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Comments on Lieberman Stir Old Tensions

By Lynne Duke, Washington Post,
Sunday 20 August 2000

NEW YORK –– In a rambling diatribe on a radio broadcast, Lee Alcorn, an NAACP chapter president in Dallas, said blacks ought to be "suspicious" of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as a Jew.

At a Los Angeles news conference, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan questioned whether Lieberman, as an Orthodox Jewish vice president, would be "more faithful" to the United States or to Israel.

On the editorial page of New York's Amsterdam News, Wilbert A. Tatum, publisher emeritus of the black weekly, said presidential candidate Al Gore selected Lieberman "for the money" and that Jews around the world had bought his spot on the Democratic ticket.

While blacks and Jews remain strong political allies, the recent spate of blunt, insulting, even antisemitic public comments by a small collection of prominent blacks has stirred discussion about blacks' views of Jews and has exposed an undercurrent of black envy, even resentment, social scientists say.

To some blacks, the social observers say, Lieberman's nomination is the latest example of how the small Jewish minority of 3 percent of the population has become disproportionately powerful in the United States. And now, with Lieberman in position to possibly be a heartbeat away from the presidency, Jews as a group have gained entry to a realm that blacks have yet to penetrate, though they are 12 percent of the population and have suffered more on American soil. Those, analysts say, are among the perceptions at work among some blacks.

Responding to Tatum's lengthy editorial on the alleged Jewish money calculus of the Gore campaign, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that it was absurdly antisemitic.

"Tatum's assertion is insidious and an antisemitic canard employed by antisemites, racists and conspiracy theorists through the centuries to bolster their absurd claims of Jewish control," he said.

Black antisemitism has roiled public discourse between blacks and Jews for years, just as anti-black Jewish racism has. Both sides are hypersensitive about their relative "innocence" in these debates; each views its history of suffering as a kind of moral shield against criticism, says Cornel West, a professor of African American studies at Harvard University and the co-author, with Michael Lerner, of "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin."

West and others attribute the outbreak of anti-Jewish sentiment among some blacks to basic group envy. Blacks and Jews--like all other minority groups in the United States--have been subjected to similar prejudice and xenophobia from the majority culture. "And seeing one group soar higher, to greater successes, the other group that has been hated even more has its expectations elevated, meaning: Why not us?" West said.< /p>

Thomas Laurence, a professor of philosophy at the University of Syracuse who is black and Jewish, says the dynamic at work goes deeper, to a problem of group identity. Blacks, he asserts, carry a profound anger at their long history of slavery and systematic discrimination, which have deprived them of a sense of unity and belonging, what Laurence calls "peoplehood." In Laurence's view, Jews represent what blacks lack most--cohesion and strength through group cooperation--and this brews black resentment.

"Together, deep scars and deep anger yield quite inappropriate behavior, which is what we have been witnessing of late," Laurence said.

Though reactions to Lieberman's nomination have sparked public dialogue about black antisemitism, a May 1999 poll by the American Jewish Committee found that Jews themselves perceive numerous other groups as more antisemitic than blacks. Only 7 percent of the 1,000 respondents said they believed most blacks are antisemitic, but 12 percent, 21 percent and 23 percent respectively said most fundamentalist Protestants, most Muslims and most on the religious right are antisemitic.

Since Vice President Gore's announcement Aug. 8 that Lieberman was his choice as running mate, civil rights leaders have portrayed the selection as an advance for all minorities and have distanced themselves from anti-Jewish comments. In response to Tatum's editorial, Jesse L. Jackson said during the Democratic convention in Los Angeles that "any language that would threaten our unity is not helpful."

Some black lawmakers at the convention, however, had reservations about Lieberman's past political rhetoric: his opposition to affirmative action, his support for school vouchers. Had Lieberman been a non-Jewish white man, positions such as these would have drawn howls of protest from blacks, West said.

"Black leaders would be all over the place. Jesse would be marching," he said.

But precisely because Lieberman is Jewish and blacks want to preserve the alliance, the criticism of his relatively conservative record was far more muted, he said.

That is why Alcorn's outburst was so surprising to the civil rights community and brought such a swift response: Alcorn was suspended and then resigned.

In describing Jews as suspicious and interested in money, Alcorn "picked a scab off an old sore," wrote Philadelphia Daily News columnist Elmer Smith. Smith described a Washington dinner party of prominent African Americans who were angered by Alcorn's outburst and the damaging impact it would have on African American politics. At the same time, they acknowledged there were tensions with Jews.

"And while nobody in the room will say so for publication, it was tacitly acknowledged that Alcorn's remarks reflected a latent distrust that bubbles just beneath the surface of a still-important black-Jewish partnership," Smith wrote.

While Tatum says "absolutely not" when asked if he resents Jews, he adds, "There is a degree of envy, however."

"Blacks have considered that they have contributed enormously to this country and many of us believe that we've gotten the dirty end of the stick, that when considerations are handed out that we are so rarely considered," Tatum said.

He said that he expects Lieberman to be "a fine vice president," but that the selection of a Jewish candidate in this era of big-money campaigns was the product of "a cynical move" among Democrats seeking to maximize their fundraising potential.

What he said in his editorial in the city's oldest black weekly is: "The word went out all over the world to Jews in every pocket of every civilization and near-civilization, that the major protector of Jews in this world, the American government, is now available. But in order to get it, you've got to buy it."

The ADL labeled Tatum's editorial as blatant antisemitism. Tatum denies it. He says he's been accused of hiding behind "the skirts of my wife." His wife, Susan Tatum, is a Jewish Holocaust survivor.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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