WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Rep. Kweisi Mfume prepares to take on the daunting task of rebuilding the NAACP, Jews are hoping this former leader of the Congressional Black Caucus can play a healing role in black-Jewish relations.
The appointment of Mfume, a Maryland Democrat, to the helm of the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization comes at a pivotal time for black-Jewish relations.
Historically supportive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — having in fact joined with blacks to found the association — Jews have been alarmed in recent years by the group's overtures to openly anti-Semitic Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Mfume himself has reached out to Farrakhan in the past, and even though he has since moved to distance himself, Mfume's association with the outspoken leader continues to trouble many Jews.
At a news conference Monday, Mfume asked NAACP members to respect the Nation of Islam, saying that the "African-American community is not monolithic."
Jewish leaders have been cautious in their response to Mfume's selection. For now, Mfume's ties to Farrakhan remain an issue on which he and Jews agree to disagree.
Indeed, Jewish leaders say Mfume's accessibility might be among his most valuable assets, particularly when it comes to forming new partnerships with the Jewish community.
Jewish NAACP board member Rabbi David Saperstein, who is the director of the Reform movement's Religious Action Center, said Mfume "has a solid track record as a very adroit coalition-builder, forging relations with the Jewish community in his district. In the long run, this is going to be a very positive step" toward strengthening black-Jewish relations.
Faced with a $3.2 million deficit and deep internal divisions as it struggles to define its role in the modern civil rights movement, the NAACP on Saturday unanimously appointed Mfume to serve as president and chief executive officer.
The post has remained vacant since August 1994, when then-president Benjamin Chavis was fired amid revelations that he paid a former aide over $330,000 in NAACP to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit.
Jews assert that Mfume is a dramatic improvement over Chavis, whom many said shunned the Jewish community and alienated whites and blacks alike in his attempts to align the NAACP with Farrakhan and his black separatist ideology.
A five-term U.S. representative, Mfume will resign from his seat in Congress and assume the leadership post Feb. 15.
Chief among his goals is increasing African Americans' political and economic power while promoting racial inclusiveness and greater tolerance in American society.
Speaking to reporters after his appointment, Mfume lambasted what he called the "draconian and punitive" policies of America's far right wing — policies that "punish the elderly, restrict the poor and deny opportunities to children."
The best way to counter this rigid influence, he said, is "by reinvigorating the age-old concept of coalition, where people work together for the common good…[and where] racism, sexism [and] anti-Semitism cannot and will not be allowed to enjoy a comfortable and quiet existence."
Long an influential voice in Congress, Mfume chaired the black caucus from 1992 to 1994. His tenure was not without controversy.
When he announced in late 1993 that the caucus would "enter a sacred covenant" with the Nation of Islam on legislative concerns, Jewish groups and some caucus members soundly protested.
Stung by the criticism, Mfume then disavowed any formal association.
But he has since maintained that his link with Farrakhan; the two men shared a podium at the first African American Leadership Summit in Baltimore last year, and again at October's Million Man March in Washington, D.C.
Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman said Mfume's ties to Farrakhan should not necessarily be used as a "litmus test" that automatically disqualifies him from relating well to Jews.
"I have no problem when he says he wants to reach out to everybody — and that of course means Farrakhan," Foxman said. "I will have a problem if he looks to Farrakhan for leadership. I hope and believe he will not."