A group of black civil rights leaders seeking a role in Middle East peacemaking met with Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders today and then appeared to soft-pedal the support they had given a day earlier to Palestinian "self-determination."
Southern Christian Leadership Conference President Joseph E. Lowery refused to use the words "self-determination or "homeland" after his meeting with Israeli U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Blum today.
Lowery had announced support for Palestinian "self-determination in regard to their own homeland" after his meeting on Monday with a PLO representative to the United Nations.
"We make no apologies for our support of the human rights of all Palestinians," Lowery said after meeting with Blum today. He and SCLC chairman and D.C. Delegate Walter Fauntroy ducked the question of whether they had changed their position after meeting with the Israelis, and both sought to avoid discussing any of the technicalities of the longstanding Middle East problems.
"We are not political experts . . . We are messengers of peace," Lowery said. Fauntroy added, "The issue for us is peace in the Middle East."
"We came out of our meeting with the same position we went in with. That position was not supporting either side, but asking both parties to abandon the use of violence, to recognize each other's human rights and the right of self-determination. There was no soft-pedaling," Fauntroy told a reporter this evening.
At the same time that they met with Lowery's group, Israelis and American Jews put out calls today to other black leaders, seeking to make sure they would not follow the SCLC endorsement of self-determination for Palestinians.
No black leaders here spoke up in defense of the SCLC group. Urban League President Vernon Jordan let it be known that he would make no public statement until after his scheduled meeting Wednesday with the leaders of several black organizations.
American Jewish leaders hammered away privately and publicly on the theme that it was a mistake for the SCLC even to meet with Zehdi Labib Terzi, the Palestine Liberation Organization's U.N. observer.
"We think it was a grave error lending legitamacy to an organization committed to terrorism and violence," Howard Squandron, president of the American Jewish Committee, said after meeting with the SCLC group.
That meeting was tough going for both sides. Borrowing a phrase from the language of diplomats, the Jewish leaders called it "frank and candid," which means harsh and lacking in agreement. According to one participant, questions of black-Jewish relations were discussed as well as problems of the Middle East.
Lowery did not mention Palestinian human rights in his brief statement after the meeting with representatives of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-defamation League. He stressed only that the SCLC would continue its efforts to end violence and bring about a peaceful resolution in the Middle East.
Al Sampson, a member of Lowery's group, denied that his delegation was backpedaling from its position following Monday's meeting with the PLO. However, it seemed clear after the long day of meetings today that the SCLC had found that its statement on Palestinian self-determination brought little immediate applause and a lot of counter pressure.
The meeting with Ambassador Blum appeared likely to lead to no long term improvements in relations between American blacks and Israelis despite the softening of SCLC public statements.
Blum's description of the meeting to a crowd of reporters was patronizing at times. He criticized the SCLC for making any statement before it had heard Israel's position, and he said some of the arguments he presented were news to the civil rights leaders.
Blum said Lowery had a "misconception of the nature of the PLO." The Israeli ambassador said that "in U.N. parlance" self-determination means statehood, so Lowery contradicted himself when he said he favored Palestinian self-determination but stopped short of urging a Palestinian state.
Blum said he met with the group in the spirit in which Israel's representatives stand ready to talk with any Americans.
Wyatt Tee Walker, a member of the SCLC group, said Blum's remarks "display the paternalistic attitude endemic in white society." Walker and other members of the group told reporters they were upset by Blum's apparent condescension.
Even the SCLC leaders' advocacy of nonviolence, as the heirs of the organization founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., came under fire in today's meeting.
Some of the American Jews challenged that devotion to nonviolence because the SCLC had sought a meeting with the PLO, which has practiced terrorism.
The PLO, as SCLC members heard repeatedly today, also has a charter that calls for destruction of Israel.
After their two days of trying to involve themselves in the Middle East process in a glare of media coverage, it was not clear what the SCLC group had achieved.
"We've now completed the first phase of a process of communicating," Fauntroy said.
The black civil rights leaders who rushed into the Middle East arena in the wake of the resignation of U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, once one of the SCLC's senior officials, also have seen firsthand how high passions run on Middle East subjects.
Lowery, asked what had been achieved, replied that his group carried a message to both sides that the killing must stop, but said that the role of messengers was different from that of managers and it was time for the managers to work on the problems some more.
The SCLC leaders carried the message of peace and nonviolence to a capacity crowd tonight in Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem, where the leaders, all ministers, got standing ovations from an enthusiastic congregation.
The ministers delivered emotional sermons saying that they were working for "God's purpose." Several said the community meeting was a "morale lifting" welcome home to the SCLC leaders who, during two days of talks with the PLO and Israeli and American Jewish leaders, have faced skepticism and criticism.
"I have felt tired these past days, but seeing you here tonight I don't feel tired no more," Lowery said, his arms outstretched and his voice rising and lowering for emphasis.
Walker, the church's minister, set the tone for the meeting by saying: "To be pro-Israel does not mean I am anti-Palestinian; to be pro-Palestinian does not mean I am anti-Israel. There are enough resources for the Palestinians and the Israelis to live together in God's world.
"All you have to do is go to a Palestinian refugee camp one time and you will know that the Palestinians are the niggers of the Mideast."
Throughout the meeting, ministers lauded the late Martin Luther King Jr., as a moral voice and prophet of this generation. The Rev. Timothy Mitchell, chairman of the board of the National Council of Black Churches, said, "Andy Young and Lowery follow in the same tradition. Black folks are not anti-Semitic; we are anti-oppressor. There is a difference between inter-group rivalry and anti-Semitism."
Lowery blasted the PLO and Israel with equal fervor for violence and for not accepting that "each side exists and will not go away."
"We have not endorsed the PLO," he said, leaning forward on the podium to stress his point as television lights glared and cameras whirred. "We have endorsed justice."
Fauntroy stressed that black leaders can take an active role in international affairs. , international affairs.