"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.
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