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Jesse and the Jews


By Michael W. Hirschorn

THIS IS what we know:

*January 25: Sitting in a snack bar at Washington's National Airport, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson uses the word "hymie" and the word "hymietown" to refer respectively to Jews and New York City. Jackson says he made the remarks in private and was "overheard" by reporters. Others say Jackson made the remarks while bantering with Washington Post reporter Milton Coleman and one other journalist, possibly from The New York Times.

*February 13: The Post's Rick Atkinson publishes Jackson's remarks in that day's paper, with Coleman given reportorial credit at the end of the article.

*February 19: Jackson tells Lesley Stahl on CBS News' Face the Nation he did not make the remarks. "It simply is not true, and I think that the accuser ought to come forth," Jackson says.

*February 19: Jackson calls Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, and sets up a meeting with Post reporters and editors two days later to discuss the publication of the remarks, according to The Boston Globe.

*February 21: During Jackson's meeting with The Post, The Globe reports, the Presidential candidate says he has "no recollection" of having said either "hymie" or "hymietown." When told CBS's Stahl is Jewish, Jackson reportedly says. "She doesn't look like she's Jewish. She doesn't sound like she's Jewish." Jackson also reportedly asks Bradlee. "Do you know that Freeman Gosden was Jewish?" referring to one of the creators of the largely racist mid-century radio show, Amos and Andy.

*February 23: At a nationally televised debate between all eight Democratic contenders at New Hampshire's St. Anselm's College, moderator Barbara Walters confronts Jackson about the remarks, telling him he has the chance to clear the air. A nervous Jackson again says he has "no recollection," repeating three times within one minute, "I am not anti-Semitic."

*February 24: Jackson tells reporters, "I won't deny, nor on any level admit it," adding that what he just said "constitutes a denial." Jackson complains about "media fascination" with remarks made a month ago.

*February 25: Jackson flies to Chicago to attend a Nation of Islam meeting. Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan, referring to the "hymie" incident, warns Jackson's opponents. "If you harm this brother, I warn you in the name of Allah, this will be the last one you harm."

*February 26: A month and a day after his Washington Airport conversation, Jackson tells a packed Manchester synagogue, "Press reports were circulating brewing up a storm about the word 'hymie.'"

"I was deeply disturbed. I watched as the words spread into paragraphs and then into chapters," he adds. "I was shocked and astonished as the press' interest in this ethnic characterization made in private conversation but apparently overheard by a reporter."

Asking to be forgiven and "accepted in the Lord's house," Jackson goes on the offensive, accusing some Jewish groups of staging an "organized effort to destroy this campaign."

Jackson cites a history of racially motivated insults directed his way, including his daughter's admissions interview for Harvard three years ago. In a Crimson interview. Jackson charges Chicago attorney Stephen B. Cohen '61 with "harassment" of Santita Jackson because of her father's 1979 meeting with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yassir Arafat.

*February 27: Jackson defends Farrakhan's remarks in Chicago, telling The Times, "Jews went to the chambers silently. They should have gone fighting if they had to go at all."

FOR TWO WEEKS Jackson, the self-proclaimed "moral conscience" of the Democratic Party, engaged in double talk and even lied about having made a racial slur against Jews. In the process, Jackson turned what should have been an irrelevant incident into a full scale rhetorical war between America's Blacks and Jews.

Even in the aftermath of his dramatic Manchester confession, Jackson has demonstrated that his "hymie" reference was not just a random off-color remark, but evidence of a deep lack of understanding about the politics of the "Rainbow Coalition." The Jews never went to the gas chambers silently; throughout history the Jews, a persecuted minority since the days of Moses, have fought adversity and rose to prominence on their own terms. And like Blacks, Jews still face irrational hatred in America. But since last summer, when Jackson first started preaching about the Rainbow Coalition in earnest, he has excluded the Jews from that group.

Even when begging forgiveness in the Arath Yeshuran temple. Jackson refused to do the same. Drawing seemingly vast conclusions from the virulent anti-Jackson demonstrations led by fringe groups such as "Jews against Jackson," the candidate implied he is the victim of Jewish persecution. Jackson told the packed hall that after his 1979 visit with Arafat, he did not "feel welcome" among American Jews.

THE WIDENING GAP between Blacks and Jews is no surprise. Since the '60s, when the two groups worked together on the cutting edge of the civil rights movement in the South. Jews have gradually moved rightward. During the '70s, the Jewish lobby came out against affirmative action programs and quotas, and more and more American Jews joined the Republican ranks. Five percent more Jews--though not a majority--voted for President Reagan in 1980 than did for Gerald R. Ford in 1976, while 5 percent less Blacks voted for the Californian.

In the last five years, Black leaders, led by Jackson, have moved to support the beleaguered PLO and the outlaw with a heart of gold--Arafat. Jackson's outspoken support for the PLO prompted Nathan Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, to publish the now infamous 19-page critique of Jackson's politics, distributed widely to Jewish opinion-makers. Perlmutter and others have harped on remarks, attributed to Jackson, that he is tired of hearing about the Holocaust and equating the PLO and Israel, Jackson now denies the former, and calls the latter out of context.

The most outspoken Jewish media, especially Commentary and the once-liberal New Republic, have sounded alarmist tones about Jackson's trip to Syria to release downed Navy pilot Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr., and a $200,000 contribution by Arab groups to Jackson's Chicago-based public service group, People United to Save Humanity.

Jackson is not the only prominent politician to speak strongly against recent Jewish policies, especially the 1981 invasion of Lebanon and the resulting Shatilla massacre. Candidate George S. McGovern has taken a political line similar to Jackson's, though he has couched his rhetoric in friendly terms. McGovern, before the same Manchester audience that heard Jackson, said he criticized Israel as a "friend," not as an adversary.

But there is a blurry line between political and social disagreements and that line is made all the more hazy by inflammatory rhetoric from either side. That Jackson cannot clearly articulate a pro-Arab platform--which is and should be perfectly acceptable--without also directing cries of "racism at American Jews, shows that he is not the moral leader he professes to be.

Were Jackson as magnanimous as he expects others to be, he would not stoop to the level of "Jews against Jackson" or Commentary's rabid Norman Podhoretz. He would not bluster for two weeks about being "bounded by members of the Jewish community" or complain about press persecution. As one who is the victim of many such off-color remarks, he should understand how and why people are insulted.

Apparently, he doesn't. While calling for a move to a "higher moral plane," he provokes extremists such as Farrakhan and Meier Kahane and further damages any possibility of meaningful reconciliation. And by neglecting to hold all to the same moral standard, he damages his own credibility, turning calls for reconciliation into self-serving hypocrisy.

ULTIMATELY, the only reaction is sadness. Jackson is not conspiring to destroy Israel; it is doubtful that he wants to or will ever have the power to do so. All Jews are not plotting up different ways to waylay the Jackson effort. But in the heat of the moment, no one has stood back to assess the damage the incident has caused.

If Jackson cannot raise himself from the mire, one hopes others will, and have the foresight to understand the reality behind the rhetoric of minority coalition politics. A failure to do so bodes ill for both the Black and Jewish causes.

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