Lieberman antagonizes Jews with overtures to Farrakhan

WASHINGTON — Vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman's openness to meeting with Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader condemned for his anti-Semitic remarks, has raised some eyebrows.

Many Jews, alternately elated with the prospect of a Jewish vice president and embarrassed by any negative press Lieberman generates, are questioning the candidate's motives and political savvy.

Lieberman's latest controversial remark came during an interview last week with a black-oriented radio station, American Urban Radio Networks, in which he said that he respected Farrakhan and his efforts to promote voter registration.

"I have respect for him and I have respect for the Muslim community generally," Lieberman said.

Characterizing some of Farrakhan's past remarks as "not informed," Lieberman said he was looking forward to meeting with Farrakhan and wanted to work with him to promote racial and religious reconciliation. Reportedly, no meeting has yet been scheduled and the prospect for such a meeting is unlikely.

Lieberman's outreach to Farrakhan is generally being seen as an effort to reach out to the broader black community, where Farrakhan stands on the fringe, but still has a following.

Ever since his nomination, Lieberman has taken pains to explain his positions to the African-American community and tout his record as an early supporter of civil rights.

At the Democratic convention in July, Lieberman was pressured into explaining his support for affirmative action to the Democratic National Committee's Black Caucus before the group gave him its full backing.

Farrakhan has often been criticized for his inflammatory rhetoric, which includes calling Judaism a "gutter religion" and Hitler a great man, and referring to Jewish, Arab and Asian businessmen in black communities as "bloodsuckers."

Farrakhan had questioned in August whether Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, might be more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

In the Jewish community, the reaction to Lieberman's comments was swift. Republican and some Jewish defense groups pounced on his statements as misguided and disastrous.

The Anti-Defamation League told Lieberman that if he were to meet with Farrakhan he would be "legitimizing a bigot, an anti-Semite and a racist."

The American Jewish Congress said such a meeting would be a "disaster."

Such a meeting, the AJCongress said, "would send a message that you are prepared to accept repeated insults to the Jewish people and minimize the danger to all America from those who advocate overt and blatant racism."

The controversy also spilled into the political arena.

Calling Farrakhan a "virulent hatemonger," Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said Lieberman's comments "give credibility and legitimacy" to Farrakhan's message of anti-Semitism.

Lieberman's Democratic supporters tried to downplay the issue.

Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said Lieberman has a proven track record of commitment to the Jewish community's interests, but admitted that he would not have suggested a meeting with Farrakhan.

When Farrakhan tried to ingratiate himself to Republicans in 1997, Forman seized the opportunity to say that "Democrats and Republicans, Jews and non-Jews, must reject Farrakhan," and that the NJDC condemned Farrakhan.

"We've worked within the Democratic Party to exclude Farrakhan from the political process and will continue to do so," he said at the time.

Forman said he stands by his previous statements.

The Gore-Lieberman campaign, not surprisingly, downplayed the whole issue.

Lieberman spokesman Dan Gerstein said the senator's remarks were not new, since he had said the same thing after being selected to be the vice presidential candidate.