Purpose of town hall defeated with Farrakhan appearance

Purpose of town hall defeated with Farrakhan appearance

(Editor’s note: The following column was submitted to the New Pittsburgh Courier regarding the recent announcement that Minister Louis Farrakhan will appear at a March 11 town hall at the August Wilson Center. It is reprinted here in its entirety. The column has been revised from the printed version to include new information about a proposed meeting between Pittsburgh Jewish leaders and Bev Smith.)

We respect and support the efforts of African-Americans in Pittsburgh to address a serious and meaningful topic: “The Disappearance of the Black Community.”
That is the title of a series of town hall meetings being held at the August Wilson Center and organized by radio talk-show host Bev Smith and the American Urban Radio Network.
But we are gravely concerned that Minister Louis Farrakhan, a rabid anti-Semite, has been invited to speak at the next installment of this series, to be held March 11. We are appalled that some degree of respectability might be indirectly conferred upon Minister Farrakhan just by virtue of that the fact that he will be sharing the stage with two esteemed leaders: Congressman James Clyburn and nonprofit leader Melanie Johnson.
The right to free speech is a cherished and essential element of our democracy, and we would agree that the First Amendment protects Minister Farrakhan’s right to utter the most-vile anti-Semitic statements. However, the First Amendment does not require the American Urban Radio Network, Bev Smith, the August Wilson Center or anyone else to provide a platform for hate speech.
Both the Jewish and African-American communities face attacks from hate mongers. We are just as angered by the anti-Semitic comments of Minister Farrakhan as African-Americans would be by the racist comments of a KKK Grand Dragon.
Minister Farrakhan frequently peppers his speeches with old and absurd anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as that Jews control the economy and even the government. He refers to Judaism as the “Synagogue of Satan.”
This is as despicable as the racist rants directed against Blacks by White supremacists.
Moreover, the invitation to Minister Farrakhan seems to contradict the explicit, expressed intentions of Ms. Smith, who has said that this town hall series will focus on the internal dynamics of the Black community.
At the first event of the series, she said: “This is the first time in radio that there has been a town hall meeting centering on us. Why are we in this mess we are in? What have we done to contribute to it? We have to take responsibility. We don’t need to worry about the Klan anymore. We have us killing us.”
This is a noble effort. But Ms. Smith defeats her own purpose in turning to Minister Farrakhan, who, in classic anti-Semitic fashion, tries to blame Jews for many of the African-American community’s challenges.
Both nationally and locally, Blacks and Jews have enjoyed a high degree of empathy with each other, based in large part on our shared histories of slavery and on our shared status as minorities.
Jews fought and, in some cases died, to extend civil rights to African-Americans. We continue to work alongside the Black community to protect and expand those civil-rights advances, bridging the generation of Martin Luther King to the generation of today. We have always viewed racism and anti-Semitism as twin evils.
Now we are confronted by the hatred of Minister Farrakhan, who denigrates and distorts our religion, our culture and our history.
So, given all these considerations, why would Ms. Smith still invite Minister Farrakhan to take part in such a high-profile event?
We can’t be sure. Ms. Smith, through an assistant, told us that she is unable to meet with us until after the March 11 program.
Just as we will continue to stand up to oppose racism, we ask that our friends in the African-American community stand up to oppose anti-Semitism.
As we look to the future, we hope that anti-Semites will never again be given a platform to spew hatred in Pittsburgh.

(Jeffrey Finkelstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. David Ainsman is chairman of the Community and Public Affairs Council of the Federation.)