Many black churchmen and Arab-American leaders in the Washington area yesterday strongly defended D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy's self-proclaimed Middle East peace campaign, saying those critical of Fauntroy were holding him up to a double standard.
The head of the National Association of Arab Americans credited Fauntroy with helping to break an Israeli "stranglehold" on discussion of the Middle East issue in the United States. And the pastor of one of the largest Baptist churches in the District said Fauntroy was qualified to participate in foreign affairs.
At the same time, the city's leading black politician, Mayor Marion Barry, declined to say anything about Fauntroy's efforts, which some feel have put the District on the brink of the most serious rift between blacks and Jews since the wake of the 1968 riots. Barry's spokesman said the mayor may have a statement today.
Yesterday's comments contrasted with those of area Jewish leaders, who felt angered and betrayed by Fauntroy's contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization and his invitation to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to speak at an educational forum in the United States. The Jewish leaders also said Fauntroy had overstepped his bounds as a member of Congress by getting involved in foreign affairs.
"That's almost as insulting to the black community as to say blacks don't know enough about foreign affairs to get involved," said Jean Abinader, executive director of the National Association of Arab Americans. "That's just smoke. No one ever says that about Jewish congressmen and Jewish representatives who are elected to represent other areas."
The Rev. Andrew J. Fowler, of Capital View Baptist Church in Northeast Washington, who is executive secretary of the Committee of 100 Ministers, said he did not share the belief of some Jewish leaders that Fauntroy's actions would drive a wedge between blacks and Jews.
"I don't think there's a word of truth to that, not from the Negro's end," Fowler said. "The Negro is not likely to become offensive against Jews. Jews may become offensive against Negroes. But he (Fauntroy) can't afford not to do what he is doing."
The rev. John R. Wheeler of Vermont Avenue Baptist Church, one of the city's largest, said Fauntroy sits in Congress regularly and as a result of this position . . . (has) a far deeper insight into the problem than the average person on the street," Wheeler said.
"If a man of his stature does something which he sincerely feels can promote peace, I feel that it should be given the same chance to succeed as any other effort for peace," Wheeler said. "Apparently, no one person or group of people has a panacea that will definitely guarantee a solution to the Palestinian problem that will bring justice and fairness to all concerned."
City Council Chairman Arrington Dixon said, "I have not viewed it as an issue that affected me locally so I have not been involved in any discussion.
"We all wear many different hats . . . Fauntroy I think is doing what he thinks is right and I trust his judgment. Until it becomes necessary, all I can do is trust the judgment of Walter as a civil rights leader. I have not taken a position myself because it does not affect me."
Fauntroy is the city's sole nonvoting delegate in Congress as well as the chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the ailing civil rights organization once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
After the resignation last month of Andrew Young, SCLC's one-time executive director, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Fauntroy and other SCLC leaders actively assumed the role of continuing an effort begun by Young to establish dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
The United States refrains from all contact with the PLO, which does not recognize the right of Israel to exist. Young resigned after disclosure that he had met secretly with a PLO representative in New York.
Since Young's resignation, Fauntroy has twice met with that same PLO representative, Zhedi Labib Terzi. Last week Fauntroy visited Lebanon, where he met with Lebanese leaders and with Arafat. Israeli leaders declined to meet with Fauntroy in Jerusalem.
The major purpose of the SCLC mission is to get both the Israelis and the PLO to agree to a moratorium on soradic violence and to mutally recognize the right of each other to exist.
Political observers have viewed Fauntroy's effort as an attempt to stake out a legitimate role for blacks in the development of foreign policy. Locally, Fauntroy's actions are expected to solidify black support for him at a time when he faces the first potentially serious threat to reelection since 1971.
Not all blacks jumped immediately to Fauntroy's defense yesterday. The Rev. James E. McCoy, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C., and Vicinity, said, "I'm afraid to say whether he's right or wrong or good or bad. I have to do some thinking about it."
However, Sherry Brown, president of the Frederick Douglass Community Improvement Council of Anacostia, said, "I support what he's doing with the PLO. We shouldn't worry about what the Jews think because historically the Jews have used the suffering of black people to enrich themselves." Brown contended that most of the merchants and landlords in many black ghettoes are Jewish.