WHEN blacks and Jews in the United States discuss Louis Farrakhan, they seem almost to be describing two different men.
To many African-Americans, the leader of the Nation of Islam is a galvanizing champion of black pride, self-empowerment, and bootstrap capitalism. The Chicago-based movement he heads is, in their view, a model of hard work and good works, dedicated to rescuing blacks in America's inner cities.
But in the eyes of many Jews, Mr. Farrakhan is, in a frequently used phrase, ``a classic anti-Semite,'' a spreader of bigotry and hate against whites and, particularly, against world Jewry.
``Farrakhan definitely is anti-Jewish,'' says Sylvia Neil, executive director of the American Jewish Congress's Midwest regional office in Chicago.
``He mixes black nationalism and an admirable emphasis on African-Americans' cultural roots with racial demagoguery that taints his whole message. He pushes the buttons of rage and hatred,'' Ms. Neil says.
Farrakhan's rhetoric and that of some of his followers is replete with references to Jews, generally unflattering, even coarse. In 1984, Farrakhan called Judaism ``a gutter religion,'' and in many speeches and interviews he discusses such themes as Jews' allegedly dominant roles in the American slave trade, in international finance, and in Hollywood and the media.
Last November, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, then the Nation of Islam's national spokesman, gave a speech at Kean College in Union, N.J. According to a full-page ad in the New York Times placed by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, Mr. Muhammad cast slurs upon Jews, other whites, homosexuals, and the pope.
After the ad drew criticism from black leaders as well as Jewish organizations, Farrakhan demoted his lieutenant and called the speech ``vile in manner, repugnant, malicious, mean-spirited....'' But he said, ``I stand by the truths that he spoke....''
Despite his seeming fixation on Jews, Farrakhan has repeatedly denied that the Nation of Islam is anti-Jewish - most recently in a speech delivered March 28 at Kean College, the same school where Mr. Muhammad lit the fuse in the latest flare-up of black-Jewish tension. Even his disavowals of prejudice often are barbed, however.
Speaking in New York City in December, Farrakhan said, ``I'm neither a racist nor an anti-Semite. But if I point out your evil with truth, then call me a preacher of truth.'' And in his Kean College address, according to press accounts, he sounded many of his recurring Jewish-centered themes, albeit in temperate language.
The March 28 speech illustrates why it is hard to pin down what Farrakhan is all about. While some of his statements, as well as those by followers in the Nation of Islam and other allies in the black-nationalism movement, ring offensively in the ears of many people - not just Jews - those incendiary statements do not make up the bulk of his rhetoric.
Throughout much of the speech, reports said, Farrakhan called on young black men to improve themselves and to resist the lures of drugs and violence.
Messages like this, often delivered with spellbinding oratory, together with the Nation of Islam's work with addicts and the poor in black ghettos, enable many African-Americans to overlook or at least discount the words that observers like Neil call ``the buttons of rage and hatred.''
By some observers' estimates, Farrakhan has eclipsed the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the most charismatic speaker in the black community, especially in his appeal to African-American youths and middle-class professionals.
Farrakhan's growing popularity puts the leaders of mainstream black organizations in a bind. Before Muhammad's controversial Nov. 29 speech, and amid reports that Farrakhan was becoming a ``moderate,'' a number of black leaders reached out to him.
Last September, Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D) of Maryland, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, announced a ``covenant'' with the Nation of Islam to work together on minority issues.
Also last fall, the Rev. Benjamin Chavis Jr., executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called for a ``summit meeting of African-American leaders,'' to include Farrakhan.
After the ad sparked a furor over Muhammad's speech, numerous black leaders, including the Rev. Mr. Jackson, Representative Mfume, Dr. Chavis, and William Gray III, president of the United Negro College Fund, called on Farrakhan to disavow his aide's comments.
But these rebukes seemed rather perfunctory, being issued just once in most cases, and black leaders were eager to put the episode behind them.
After Farrakhan chastised Muhammad - despite support for his aide's ``truths'' - the NAACP said in a press release that it was ``satisfied'' with Farrakhan's action and that it ``welcomed'' his participation in the black leaders' summit, to be held on an unannounced date. The Congressional Black Caucus also seemed reluctant to rupture its ``covenant'' with Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
Black leaders did not return telephone requests for comments on this story.
Is this dispute over anti-Semitism just a matter of perspective and semantics? Not even Jewish leaders accuse Farrakhan of trying to incite hate crimes. Are Jews overreacting?
Some Jewish and other scholars who have tracked Farrakhan's career say that what they call his anti-Jewishness is more than just a matter of name-calling or tasteless taunts. Rather, they say, it is deeply rooted in theories that can be linked to historical anti-Semitism in Europe and the US (see story, left).
``Louis Farrakhan believes in classical right-wing conspiracy theories,'' says Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates in Cambridge, Mass., who studies fascist and other fringe groups. ``He simply siphons off the white-supremacy element and substitutes black supremacy.''
``Racist ideology and anti-Semitism aren't just blemishes on Farrakhan's movement, they are the essence of his movement,'' says Harold Brackman, a researcher for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, an organization that investigates anti-Semitism.
Leaders of major Jewish groups say they do not want disputes about Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam to disrupt relations between blacks and Jews. ``This is not a matter of black-Jewish relations,'' says Kenneth Jacobson, a spokesman for B'nai B'rith's Anti-Defamation League. ``It's a matter of combating hatred.''
Yet Jewish leaders say they cannot ignore Farrakhan. ``Farrakhan has introduced a syntax that inhibits constructive dialogue between our communities on important issues,'' says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. ``He makes the job of bringing the races together that much more complex.''