Some black and Jewish leaders in Washington, including Mayor Marion Barry, moved yesterday to ease the controversy over D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy's Middle East visit and his subsequent invitation to Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat to visit the United States.
A number of separate actions yesterday aimed at diverting attention from Fauntroy's contacts with the PLO made it clear that there is considerable concern that the rift between blacks and Jews might widen.
The Washington chapters of the NAACP and the American Jewish Committee issued a joint statement aimed at refocusing attention on local problems of jobs, voter registration and congressional voting representation. The statement also denounced "racial and religious bigotry."
"Even though the problems of the Middle East are real and will ultimately affect us all, "the statement said, "our basis for peace anywhere must be here in our community. We must not allow differences over foreign policy either to cause group conflict or to impair our ability to work on our serious domestic problems."
Also yesterday, Fauntroy's office said that on Tuesday it expressed its concerns to some blacks, including Barry, who were planning a large scale press conference to support Fauntroy's actions. Sources said the press conference was called off after Fauntroy's office said it might undesirably spotlight the black-Jewish tensions.
And Barry, the city's most prominent black politician, again declined to comment on Fauntroy's efforts, which some fear may have put the city's Jewish and black communities closer to the edge of a serious split than any other time since the aftermath of the 1968 riots.
Sources said that a statement supporting Fauntroy had been drafted by Barry aides yesterday but was not released. On Tuesday, Barry's office said he might make a statement yesterday. But a spokesman for the mayor said that he did not know when the mayor might say something.
The spokesman, Kwame Holman, acknowledged that Fauntroy's press secretary, Eldridge Spearman, had called the mayor and expressed concern that the planned press conference would exacerbate black-Jewish tensions. But, Holman, said, "To my knowledge, that phone call and the fact that the mayor is not issuing a statement are not related.
"It is his consideration at this time that he not make a public statement regarding his opinion on Congressman Fauntroy's actions," Holman said.
The move toward moderation was the first such major effort since Fauntroy returned late last week from a five-day trip to Lebanon during which he visited Palestinian refugee camps and met with Arafat.
Upon his return, Fauntroy announced that he and Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had invited Arafat to speak at an SCLC sponsored educational forum on the Middle East to be held probably at the United Nations. (Fauntroy is SCLC chairman.)
The invitation to Arafat heightened the uneasiness of many Jews that arose after Fauntroy, in trying to establish an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the Middle East, met last month with PLO representative Zehdi Labib Terzi in New York.
Some Jewish leaders voiced a sense of anger and betrayal at Fauntroy's latest actions and questioned whether his Middle East effort was giving proper representation to his Washington constituents. Many black churchmen and Arab-Americans supported the Fauntroy campaign. They said that those who were calling his efforts inappopriate for a member of Congress were holding Fauntroy up to a double standard based on race.
Brant J. Coopersmith, chairman of the American Jewish Committee, said, "We don't want the spillover from the fight over the Middle East to poison what's going on. The Middle East is one thing and it's got to play itself out. What we were trying to do is prevent the spillover of any tension from foreign affairs into our community."
Coopersmith said that initially, plans for the point program to support full congressional voting rights, alleviate unemployment and increase voter registration, were not to be publicized immediately. "However," he said, "the situation became so critical because of the way the press was dealing with it."
Lillian Wiggins, chairman of the NAACP's political action committee, said, "We don't really know the dynamics of the problem of the Middle East. But we do know that we have problems here at home."
Wiggins said the statement was not critical of Fauntroy's actions. But, she said, there was some concern that Fauntroy's efforts might hurt the drive to win approval of a constitutional amendment that would give the District full voting representation in Congress. " . . . People who are angry and do not understand will take it out on the people of the District of Columbia," she said.
Of the Middle East issue, the joint statement said only, "We are committed to support the existence of the state of Israel within secure and defensible borders. We also believe in the existence of a homeland for the Palestinian Arabs outside the borders of Israel."
John Richards, public affairs director for the National Association of Arab Americans, called that a pro-Israeli stance. "That statement is open to so many interpretations. There is considerable, naivete on the part of the NAACP," Richards said. "It would be highly suspect by many Arabs and all Palestinians."