Shortly before the Rev. Louis Farrakhan's Madison Square Garden speech, The New York Times asked influential blacks what they thought of Farrakhan's anti-Semitic statements. In other words, did they approve of Farrakhan's message or were they appalled at his anti-Semitism, his raw hatred, his call for racial separateness and his antipathy toward whites in general? Guess what the right answer is supposed to be.

Most of the black leaders answered as expected. A few balked at being asked, and some had to qualify their condemnation, but most of those queried said precisely what most any group of Americans would: Anti-Semitism and anti-Semites are to be condemned. If the shoe fits, Minister Farrakhan, then wear it.

So far, so good. The problem, though, is that from the questions -- and the answers -- you would get the impression that Farrakhan is of concern just to Jews and represents a threat of some urgency only to them -- even a physical one. He is discussed as if he were the storied Cossack of old, sword unsheathed, galloping off to kill Jews for either sport or Christ, depending on who's doing the asking. Take to the hills, Minister Farrakhan is coming!

But if only because America is not Czarist Russia, Farrakhan is no threat to Jews. On the contrary, he is a threat to blacks. By claiming to speak for them he demeans an entire movement. This is a man who has made no significant contribution to the cause of civil rights, who until recently didn't even vote, who is so busy threatening the lives of his critics and then denying that he actually meant what he said, that someday -- maybe soon -- we will be hard-pressed to understand why anyone much paid attention to him. In the meantime, the serious work of making life better for America's blacks is being trivialized.

Worse than that, he is a diversion. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism amounts to what it has been from time immemorial -- scapegoating. Those blacks who think that Jews are their enemy, that American Jews -- the shock troops of white liberalism -- are what's holding them back, are worse than just deluded. They are off on history's classic wild goose chase -- yet another posse of bigots chasing Jews while the real culprits pillage their town. Anti-Semitism will not ameliorate the black condition one iota. Instead, it will worsen it.

But anti-Semitism is not Farrakhan's only diversion. Racial separatism is another. As distinguished from pride or self-reliance, it is an enormous folly, destructive of the social fabric, hostile to the American ideal and costly to blacks themselves. Tell Stevie Wonder he should sing only to blacks. Tell Bill Cosby he shouldn't make whites laugh. Tell Wilson Goode he should seek the votes of blacks only, or tell Thomas Sowell that the books he writes should be read just by blacks like him.

There is historical irony in Farrakhan's anti- Semitism. From time to time the wretched and oppressed Jews of the Diaspora latched on to a False Messiah, someone who instilled pride and hope, who claimed a personal relationship with God and who promised miracles that invariably failed for what are now called technical reasons. These False Messiahs were also a diversion, a waste of time -- Pied Pipers who could summon hope out of misery and then cruely dash it. It is the same with Farrakhan. At best, he leads nowhere. At worst, he is a step backward.

History teaches that anti-Semitism should never be dismissed out of hand. But in the case of Farrakhan, the obsession with what he means to Jews obscures what he means to blacks. If his anti-Semitism and separatism truly pose a threat, it is to blacks and to a racial progress built on the hard work of blacks and whites. Farrakhan's true victims are not his scapegoats. They are in his audience.