Friday, April 18, 1997 | return to: national


Furor in City of Brotherly Love over mayor’s bid to Farrakhan

by STEVE FELDMAN, Phila. Jewish Exponent

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PHILADELPHIA (JTA) -- The city's Jewish community is boiling over Mayor Edward G. Rendell's inviting Louis Farrakhan to a rally, and then charging critical Jews with not caring about combating bigotry.

The Jewish mayor's criticism of Jews capped a bizarre week in which the mayor of the fifth largest city in America invited the Nation of Islam leader to speak at an "ecumenical" service called to heal racial and ethnic divisiveness in the city's Grays Ferry neighborhood.

Jewish and Roman Catholic leaders avoided the Monday event at Tindley Temple United Methodist Church, in response to Farrakhan's long and well-documented history of anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic rhetoric.

The five-hour-plus event turned into a test of endurance for the audience of more than 3,000, who listened to about two dozen speakers.

While not referring to leaders of the Jewish or Catholic groups by name at the rally, Rendell said, "If everyone cares, they should have been here. They should have been here to talk, and they should have been here to listen."

Jewish leaders maintain that they do not belong on a stage with someone who as recently as Sunday has claimed that Jews control blacks and funded Hitler.

"I have never felt quite so frustrated," said Burt Siegel, executive director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council, adding he has worked in community relations since 1971.

"Normally, you understand the motives of people in situations of conflict," he added, saying he found Rendell's cozying up to Farrakhan and the mayor's criticism of Jewish leaders who have opposed him "totally incomprehensible."

Rendell billed the rally and invitation to Farrakhan as an effort to pre-empt a threatened Nation of Islam march through racially tense Grays Ferry. The march took place anyway, though without the participation of the Nation of Islam, and without incident.

In recent months, Grays Ferry has been the site of an alleged beating of three blacks by white men and the murder of a white teenager allegedly by two black men.

Siegel said that for Rendell to suggest it was something of "a litmus test" for groups who want to end bigotry to share the dais Monday with Farrakhan was "totally unfair."

Barry Morrison, regional director of the Philadelphia-based Anti-Defamation League, said "America's bigot has joined forces with `America's Mayor,'" in reference to Rendell's nickname. "We will be paying the price for what happened here.

"The mayor has handed [Farrakhan] a victory," Morrison added. Rendell gave Farrakhan "the appearance of being pro-unity, pro-tolerance, pro-apple pie and all things good."

Rendell's overtures to Farrakhan served to galvanize the Jewish community.

Officials of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia, Philadelphia Chapter of American Jewish Committee, Pennsylvania Region of American Jewish Congress, Eastern Pennsylvania-Delaware Region of the ADL and Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia signed a letter April 11 to Rendell.

The letter expressed "profound concern" and asked the mayor for a meeting to discuss the Farrakhan invitation. And they wrote that comments from Rendell in the local press describing them as "so-called Jewish leaders" were "highly inappropriate."

Rendell's condemnation of the Jewish community began after he announced his invitation to Farrakhan on Tuesday, April 8, and Jewish leadership critcized him.

The mayor reportedly told local radio talk-show host Mary Mason and her listeners, "I think the outcry from some of the so-called Jewish leaders is ridiculous."

David L. Cohen, who until last week was the mayor's chief of staff, was equally critical of Jewish leaders.

Cohen told the Philadelphia Inquirer: "You've got the leadership of some organizations who live and die in such a narrow world, where unfortunately, they're incapable of focusing on a broader picture...But they live and die for the chance to discredit and distance themselves from Louis Farrakhan. That's the prism through which they look at everything."

Rendell's handling of the Farrakhan affair has rippled beyond Philadelphia. In New York, Mordechai Levy, national director of the militant Jewish Defense Organization, said in a phone interview that more than 300 Jews attended a meeting in New York to condemn Rendell. Levy called for a march on Rendell's home to lambaste the mayor.

In cyberspace, a bulletin board on America Online's Jewish area featured supportive and critical statements about Rendell.

"To overlook a bigot like Farrakhan just to reach a political agreement, shame on Mayor Rendell!" wrote one AOL subscriber. "Why stop there, Mayor Rendell? Invite some neo-Nazis to your rally too!!!!"

At the rally, Farrakhan's speech, which lasted well over an hour, was comparatively mild in terms of divisiveness and anti-Semitic rhetoric. He aimed some of his remarks squarely at Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the end of his speech, which also covered topics such as injustice in America and a return to the gold standard.

Farrakhan said the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would lead to the outbreak of World War III.

"I urge the president to take great courage and use the influence of his office" to force Israel to halt its Har Homa housing development in eastern Jerusalem, Farrakhan said.

"Don't placate [Netanyahu]," Farrakhan said as the crowd cheered. "Jerusalem is not a Jewish capital. It is the capital of all the faiths of Abraham."

Copyright Notice (c) 1997, San Francisco Jewish Community Publications Inc., dba Jewish Bulletin of Northern California. All rights reserved. This material may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


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