(February 12, 2019 / JNS) The Religious Action Center of the U.S.-based Union for Reform Judaism has announced that its upcoming “Consultation on Conscience” leadership event will include a controversial community activist who built his career inflaming racial and religious prejudices.
Al Sharpton first came to my attention in August 1991, when he helped incite a three-day race riot in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
A motorcade transporting the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was driving to a cemetery. The Rebbe had a police escort. One of the vehicles in the motorcade was involved in an accident that killed a 7-year-old African-American child, Gavin Cato, and severely injured his 7-year-old cousin, Angela Cato.
In response to this tragic accident, Sharpton organized angry protests. He next delivered a stinging anti-Semitic eulogy at the boy’s funeral. He railed against Jewish “diamond merchants“ and later told a crowd that “if the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”
Roused by Sharpton’s rhetoric, the mob rampaged. It pursued and cornered an innocent Jewish victim. Yankel Rosenbaum, 29, was an Orthodox student visiting Crown Heights from Australia. Sharpton’s mob stabbed him to death.
Four years later, Sharpton was back again. He sent a team of professional agitators from his National Action Network to a Jewish-owned store in Harlem. Sharpton’s acolytes heckled the customers of Freddy’s Fashion Mart. They called the store’s owners and managers “the greedy Jew bastards killing our people.” Sharpton personally referred to the Jewish owner and managers as “bloodsuckers” and “white interlopers.” Store owner Fred Harari remembers the mob shouting, “Burn down the Jew store!”
On Dec. 8, 1995, one of the protesters entered Freddy’s. He shot four people, set fire to the building and killed a total of seven.
Even without these incidents, Sharpton is not an appropriate guest for a Jewish leadership conference. He is a profile in corruption, not leadership.
Sharpton refers to himself as a “reverend,” but he never attended any seminary. He has attended a different cloistered institution: prison. His convictions include tax-related offenses and criminal trespassing. He also famously appeared in an FBI criminal sting surveillance tape, where he appeared to negotiate a drug deal with an undercover federal agent.
After the sting, Sharpton worked as an FBI informant. Perhaps that is why he avoided subsequent imprisonment after siphoning money from a charity and dodging $4.5 million in back taxes.
In 2001, after the World Trade Center towers fell, some members of the U.S. Jewish community sought to pacify—maybe even befriend—Sharpton. His influence was growing. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach invited Sharpton to visit Israel and was surprised when he accepted.
Initial progress soon devolved into a mess. Sharpton was a no-show at a visit with Israeli survivors of the terror bombing at the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium. Who did he visit instead? Yasser Arafat.
Despite all of this, Sharpton became fast friends with then-U.S. President Barack Obama. During the Obama administration, Sharpton visited the White House a staggering 118 times. This friendship and the unending supply of free publicity helped Sharpton rehabilitate his image.
The con job was nearly complete. Many started calling Sharpton a civil-rights leader. It was as if Sharpton’s weapons-toting flash mob in Crown Heights was now morally equivalent to the nonviolent heroes who marched from Selma to Montgomery.
In 2015, a purged and lionized Sharpton landed a lucrative slot hosting his own political talk show on MSNBC, America’s second most popular cable-news channel. The show now airs every Sunday.
After a 40-year career, Reform Jews and the event organizers should evaluate Sharpton by his results, not his intentions. Are members of his community better off after being told to retreat to their respective racial corners instead of jumping feet first into America’s great melting pot? Has Sharpton’s brand of racial balkanization strengthened black families, schools and neighborhoods? Are the communities that Sharpton says he represents safer, wealthier and more cohesive after being pushed to abandon the timeless American creed, e pluribus unum, in favor of its opposite, identity politics?
Not everything falls at Sharpton’s feet. But ideas have consequences. And these ideas have poisoned part of one generation and are now infecting the next.
As to his historical anti-Semitism, some say Sharpton has outgrown his past. We could perhaps entertain that conclusion if Sharpton addressed his misdeeds and asked his victims for forgiveness during his Obama-era makeover. But this so-called “reverend” is not repentant. The best we can say is that after cable-television executives insisted upon—and bought and paid for—Sharpton’s good manners, he has had the good sense to stay bought.
So how can Sharpton be among Reform Judaism’s guests of honor? Good question. I called Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. He declined to comment. So I will.
Rabbi Jacobs and his leadership team are political with a fervor that exceeds anything they seem to devote to Hebrew or Torah study. They see Sharpton as a key bedfellow in the anti-Trump alliance, as well as a bridge to the African-American community. Jacobs’s team thus chooses to see Sharpton Version 2.0, the recently minted civil-rights leader, celebrity and power broker. Sharpton’s sordid past is off-limits.
By contrast, we see and will always remember Yankel Rosenbaum. May his memory be a blessing.
Chris Robbins is a writer and real estate developer.