At the urging of "60 Minutes" journalist Mike Wallace, billionaire Edgar Bronfman broke ranks with Jewish leaders and hosted Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan at a private dinner last spring to spark black Muslim-Jewish dialogue.
But two days after the dinner, Farrakhan again invoked the Holocaust in what the World Jewish Congress head believed was an inappropriate way, terminating the overture and leaving Bronfman convinced that the controversial Nation of Islam leader is "evil personified," according to letters newly obtained by The Jewish Week.
By meeting with Farrakhan last spring, Bronfman, the owner of Seagram's, bucked the mainstream. Jewish leaders have steadfastly refused Farrakhan's call for face-to-face meetings since he emerged as perhaps the most-talked-about American black leader following his Million Man March last year in Washington.
"I'm surprised and disappointed," David Harris, executive vice president of the American Jewish Committee, said of the dinner.
"Had we been asked, we would have said very clearly that no meeting at this time could be productive. It could only serve Farrakhan's purposes to validate himself and pursue mainstream credentials."
The idea for the meeting came after Wallace interviewed Farrakhan on "60 Minutes"last April. Wallace said he became convinced the minister was sincere about having a dialogue with Jewish leaders.
"He said he felt he had been misunderstood and asked if I be could be helpful, and I said I would try," Wallace said.
Wallace called a few Jewish organization leaders and was turned down. Then he thought of Bronfman, who was most recently in the news for exposing the World War II Swiss-Nazi gold connection.
Bronfman"couldn't have been more receptive,"Wallace said.
So Farrakhan, his wife and two associates, as well as Wallace and his wife, were invited to Bronfman's New York apartment for "a very pleasant" dinner, Wallace said.
"I remember the wine was good. The Farrakhans did not imbibe," Wallace, who is Jewish, recalled.
Wallace said the participants discussed "all manner of things" involving black-Jewish relations.
"Farrakhan was forthcoming. There was a kind of interesting meeting of the minds about the necessity for reconciliation and the desire for reconciliation. By the time we left, all concerned seemed to be on reasonably good terms."
Bronfman was in China and not available for comment.
Bronfman wrote that he broke ranks with other Jewish organization leaders "because Mike Wallace assured me that he was convinced Farrakhan was sincere in trying to build bridges to the Jewish community."
After the first meeting, Bronfman sent the executive vice president of Seagram's, Steve Herbits, to meet with Farrakhan's chief of staff and son-in-law Elijah Mohammed for further conversations.
"Herbits made it clear that the first thing that must happen is that the language used by Minister Farrakhan must be drastically changed" — particularly vis-a-vis the Holocaust, Bronfman said.
"Those two agreed on starting a dialogue between one representative from each side to try and accomplish this."
But things quickly fell apart. Bronfman said on the very day the two aides met, Farrakhan was in Brooklyn and "compared Iraqi children to the children of the Holocaust."
"You'll also remember that we forcefully pointed out to Minister Farrakhan at that dinner that such references to the Holocaust were totally unacceptable to the Jewish community — indeed we called such usage inflammatory," Bronfman wrote to Wallace.
"I was hoping, as were you, that Minister Farrakhan had been serious when he discussed with you…creating a new era in relations between the Black Muslims and the Jews," Bronfman wrote.
"We now know that he cannot find it in his heart to renounce his own anti-Semitism. That is rather sad."
Farrakhan did not return phone calls.
In a letter to Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Bronfman wrote:
"Two things have become totally clear. One is that what Farrakhan and his gang are after is money. Number two, leopards don't change their spots, and this man is evil personified."
Citing Foxman's own refusal to meet with Farrakhan, Bronfman wrote, "Looking back, your position has been reinforced. No self-respecting person, let alone a Jew, should have anything to do with him."
Bronfman's letters, on his stationery, are dated Nov. 4, about six months after the dinner.
Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, defended his boss.
"It's not the first time that Edgar has taken a risk for the Jewish people," Steinberg said. "He put Farrakhan to the test and Farrakhan failed."
Farrakhan biographer Arthur Magida said it was no surprise when things fell apart.
"It's a sense of betrayal," Magida said. Farrakhan believes his anti-Jewish message comes from God, "and he is not going to renege or retreat on it."