A world that seems full of things bad for the Jews

March 04, 1994|By Frank Rich

MY GRANDMOTHER, who was no fool, took a strict line on people and events. They fell into two categories: they were either good for the Jews or bad for the Jews.

In the simpler times of the 1950s, the bad-for-the-Jews list began with Hitler, always the gold standard, and descended all the way down to the jerk who elbowed his way to the front of the line at the Woodmont Country Club buffet. In between came Roy Cohn, Meyer Lansky and the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Good for the Jews were Adlai Stevenson, Abba Eban, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Eleanor Roosevelt and Sammy Davis Jr.

About the only public personality I remember being a close call, in my grandmother's eyes, was Elizabeth Taylor, when she converted to Judaism to marry Eddie Fisher after stealing him from Debbie Reynolds. Was this good for the Jews or bad? Though debated with Talmudic intensity up to the intrusion of Richard Burton, the issue was never resolved.

I can imagine my grandmother's voice now adjudicating the likes of Jerry Seinfeld (good for the Jews) and Michael Milken (you have to ask?).

But how would she have coped with the recent escalation of bad-for-the-Jews developments? My grandmother was worldly; her parents had known pogroms in the old country and her children had experienced anti-Semitism in the new. Even so,

she might not have retained her philosophic equilibrium when hearing of a Jewish terrorist like Baruch Goldstein. Nor would she have easily grasped the news of Hasidic blood spilled on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The more insidious poisons of hate polluting the air might have baffled her still more. For instance, I wonder what my grandmother, who ignored my parents' orders and let me stay up late to watch Jack Paar, would make of the extraordinary late-night talk show Arsenio Hall bestowed upon the nation last Friday night.

Mr. Hall's sole guest was Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Farrakhan did not turn up to play his violin a la Bill Clinton with his sax. He turned up to spread his message, and Arsenio Hall, a comedian presiding over a mainstream entertainment series, tacitly endorsed and promoted that message while pretending to conduct a neutral journalistic probe.

Boasting of "my research department," Mr. Hall told us that "I've never had this many notes for an interview." He threw in the names of Jewish friends he had consulted -- at least he didn't say they were some of his best friends -- and then let his guest filibuster.

Mr. Farrakhan explained to an acquiescent host that he wasn't a "new black Hitler" because he "never desired to put another human being in an oven" -- thank you so very much! -- as if this cleared him of all charges of anti-Semitism.

Mr. Farrakhan then plugged the anonymously written Nation of Islam book "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews" -- holding up this anti-Semitic screed like a product on QVC and claiming it to be a scholarly work by rabbis and eminent historians. "So if it is anti-Semitic," Mr. Farrakhan said, "the Jews themselves are the ones we are quoting." He attributed the book's fictional thesis, that Jews controlled the slave trade, to a historian from the respected American Jewish Historical Society.

But Mr. Hall made no effort to challenge or verify the statement. Had he made a simple phone call before or after the taping to Michael Feldberg, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society, he would have learned that that organization has clocked 84 distortions of fact in the first chapter alone of this pseudo-historical tome.

Later Mr. Farrakhan complimented his host as "not just an entertainer" but "a man of principle." What this supposed man of principle failed to see is any connection between his guest's loose talk and rising violence against Jews. Mr. Farrakhan, who is not stupid, had scored a victory. "Arsenio" gave him a wider audience beyond the partisans who might watch a Nation of Islam broadcast, a serious news program or a college address.

Thus was "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews" sugar-coated as mass entertainment -- on a show produced by that most prized of American media companies, Paramount, no less. In the tinderbox we live in now, a far cry from my grandmother's secure 1950s, this isn't just bad for the Jews but terrifying.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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