the opportunity to do either "great evil or great good," Rothenberg said.
Rothenberg, who said he wants to meet with Farrakhan as an individual, not as a representative of COLPA or as a spokesman for the Jewish community, said he would not seek an apology for Farrakhan's past remarks.
"I would prefer to start with a clean slate," he said. "We both came out of slavery, we both have similar problems, we both sustain similar prejudices. Let's forgive. Let's try to forget."
But for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, as for many Jews, forgetting is not an option.
"It would be a terrible state of affairs for American Jewry if that's the way we have to appear before Louis Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam," said Rabbi Marvin Hier, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Meanwhile, a Jewish delegation traveled to London last week to urge the British government to bar several of Farrakhan's aides from promoting their ideas in England.
Representatives of the Wiesenthal Center appealed to British officials to extend a 1986 ban on Farrakhan to five of his aides who participated in "The Black Holocaust Nationhood Conference" prior to the Million Man March.