CHICAGO — Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, in an attempt to show reconciliation with other groups, has put an anti-Zionist fringe group on center stage.
In a press conference in Chicago Monday, Rabbi David Weiss, of the Neturei Karta group, praised Farrakhan as a man dedicated to "the bettering of mankind" and said that until the Zionist movement, Jews had always lived in peace with their neighbors.
"Judaism is godliness, and Zionism is materialism and politics," said Weiss, who was accompanied by three other rabbis from his group, which is based in Jerusalem but has followers in New York. "Judaism is humble, and Zionism is arrogance. Zionism is an abomination and a heresy to God."
The Neturei Karta group is theologically opposed to a sovereign state of Israel, claiming that Jews must wait patiently for the Messiah before assuming political leadership in the Land of Israel, which Weiss referred to as Palestine during his comments.
Farrakhan did not speak at the press conference. His chief of staff, Leonard Muhammad, introduced the rabbis, saying that the two groups have visited each other's communities over the last several months.
"These Jews are People of the Book and they are a model of what black-Jewish relations could be," Muhammad said. "They are not handicapped by the pressures of organized Jewish groups," Muhammad added, referring to mainstream Jewish groups' opposition to meeting with Farrakhan in light of his longtime diatribes against Jews and Judaism.
Mainstream Jewish leaders sounded a sober note on the association between the two groups.
"It is clear that Farrakhan is using this group as a way of claiming outreach to the Jewish community," said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation/Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago. "But by showcasing a tiny fringe group that in no way represents anyone but themselves and which espouses such repugnant views, it is really an affront to the Jewish community."
The press conference came at the culmination of what has been called the Second International Islamic Conference, held in Chicago over the weekend. The gathering brought together Farrakhan's group with that of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, leader of the Muslim American Society and son of the late Elijah Muhammad.
The elder Muhammad led the Nation of Islam for decades, but after his death in 1975, W. Deen led the movement toward Islamic orthodoxy. In 1978 Farrakhan broke away under the old Nation of Islam name. He revived Elijah Muhammad's teachings, which veered from traditional Islam.
The conference sought to bring Farrakhan's group closer to mainstream Islam. Farrakhan and Mohammad spoke to more than 20,000 supporters at a mass rally at Chicago's United Center on Sunday. Representatives of Neturei Karta were at Farrakhan's side during the rally.
Since battling prostate cancer for the last several years, the 66-year-old Farrakhan has started speaking publicly of reconciliation.
Weiss, invoking fiery language of sin and punishment both at the rally and during Monday's press conference, said the Holocaust was divine punishment on the Jewish people for their abandonment of the Torah. Until the Zionist movement, Weiss said, Jews lived peacefully among their neighbors.
When asked about the centuries of Jewish persecution, Weiss replied that the Jews bore no ill will toward their host societies. He added that if Jews had been willing to speak to Hitler, perhaps "hundreds of thousands of Jews would have avoided the gas chambers."
Commented Kotzin, "The alliance between these two groups serves their mutual purposes. As far as the Jewish community is concerned, it certainly seems that what Farrakhan really seeks is the appearance of reconciliation but not the real thing. In any event, he's not going to get very far so long as he continues to promote these kinds of anti-Zionist positions and fails to revoke his own longstanding attacks on the Jewish people as the enemies of black Americans."