Louis Farrakhan savoring a quivering mass of gefilte fish? Louis Farrakhan donning a kipa and baking a challah? Louis Farrakhan tittering at a Woody Allen picture -- one of the early, funny ones? Not very likely. But something just as jaw-dropping happened a few months ago: A group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis had an amiable three-and-a-half-hour meeting with the Nation of Islam minister in Chicago. And in tapes of this unusual get-together that have just been furnished exclusively to New York, the imperious Farrakhan can be heard doing something he's rarely done before: He apologizes.
"I will tell you this," Farrakhan said to the seven black-hatted, bearded rabbis. "I did make a mistake. You know, it's a terrible thing to say 'Jews' and not make clear who you are referring to. I have to make clear in my language that there are Jews that I know I can respect, honor, and love. And those are not the Jews that have said that I have a romance with Hitler."
Hmmm. "It was more than we anticipated, the rapport that we established," gushes Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Freimann, a member of the tiny Jerusalem-and- New York-based Hasidic group known as the Neturei Karta. Admittedly, the new friendship was in part based on their shared extreme ideology. These were not just any Jews, after all. The Neturei Karta strictly follows the anti-Zionist tradition of awaiting the Messiah before building a Jewish homeland, and its members have embraced Arab and Palestinian leaders, building alliances against Israel. That was just fine with Farrakhan, who told the rabbis that he's an anti-Zionist from way back. It was Zionism, not Judaism, he said, that was the "gutter religion" he once famously referred to.
The mainstream Jewish world railed against the summit: The Forward ran a reaction from the Anti-Defamation League pointing out that the rabbis were being used by Farrakhan to beat the anti-Semitic rap while still sticking it to Israel and mainstream Zionists. But members of the Neturei Karta are still kvelling about pulling off what they say a generation of ADL efforts have failed to do -- they persuaded an enemy of the people to ever so slightly change his tune. Whether they're right or wrong about that, the tapes at the very least suggest that the rabbis provided Farrakhan a rare chance to come face to face with a group of Jews not unlike himself; the Neturei Karta and the Nation of Islam are both proud, insular religious sects that believe themselves to be chosen by God to usher in the Messiah. "We do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah," Farrakhan acknowledged to the rabbis. "We believe that the Messiah is yet to come."
Farrakhan warmed up even more toward the end of the meeting, saying, "Let us say, then, from this point forward that we will work together for the common good. You tell us how you would like it to be said, and we'll abide by that." At a subsequent press conference, he added, "I'm hoping that relationships between the Nation of Islam and the Jewish community -- and blacks and Jews -- may be made better. Inshallah. God willing."
Could this far-right rapprochement one day reach the center? The Neturei Karta is thinking big. "Down the line, the Zionist left -- the Tikkun-reading set -- could find common ground with Farrakhan over a two-state solution in the Mideast," suggests one rabbi connected to the sect. "There's even talk among the boys of moving on to Sharpton now."