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Thursday, March 9, 2006 05:28 am

Stirring the pot

Hate-crime appointment brings out the haters

Through his inept handling of a silly little matter last week, Gov. Rod Blagojevich managed to make a real mess of things at the Illinois Statehouse, pitting black legislators against Jewish legislators and Jews against each other. This all started back in August, when Blagojevich appointed members to his Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crimes. The commission was first formed by Gov. George Ryan, but Blagojevich had never appointed any members until last year, when re-election season began to ramp up. One of those appointees was Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan’s director of protocol at the Nation of Islam. The appointment became an issue after Muhammad invited members of the commission to Farrakhan’s annual “Savior’s Day” address in Chicago. Farrakhan is not exactly an anti-hate type, and his Savior’s Day speech was no exception. “Don’t be afraid to love and don’t be afraid to hate,” he said. “It’s the wicked Jews, the false Jews, that are promoting lesbianism, homosexuality. It’s wicked Jews, false Jews, that make it a crime for you to preach the word of God, then they call you homophobic!” If Muhammad was simply a member of Farrakhan’s congregation, there might be some questions, but few would likely make a major deal out of this. But Muhammad is a high official with the Nation of Islam and one of Farrakhan’s close advisers. So questions were raised. Instead of addressing those questions, the governor stood by his appointment, claiming that Muhammad was in sync with the commission’s mission. But a few days later, the governor claimed that he didn’t know that Muhammad was a Farrakhan person, and it took his office several days to pry from her a weak, generic statement claiming support for the commission’s goals. Understandably, tempers began to flare at the Statehouse, and some Jewish legislators decided to act. Despite lots of pressure from the governor’s office, they held a press conference calling on Muhammad to fully explain her positions. Some African-American legislators took to the podium afterward to lash out at Muhammad’s critics, more than just implying racial motives. Then things really got bad. The day after the press conference, Lonnie Nasatir of the Anti-Defamation League resigned from the commission in protest. A few minutes later, Blagojevich appointed state Rep. Lou Lang to take Nasatir’s place. The appointment was obviously designed to show that the Jewish community was divided over the governor’s decision and to quell any media uproar. One out, one in, no big deal, no big story. But then, later that night, another prominent Jewish leader announced his resignation. When Richard Hirschhaut, director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, resigned, the governor was caught flat-footed. Blagojevich’s office had spent the day reaching out to other prominent Jewish leaders, but they didn’t have anyone ready to go when Hirschaut’s announcement came. Two out, one in, a very big deal — and a national story. The very next day, Lang resigned, along with another prominent Jewish leader, Howard Kaplan. Four out, none in — a complete disaster. Nobody would have uttered a peep of protest if Blagojevich had refused to appoint a Nation of Islam official to his hate-crimes commission last August. Few would have said a word when the story first broke if the governor had removed Muhammad, because opinions had yet to harden and the issue was not well known. But that’s not what happened. The governor blindly appointed someone from a list, then refused to change his mind, even though we now know that the governor didn’t know whether Muhammad was as hateful to Jews and gays as her boss is. Then he stuck by his position even though it took days to extract from her a generic statement of support for the commission’s goals (which should have set off major alarm bells). And, finally, he played a cynical game of divide-and-conquer with the Jewish community. The result of all of this is inflamed tension between black and Jewish legislators, who are usually natural legislative allies, and deeply hurt feelings within the Jewish delegation itself, which is now divided between ideological foes of Farrakhan and ultrapartisan supporters of the governor. All of this over a backwater commission which was so unimportant that the governor didn’t even bother to activate it for almost three years and which nobody ever heard of until last month and whose only purpose is to write a report that nobody will ever read. Thanks, Governor. Great job.
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