Reverend Al Sharpton and his friends in the Reform Movement
Reverend Al Sharpton and his friends in the Reform Movement

There was a time when someone who made an antisemitic or viciously anti-Israel remark would be expected to publicly and explicitly apologize before the American Jewish community would have anything to do with him or her. Sadly, the times have changed and the old standards are crumbling.

Until now, the generally-accepted practice in the Jewish community has been to refrain from having friendly relationships with anyone who has made antisemitic statements and failed to apologize for them. 
Cynics always viewed such apologies as the equivalent of foxhole conversions— remorse that was expressed for the sake of political or financial gain, not out of genuine conviction. That may be true, but at least such apologies helped establish what was acceptable, and what was not acceptable, in American society.  

But these days, the offenders are discovering that such apologies are no longer necessary.

Take the notorious case of Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and her declaration that congressional support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins, baby.” In other words, Jewish money controls Congress. Classic antisemitism.

After a storm of criticism, Omar issued a non-apology apology. It had two parts. Part one was to portray herself as a victim: “We have to always be willing to step back and think through criticism, just as I expect people to hear me when others attack me for my identity.” She didn’t reveal who it is that supposedly is “attacking” her for her “identity.”

Then came part two, where Omar claimed to be apologizing while, in effect, doubling down on her anti-Jewish slur: “This is why I unequivocally apologize. At the same time, I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC, the NRA or the fossil fuel industry. It's gone on too long and we must be willing to address it."

Her colleague Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) recently made a similar remark, and then refused to apologize at all. Earlier this year, Tlaib said that congressional opponents of BDS “forgot what country they represent.” In other words, they represent Israel. Because, of course, the Jews control Congress.

Rather than apologize, Rep. Tlaib later defended her remark on the grounds that pro-Israel congressmen “are seeking to strip Americans of their Constitutional right to free speech.” She has also loudly proclaimed (in response to criticism over one of her other statements), “I will never apologize for being me, and for being passionate and upset.”

Omar and Tlaib’s ideological cohort, Rev. Al Sharpton, last week discovered that many Jews are willing to embrace him even though he still refuses to apologize for helping to incite the anti-Jewish violence in Crown Heights in 1991, in which a Jewish man, Yankel Rosenbaum, was murdered and many others were injured. 

Eyewitnesses and news reports at the time documented that Sharpton helped incite the mobs with his shouts that the Jews of Crown Heights were “diamond merchants,” that the Hatzoloh ambulance service is an “apartheid ambulance service,” and that the Jews needed to “pay for [their] deeds!”

In 1995, Sharpton incited the violent firebombing of Jewish-owned Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem, causing the deaths of seven. 

Even though he has never apologized for what he did, Sharpton was invited to address a conference organized by Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, in Washington, DC, last week.

Until now, the generally-accepted practice in the Jewish community has been to refrain from having friendly relationships with anyone who has made antisemitic statements and failed to apologize for them. 

In his remarks at the Reform event, Sharpton referred vaguely to some “excesses” that he committed in the past—but he didn’t say what they were. He implied that he should have “done more to heal, rather than harm”—but he didn’t say who was harmed.

Then he related an alleged conversation he had with Coretta Scott King, the widow of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which she supposedly urged him to not “say cheap things to get cheap applause.” But once again, Sharpton declined to acknowledge that he had ever done any such thing.

Words such as “apologize,” “sorry,” and “Crown Heights” never crossed his lips. It’s sad that the leaders of Reform Judaism did not insist on a full apology before—or at least during—Sharpton’s address. 

Equally surprising is that the Reform leaders, who have been at the forefront in defending gay rights, did not insist that Sharpton apologize for his 1994 speech at Kean College. That was the speech where he was ranting about achievements by blacks throughout history, and announced: “We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it!”

Why is “Reverend Al” allowed to get away with such outrages? It seems that it’s all about politics. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the most important consideration is that “Reverend Sharpton has stood with us these past couple of years” on immigration, racism, and various other issues of concern to the Reform movement. 

The Reform leadership has given Sharpton a clean slate simply because he is a useful political ally. This drastically lowers the “forgive and forget” bar. It says that an unrepentant inciter of antisemitic violence does not have to pay any price in order to be embraced by at least a large part of the Jewish community. He doesn’t even have to mutter a perfunctory apology. All he has to do is take politically correct positions. That is the wrong way to deal with bigots.

Stephen M. Flatow, an attorney in New Jersey, is the father of Alisa Flatow, who was murdered in an Iranian-sponsored Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995. He is the author of “A Father’s Story: My Fight For Justice Against Iranian Terror.”