Ziman and Lee hold hands, pledge friendship

A highly charged controversy between two self-described “passionate” advocates, one African American, the other Jewish, appears to have ended on Thursday (May 1), with pledges of mutual friendship and future cooperation.

Following a closed-door, three hour meeting the two principals in the case, joined by national and local leaders, declared an end to a confrontation that had grown from a local incident to a widely reported national and international story, fueled by barrages of e-mails and blogs.

The initial spark was ignited April 4, when Daphna Ziman, the Israel-born wife of wealthy real estate investor Richard Ziman (she serves as his partner in numerous political and philanthropic causes), was honored by a historically-black fraternity for her work with foster children.

The keynote speaker was the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president and CEO of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Ziman alleged that during Lee’s talk he accused Hollywood Jews of exploiting black artists and perpetuating black stereotypes in films and that he rejected any future collaboration with the Jewish community.

Ziman left the dinner in tears and immediately sent e-mails to some friends and to The Journal. The reaction was more than she had expected.

“I just sent out eight e-mails,” she said, “and next morning I had millions of responses.”

The number may be slightly exaggerated, but it was obvious that her charges hit a deep nerve in some segments of the Jewish community. A declaration by Lee strongly denying the statements attributed to him did nothing to slow the story’s spread to national and international media, pundits and bloggers.

Since Ziman also made allusions in her e-mails to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and has given considerable support to rival candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, politics inevitably inflamed the incident and added to its intensity and news value.

Concerned by the growing acrimony, Esther Renzer, international president of the StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy organization headquartered in Los Angeles, phoned a friend, Rabbi Marc Schneier, for help.

Schneier, a New York Orthodox rabbi, is founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which aims for better black-Jewish, and now Muslim-Jewish, understanding.

He, in turn, contacted Charles Steele Jr. of Atlanta, SCLC’s national president and CEO, and both flew to Los Angeles this week for the hoped-for reconciliation meeting.

Joining them at a roundtable in Ziman’s Beverly Hills home were Ziman, Lee and Renzer, as well as Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League; Rabbi Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am; and Roz Rothstein, international director and CEO of StandWithUs.

Following their three-hour private lunch and discussion, the eight participants spent another two hours talking to three reporters.

Judging by the determinedly upbeat comments of the participants, their private deliberations had touches of a peace summit, a revival meeting and an exploration of past, present and future relations between the African American and Jewish communities.

Ziman and Lee, sitting side by side and occasionally linking hands, were a picture of amity and good will, with both crediting their reconciliation to “divine intervention.”

Ziman noted that in the past three weeks she had moved “from shedding tears to a sense of hope” and stressed that those present had a responsibility not to damage future generations through prejudice.

“I request the pledge of every religious leader in the United States that no racism be spouted in public places and places of worship,” she said.

Lee described Ziman and himself as “two passionate and well-intentioned people who both love God.”

Participants frequently invoked the name and example of Martin Luther King Jr. and noted that their meeting was taking place on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Schneier sought to put the meeting into the larger context of black-Jewish relations over the decades, from the halcyon days of the civil rights struggle, to the acrimony of the early 1990s and the Crown Heights riots, to a certain healing process in recent years.

“Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t have called on the leader of the SCLC to join me because there were no communications between African Americans and Jews,” he said.

According to Schneier, enlightened black leadership “skipped one generation,” between King and the current evolving leadership, with the generation in between including such divisive figure as Louis Farrakhan and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former pastor.

Schneier expressed hope that “Obama can right Wright.”

Participants in the “peace summit” said there had been no advance assurance that a reconciliation would be achieved, but did not make clear by what process the parties had been finally brought together.

In pledging their future cooperation, Lee noted that he has invited Ziman to address his congregation, while she mentioned possible cooperative projects between a Jewish day school, such as the Milken Community High School, and a predominantly black inner city school.

Lee and Ziman, asked separately whether they regretted any of the words and actions that led to the confrontation, responded in different ways.

Lee observed that though he has held Passover seders at his congregation for the past 10 years, “I have learned a lot during the past three weeks, which have been the most difficult of my life.”

Ziman explained that she had “acted instinctively” when confronted with perceived anti-Semitic slurs, but did not regret her subsequent actions.

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