One of the most prominent figures at John Kerry’s nominating convention was the Rev. Al Sharpton, who seemed almost as fixed a presence at Kerry’s side the night of his acceptance speech as were the nominee’s wife and vice presidential candidate John Edwards.

Yet, it is common knowledge that this failed contender for the Democratic nomination incited anti-Jewish violence in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991 and in Harlem in 1995. In the latter incident he encouraged the explicitly anti-Semitic boycott and picketing of a Jewish-owned store named “Freddy’s.” Eight employees of the store were killed in a fire started by one of Sharpton’s followers.

But none of this unpleasantness has kept Sharpton from being treated with oily sycophancy by the Democratic leadership.

Among the victors in the July 20 Democratic primary in Georgia was Cynthia McKinney, who served five terms in Congress before being defeated in the 2002 primary by Denise Majette. Like many other inhabitants of the fever swamps of the Democratic Party, McKinney believed and said that President Bush knew in advance about the 9/11 plot but allowed it to proceed in order to line his pockets.

She also, as The New York Times said in reporting her victory, had made “a series of other incendiary, often racial comments.” This is The New York Times’ delicate way of alluding to the stridently anti-Semitic character of McKinney’s 2002 campaign, in which “Jews” were repeatedly blamed for her faltering in the polls and for her eventual defeat. Her behavior did not deter House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, then the Democratic whip, from backing her to the hilt.

Also in 2002, the Alabama Democratic congressional incumbent Earl Hilliard attacked his challenger, Artur Davis, in a flier that read: “Davis and the Jews, No Good for the Black Belt.” (Both men are black.)

Hilliard’s racist rhetoric did not prevent him from receiving support from 24 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, one of the party’s funding agencies.

The antics of McKinney and Hilliard recalled those of a far better-known and more powerful figure in the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson. His description (in 1984) of New York City as “Hymietown” and his 1979 complaint about being “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust” proved no impediment to his holding the Democratic conventions of 1984 and 1988 hostage with his political might within the party or to orating from the convention podium in 1992 or to being appointed President Clinton’s special envoy to Nigeria.

Some have argued that the Democrats’ reluctance to criticize the anti-Semitic demagoguery of the aforementioned politicians can be explained by the fact that they are all blacks, and white liberals believe that blacks are their equals in every sense — except that of being equal. Perhaps.

It is true that when Democratic Congressman James Moran of Virginia, who is white, charged in 2003 that “the leaders of the Jewish community” sent the country to war in Iraq, he was criticized (no more than that) by fellow Democrats. Also, on May 20 of this year, Ernest Hollings, the South Carolina Democratic senator, alleged, on the floor of the Senate, that Bush had sent the country to war “in order to win Jewish votes.” (Apparently Hollings, during his seven terms, had never discovered that a majority of Jews would vote Democratic even if Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden were at the top of the ticket.)

To his credit, Kerry on the very next day condemned Hollings for “lend[ing] credence to… anti-Semitic stereotypes that have no place in America or anywhere else.” Nevertheless, it is clear that the Democrats have a growing “problem” at the grass-roots or Michael Moore level of the party that they know not how to deal with.

By contrast, the Republicans, when Trent Lott made remarks in 2002 that could be construed as racist, promptly forced him from his position as Senate majority leader. More to the point, Pat Buchanan, who never misses a chance to stick it to the Jews, was roundly denounced for his anti-Semitic pronouncements, in a 40,000-word National Review essay of 1991 by the party’s leading intellectual figure, William Buckley.

Buckley not only labeled Buchanan a menace to the body politic, but urged Republicans to expel him from their midst, which they eventually — though not quickly enough — did. By 2000, Buchanan was forced to run for the presidency on the Reform Party ticket, after which he retreated to the world of journalism from which he had emerged.

Outside of the Islamic world, the anti-Semitic upsurge of recent years is mainly a left-wing phenomenon. It is therefore not surprising that it should have brought the Democratic Party, more swiftly than the Republicans, to that dark and bloody crossroads where politics and conscience collide.

Edward Alexander is professor of English at the University of Washington and author of, among other books, “Classical Liberalism and the Jewish Tradition” (Transaction Books).

This piece ran in the Seattle Times on August 9th, 2004