The ‘Hymie’ Incident : Jesse Jackson Claimed His Comments Were Harmless. But With a Few Phrases, He Tore at the Fragile Bonds Between Blacks and Jews. An Excerpt From a New Book Chronicling the Jackson Campaign.
Feb. 26, 1984. Temple Adath Yeshurun, Manchester, N.H. The campaign, and the candidate, were at a breaking point. Ramrod straight, Jesse Jackson strode to the front of the synagogue, his fists clenched tight at his sides, his eyes darting across the tense crowd. Later, he would describe the scene as “Daniel in the lion’s den,” but in some ways it was also Greenville, S.C., all over again, 34 years ago when he was 8 and had whistled in the white man’s grocery for service and the owner had pointed a loaded .45 pistol at his head to teach him his place. Then, as now, Jackson found himself cornered by his own pride.
This time he had poked fun at Jews by calling them “Hymie” and New York City “Hymie-town,” and what he’d said had been quoted and condemned in the Washington Post. At first he had denied the remarks; then, turning street fighter, he had tried to put Jews on the defensive, accusing them of making him the target of a Jewish conspiracy to ruin his campaign. But the counterattack hadn’t worked, and day by day the furor had grown. Within two weeks his historic run for the presidency had nearly collapsed, and Jackson was trapped: There was no choice now but to swallow his pride and own up to his mistake.
For the past several days Jackson had been “literally torn apart,” as one aide put it, trying to find his way out of the “Hymie” mine field. The controversy had done more than throw his campaign off stride--it had also changed Jackson. “It put him on the defensive, made him go almost into a shell. He was not the same, positive, outgoing person,” said campaign manager Arnold Pinkney.
Jackson’s advisers were bitterly divided. A few wanted him to admit that he’d blundered, that he’d said something stupid in an unguarded moment but meant no harm. Get it behind us, they had argued, then go on. Others were telling him the opposite: to stonewall, to stand firm against the critics. Deputy campaign manager Preston Love appeared so upset that some staff members felt that he would quit if Jackson apologized, and Jackson’s wife, Jacqueline, was so adamant that he not apologize that she packed her bags and flew immediately to New Hampshire to argue her case in person.
After flying from Chicago to Manchester on the morning of Feb. 26, Jackson was met by aide Frank Watkins, who convinced him that the political damage was enormous. At the airport, Jackson decided to apologize. “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line,” he told Watkins. “I’ll do it tonight.”
That afternoon he walked into the temple to confess to a crowd of national Jewish leaders assembled there. His message was conciliatory, but his voice was cold.
“In private talks we sometimes let our guard down and we become thoughtless,” Jackson said grimly. “It was not in a spirit of meanness, an off-color remark having no bearing on religion or politics. . . . However innocent and unintended, it was wrong.” Adding that he was shocked “that something so small has become so large that it threatens the fabric of relations that have been long in the making and must be protected,” he asked for forgiveness. He also denied that the words proved he was an anti-Semite: “I categorically deny allegations that there is anything in my personal attitude or my public career, behavior, or record that lends itself to that interpretation. In fact, the record is the exact opposite.”
Some Jewish leaders were willing to accept Jackson’s apology. They had found his remarks offensive, but they had also been disturbed by the severity of the attacks on him. After all, they confided, Jesse Jackson isn’t the only one using ethnic terms. But some would not forgive; they scoffed at the apology in the temple--an apology made “belatedly” that “doesn’t acknowledge the gravity of his language,” said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“He could light candles every Friday night and grow side curls, and it still wouldn’t matter. He’s a whore,” Nathan Perlmutter, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, almost hissed.
Months later, Jackson compared his relationship with his Jewish critics to a marriage of 20 years in which one partner uses one episode as a reason to dissolve the partnership. “Marriages aren’t like that,” Jackson argued. “It’s a series of compromises, of ups and downs. You don’t just find one ‘gotcha’ after 20 years--and end it. A marriage is a whole series of ‘gotcha’ this and ‘gotcha’ thats, a whole 20 years of ‘gotchas.’ ”
“NON-INSULTING, COLLOQUIAL language,” Jackson called it later, and some no doubt would intend it that way. But Jackson was dangerously wrong if he thought it was only that. “Hymie” has an edge to it, especially for those who lived with a heritage of persecution and for whom buzzwords have often been a prelude to menace.
He explained what he’d meant to Newsweek editors: “I think the first time I heard it was when I got to Chicago about 20 years ago. There’s a place down off Maxwell Street called ‘Jewtown.’ Understand? ‘Jewtown’ is where Hymie gets you if you can’t negotiate them suits down, you understand? It’s not meant as anti-Semitic. . . . If you can’t buy suits downtown, you go to Jewtown on Maxwell Street and you start negotiating with Hyman & Sons . . . and if Hyman & Sons show up, they’re called Hymie. There’s no insult, even to them.”
Some accepted that. Rabbi Balfour Brickner, a leader of American Reform Jews, thought that Jackson had said something dumb, not bigoted. “I don’t think calling somebody ‘Hymie’ is by definition enough to suggest that the man who used that statement is anti-Semitic, anymore than if I say schvartze that I’m anti-black,” Brickner said.
But some Jackson critics felt Jackson had been able to “weasel out” of some harsh statements he’d made earlier about Jews. “There’s an irony with ‘Hymie,’ ” said Nathan Perlmutter. “The irony is that Jesse Jackson for many years gave public expression to statements that were clearly anti-Semitic; cumulatively they made the portrait of an anti-Semite, and while this was all of record, the anti-Semitic dimensions of Jackson simply were not reported in the general press.”
As his advisers--Bill Howard, Gene Wheeler and Herb Daughtry--later conceded, Jackson often used the term “Hymie” and had often spoken of other groups as well in a flip, street-wise way. His Brooklyn friend, Daughtry, frequently tried to slow him down. “You know, you got to shut up. But he talks, talks, talks. And sometimes, he starts cussing. And so that was Jesse. That was part of him, a part of what he is.”
Jackson’s campaign never fully recovered from the beating it took over “Hymie.” But the incident did something more--it turned the national spotlight on Jackson’s past relations with Jews, which had never been especially good. And it tore again at the fragile links that bound blacks and Jews.
Later Jackson argued that he had walked the extra mile. Not only had he written a tough letter in 1974 dressing down the chairman of the Joint Chiefs for remarks he made about Jews, he had worked closely with the Jewish Urban Affairs Council in Chicago, had taken his family into Skokie, Ill., to protest a march held there by neo-Nazis, had gone into synagogues and temples and had spoken movingly to survivors of concentration camps.
As he told Jewish leaders whom he’d invited to a 1974 Chicago conference: “We share the common mandate. . . . We of the black and Jewish communities have become necessary to each other.” True, he conceded, there are “serious strains in the relationships between black and Jewish communities.” The task now, he told them, “is to rise above the rhetoric of the past few years, which has too often been abrasive and tended to divide us, and share a common vision of social change in this country. . . . Today’s challenges call for a coalition of equals to be cemented.”
Only it had not worked; no “coalition of equals” had emerged. Even then, suspicion about Jackson had persisted. Some who had worked with or watched him felt that something wasn’t quite right, that the public utterances were too contrived, too self-serving, that he would help them only if he felt they could help him in return.
For example, former presidential envoy Sol M. Linowitz remembered an offhand comment Jackson had made at Camp David in July, 1979, when the two men, along with other national leaders, had been summoned by President Jimmy Carter. Linowitz and Jackson had been assigned to sleep in the same cabin. “It had two bedrooms, one big and one which was much smaller,” Linowitz said. When the diplomat and Jackson entered the cabin, they paused: Who would get the more spacious quarters? Linowitz suggested flipping a coin.
“Heads,” Jackson called as the coin fluttered down. It was tails.
“Well, looks like I win,” Linowitz said.
“Yeah, you Jews nearly always do,” Jackson replied, with a smile.
It wasn’t just the angry words Jackson had traded with Jewish merchants, accusing them of stocking dirty stores with overpriced, stale goods. Nor was it that he kept taking potshots at “Jewish slumlords” and “Jewish fight promoters.” It was more a gut feeling among some Jews that beneath those flowing public words about brotherhood there was the soul of a bigot.
His barbed inflections also signaled a hidden bias to a people taught by history to fear verbal slights. Here, after all, was a Christian minister who hinted at Jewish control of banks and the media; who denounced Andrew Young’s resignation as “capitulation” to the Jewish community. Jews winced when Jackson wrote: “There are tensions in the labor movement, where blacks constitute a large percentage of the workers at the bottom but Jews dominate the leadership at the top. . . . Tensions between black renters and Jewish landlords are just a few recent historical events that have brought to a head the present state of affairs. . . . When there wasn’t much decency in society, many Jews were willing to share decency. The conflict began when we started our quest for power. Jews were willing to share decency, not power.”
That charge drew blood; Jews were infuriated. As the Rev. William Sloane Coffin put it later, “Jews think they’ve cornered the market on suffering, and along come Jackson and blacks and say to the Jews, ‘Look, you’re oppressing us.’ A Jew hates to be thought of as an oppressor.”
For Rabbi Robert Marx, who had marched side by side with Jackson in Selma, the last straw was Yasser Arafat.
The way Marx learned that Jackson was going to visit the PLO chieftain in 1979 was unsettling enough; he and another rabbi were in Jackson’s Chicago office discussing another matter; when they emerged, the three found local reporters and television crews waiting. Jackson, flanked by the two rabbis, used the forum to tout his upcoming trip to meet Arafat. The rabbis were furious. “No doubt about it, we were used. We were used. It was a very unhappy occasion,” Marx recalled.
The litmus test for Marx and many other Jews, especially those who didn’t know Jackson well, was his 1979 Middle East trip. Out of it came a picture taken in Beirut: Jackson and Arafat, arms entwined, both men smiling broadly. Nothing, not all the words Jackson used later--"Embracing him is what you do in the Middle East. It doesn’t mean you embrace his politics; it is more a cultural gesture"--counted as much as that picture.
LOOKING BACK, THE RELATIONSHIP between Jews and blacks--all blacks, not just Jackson--had been precarious. Even when necessity forged an alliance, the pairing was tentative. In the good moments and the bad, there had always been tension. The two had once been victims, had shared poverty, known discrimination. Even so, Ralph Bunche wrote in 1942, “it is common knowledge that many members of the Negro and the Jewish communities of the country share mutual dislike, scorn and mistrust.”
Still, blacks and Jews became allies; for more than 50 years, theirs had been “a special relationship.” Hyman Bookbinder, Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee, recalls, “Blacks and Jews of my generation remember vividly the signs that said, ‘Niggers, Jews and Dogs--Stay Out.’ That brought us together.”
Jews played a prominent, often crucial, role in the civil rights movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s. As Bayard Rustin noted, “Had it not been for their financial efforts and labors of dedication, there is no question that the American Negro’s freedom struggle would not have reached its present stage.”
The relationship had been effective, but it had never been equal. Blacks supplied the numbers; Jews provided the money, the expertise. “Jews and blacks were always of unequal status, with the Jews clearly dominant and blacks subordinate,” one Jewish study concluded. Rabbi Brickner, a veteran of the ‘60s struggles, put it more harshly: “The Jewish community used the black community to further its aims in the labor movement, to make unions and break bosses. Blacks went along with that because they had nothing else to do but lose their chains. And that created an image of black-Jewish friendship. It was only an image because it was patronizing. It was noblesse oblige. “
Temporary, fragile, unbalanced, the relationship had to crumble; not only were the two groups growing in opposite directions, their needs were also changing. Jews, more secure, more prosperous, felt the need to protect their hard-earned access to professional schools and jobs, to turn away from the universalism of the civil rights movement toward a more conservative philosophy. Blacks, with fewer material achievements and access still denied, felt they had not yet arrived and wanted to thrust ahead.
When the Bakke affirmative-action case reached the Supreme Court, the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith were opposed to the NAACP, Urban League, and other black organizations. The resignation of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young in August, 1979, was another source of irritation. Many American Jews were outraged to learn that Young had met privately with a representative of the PLO, and many blacks felt that Young had been forced to step down because of Jewish pressure. The incident triggered a historic meeting of 200 black leaders at NAACP headquarters in New York, where they released a statement that condemned the opposition of Jewish groups to affirmative action and complained that Jews had supported blacks in the past only when “it was in their best interest to do so.”
“We are on different sides of the table. . . . There is a brokenness” is how Jackson described black-Jewish relations on “Meet the Press” on Aug. 26, 1979. He had grown wary himself not just because the two sides had parted company on several important issues, but also because he personally felt betrayed. One of his advisers, the Rev. Bill Howard, likened Jackson to a jilted lover: “When you are black, and have had a certain expectation or assumption that the Jews are your natural allies, and you woke up one day to discover that they were out to do you in like everybody else, then you become even more angry about them.”
There would be one final chance for Jackson to mollify Jewish feelings and help mend the rift between blacks and Jews. It happened quietly, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. Months later, Cuyahoga (Ohio) County Commissioner Tim Hagen remembered the incident very clearly. It was just before midnight on Sunday, July 15, 1984. In just a few hours the convention would officially open on what could be a stormy session. A group led by Ohio Rep. Edward F. Feighan and Rabbi Marvin Hier of Los Angeles wanted the party to adopt a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and racism, but Jackson was firmly opposed. This was just one more attempt to revive the “Hymie” dispute and a not-so-veiled effort to embarrass him, Jackson argued.
Hagen felt that Jackson didn’t understand the issues. The commissioner decided to use the direct approach to try to convince the candidate that the resolution made good political sense, that hate--not Jackson--was the target. So Hagen went to the candidate’s hotel room. “The reverend had already retired; he was lying on his bed, in his pajamas, silk pajamas I think. His head was propped up against the pillows . . . sort of like the emperor holding court, in his PJs,” Hagen recalled. The commissioner began to plead his case.
Hagen carried his Irish name proudly. He was accustomed to speaking bluntly. One of 14 children who’d grown up on the wrong side of the tracks in an Ohio mill town, he was no Johnny-come-lately on civil rights. Hagen’s family had marched with Martin Luther King Jr., the commissioner argued to Jackson, and he had earned his stripes.
Remembering the scene later, the commissioner gave his presentation high marks: He had covered all the bases, had been precise and tough-minded yet impassioned. Maybe, he thought, this is sinking in. “Reverend,” Hagen almost begged, “you once asked how you could tell a black kid in Hough (a black area in Cleveland) to support a party that condoned racism. I want you to tell me, reverend, how I can tell a kid in Shaker Heights (a predominantly white, upper-class Cleveland suburb) to support a party that doesn’t denounce anti-Semitism.”
But Jackson wasn’t impressed. He felt strong-armed. And he was angry. No, he would not support the resolution, Jackson told the commissioner. “You should derive no pleasure whatsoever from this meeting. . . . You cannot leave here with any satisfaction that you have influenced anything I’m going to say,” he added. He got off his bed and strolled over to where Hagen was sitting. “You Jews are much too sensitive,” Jackson said, nonchalantly patting his Irish-Italian visitor on the arm.
From “Thunder in America.” Copyright 1986 by Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton. Reprinted by permission of Texas Monthly Press, Austin, Tex.