L'affaire Ziman-Lee made its way today onto the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. Seriously. The focus of the piece was on the historic friendship between Martin Luther King Jr. and Jews, and the author, who was King's attorney, says the great civil rights leader would have been sickened by what the Rev. Eric Lee supposedly said.
(In case you need a reminder, Jewish philanthropist Daphna Ziman, who was being honored by a historically black fraternity for her work with foster kids, claims Lee said, "The Jews have made money on us in the music business and we are the entertainers, and they are economically enslaving us." Lee denied using those words, "unequivocally" denounced anti-Semitism and apologized for any "misunderstandings.")
It was bad enough that the event took place on April 4, the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. Even more galling, Mr. Lee is the president-CEO of the L.A. branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Foundation – the very civil-rights organization co-founded by the slain civil-rights leader.The strangest thing to me about this op-ed is that the author, Clarence B. Jones, assumes that because Lee apologized he must have said what Ziman claims he said. (A confusing line of thought, I know.)
Martin would have been repelled by Mr. Lee's remarks. I was his lawyer and one of his closest advisers, and I can say with absolute certainty that Martin abhorred anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Zionism. "There isn't anyone in this country more likely to understand our struggle than Jews," Martin told me. "Whatever progress we've made so far as a people, their support has been essential."
Martin was disheartened that so many blacks could be swayed by Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam and other black separatists, rejecting his message of nonviolence, and grumbling about "Jew landlords" and "Jew interlopers" – even "Jew slave traders." The resentment and anger displayed toward people who offered so much support for civil rights was then nascent. But it has only festered and grown over four decades. Today, black-Jewish relations have arguably grown worse, not better.
For that, Martin would place fault principally on the shoulders of black leaders such as Louis Farrakhan, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – either for making anti-Semitic statements, inciting anti-Semitism (including violence), or failing to condemn overt anti-Semitism within the black community.
Lee told me that he had spoken of Jewish influence in the entertainment industry but that he laid off such incendiary language as "economically enslaving us." I've been careful to not taint my reporting on this topic with conjectures about was and wasn't said. But it seems clear that, at the least, Lee was unaware of how sensitive some members of the Jewish community are to suggestions they control the media. As Richard Silverstein said in a blog post critical of Ziman's effort to attract attention to what she heard:
It appears to me that Lee is a tone-deaf African-American minister who hasn’t yet learned how to speak in a nuanced fashion about the issues he wants to address. He verges on anti-Semitism without quite coming right out and saying anything that is explicitly so. Slightly troubling? Maybe. ...Whatever was said, Lee and Ziman plan to reconcile tomorrow at her Beverly Hills home. PR flaks have been retained and plane tickets booked for Charles Steele, head of the SCLC, and Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.
The fact is that Lee did in fact get very close to saying what he claims he doesn’t believe.