Illinois blacks, Jews in row over Farrakhan remarks
Governor seeks to make peace after Jewish members resign from Hate Crimes panel.
The Jewish community in Illinois is not pleased with Governor Rod Blagojevich, whom they helped elect: when it came to the question of placating the state's Jewish community or to avoid angering the larger African-American one, Blagojevich decided in favor of the latter. "He's decided the African-American community is more important to his reelection," said Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady. The decision concerned a member of the state's Hate Crimes Commission and her connection to Louis Farrakhan.
Some members of the Jewish community now find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. Should they abandon the Democrat Blagojevich come November and vote for Judy Baar Topinka, who won the Republican primary Wednesday?
Illinois set up a Hate Crimes Commission a few years ago to advise on school curricula and legislation, and foster dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims, whites and blacks, gays and straight. In August, Blagojevich appointed Claudette Marie Muhammed, a senior aide to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, to the commission. At an event held by the Nation of Islam to which Muhammed invited her commission colleagues, Farrakhan said, "These false Jews promote the filth of Hollywood. It's the wicked Jews, the false Jews that are promoting lesbianism, homosexuality," and "Zionists have manipulated Bush and the American government" over the war in Iraq.
Muhammed kept mum. Jewish commission members called on Blagojevich to dismiss her if she did not disassociate herself from Farrakhan "absolutely ridiculous" remarks. Muhammad responded that Farrakhan's remarks were "perceived by some as anti-Semitic." Blagojevich refused to dismiss Muhammed from the commission, and its five Jewish members used the only sanction at their disposal - all five resigned. The last to do so, Alan Spellberg, wrote the governor that he could not continue serving with Muhammed on the commission when she "refuses to even acknowledge the offensive nature" of the remarks.
Other members of the commission did not resign, although some protested rather weakly. However the Jewish community presented a united front. The Jewish Community Relations Council said: "It is bitterly ironic that this issue is unfolding in a way that is pitting African-Americans, gays/lesbians and Jews - the three most frequent targets of hate crimes in America - against one another."
Black politicians have spoken out against the demand to remove Muhammad from the commission. State Representative Arthur Turner is one of them: "I don't understand why these guys resigned," he says. "If they truly believe she promotes hate, what better place to sit than across the table from her to discuss those issues."
The election campaign is contributing to the tumult. Republicans, who know that their chances to win votes in the African-American community are slim, are making some efforts to placate the Jewish community, in the hope of attracting votes and funding. "We clearly need a hate crimes commission," candidate Ron Gidwitz said," but this commission today is dysfunctional." Topinka said, "I think the governor should ask her [Muhammed] to withdraw because she has become a distraction."
"It's like your dilemma with Hamas," said a prominent Jewish political activist, who asked to remain anonymous. The activist added: The question was whether it was better to speak with Muhammed in the hope she would moderate her views, or decide that it is impossible to sit with people like her.
Jewish community leaders have also expressed concern that the controversy will raise increase tension between the two groups, whose relations are not the best.
Blagojevich has been dropping conciliatory hints about establishing a new framework for dialogue among leaders, which he would head. "I'm going to ask them for recommendations that they may have for ways that they can help bring all of these communities together," he said.
In response, Jewish community sources said there were enough dialogue groups with the African-American community, and that another under the auspices of the governor was not needed.
On the record, no Jewish activist would address the issue of the community's possible abandonment of Blagojevich. One senior activist told Haaretz, "Blagojevich showed complete unconcern for our great sensitivity to such remarks," adding that the governor had made a cold and bad calculation instead of coming out with a statement of principle, as the community would have expected.
Since the resignation of the commission's five Jewish members, there have been efforts to resolve the controversy. Two other commission members, Laura Thrall and Laura McAlpine, proposed closed meetings to work things through but, according to its charter, the commission's meetings must be open to the public. Meanwhile, Wednesday's primaries became the news, rather than this issue, but it is expected to surface again in the gubernatorial campaign.
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