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August 18, 1989 - Image 18

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-08-18

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Leland Embodied
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18 = FRIDR/,.AUGUST 18, 1989


hen the news hit
Washington that
Rep. Mickey Leland
was dead, something strange
Within hours of the
discovery of the crash site in
Ethiopia where Leland and
his party were killed, Jewish
activists representing a wide
range of organizations
scrambled to make public
statements in praise of the
rIbxas Democrat.
But it was more than the
usual posturing of groups in-
volved in politics. Leland's
death generated a genuine
feeling of grief among Jewish
activists here — a sense of loss
that tells a poignant tale
about Leland himself and
about the state of black-
Jewish relations in 1989.
On the most obvious level,
Leland was a black activist
who had built durable bridges
to the Jewish community at a
time when the traditional
black-Jewish coalition was
fraying around the edges.
He was a relentless and ef-
fective advocate for the
"social agenda" issues that
dominate the activities of
many mainstream Jewish
groups. He was a spokesman
for the hungry and the
dispossessed, an obsession
that led him to advocate
equally on behalf of starving
black Africans and Ethiopian
Jews who were left behind in
terrible circumstances after
the migration of most of their
As part of the trip that end-
ed with his death, Leland was
negotiating with Ethiopian
authorities over the reunifica-
tion of families torn apart by
the emigration of most able-
bodied Jews to Israel. He was
scheduled to travel next to
Israel to brief Israeli
authorities on his meetings
with Ethiopian leaders on the
reunification question.
Leland was briefed before
his trip by the American
Association for Ethiopian
Jews and by David Saperstein
of the Religious Action Center
for Reform Judaism.
"He has been a tremendous
friend of Ethiopian Jews,"
said Will Recant, director of
the Ethiopian Jewry group.
"Last year, he brought up the
issue of Jewish prisoners be-
ing held without trial with
the Ethiopian authorities;
shortly thereafter, they were
released. The State Depart-
ment attributed their release

to Leland and Rep. Gary
Ackerman, D-N.Y."
At the time of his death,
Leland was working on a pro-
ject with the Religious Action
Center to immunize Jewish
and non-Jewish children in
Ethiopia against meningitis.
"He was a phenomenal per-
son," said David Saperstein.
"His loss leaves us with a
terrible vacuum."
And Leland was a consis-
tent supporter of Israel at a
time when strident voices
within his own community
were attacking the "racism"
of the Jewish state.
Many Jewish activists here
remember the time a few

Mickey Leland:
Friend of Jews.

years ago, when a nasty
behind-the-scenes battle over
foreign aid threatened to
widen the rift between the
two communities.
The issue involved the ques-
tion of whether foreign aid
should have been increased
for drought-ravaged Africa,
and whether some of that
money should have come from
Israel's large chunk of the
foreign aid budget.
It was Leland the con-
ciliator who brought together
black and Jewish leaders and
worked out a compromise
that everybody could live
with. "He was a major friend
of Israel, who worked hard to
broaden understanding in the
black community about Israel
and its needs," said Jess
Hordes, Washington
representative for the Anti-
Defamation League of B'nai
B'rith. In the past, Leland
had led ADL missions to
But the stunning reaction
to Leland's death reflected
more than the simple reac-
tion of the people whose
causes he supported.
In very real sense, Leland
was an embodiment of the
black-Jewish coalition, of a
relationship based on a corn-

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