April 17, 2008
E-mail charging anti-Semitism takes toll on Rev. Lee
"My entire reputation has been damaged," the Rev. Eric P. Lee said Monday, little more than a week after Jewish philanthropist Daphna Ziman sent an irate e-mail calling him an anti-Semite to her friends and members of the media.|
"This has really taken its toll on me. I've taken the brunt, and it seems there is no question about whether Ms. Ziman inaccurately heard, and I was misinterpreted. It has just been really rough to me and my family," said Lee, president and CEO of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), in a phone interview while on a trip to Sacramento.
For continuous updates on this rapidly-evolving story, check Brad A. Greenberg's The God Blog.
What Ziman says she heard in a keynote speech made by Lee, just after she was honored April 4 by a historically black fraternity for her work with foster children, was a rant that echoed one of the key strategies outlined in that century-old fabrication, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."
"The Jews have made money on us in the music business, and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us," Ziman's e-mail quotes Lee saying.
Lee emphatically denies saying this or harboring such views. And after The Journal reported online April 9 that Ziman's e-mail was spreading through the community like wildfire, Lee sent an apology to Ziman for "any misunderstandings" and "unequivocally" denounced anti-Semitism.
The blaze, however, continued. At press time Tuesday, it loomed over a black-Jewish seder organized by the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) and the SCLC, among others, scheduled for April 17 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and it has forced leaders in both communities to acknowledge that more bond-building needs to occur.
"We need to build bridges not just with the African American community," said Stanley P. Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, "but with all other ethnic and religious communities so we can avoid these kinds of flare-ups in the future."
The black-Jewish coalition was once a staple of Los Angeles politics, the formula that helped make Tom Bradley the city's first black mayor, but it dissipated over the years and now lies largely dormant. Nevertheless, Los Angeles synagogues and churches, albeit in small numbers, have continued working together.
"The relationship between the black community and the Jewish community is not only historic, but it is a necessity because both have, metaphorically, been to Egypt," said the Rev. Cecil "Chip" Murray, who led First AME Church for 27 years before retiring in 2004. "There have been tensions, yes," said Murray, who now teaches at USC. "Subgroups in the community create tensions. But over several centuries, Jews and blacks have bonded through the struggle for human dignity."
A native of Israel, Ziman and her husband, Richard, are major charitable and political contributors, locally and nationally, and are well known and respected by community leaders.
Ziman also is close with Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and has co-chaired fundraisers for her presidential campaign. Because Ziman made a connection in her e-mail between Lee and the now-notorious Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- blaming Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for not opposing Wright's anti-Semitic and anti-American tirades during two decades as a member of his church -- some are accusing Ziman of twisting an isolated incident for political gain.
"Daphna has a tendency to be over dramatic," said former Rep. Mel Levine, a friend of Ziman's who serves on Obama's Mideast team. "If the issue was dealing with the reverend, one could pick up the phone and talk to him and try to have a constructive dialogue -- rather than make an argument, however strange, that this has something to do with Barack Obama, when it had nothing to do with him."
Ziman denied such motivations in multiple interviews last week. She and Lee have not spoken since the fraternity gala, but last Friday, through the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Ziman sent Lee a letter thanking him for his apology.
"It is my intention for our communities to move towards a place of tolerance, mutual support, and unity," Ziman wrote. "I hope that we all rise above the negativity and take the responsibility to give our children the opportunity for a better future."
Lee, however, wasn't pleased.
"What I issued an apology on was her misunderstanding, not what I said. I didn't say anything wrong," he said.
The seeds of the conflict began on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who founded the SCLC and was a great friend of Jews and Israel.
As founder of Children Uniting Nations, a charity that helps foster kids through school, Ziman was to be honored with the Tom Bradley Distinguished Citizen Award at the annual regional conference for Kappa Alpha Psi. Other recipients included L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
After the awards were presented, Lee, the gala's keynote speaker, spurred the black community to ensure its children succeed, playing off the event's theme, "Leaving an Inheritance to Our Kids and Our Communities." Toward the end of his speech, Lee mentioned a conversation with a rabbi about rejuvenating the relationship between blacks and Jews.
That much is agreed on. What came next, however, can't be confirmed, and event organizers say no recording was made.
Whatever Lee said, Ziman fled the banquet hall in tears, creating enough of a stir that some fraternity members apologized afterward. Her guests followed her out, and three of them, including a friend and two of her employees, corroborated Ziman's story.
"He said that the African American community is not going to bridge any gaps because the Jewish community is responsible for the defamation of African Americans on the silver screen," said Branka Gonzales, Children Uniting's chief financial officer. "His feelings were that nothing is going to change until those things change, until the Jewish community stops its ways."
Others in attendance -- from a state assemblyman to a civil rights attorney to the event's organizers, who invited Ziman -- said they didn't listen carefully enough to the speech to confirm or deny her account. "I vaguely remember hearing something about a conversation he had with a rabbi and dealing with the media," said the evening's emcee, Damon M. Brown, head of the Los Angeles alumni of Kappa Alpha Psi, which has also issued a general apology "where any speaker gives pain to another." "I don't recall hearing anything that was offensive to me, and then again, I'm not Jewish, so I don't know if there are some sensitivities one would have."
Curtis R. Silvers Jr., head of the fraternity's Western Province, also said he heard nothing offensive. Like Brown, he said he was preoccupied and paid Lee's keynote only intermittent attention.
Assemblyman Mike Davis, a Los Angeles Democrat who has been supported by the Zimans, said the same: "I can't say I was tuned into what he was saying, but I do know people make errors."
Ziman's e-mail, however, captured everyone's attention.
"After I spoke and thanked the fraternity and their members, Rev. Eric Lee, pres. and CEO of Southern Christian Leadership Conference of greater Los Angeles, was introduced as the key note speaker," Ziman wrote, not minding a few typos in her e-mail:
"He began his speech by thanking Jesus for Obama, who is going to be the leader of the world. He continued by referring to other leaders Like Dr. King, being that this was the moment of celebrating Dr. King's spirit on the anniversary of his assassination, and Malcolm X. It was right after the mention of Malcolm X that he looked right at me and started talking about the African American children who are suffering because of the JEWS that have featured them as rapists and murderers. He spoke of a Jewish Rabbi, and then corrected himself to say "What other kind of Rabbis are there, but JEWS". He told how this Rabbi came to him to say that he would like to bring the AA community and the Jewish community together." NO, NO, NO,!!!!" he shouted into the crowd, we are not going to come together."
The rabbi Lee mentioned was Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus for Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, who was not at the April 4 gala but attended a dinner with black and Jewish leaders last month at a home across from First AME. Jacobs said when he asked how blacks and Jews could restore their relationship to its level in the days before King was killed, Lee said a requisite should be an effort to change the portrayal of blacks on TV and in movies.
"He raised the question of the power in Hollywood and brought it up as something we ought to discuss," Jacobs said. "It wasn't condemnation, and I must tell you I don't believe he is an anti-Semite."
While vehemently disputing Ziman's account last week, Lee said he had, in fact, discussed Jewish media influence.
"Black leaders have gone to black entertainment leaders and said, 'Take the "N" word out of your music, and take the "B" word out of your music,'" Lee said in an interview. "And so, my thinking is -- in building a relationship, and reconnecting, as it were, like when Dr. King was alive in the civil rights movement -- is that our friends and allies in the Jewish community who have influence in the entertainment community can help us in changing the depiction of African Americans."
Ziman's e-mail soon moved across the globe, aided by dissemination on April 9 on StandWithUs' 50,000-member listserv. Jewish organizations in Los Angeles heard from folks in Chicago and New York and the South, from Israelis and Europeans. It got additional attention when the Los Angeles Times reported the "rift" a week after it began. Many who shared the e-mail added their own commentary.
"It's no secret: the black community is riddled with Jew-hatred," Robert J. Avrech, a screenwriter who is Orthodox, wrote when posting the e-mail to his well-trafficked blog, Seraphic Secret. "And with so many apologists for Jeremiah Wright on the left and in the Jewish community, well, Jew-hatred has found a comfortable home not just in the black community but in the Democratic party."
Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, added a similar sentiment in bolded letters when he forwarded Ziman's missive: "Anti Americanism, Anti Zionism, Anti Semitism mark today's left."
In responding to the incident, many community leaders have had to traverse a minefield.
The mayor, Councilman Bernard Parks and state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas had been present at the gala, but all left before Lee's address. In response to the controversy, Villaraigosa broadly condemned racism in any form and at any time. The AJCommittee and the ADL looked for a way to move forward regardless of what Lee had said.
"Unapologetic anti-Semitism has a much different feeling than this thing," said Amanda Susskind, the ADL's regional director, who has acted as a liaison between Ziman and Lee. "It doesn't mean that either side is right or wrong, or what he said or she said -- I wasn't there.... But I would say there is always room for more discussion, dialogue and sensitivity."
Ziman wants to organize a summit of rabbis and Christian ministers to discuss things that shouldn't be said "by people who are the voice of God" and spent last Thursday and Friday discussing this with The Federation's Gold and Uri Herscher, president and CEO of the Skirball Cultural Center, as well as friends in the black community.
"I'm hoping that the whole country will take notice, and no reverend will ever say anti-Semitic things in their sermons," Ziman said. "And I am hoping that the African American and Jewish communities will come together and understand that we have a lot more in common than differences and that we can help each other.
"I am more committed than ever to get members of the Jewish community to come with me into the inner city and the schools we work with. That way, the children will see that the Jewish community cares about them and wants to help. This is not about politics," she continued. "This is really about standing up to anti-Semitism."