Philadelphia Black and Jewish leaders come together to clear the air, work on solutions

There’s been an unspoken tension since the local NAACP chapter president shared an anti-Semitic meme.

Jared Jackson, executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, speaking at a roundtable with Black and Jewish leaders on Tuesday night.

Jared Jackson, executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, speaking at a roundtable with Black and Jewish leaders on Tuesday night.

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Update, Aug. 26: The national NAACP will temporarily take over the organization’s Philly chapter and replace all of its leadership, the Philadelphia Tribune reports, expecting to appoint a new administrator by early September. Also reported is an explicit apology from Rodney Muhammad, in a statement that says, “I apologize for my previous post and the hurt this has caused, and I regret the insult, pain, and offense it brought to all, especially those of the Jewish community.”

It’s been a month since Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad shared an anti-Semitic meme on Facebook, sparking backlash from national Jewish organizations and calls for the civil rights leader’s resignation.

Until this week, Muhammad had yet to offer a firm apology, and the NAACP has largely stood by him. The national organization had made motions about holding a dialogue, but talks did not come to fruition.

On Tuesday night, local Black and Jewish leaders moved the needle forward on their own terms — noticeably, without Muhammad’s presence.

The Concerned Clergy Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia hosted a livestream discussion with representatives from both communities, including rabbis, pastors and organizational leaders. Over the course of an hour, the group met in person to discuss the fallout from the social media post, examine the underlying tensions and look at a path forward.

“We are weeping, we are mourning,” said Rabbi Annie Lewis of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. “We are calling out to dismantle racism and anti-Semitism, having the courage to interrupt hatred when we see it coming from our communities.”

Here are the takeaways.

Pastor: ‘If no one else says I’m sorry, then I’ll say it’

Bishop J. Louis Felton, the pastor of Mt. Airy Church of God in Christ and vice president of the local NAACP chapter, did not mince words in addressing what he called “the proverbial elephant in the room.”

“We are here to acknowledge the fact that we have a problem,” Felton said. “There has been significant damage done…and sometimes organizations are slow to react to address critical situations.”

Without naming him, Felton slammed Muhammad for his lack of apology and actions to mend the damage done by his post over the last month.

“If no one else says I’m sorry, then I’ll say it,” Felton said. “I’m sorry that there was no immediate action taken between respective organizations. I’m here in pain, because I know my brothers and sisters are hurting.”

Groups including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia have called for Muhammad to step down. Mayor Jim Kenney, a political ally whose campaign paid Muhammad as a consultant, also asked him to resign.

Muhammad has not made any public outreach to local Jewish groups since the incident erupted into public light. An organizer said he was not invited to the Tuesday roundtable.

NAACP VP affirms organization is with Muhammad, he won’t resign

St. Jude Baptist Church’s Pastor Cleveland Edwards, second vice president of the Philadelphia NAACP, elaborated a bit on the president’s defense, but also strongly condemned Muhammad’s leadership.

Edwards reiterated Muhammad’s early remarks that he didn’t notice the blatantly anti-Semitic images in the meme when he shared it.

“He told us that he’s not anti-Jewish,” Edwards said. “But my thing is that he has not come out and really apologized the way he should. Our faith — our Christian faith and our Jewish faith — is about forgiveness.”

Edwards confirmed the NAACP organization as a whole stands by Muhammad as chapter president. A vote among Pennsylvania chapter leaders took place earlier this month. Edwards said he abstained from voting.

“My biggest fear is that he won’t be effective as a leader because of this mistake,” he added. “I don’t think he’s going to resign and no one is going to force him to resign.”

‘Unexamined racism’ and anti-Semitism: issues on both sides

Throughout the hour-long dialogue, leaders largely breathed a sigh of relief to be discussing the topic in a public forum after weeks of rising tensions and continued silence from the NAACP.

Both Black and Jewish leaders acknowledged some of the root issues.

“There is unexamined racism in the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Lewis.

Felton, who said he would be “disavowed” for speaking out so forcefully, said it was beholden on Black groups to speak out against anti-Semitism as forcefully as they do anti-Black racism. To him, that should have been Muhammad’s role in the fallout from his post.

“What I expect you to do as a leader is come out swinging against it,” Felton said. “That did not happen.”

Dr. Steven Avinger noted that moving forward, Jewish and Black people would need to find a common language for addressing problems. Jared Jackson, executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, suggested “white supremacy” as a common target.

“[It] can’t exist without drawing on racism and anti-Semitism at the same time,” Jackson said. “We have to work at both of those at the same time.”

Steve Rosenberg, the CFO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia who has vocally condemned Muhammad and the NAACP for failing to remove him, said his spirit was lifted by the dialogue.

“You’re not standing alone,” Rosenberg told Black leaders. “Not as long as I’m around.”

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