Condemn Ideas, Not People: A Different Approach to Confronting Antisemitism
The recent controversies around antisemitic statements made by athletes DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson, and entertainment mogul Nick Cannon have raised troubling questions about how to address antisemitism, especially now that it is on the rise. There is a clear need to build much stronger connections between the fight to end antisemitism and the antiracist movement for Black lives. Too often these are parallel tracks, sometimes even at odds with one another, rather than the unified struggle they can and should be.
As NBA hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar pointed out, “Recent incidents of anti-Semitic tweets and posts from sports and entertainment celebrities are a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation…we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.”
While the public response has been disappointingly underwhelming, the institutional response has been somewhat stronger. DeSean Jackson was suspended by the Eagles. Nick Cannon’s relationship with ViacomCBS was terminated. In the wake of apologies and actions that demonstrated the desire to learn, there aren’t many calls for harsher measures against those two individuals, and that is a positive development. More important to most Jews, I suspect, and certainly in my view, was the teaching moment at hand. And it is there that the moment of “meh-rage” Abdul-Jabbar decried was so problematic
I don’t need to see DeSean Jackson released by the Philadelphia Eagles. I don’t need to see Nick Cannon lose his position hosting “The Masked Singer,” a show he created. I want very much to see Stephen Jackson, who has been an important spokesperson for the Black Lives Matter movement continue to play that central role without some, like sports commentator Michael Wilbon, claiming his recent comments and initially weak and reluctant apology means he now “has no credibility” as a “voice for equality.”
What I want is not penance or punishment, but education and solidifying the historic, but currently frayed, solidarity between the Black and Jewish communities.
Educating About Antisemitism
For some reason, there is an expectation-one that is enforced more stringently on Black people-that people just “know” about antisemitism. But how many white people came naturally into an anti-racist place without education, without someone mentoring us, without having to confront the racism that we didn’t want to admit we held? How many men have come to feminism without education? How many cis folks have not had to confront homophobia or transphobia and learn how to overcome them within ourselves before we could be allies in overcoming them in others?
I imagine there are some who can say they were truly always free of such prejudices, but they are the lucky few. Most of us in the powerful groups (and, indeed, also among oppressed groups) must unlearn racism, sexism, and other bigotries against the marginalized in our cultures. The process is often difficult and painful for all involved, and it’s worse when it must happen on a large scale. In the Jewish community, we are only beginning to address our racism, not only against people of color outside of our community, but also against Jews of Color. The conversation is all the more fraught as long term avoidance of confronting racism is smacking the United States hard right now, while antisemitism is, for the first time in decades, becoming a more serious problem. This puts Jews of Color in the middle of converging and often conflicting oppressions while pulling white Jews in opposite directions at once, as Jews under greater threat than we have been in many years in the United States and as privileged white people.
One of the themes that has developed for white people in this era where we are trying to finally address the racism that has been at the core of so much rot in this country, is the need to listen to people of color, especially Black people. That’s because despite years of too-shallow dialogue about racism, white people, collectively, still don’t get it. Why then do we expect non-Jews to understand antisemitism without any education?
Ideological Hate and the Victims of Demagoguery
There is a big difference between the Judeophobia of white nationalists and that of people who are fed misinformation to explain the world around them. Antisemitism, like racism or sexism, is found among all races, all genders, all religions. We must confront those who are deliberately clinging not just to hateful ideas, but to entire ideologies of hate. Whether that is the murderous shooter at a synagogue in Pittsburgh or the current occupant of the White House, we must be unyielding in our firm opposition to that sort of hate.
But those soldiers of bigotry smile with satisfaction when they see members of the Black community and members of the Jewish community antagonizing each other out of ignorance or because they are listening to demagogues within their community and scapegoating others. Jews are quite familiar with racist demagoguery in our community. We can look back at Meir Kahane whose legacy haunts us around the world to this day, even though he was assassinated three decades ago.
But we can also see our own racists, whether it’s someone in the Trump administration or a leader of a major, far-right Zionist organization. It manifests in leaders condemning the movement for Black lives, but also in more subtle ways, such as so-called civil rights groups helping American police get training from Israelis in militarized tactics. The targeting of Black leaders who support Palestinian rights specifically is a shameful, and, yes, racist, example of the weaponization of antisemitism.
And here we get to the elephant in the room.
Abdul-Jabbar said that Stephen Jackson had talked “about the Rothschilds owning all the banks and his support for the notorious homophobe and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan.” Farrakhan comes up often when Black people are being accused, rightly or wrongly, of antisemitism. His antisemitism is old, consistent, vile, and unabashed. It’s far from the only aspect of Farrakhan’s worldview that offends people, in and outside of the Black community. As Kareem said, he’s also homophobic and we can add misogynistic to that list. Farrakhan’s philosophy is also unambiguously conservative despite the absurd association with “the left” that some disingenuously make because of his frequent criticism of white supremacy.
Farrakhan holds a place of respect in the African-American community, which understandably angers many members of communities he has made a point of repeatedly offending. The controversy over the Women’s March a few years ago, and especially around one of its leaders, Tamika Mallory, swirled around Farrakhan. Mallory had praised Farrakhan and had been pilloried for it. But the Nation of Islam (NOI), which Farrakhan leads, had been there to support her at a time she was in desperate need and she would not simply cut off Farrakhan.
One can have a variety of opinions of Mallory’s stance, but the reality is that the demand to utterly condemn Farrakhan because of his bigotry, while seemingly natural not only for the groups he has offended, but also for liberals more broadly was resisted by many in the Black community who had experiences with the NOI similar to Mallory’s.
The Farrakhan Problem That Keeps Coming Up
Writing in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer described the dilemma: “Most people outside the black community come into contact with the Nation of Islam this way-Farrakhan makes anti-Semitic remarks, which generate press coverage, and then demands for condemnation. But many black people come into contact with the Nation of Islam as a force in impoverished black communities-not simply as a champion of the black poor or working class, but of the black underclass: black people, especially men, who have been written off or abandoned by white society. They’ve seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican. The self-respect, inner strength, and self-reliance reflected in the polished image of the men in suits and bow ties can be a powerful sight.”
Crucially, Serwer also wrote, “One prominent civil-rights activist cautioned against reading some black Americans’ sympathy with Farrakhan’s critique of white racism as a wholesale embrace of his message. ‘The message and appeal of Barack Obama is the polar opposite of Louis Farrakhan. That is more emblematic of the black community’s sentiments than Louis Farrakhan,’ said the activist. ‘In this era of mass incarceration, the Nation still maintains a presence in the prisons, where we have too many people of color locked up, too many men, they are in many of our communities. So the unsparing critique of racism that he provides has a certain appeal.’”
Farrakhan’s antisemitism is not a major reason for his popularity, but it is one of his most effective tools for getting attention. But he is not just a hatemonger who taps into people’s anger and misfortune to get their lockstep support, like the white nationalist currently occupying the White House. Farrakhan provides something substantive to his community, as Serwer describes. That matters, and it’s just as much a part of who Farrakhan and the NOI are as the antisemitism and bigotry.
DeSean Jackson, in his initial, controversial statements cited Farrakhan, but not for his antisemitism. As another writer in The Atlantic, Jemele Hill, described it, “Jackson shared quotes from a speech made by the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan during the Fourth of July weekend. The speech mostly centered on police brutality, the coronavirus, Black empowerment, and self-reliance. But with Farrakhan’s long, vile record of anti-Semitism, Jackson-who is far from alone among Black Americans in his support for Farrakhan-can’t be surprised that people now question his true feelings toward Jews.”
Indeed, while Jackson cited other parts of Farrakhan’s speech, it’s hardly a leap to think that he had simply absorbed some of Farrakhan’s bigotry. It’s another example of the fact that Farrakhan is at once a vile antisemite and a strong figure standing up for his community against racism. His bigotry does not negate the good work he does, and the good work does not negate the bigotry, although each complicates the other. The difference between him and a Trump, a Steve
Bannon, a Meir Kahane, a David Duke is that I’m unaware of any positive contributions any of them have made, whereas the real world impact of their hate has been far greater than anything Farrakhan could ever accomplish.
This is not an irresolvable issue. Black people, living in a state whose endemic racism has recently gotten a massive jolt of energy thanks to the rise of a white nationalist presidential administration (Trump himself knows only one ideology-give me it, it’s mine!), understandably are not prepared to cause a major internal conflict by challenging Farrakhan too strongly. That is not to say that people do not criticize him from within the Black community, as Abdul-Jabbar, Jemele Hill, other scholars, and other, less famous folks, demonstrate. That’s been true for many decades, even before the days of Farrakhan. But the contributions the NOI have made in people’s lives are significant.
Criticism must take that into account. While we all like simplicity, it’s not always possible to have a uniform approach to fighting bigotry. We can condemn a Stephen Miller, a David Duke, a Donald Trump for their blatant antisemitism with reckless abandon because members of our community or allied groups do not have any positive associations with them.
It isn’t very difficult to call out Farrakhan’s antisemitism without demanding that he be barred from making the contributions he does make, a demand that will not be fulfilled but could lead, and in fact has led, to increased tensions between the Black and Jewish communities. It could lead also to increased division within the Black community, at a time when unity is needed more than ever. And on top of that, Jews of Color will be in an even more difficult position than they already are, having to face racism and antisemitism not only all around them, but from within their own communities. As to the real merits of Farrakhan’s contributions to the Black community, that is something for that community to decide.
As a matter of broader principle, the idea of condemning the rhetoric alone holds a lot of promise. By delegitimizing people, we throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Sometimes, folks can be turned. Jesse Jackson is a prime example. His infamous “hymietown” remarks were rightly denounced, and for many Jews, his very emotional, heartfelt apology and his subsequent stance against antisemitism were insufficient because he wouldn’t denounce Farrakhan. This was at least as serious a blow to relations between the Black and Jewish communities as anything Farrakhan himself ever said. It was, to use the parlance, an own goal.
I understand the position many progressive Black folks find themselves in here. I was also a troubled youth, and at 19, I was homeless with no job, and few options for sustaining myself. A rather fanatical Jewish organization helped me. I will always owe them a great debt, because had they not given me a job and a place to live for a few months, I might never have gotten my life into some semblance of order. But the organization has also done some things that are very much against my values (I’m not naming it here because I don’t want to give the impression that I am comparing them to NOI, a comparison that would certainly not be valid). As a result, I can understand the position of people who have been helped by NOI perhaps a little better than some of my fellow Jews.
The Black and Jewish communities need each other, and the people who live in both communities need the tension to ease. We as Jews need to reach out to the Black community and show them that when they hear about white Jews being somehow worse for the Black community than other white people, or about Jewish ownership of all the banks or other antisemitic tropes, they are hearing the litany of white supremacy, even if they are hearing it from a Black voice. Our expectation can and should be the same as is expected of us: to listen. The virtue signaling of condemnation is a harmful and futile tactic that serves only to further divide us. Opposing the ideas and opening ourselves to teaching and learning brings us together and is the bane of our mutual enemy: white supremacy.
Originally published at https://rethinkingforeignpolicy.org on July 19, 2020.