Jewish Journal

Tolerating Intolerance

by  David A. Lehrer

March 31, 2010 | 2:14 pm

Twenty five years ago, I wrote an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times about the failure of a political leader to speak up unequivocally in the face of bigotry and hate; I do the same today with virtually the same message.

The political leader is different and placement on the political spectrum has switched.

In 1985, Minister Louis Farrakhan came to Los Angeles trailing a long record of anti-Semitic rabble rousing; nearly every speech of his contained his trademark attack on Jews and a message of ostensible “self-empowerment” for the Black community. Mayor Tom Bradley chose not to speak out about Farrakhan’s impending speech thinking he had a commitment from the Farrakhan camp to stick to an economic message and eschew anti-Semitism. A large group of local Jewish leaders had urged Bradley to speak out to try and pre-empt the appearance becoming a hate-fest.

Bradley’s hope of moderation by the minister was not to be. A Farrakhan show without anti-Semitism isn’t a Farrakhan show. Ultimately, after the fact, Bradley condemned what Farrakhan said and even wrote to then New York mayor Ed Koch to warn that “Farrakhan divides people into warring factions.”

My op/ed was directed to those in our community who thought that they could parse Farrakhan’s message of hate from his economic prescriptions—essentially, that one had to consider his bigotry “in a broader context.” Indeed, I was told by a then editor at the Times, that “the Jews may just have to put up with some anti-Semitism because Farrakhan’s message of self-empowerment is so important.”

I responded to the editor and wrote that no one had to put up with hate for any reason; it was a devil’s bargain. There could be no temporizing with hate; no passing condemnations followed by post hoc justifications as to the source of the extremist’s anger and venom.

We couldn’t “parse the messenger from the message” then, nor should we now.

I was reminded of that quarter-of-a-century-ago incident by the events of the past week. The hyperbolic denunciations of President Obama’s healthcare plan which predict impending doom have infused the rhetoric of the past ten days with an unsettling ugliness that is troubling.  Rush Limbaugh saying that, “we have to defeat these bastards…we need to wipe them out…defeat the Democrats, every one of them that voted for this bill.” Sarah Palin tweeting, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD!” Glenn Beck querying, “Whether you are an American or are you a mouse? Are you an American or a European?”

One can be generous and ascribe such heated rhetoric to “politics as usual,” even if many of the remarks border on the incendiary. I am loathe to draw a causal link between exaggerated rhetoric, however irresponsible, and illegal activities—it’s easy yet too hard to prove.

Causal link or no, what can’t be excused is a response to the violence that is qualified and ambiguous. When Sarah Palin was on the Beck show she noted that “No, violence is not the answer”….BUT “there is understandable, there is legitimate frustration with our government today…..violence is not the answer though.”

Equivocation and a “blink and a nod” in the face of violent conduct is simply unacceptable. The whys and wherefores (the “context”)  of out of control anger and violence is irrelevant.

In 1985, my analysis of why so many otherwise responsible leaders (all on the left at that time) were reluctant to condemn Farrakhan unequivocally was that,

many of the leaders who sidestepped speaking out against Farrakhan must have felt that doing so would have exacted an unacceptably high price among their constituents….If the assessment of these leaders is accurate…

then both they and we have much work to do


The tables have been turned. Palin and others qualify their condemnations of the crazies because they must assume that there is a meaningful political price to pay for clarity and forthrightness—simply saying that there is no excuse for violence without qualification or explanation is, seemingly, politically risky.

Those who feel passionately about the Obama healthcare plan and are political leaders must


separate themselves from those who think and act as if extreme means are justified.

If they are reluctant to speak out without hesitation or qualification—then, truly,

they and we have much work to do


Twenty five years ago I noted that the tragedy of whole affair was that “people who should have led followed and leaders who should have spoken out, remained silent.” Not too much has changed.

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