he year 2018 has thus far been toxic for black-Jewish relations. In February, Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory attended the Nation of Islam’s (NOI) annual “Saviours’ Day” gathering, where sect leader Louis Farrakhan delivered a characteristic anti-Semitic tirade. “When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” Farrakhan declared. “White folks are going down, and Satan is going down, and Farrakhan by God’s grace has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew—and I’m here to say, your time is up.” For good measure, Farrakhan also claimed that Jews control the FBI as well as Mexico, and he repeated a relatively new conspiracy theory, the “Pot Plot,” alleging that Jews promote homosexuality among black men through the distribution of a special form of marijuana.
When it was revealed that Mallory had sat in the audience for this rant, she not only refused to distance herself from the anti-Semitic cult but boasted of her three-decade long relationship with it. “I was raised in activism and believe that as historically oppressed people, blacks, Jews, Muslims and all people must stand together to fight racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia,” she said in a statement. Declaring that she is “guided by the loving principles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” who dedicated his entire career to opposing the very sort of racial separatism, hatred, and conspiracy promoted by the likes of Farrakhan and others of his ilk, Mallory made clear that she had no intention of ever disassociating herself from the NOI.
While some black leaders and writers criticized Mallory, her stubbornness found support in high places. “Now you work with people all the time with whom you disagree,” said Valerie Jarrett, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, to the ladies of The View. Jarrett spoke as if America’s foremost anti-Semite were just some recalcitrant House Republican in need of a stern, Oval Office arm-twist. To this day, Mallory (along with her Women’s March sisters-in-arms Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez) proudly considers Farrakhan an ally, and there is no indication that she or the organization she leads has suffered serious reputational damage because of her association with him.
On the contrary, Mallory has successfully exacted revenge on at least one prominent Jewish organization that criticized her for associating with the NOI. In April, following national outrage sparked by the arrest of two black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the coffee giant announced that the Anti-Defamation League would be one of four civil-rights organizations to participate in diversity-training exercises for its employees across the country. Mallory loudly objected, accusing the ADL of “constantly attacking black and brown people,” by which she seems to have meant Tamika Mallory and Louis Farrakhan. Joining her in protest was Jewish Voice for Peace—a fringe group advocating the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment campaign against Israel—and other leftist groups that oppose the ADL over its engagement with police departments for racial-sensitivity training. A little over a week after Mallory launched her social-media campaign demanding that Starbucks drop the ADL, the company caved.
This was not the only instance of prominent black political figures associating with Farrakhan to emerge in the early months of 2018. In January, a long-hidden photograph was published showing Barack Obama smiling with Farrakhan at a 2005 Congressional Black Caucus reception. A member of the CBC, Andre Carson, later admitted to holding a meeting with the Nation of Islam leader in 2015. Farrakhan claimed that Keith Ellison—current deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee—was also present at the meeting, a claim Ellison denies. But given Ellison’s record of misleading statements on his relationship with Farrakhan and the NOI, there is no reason to trust him on this question.
It’s hard to imagine that left-wing activists or Democratic politicians would keep their careers after associating with a figure who spouts hatred against any other minority group the way Farrakhan does with Jews. Having attained a certain level of political power or social capital, however, Mallory, Jarret, Obama, and the CBC have apparently insulated themselves from criticism on this point, at least among their fellow progressives and much of the elite media.
Such invulnerability to public condemnation has not been the experience of Trayon White, a Washington, D.C., city councillor representing the capitol’s poorest neighborhood of Anacostia. During a brief snow flurry in March, White published a video on his official Facebook page blaming the adverse weather on the Rothschild family. “Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation,” the 34-year-old, college-educated, elected official told his constituents. “And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”
White seemed genuinely perplexed when it was explained to him that assertions about a European Jewish banking family manipulating the weather had anti-Semitic undertones. And those inclined to give White the benefit of the doubt, presuming his words came more from ignorance than malice, were forced to reconsider when it emerged that he had donated $500 to the very same “Saviours’ Day” event attended by Mallory. Nor did White do himself any favors when, invited by local Jewish leaders to the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, he abruptly left in the middle of a personally guided tour. At a rally called to defend White, organized by a mayoral appointee, a Nation of Islam representative blasted one of White’s Jewish fellow council members as a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.”
Finally, in April, New York Assemblywoman Diana Richardson publicly accused Jews of gentrifying her Brooklyn district, a strange accusation considering that it includes Flatbush and Crown Heights, neighborhoods that have long had sizeable Jewish populations. Responding to a member of a local community board who complained of people ringing her doorbell to ask if she was interested in selling her house, Richardson replied, “It must be Jewish people.” Earlier in the same meeting, she gratuitously referred to a Brooklyn legislator as “the Jewish senator from southern Brooklyn.”
All these episodes follow the familiar pattern for black–Jewish controversies, which have erupted periodically since the late 1960s: A black figure of some (often negligible) prominence will make a statement offending Jews, Jewish leaders will respond with both self-flagellating concern and righteous outrage, and both communities will leave the fracas feeling resentful toward the other. In a 1992 essay for the New York Times, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. described anti-Semitism among African Americans as “a weapon in the raging battle of who will speak for black America: those who have sought common cause with others, or those who preach a barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity.” Anti-Semitism, in other words, is a tool used by political entrepreneurs in a continuation of the internecine fight for black authority. This fight initially pitted mainstream, philo-Semitic, consensus-seeking leaders such as Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin against radical, separatist, black-nationalist figures of varying ideological (and religious) stripes. While it may be accurate to blame individual opportunists or would-be leaders for these controversies, it is nonetheless a dispiriting commentary on the political potency of anti-Semitism within black communities that such tactics often work (just witness the career of Al Sharpton).* Attitudinal surveys conducted by the ADL consistently show that African Americans harbor “anti-Semitic proclivities” at a rate significantly higher than the general population (23 percent and 14 percent respectively in 2016).
Black anti-Semitism typically takes one of two forms: “neighborhood” or conspiratorial. The former developed in the 1950s and ’60s after the postwar migration of southern blacks to northern cities put Jews and African Americans in close proximity to one another, most prominently in New York. Gates described this variety of anti-Semitism as “a familiar pattern of clientelistic hostility toward the neighborhood vendor or landlord.” With Irish dominating the police, and Italians largely controlling the city’s trade unions, Jews were usually the people with whom blacks came into contact at school, the store, in the courtroom, the welfare office, to rent an apartment, or to get credit. “If the walls the Irish and Italians had put up around themselves were largely unbroken, that only made Jewish liberals the most accessible apologists and beneficiaries of an oppressive system, the closest of strangers, the easiest targets,” former Newsday columnist Jim Sleeper wrote in his 1990 history of New York race relations, The Closest of Strangers.
There is nothing particularly unique or special about this type of anti-Semitism, the sort of petty bigotry that afflicts any group living in close quarters with another, whether the communities are Irish–Italian, black–Irish, or Hindu–Muslim. In the American context, this bigotry can be expected to dissipate with time as populations intermarry, crime decreases, living standards rise, and neighborhoods diversify. “Negroes are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-White,” James Baldwin put it simply in a 1967 piece for the Times. If there’s an added layer of resentment to black–Jewish relations that doesn’t afflict black–Irish or black–Italian relations, it’s that Jews are perceived as being a minority population that, having advanced economically, has abandoned the trappings of the ghetto and today successfully “passes” as white.
This “neighborhood” anti-Semitism is a necessary predicate for the second type, the conspiratorial. This is embodied by Farrakhan and either endorsed or echoed by the likes of Mallory and White. It’s what Gates referred to as “anti-Semitism from the top-down, engineered and promoted by leaders who affect to be speaking for a larger resentment.” Included among the NOI’s outlandish repertoire are narratives of Jewish slave owners and tales about how African Americans are the true ancient Hebrews of the Old Testament, the latter being the origin of today’s claims of “fake Jews.” Facilitating the spread of anti-Semitism within black communities is a penchant for conspiracy theory, not hard to understand given the historical experience of black people in America. Kidnapped, shipped to this country in slave ships, tortured, experimented on, and subject to legal discrimination, black people have more reason to be skeptical of America, its institutions, and promises than any other population. If one already believes that the CIA invented the crack-cocaine epidemic, or that the government blew up the levees of New Orleans so that Hurricane Katrina would destroy poor black neighborhoods, then how far of a leap is it to believe that Jews control the banks, never mind the weather?
Tensions between African-Americans and Jewish Americans have not been this bad since 1991. In that single, fateful year, the Crown Heights riot resulted in the death of an Australian Jewish student, the Nation of Islam released a libelous tract (The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews) alleging an exceptionally invidious Jewish role in the slave trade, and City University of New York black studies professor Leonard Jeffries made national headlines with his denunciations of “a conspiracy, planned and plotted and programmed out of Hollywood” by “people called Greenberg and Weisberg and Trigliani.”
Disturbing as they were, the black–Jewish quarrels of the early ’90s seemed to follow a peculiar logic. The exodus of Jews into the suburbs and their subsequent assimilation into “white” America, along with the rise of a Jewishly inflected neoconservative movement opposed to affirmative action, inevitably contributed to a weakening of the black–Jewish civil-rights coalition of yore. Moreover, the racial dramas of 1980s New York (Bernie Goetz, the Tawana Brawley case, the Howard Beach attacks, the Central Park Five), along with a stridently Jewish mayor (Ed Koch) who often found himself at odds with equally strident black activists (Al Sharpton et. al.), all contributed to a worsening of black–white relations more generally. This in turn had an adverse effect on black–Jewish relations specifically.
By contrast, today’s contretemps come at a peculiar time. The great political questions of the day all revolve around Donald Trump and the nationalist platform on which he was elected. And no two ethnic groups were more opposed to Trump’s presidential campaign than the blacks and the Jews. Even among those conservatives and Republicans opposed to Trump, Jewish writers, intellectuals, and philanthropists are vastly overrepresented, a point that has not gone unnoticed by the president’s white-supremacist backers.**Prior to the rise of Trump, Jewish voters overwhelmingly gave their money and support to Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, in both of his campaigns. While his administration’s policies toward Israel and his Iranian nuclear agreement may have divided the Jewish community internally, opposition to the latter waged by much of organized Jewry did not result in serious conflict with American blacks. (The only friction in this regard surfaced in the spring of 2015 when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation from Capitol Hill Republicans to criticize the pending Iran deal before a joint session of Congress. Some Congressional Black Caucus leaders portrayed this move as a racial slight.)
While African Americans have overwhelmingly voted against every Republican presidential nominee since Barry Goldwater, there are considerable and entirely valid reasons why they would harbor special animosity toward the current president. That a white man who is so extravagantly flawed would immediately follow a black man who carried himself with the dignity and comportment appropriate to the presidency—and that the white man’s campaign was jump-started with racially charged innuendo about the location of his black predecessor’s birth—has convinced many blacks that the election of Donald Trump was ultimately the result of racial backlash, or “white-lash,” against the nation’s first African-American president. African Americans daily witness a white man saying and doing things that a black man would never get away with (covering up an affair with a porn star, likening the nation’s intelligence services to Nazi Germany, etc.) and reasonably ask whether the election of an African-American president was a bizarre one-off owing to the unique charisma, eloquence, and biracial background of Barack Obama.
Of course, there are many reasons that Donald Trump is president, and the extent to which racial animus played a role is debatable. But such a question is beyond the scope of this essay. Needless to say, blacks have reason to feel embittered and disappointed by the election of Donald Trump. And these feelings have led to a heightened racial consciousness among many black writers, politicians, and activists. What’s significant in this respect is that these black Americans are ardently joined in this sentiment by the overwhelming majority of their fellow Jewish citizens, who also see in the 2016 election not just a racially tinged repudiation of the country’s first black president, but a recrudescence of the nativism and xenophobia that, wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads, have never been good for the Jews.
In this way, the current nadir in black–Jewish relations resembles the initial eruption of black–Jewish conflict in the late 1960s, which similarly followed a period of political collaboration and therefore struck Jews as a tragic blow. Almost from the beginning of their mass settlement in the United States, Jews played an important role in advancing the civil rights of, and furthering opportunities for, African Americans, whose fate Jews considered intertwined with their own as fellow minorities in a WASP-dominated country. Jews were instrumental in founding the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909 and in the civil-rights movement decades later. Nearly two-thirds of the white participants in the 1964 Freedom Summer were Jews, including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were both murdered, alongside African-American James Chaney, by white supremacists in Mississippi.
Later in that decade, the rise of black separatist movements such as the Nation of Islam and the Black Panthers, each of which adopted a Third Worldist ideology and espoused anti-Israel (and often anti-Semitic) rhetoric, thus came as a shock to Jews. What likewise makes this current political moment so perplexing and painful is that most Jews, many conservatives and Republicans included, are right there with blacks in opposing this president and the type of American politics he embodies. The persistence of anti-Semitism in the black community worries Jews who feel that their interests have not been so clearly aligned with those of black Americans since the high-water mark of black–Jewish collaboration in the 1960s.
The prevalence of, and insouciance toward, anti-Semitism in the African-American community mirrors a trend within the broader progressive community. On the left, anti-Semitism is increasingly downplayed because it supposedly afflicts people who are “white” and therefore in possession of “power.” Writing in the Atlantic, John Paul-Pagano recently identified the formula by which the progressive left analyzes bigotry: “Racism equals prejudice plus power.” Because blacks lack power, they cannot be racist, and because Jews possess power, they cannot be victims of racism. Noam Chomsky elaborated on this theme in 2002:
By now Jews in the U.S. are the most privileged and influential part of the population. You find occasional instances of anti-Semitism but they are marginal. There’s plenty of racism, but it’s directed against blacks, Latinos, [and] Arabs are targets of enormous racism, and those problems are real. Anti-Semitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98 percent control. That’s why anti-Semitism is becoming an issue. Not because of the threat of anti-Semitism; they want to make sure there’s no critical look at the policies the U.S. (and they themselves) support in the Middle East.
Operating under the equation that “racism equals prejudice plus power,” some on the left choose to ignore, rationalize, or entirely excuse black anti-Semitism as a function of unfair power dynamics in a capitalist society. According to this analysis, because blacks supposedly lack political power, or have less of it than Jews, it is either not possible for them to be anti-Semitic, or their anti-Semitism is not worth worrying about compared with that of traditional, right-wing anti-Semitism. “But of course, he did not say that Jews controlled the weather,” a board member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice wrote in the Forward regarding Trayon White. “He said that the Rothschilds did.” There’s a word for this kind of condescension, which progressives would never display if the person in question were white: racist.
Though Farrakhan regularly fills arenas for his harangues and earns audiences with congressmen, liberals have been at pains to minimize his influence. When progressive Jewish female activists asked Tamika Mallory to distance herself from Farrakhan, Jordan Weissmann, a Jewish writer for Slate, rhetorically asked, “Is there a single Jew in America who is actually worried about Louis Farrakhan or the Nation of Islam?” He explained further with a non sequitur: “I’m not worried about anti-Semitism from the black left because I see zero evidence that it is significantly motivated by anti-Semitism (I seem to recall a lot of young black progressives supporting a guy named Sanders).”* Weissmann later retracted his tweet, but only when it was made apparent to him that Farrakhan posed a “very clear threat to LGBTQ people of color.” Jews, presumably, will just have to get used to hearing Louis Farrakhan call Adolf Hitler “a very great man.”
At a panel organized by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) that convened at the New School last December, JVP activist Lina Morales readily conceded: “Louis Farrakhan — I think he’s an anti-Semite — but materially, how has he put Jews in danger? Not really, because he only really affects the black community. But people in Chicago, white Jews, love to talk about him and love to paint him as the ultimate anti-Semite. Why is that?” The history of the 20th century should dispel any notion that anti-Semitic maniacs with followings in the tens of thousands are harmless oddities to be ignored. But even if we were to validate Morales’s assumptions— that Farrakhan “only really affects the black community”— it would consign his followers to a sort of unofficial second-class citizenship, as people who adopt the Nation of Islam’s view of the world are condemning themselves to wallow in ignorance. For all the talk about how the NOI helps poor black communities, one will not make it very far in this world if he believes that crafty Jews are trying to keep the black man down with gay weed. (And lest Morales truly believe that Farrakhan’s praise of Hitler doesn’t affect the physical security of Jews, in April, a Jewish man in Crown Heights was attacked by an African-American assailant screaming, “You fake Jews, who are you saying hello to? You’re fake Jews, and you stole all my money and robbed me, and stole my mortgage and my house. I want to kill you!’)
Asked about the Mallory controversy by Yahoo News, Melissa Harris-Perry went so far as to impugn Jews for even raising the issue of Farrakhan. “The most dangerous anti-Semite in the country currently lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” the former MSNBC host said. “And to have any concern about Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is weird.” She continued:
Like, Louis f—ing Farrakhan? Are you serious? Because Louis Farrakhan is empowered to do what? He runs an organization that controls what resources? And creates what policy? And owns property where? I mean, it’s weird. The president of the United States has questioned the humanity—like are they human—of Jewish people. The president of the United States. So I’m super-duper focused on that. And that various people walking around the planet are racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, is, like, shrug-my-shoulders true.
For all his many faults, Donald Trump has never “questioned the humanity,” either metaphysically or biologically, “of Jewish people.” But the purpose of Harris-Perry’s interjection was not judicious analysis of anti-Semitism. It was to redraw the boundaries of the left’s new political coalition, which is set to include ever-more-extreme voices opposed to the president and his agenda.
Writing nearly 30 years ago, Shelby Steele recognized the “fundamental irony” of “black–Jewish bickering” that guarantees these periodic outbursts will always generate headlines: “the irony of there being conflict where we presume there should be harmony.” Most blacks seek no conflict with Jews, and vice versa. Which is why it is all the more important for responsible black leaders to draw a line in the sand when it comes to toxic figures such as Farrakhan, and to reject the excuses of their enablers. A political coalition that makes room for the likes of such individuals is one that will inherently be unwelcoming to Jews, and one that all decent people should reject.
The recent controversies are reflective not so much of a major, growing rift between blacks and Jews as they are indications of two competing visions for America. On one side stands an increasingly fatalistic progressivism, which maintains a “no enemies to the left” strategy in fighting a twilight struggle against what it considers to be an incipient fascist dictatorship. It is willing to make common cause with all manner of illiberal and regressive political forces provided they hew to the party line. And on the other side sits the postwar American liberal tradition of pluralistic patriotism to which Jews of all political stripes have so faithfully pledged allegiance. All Americans, not just blacks and Jews, have an interest in the outcome of this conflict.
* The same, of course, can and must be said of the white Americans who, if not motivated by racism or xenophobia in voting for Donald Trump, nonetheless had a very high tolerance for it.