Marion Barry may have been D.C’s “Mayor for Life” and may get “the greatest send-off” that Washington can provide, but the Jewish community should not applaud his public persona. In his governmental roles, Marion Barry was no friend of the Jews or of Israel.
I was president of the Greater Washington Jewish Community Council between 1982 and 1984. That was the period of the Lebanon war, when The Washington Post’s coverage forced me to meet for substantial and difficult discussions with the Post’s editorial staff, including Meg Greenfield and Ben Bradlee. It was also a period of significant activity in D.C. on behalf of Soviet Jewry.
Jews were under siege from various sources. Louis Farrakhan, an outspoken vicious black anti-Semite, was gaining popularity within the African-American community. Jesse Jackson, then a respected leader in the black community, announced in January 1984 that he was running for president, and he told an African-American reporter in a candid interview that he viewed New York as “Hymietown.” Farrakhan supported Jackson, as did D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was at the height of his popularity. He had been re-elected mayor in 1982 with 58 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary and 82 percent of the vote in the general election. The 1990 drug arrest was to come years later.
Representatives of the Jewish community asked Barry in 1984 to condemn Farrakhan or, at least, to sever ties with Farrakhan and to disassociate himself from Jackson’s “Hymietown” slur. Barry did neither. It took several months for him finally to criticize – albeit mildly – Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic rants. Nor did Barry express any support for Israel in its struggle against Yasser Arafat and the terrorist PLO or provide any support for the Soviet Jewry struggle. To my knowledge, he never showed up at the daily Soviet Jewry vigil in front of the Soviet Embassy.
The organization then known as “NCRAC” – the National Community Relations Advisory Council – decided to hold its annual plenum in Washington, D.C., in February 1984. It was, of course, natural to invite the mayor of the host city to address the delegates who came from all states of the union.
The organizers of the event probably decided that the right person to introduce the mayor at a luncheon during which he would ceremoniously give the visiting Jewish delegates the “key to the city” was the then-current president of the local community council. So I was invited to make the opening remarks and tell the audience what a distinguished person our mayor was.
I accepted the invitation, but could not bring myself to utter the expected words of praise. I can’t find today a text that I wrote on that occasion, but I do recall that my introduction of Marion Barry – whether written in advance or delivered extemporaneously — pulled few punches. Barry expected the usual fawning introduction he was then receiving at all his public appearances. Instead, he heard a demand to shape up.
The powers-that-be at NCRAC were not pleased with me. I recall that Rabbi Albert Vorspan, a leading Reform rabbi who was a power in the organization, commented to his friends that “there seems to be no fate worse than being introduced by Nat Lewin.”
Through the succeeding decades Barry did not change course. Farrakhan announced publicly in the ’80s that Barry had criticized him “because of Jewish pressure” but had called to talk to him shortly thereafter. “Such hypocrisy,” Farrakhan declared. As recently as October 2011, Barry attended and spoke at a Philadelphia gathering arranged by Farrakhan for his followers.
When he was arrested in 1990, Barry blamed the arrest on two Jewish “Judases.” He exclaimed that Jews should “know better” because “they’ve been persecuted themselves.”
I know of no support that Mayor Barry ever gave to the Soviet Jewry movement. He opportunistically joined the marchers at the Freedom Sunday Demonstration on the National Mall in 1987 when he saw a banner reading “Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry.” Glenn Richter, a national leader in the battle for Soviet Jewry who was one of those carrying the banner, reported that D.C.’s mayor appeared out of nowhere, placed himself among the banner-carriers, and “walked a couple of blocks with us.” Richter recalls that Barry then “saw somebody else he knew and off he went.” The spokesman for the District of Columbia government at the podium during the 1987 rally was not D.C.’s mayor. It was David Clark, chairman of D.C.’s City Council.
Marion Barry’s public record demonstrates that there were many opportunities to further Jewish causes, and on most “off he went.” The Jewish community owes the late Marion Barry no tribute.
Nathan Lewin is a Washington attorney who was deputy assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under Attorney General Ramsey Clark and is currently on the adjunct faculty of Columbia Law School.