IT IS TIME for more blacks -- as well as many others -- to speak out about what has become known, misleadingly, as the "black-Jewish rift."
I do not mean they should complain about the circumstances surrounding Andrew Young's resignation as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which triggered the whole affair. A great deal has been said about that already, and it turns out that blacks have little to complain about on that score.
It is time, instead, for more blacks to question efforts by some black leaders to forge new links with the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is time to make it clear that these efforts probably won't help bring about peace in the Middle East -- but rather hurt those prospects. It is time to let it be known that those efforts aren't likely to help the U.S. civil rights movement or American blacks in particular -- but possibly damage them both.
Perhaps most of all, it is time to impress upon the country that the Young episode and the ensuing events are not really a "black-Jewish" issue after all but one generating far broader emotions and consequences at home and abroad.
This entire episode has been misunderstood partly because of misguided reporting by the media, because of concentration on the rhetoric of some black leaders who do not speak for all blacks. Black America is no longer monolithic, and it is a serious mistake -- a racist mistake -- to assume that any one or two black leaders speak for all.
In part, it also has been misunderstood because many have been eager to avoid giving even the slightest hint of offense, real or imagined, to any black leader. But such false "fairness" can only be regarded as racially patronizing and itself offensive. If Jesse Jackson or Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or anybody else cannot be criticized in a civil and intelligent manner by Jews, Catholics, journalists, other blacks, union leaders or whomever, then America has misunderstood the meaning of racial equality, indeed of democratic politics.
At the heart of most mistakes about the dispute is this false "racial" quality it has taken on, beginning with Young's resignation. Contrary to the widespread belief in the black community, racism had little or nothing to do with Young's departure. Young quit because he was caught breaching the generally accepted code of behavior for diplomats. As more facts have become known in the past few weeks, it has become evident that anyone who shouts "racism!" or blames Young's departure on Jewish pressure must be regarded at best as illinformed.
It is, of course, easy to understand the depth of black anger over the Young affair. As the Carter administration's most visible "reward" for black support, the Young appointment carried immense symbolic importance. For many blacks, his resignation under pressure seemed to signal the end of black influence in Washington. But while such a perception may be understandable, it has no basis in reality.
Nor is there any reality to suggestions that the issue is whether blacks should be involved in foreign policy. Some black leaders reacted to criticism of their new PLO contacts by claiming themselves that Jews and other critics sought to silence the black voice in foreign affairs. But so far as I am aware, no one in the Jewish community, the State Department or anywhere else ever suggested that. The appropriateness of black leaders and organizations adopting foreign policy positions -- and not just on Africa -- has been so well established since Dr. Martin Luther King spoke out against the Vietnam war in the 1960s that nobody could take such a suggestion seriously if it were ever made.
This unjustified attention to racial and ethnic considerations thus has ripped the debate out of context and, among other things, needlessly polarized many in the black and Jewish communities. If one relied solely on press reports, in fact, it might be possible to conclude that, within American society, Jews are the only supporters of Israel and all of them back the more hardline factions there, while blacks all embrace Yassar Arafat and are the only proponents of moving more in the Arab direction. Hindering peace efforts
What has become obscured are the more far-reaching and potentially dangerous consequences of black relations with the PLO.
The principal danger is simple: The private diplomacy of some black leaders, including contacts with the Palestinian terrorists, jeapordizes the fragile peace process begun in 1977 with Egyptian President Sadat's historic meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Begin.
This process offers the best hope yet of resolving the Mideast conflict. It is a tortorously slow and delicate process, but important progress has been made. Now, however, the so-called "rejectionist" elements of the Arab world, those, led by the PLO, who would destroy the peace process, have found an unwitting ally in sections of the U.S. civil rights movement.
To listen to Jesse Jackson and some other black figures, one might think that the Camp David accords were never agreed to, that no movement toward peace has occurred anywhere in the Mideast for years. While touring the West Bank serveral weeks ago, for example, Jackson declared: "Someone must have the strength to break the cycle of terror and pain. America must become a partner in peace." He apparently is under the illusion that neither Sadat nor Begin, both of whom risked a great deal at Camp David, has displayed any "strength to break the cycle of terror and pain."
Jackson and SCLC president Lowery also seem to believe that the long-festering Mideast problem is rooted chiefly in some communications breakdown, or perhaps in stubborness born of human pride. Therefore, they say, they have attempted to act as mediators and peacemakers between the PLO and Israel. Addressing worshippers at a Lutheran church in Jerusalem, Jackson said: "I shall appeal to the PLO to stop their tactics of terrorism, to recognize Israel's right and need to exist, to articulate its own goal for self-determination and a homeland and to fight for peaceful coexistence."
While Jackson's appeal to the PLO to shun violence has a genuine quality about it, it is largely meaningless. Yassar Arafat and other PLO leaders are not people who have taken to the gun with great remorse. They are not peaceful, gentle souls who might someday consider assaulting Israeli society with picket lines, choruses of "We Shall Overcome" or voter registration drives. The PLO is a terrorist movement whose tactics are little different from those of America's Ku Klux Klan, Germany's Baader-Meinhoff Gang and Italy's Red Brigades.
The PLO, moreover, is clearly a Soviet client, not an independent entity. If Arafat, as the result of moral argument, should miraculously experience a conversion and disavow terrorism, it is doubtful that the Soviet Union would allow PLO control to remain for long in the hands of a born-again pacifist. To approach the Mideast problem as a problem of "hard-heartedness," then, is at the least unproductive, no matter how well meaning.
I have little doubt that the PLO leaders are chuckling as they recall lectures on non-violent protest and hands joined to sing "We Shall Overcome." While they can hardly take Jackson's mediation efforts seriously, they do understand the enormous political benefit to be reaped from their demonstration of PLO solidarity with some American black leaders.
Sadly, the visits of some black leaders to PLO strongholds are bound to strengthen the resolve of the PLO as well as the hard-line "rejectionist" states as they resist -- and, as they have stated, hope to destroy -- the peace process started by Sadat and Begin. The sight of U.S. civil rights leaders chanting "We will be free, we can win, we ought to win" can only lead some Arab and PLO leaders to believe in the fantasy that a mass-based pro-PLO constituency will emerge someday in the United States. That hope alone might well help keep moderate Arab states away from the peace process.
Similarly, on the Israeli side, any indication of a growing PLO constituency in the United States, a constituency that might further tilt U.S. policy toward the PLO position, strengthens the hard-line bloc in Begin's own Likud Party. On both sides, in other words, the inflexible factions stand to gain the most from the black leaders' efforts. That is a good way to damage the peace process, not to advance it.
Some blacks, of course, has cited as their concern the suffering that might result from any new Arab oil embargo. While it is certainly true that blacks would be hurt disproportionately if Arab countries again attempted to blackmail the United States and other Western nations by cutting off their oil supplies, it is also true that the Arabs have granted few if any economic concessions to nations that support the Arab cause.
Democratic Rep. Cardiss Collins of Illinois, who chairs the Congressional Black Causus, made exactly this point last July in a speech to the Zionist Organization of Chicago.
"Investment in Africa has not been forthcoming [from Arab states]," she stated. "The oil states have failed to provide promised price breaks of preferential treatment. Indeed, many of Africa's poorest countries have been pushed towards economic disarray by the unremitting, uncompromising and unconscionable price increases imposed on rich and poor alike by oil-producing states."
In light of the Arab treatment of African nations -- almost all of which severed their diplomatic ties with Israel -- there is little reason to hope that they would have great compassion for America's blacks. Hurting the movement
In addition to the profound consequences in the Middle East, the actions of Jackson, Lowery and some other black leaders will, in all probability, harm the entire U.S. civil rights movement.
Already, the spectacle of leaders committed to nonviolence embracing avowed terrorists has led some people -- mistakenly, I believe -- to question the sincerity and motives of all civil rights activists. Although those like Jackson and Lowery carefully explain that they are seeking to establish a dialogue between the PLO and Israel, their bouyant enthusiasm and warm embraces of Afarat leave many people mainly with those memories and with only vague recollections of appeals for nonviolence. While these popular perceptions admittedly results from the peculiar practices of the media, those black leaders who traveled to the Mideast should have been more concerned about the inevitable damage that would be done.
Similarly, those blacks who met with PLO representatives should be prepared to respond to accusations that their trips were in fact deliberately intended as "media events." Philip Blazer, a Jewish leader who organized anti-Nazi marches in Skokie with Jesse Jackson, has already openly accused Jackson of using his Mideast voyage as a publicity stunt. "Jackson's one constituency," Blazer said, "is the media."
While I do not necessarily agree with that charge, I must admit that to many Americans -- blacks and well as others -- the Jackson and SCLC delegation trips do indeed appear to be calculated to produce immense visibility. Correct or not, this widespread impression is there, and it does tend to place the entire civil rights movement in a bad light. Worse, it makes the civil rights movement -- or, more correctly, what is taken to be the civil rights movement by most Americans -- appear to be frantically grasping for a new issue, a new rallying point, and to distract attention from other urgent issues, from full employment and energy to tax policy and cuts in social welfare funds.
Finally, the links of some blacks with the PLO threatens to undermine the liberal coalition, the political alliance of minority groups, trade unions and liberals that is responsible for almost all the advances made in civil rights and social reform. Indeed, it is already clear that some important non-Jewish coalition elements, most notably the trade unions, have been profoundly angered by black gestures to the PLO.
John Lyons, president of the Ironworkers Union and a prominent member of the ALF-CIO Executive Council, made this clear late last month in an address to the Jewish Labor Committee. "I can imagine a no more disgusting sight than the beaming face of Yassar Arafat surrounded by SCLC leaders singing "'We Shall Overcome,'" Lyons said.
While stressing the democratic values that for so long have bound together the liberal coalition, Lyons also issued an unambiguous warning: "If any elements in our coalition of interests, however sincere and well-motivated, should be short-sighted enough, in the pursuit of short-term goals, to give aid and comfort to the enemies of democracy, then we have an obligation to point out to them that they are hurting all of us."
Lyons' points were later echoed in a statement by Thomas R. Donahue, executive assistant to retiring AFL-CIO president George Meany. Donahue called overtures by some blacks toward the PLO as "obscenity."
The Rev. George G. Higgins of the United States Catholic Conference, who has been in the forefront of civil rights struggles, expressed other pertinent concerns when he wrote: "To cut the black community away from its longest and strongest ally in the struggle for equality at a time of crisis is, in the long-range view, self-defeating. Before going down the road of legitimizing the use of terrorism as a political tactic, the heirs of Martin Luther King's doctrine of non-violence might well want to reflect on who, ultimately, will be the beneficiaries of a split in the black-Jewish coalition."
Self-interest, always an important and justifiable consideration, should not be the sole or even principal argument against black links with Arafat. Instead, blacks, having won their rights through and organized pressure, should speak out against the PLO because that terrorist group continually flaunts the political power of violence and openly mocks the values and goals that American blacks have fought for and cherished.
If blacks remain silent on the PLO, they will have gone a long way toward forfeiting the enormous moral prestige won by their firm and courageous allegiance to nonviolence and democratic principles. Without this moral prestige, further economic and social progress for black people will be difficult, if not impossible, in an increasingly hostile and conservative society.