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Jewish Journal

Four Questions

by Rob Eshman

April 17, 2008 | 6:00 pm

The controversy that erupted last week over allegedly anti-Semitic remarks by a local pastor raises, appropriately enough for this time of year, four questions.

As we were going to press last week, a by-now-ubiquitous e-mail was beginning to circulate exponentially. On Saturday morning, April 5, local philanthropist and Democratic activist Daphna Ziman sent some friends and contacts an e-mail recounting her evening at an April 4 awards dinner sponsored by a black fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. There, just after receiving an honor from the fraternity for her efforts on behalf of foster children, Ziman sat down to listen to the next speaker, the Rev. Eric Lee, president and CEO of Southern Christian Leadership Conference's L.A. office.

In her e-mail account, Ziman said Lee began his remarks by thanking Jesus for Sen. Barack Obama. He then went on, according to Ziman, to reject Jews as true partners and accuse Jews of oppressing black people by portraying them as rapists and murders.

"'The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us'" Ziman quoted Lee as saying.

In the days since this version was disseminated and passed on innumerable times, Lee has emphatically denied he made those comments. He has also apologized for any misunderstanding and issued a rejection of anti-Semitism as being against everything he believes in and works for.

In the old days -- five years ago -- an account like Ziman's would have gone out over the phone, or through the mail, and there would have been some time for journalists to investigate the incident, likely before it became well known. There might have been time for the object of discussion, the Rev. Lee, to give his side of the story; time for everyone to, as the teenagers say, chill.

But now news travels faster than you can say BlackBerry. Ziman left the event in tears, went home, wrote her heartfelt account of the evening and hit "Send."

And it has become a "Send" heard 'round the world. Within hours I got e-mails from Memphis, Israel, New York, Chicago. Within a half day, the e-mail was embedded in blogs, sent out as "news" by major Jewish organizations, and Ziman had become the subject of online video follow-up interviews.

During this time, our reporter, Brad Greenberg, was hurrying to dig out the answer to the most urgent question prompted by Ziman's e-mail: Did what she said happen? Is it true?

Is it true?

When I wrote to one Jewish leader in town that we were still trying to ascertain what really happened in that banquet hall, he immediately shot back a snarky remark about the left-leaning Jewish Journal, and how if anyone would try to "rehabilitate" the Rev. Lee, it would be me.

Another major rabbi derided me in a long ALL CAPS e-mail for not realizing how serious the Rev. Lee comments were. He was alive in 1934 when the Nazis took over Germany, and this was damn close to 1934.

Still, I e-mailed back, Is it true?

I said that I don't know the Rev. Lee, or have any reason to defend him, except journalistic fairness. For all I know he's a lunatic anti-Semite who has finally been exposed. Or not. The truth is, from Greenberg's reporting, it seemed no one who posted Ziman's e-mail knew Lee either. No one stopped to wonder, what's this guy's side of the story?

Greenberg's careful calls to people present, as well as leaders in both the Jewish and black community, revealed that Lee has a longstanding relationship with the Jewish community. He is scheduled to participate in a long-scheduled seder with the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee), Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and he and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have a history of black-Jewish comity that precedes that evening.

As the story developed, and Lee made his clarifications and, with Ziman's help, his apologies for misunderstandings, and as his Jewish supporters have spoken up, what has emerged was not a black-and-white case of Mel Gibson-esque dementia, but what appears to be a miscommunication complicated by a misunderstanding.

We may never know for sure what happened in that banquet room, but I don't think it's a question of one person lying. Ziman told the truth as she saw it, and so did the Rev. Lee. Two smart, committed people, passionate in their causes, can speak and hear less than perfectly, and in that gap between what people mean to say and what people understand them as saying leaves room for real problems -- even tragedy. Just ask any married couple. And blame for this lies not so much with Ziman and Lee, but with those among us who did everything to instigate and inflame, and nothing to investigate or defuse.

"Many have fallen by the edge of the sword," Ecclesiastes wrote, "but not as many as have fallen by the tongue."

Unfortunately, tongues are sharper and looser during an election season. Somehow what Lee said or didn't say became conflated with what Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright represent, even though the worst things Ziman said she heard in that banquet room had nothing to do with Obama. Although she is a Sen. Hillary Clinton supporter, she has told me her motives in this matter were absolutely not political. But those who hate, fear, suspect or just oppose Sen. Obama quickly spread her e-mail, adding it to the arsenal of lies (Obama is a Muslim); half-truths (his adviser is Zbigniew Brizenski) and disturbing truths (the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) piling up to influence the Jewish vote.

Let Obama answer legitimate charges, such as his acquiescence to Rev. Wright's teachings. But how foolish and dangerous is it to play politics with the larger issue of black-Jewish relations? Will we use this Obama-moment as a way to bring blacks and Jews together, or drive them farther apart? Are gossip and innuendo, or, in this case, unconfirmed news reports, the best way to spread understanding in fragile times? Just what are any of us willing to destroy in order to win?

Those are my Four Questions, and, as you might guess, they're rhetorical.

Happy Passover.

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