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The community-relations outreach trap

The desire for dialogue with anti-Semites may be understandable. But given their counterproductive results, maybe it’s time for a moratorium on such efforts.

Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad. Source: Screenshot.
Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad. Source: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Maybe everything would be better if we could all go for walks in the woods with people who say or tweet hateful and deeply offensive things. Then again, maybe the Jewish community would be better off if those who represent it weren’t quite so eager to ingratiate themselves with those who do not have the best interests of the Jews at heart.

There are people who think a simple formula is the path to resolving all conflicts. It was the conceit of a Broadway play about nuclear arms talk called “A Walk in the Woods,” as well as the theory that was behind the talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords—and we all know how well that idealistic attempt to ignore the goals of Israel’s Palestinian antagonists turned out.

More to the point, it’s also the default modus operandi of the entire organized American Jewish world. As a religious minority, Jews have always understood that the way to gain allies in the struggle to protect the rights of the weak is to make friends, even with those with whom you don’t seem to have much in common.

That’s why whenever you read about some celebrity who says or tweets something awful about Jews the natural instinct of most Jewish community-relations councils is to reach out to the bad actors involved.

In the last week, there were two surprising attempts at dialogue.

In one, actor and TV host Nick Cannon, who had promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories online and support for hatemonger Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, met with the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper.

In another instance, Zionist Organization of America national president Morton Klein had a long talk with actor and rap artist Ice Cube, who attempted to convince him that he was not an anti-Semite after he had share hateful posts online. Ice Cube had also accused retired basketball superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of betraying the black community because he had condemned such instances of anti-Semitism.

Both examples of outreach seem to have left their Jewish interlocutors hopeful about the future even if, despite their efforts to portray themselves as opponents of hate, neither Cannon nor Ice Cube has been willing to go so far as to condemn Farrakhan and are probably more interested in their future as performers than doing good.

Yet even if we choose to be optimistic about the ability of such conversations to change hearts, the recent rash of such incidents involving athletes and performers who have mimicked or shared anti-Semitic imagery and canards that is the Nation of Islam’s stock in trade should make us realize that the problem is not one that can be solved by attempting to win the hearts and minds of his sympathizers one at a time.

A discouraging incident in Philadelphia has called into question the value of such efforts. Like, some of the better-known purveyors of anti-Semitism, Minister Rodney Muhammad, the president of the NAACP chapter in the City of Brotherly Love, shared Farrakhan propaganda and anti-Semitic images on social media.

Considering that Muhammad is an official at a National of Islam mosque, the only question is why anyone was so surprised by his anti-Semitic rhetoric. Yet even as Jewish community members and political officials of all stripes condemned him, a sorrowful Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney referred to Muhammad as a “bridge builder.” And the national NAACP—a group that is still supposedly a moderate force in the civil-rights movement—had no comment about his hate.

What kind of dialogue, no matter how well-intentioned, is possible with an NAACP that allows people like that to represent them? Or with a community that thinks of a member of a hatemonger’s organization as a worthy leader? That’s a problem that no walk in the woods can solve. Indeed, doubling down on dialogue under these circumstances merely allows the problem to be ignored and increases the likelihood that hate will continue to be tolerated.

Just as important, the desire for dialogue and common ground with groups whose interests and goals may well be antithetical to those who wish to defend the security and rights of Jews may actually be counterproductive.

This has led the Anti-Defamation League to not merely avoid dealing with the obvious contradictions between the ideological platform and goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, but to actually defend it. The group has devoted a section of its website to “debunking” criticisms of the BLM agenda, as well as to brand criticisms as “disinformation.”

Some of what the ADL has published is true; a lot of disinformation is out there on this subject. It’s also factual to say that the movement is decentralized, and comprises a mix of people with all sorts of ideas and intentions.

But we could have a lot more respect for this effort if the ADL was just as vocal in denouncing the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic elements of the movement’s agenda that certainly aren’t a figment of anyone’s imagination.

It’s also interesting that the ADL has no interest in the fact that the person in charge of fundraising for the BLM movement—to which many well-meaning Jews are likely donating—is a far-left radical who is a convicted terrorist.

Susan Rosenberg was a member of the May 19th Communist Organization, which organized and carried out bombings of federal buildings including the U.S. Capitol and armed robberies in the 1970s and ’80s, including a notorious attack on a Brinks armored car in 1981 in which two policemen and a security guard were murdered. After being caught and convicted of multiple charges, she was sentenced to 58 years in jail. But she served only 16 because President Bill Clinton commuted her sentence on his last day in office.

Today, Rosenberg, who considered herself a political prisoner while in jail, is vice chair of the board of Thousand Currents, and effectively helps lead the group that handles fundraising and “provides the legal and administrative framework” that lets Black Lives Matter “fulfill its mission” in accordance with their website. While she may no longer be responsible for running guns to terrorists, her views don’t seem to have substantially moderated.

These facts are omitted from ADL’s debunking efforts, even though it goes a long way to actually support claims that BLM is linked to dangerous radicals.

It’s likely that nothing will ever stop individuals from trying to reach out and build bridges with those who are saying hateful things about Jews in order to educate and win them over to the cause of brotherhood and understanding. We wish good luck to all those who will make such efforts.

But perhaps it’s also time for Jewish groups to stop chasing after such dialogue. That’s especially true since these efforts seem more about the Jews involved wanting to be seen as in sync with fashionable left-wing views that are glorified in contemporary pop culture than any realistic attempt at finding common ground.

There are times when the best course of action is a dignified refusal to engage with hatemongers. Vigilance and a willingness to speak out against those whose goals are clearly hostile to Jewish interests are also necessary. Community-relations strategies aimed at making friends that succeeded in past generations when directed at genuine moderates don’t work with extremists and those who are either under the influence of a hatemonger or one of his confederates.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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