L.A. Jews brace for Farrakhan and his Islam followers

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LOS ANGELES — Jewish leaders in Los Angeles are wondering what's in store when the worldwide convention of the Nation of Islam, led by the controversial Louis Farrakhan, hits their town.

Scheduled for Feb. 13-17, the convention is expected to draw 12,000 to 20,000 delegates, some coming from as far as Switzerland and Ghana.

Farrakhan's speeches for decades have been laced with anti-Semitic rhetoric.

In a recent statement, the Anti-Defamation League declared that "Minister Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam have spread the message of Black separation and anti-gay, anti-Catholic, racist and anti-Semitic bigotry through the United States and the world."

On some occasions, Farrakhan has indulged in conciliatory gestures during meetings with Jewish leaders and journalists.

One of the convention's themes will be world peace, and 3,000 to 6,000 "peace ambassadors" are to walk the streets of high-crime areas to resolve differences between "black and brown" gang members, Tony Muhammad, the organization's Western regional minister, told the L.A. Business Journal.

"We have been informed by city officials that the convention's focus will be on 'forgiveness,'" commented Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "If they live up to their billing, then there's no problem."

Farrakhan has a history of being unpredictable, however.

"In the past, the problem has been that when Farrakhan steps up to the mike, no one knows what he'll say," Cooper added. "If he wants to turn over a new leaf" in his attitude toward the Jewish community, "everyone will welcome that. But we are aware that his past record is marked by so many false starts and U-turns."

David Lehrer, a regional director for the ADL, said that everyone has the right to rent public facilities, but the ADL will monitor whether the Nation of Islam meets its concomitant legal obligations.

"We will watch whether the L.A. Convention Center will be open to the public without discrimination during the meeting and whether there is intimidation of those who ask questions," Lehrer said.

Michael Hirschfeld, director of the local Jewish Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee, said he would issue no advance warnings or alerts before the convention, "but we will follow what is said and respond appropriately."

The high point of the convention will be the closing address by the 68-year-old Farrakhan on Feb. 17 at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood.

The official designation of the gathering is an annual conference commemorating the death of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad.

Security will be exceptionally high at the convention venues and at the eight hotels where delegates will stay, in light of the organization's controversial nature and anti-Muslim sentiment after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, law enforcement agencies said.

In the past, the conference has always been held in Chicago, where the Nation of Islam is headquartered. The decision to hold the meeting in Los Angeles caught local officials by surprise.

One apparent reason for the switch is that Farrakhan's followers adjust their meeting site to their leader's schedule. An accomplished violinist — as well as a former professional calypso singer and dancer — Farrakhan will perform in concert on Feb. 13 at a local concert hall.

Also influencing the choice of venue is the fact that "Los Angeles is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the country," spokesman Muhammad told the L.A. Business Journal. "There is a lot of fighting among young people called gang members. The minister wanted to speak to that pain and hurt between the black and brown gang members to resolve the conflicts."

Delighted by the convention is Los Angeles' hotel and tourist industry, which has been suffering since the Sept. 11 attacks. It is estimated that the delegates will pump at least $2.8 million into the local economy.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent