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Jesse Jackson and Jews in California: A Chance to Salve Old Wounds

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The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s dramatic impact on our nation’s political scene has reached a critical point for American Jews. As we in California face our June 7 primary, Los Angeles’ black and Jewish communities will come under the same kind of scrutiny we witnessed during the New York primary.

Jackson’s acceptance by a widening spectrum of voters alarms a significant number of people in the Jewish community who recall with bitterness his embrace of Yasser Arafat, his failure to disassociate himself from the controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, his reference to New York City as “Hymietown” and his constant call for the establishment of an autonomous Palestinian state.

Obviously, Jackson’s track record is wreaking havoc with his relationship with Jewish voters, who historically show up at the polls in proportionately large numbers.

Thus, we in California will have to confront our respective “J” problems--Jesse Jackson’s inability thus far to communicate with those he has alienated, and the Jewish community’s dilemma over whether it should attempt to relate to Jackson as a viable presidential candidate.

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Jackson’s political success has made him a major opinion leader among his peers; it has led to his having significant influence on the Democratic Party’s platform, as well as its nominee’s choice of vice-presidential candidate and potential cabinet members. If for no other reasons than these, it is crucial that Jews open up lines of communication with Jesse Jackson and the new political force he leads.

Taking our cue from the prophet Isaiah, who taught: “Come now, and let us reason together,” I believe that the Jewish community leadership of Los Angeles and Jesse Jackson must attempt to resolve their particular “J” problems under the best of circumstances.

With this goal in mind, I contacted individuals closely linked to the Jackson campaign suggesting that we facilitate a closed-door conference with the candidate and Southern California Jewish leaders before the June primary. I made similar overtures to a broad spectrum of Jewish clergy and lay leaders. These efforts have resulted in expressions of interest by many who would consider participating in such a gathering, including some who have said that Jesse Jackson is prepared to be involved in such a session.

When reporting recently on my attempt to create such a fruitful dialogue, a television political editor commented that establishing the ground rules for such a meeting may be more difficult than staging the meeting itself. I don’t agree.

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In a hostility-free setting, Jackson would be able to acknowledge and deal with those matters that have clouded his candidacy; and the Jewish leaders would be encouraged not to merely dwell on their past grievances. Thus, those in attendance would focus their interest on a presidential candidate and measure his stand on the prominent issues that need to be addressed. We are not looking necessarily for unanimity on the issues; we are looking for open communication.

Here is a way in which we may replace a lose-lose situation with one in which everyone wins. Jackson would make headway by presenting his campaign agenda to Jewish leaders; in turn, they would discuss with him items high on their list of concerns during Campaign ’88.

Such an activity within an environment of mutual trust would send an immediate and vital message to the entire community urging that we eliminate stereotypes, myths and past hurts through the creation and maintenance of forthright channels of communication. All of us will benefit from improved and more frequent interaction among Los Angeles’ diverse racial, religious and ethnic entities.

Especially as we look ahead to the 1989 Los Angeles mayoral race and the likelihood of a contest between Mayor Tom Bradley and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, it is essential that we go to work now to avoid racial and religious divisiveness, which that campaign could generate unless we refuse to allow it.

As we strive together to confront and then move away from our respective “J” problems, we could ensure lasting results of immeasurable value for all of us.


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