Jewish Journal

A Passover celebration with Jews and Rev. Lee

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 17, 2008 | 1:11 pm

Last month, at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee and the request of my editors, I agreed to attend a seder tonight that I would have a difficult time writing about. It was an interesting enough event—black Christians and Jews sitting together to remember our delivery from slavery—but it was one of innumerable seders happening all over town for 10 days.

The whole context of the Passover meal changed, of course, when an email from Jewish philanthropist Daphna Ziman began circulating a little less than two weeks ago.

You’re probably familiar with the story now: Ziman, who had been attending the annual banquet for a historically black fraternity, where she was honored for her charitableness toward foster kids, wrote that the keynote speaker delivered an anti-Semitic diatribe worthy of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” That speaker, the Rev. Eric P. Lee, local head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, vehemently denied Ziman’s account of his speech and “unequivocally” denounced anti-Semitism.

“My entire reputation has been damaged,” the Rev. Eric P. Lee told me Monday. “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.”

In today’s paper I have a 2,000-word follow up that doesn’t answer the question of what Lee did or didn’t say—organizers say no recording was made and few people claim to have been paying attention—but explains the email’s seismic shocks and the cautious nature of community-leaders’ reactions.

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.”

Also this week, Rob Eshman’s column focuses on Four Questions raised by Lee’s speech and its aftermath.

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