The Necessary Means: The Black-Jewish Divide
In this time of profound racial unrest in the US, with African Americans publicly expressing their entirely justified anger and rage at the continuing injustices they face, the fraying of Black-Jewish relations has, sadly, been thrown into sharp relief.
Nothing has been more paradigmatic of the crisis than the reemergence, yet again, of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who recently seized the current moment by the throat with a three-hour speech called “The Criterion.” Broadcast live on YouTube, it gained hundreds of thousands of views; overwhelmingly, one imagines, from African Americans.
This should be profoundly disturbing to all, because Farrakhan’s speech was, among other things, a masterpiece of antisemitic demagoguery. Farrakhan referred to Jews as “Satan,” and opined that they ought to have their brains knocked out with the “stone of truth.” He further asserted that the Jews were, in fact, fake Jews, saying, “Those of you that say that you’re Jews, I will not even give you the honor of calling you a Jew.”
He also repeated the blood libel that Israel was responsible for police brutality in the US. “Like snakes,” he said of the police, “trying to wrap yourself around us so you could give us the treatment that you were taught in Israel. You may, as you gonna stop your police from going to Israel to learn how to kill better.”
In a small piece of positive news, the video has been removed from YouTube for hate speech.
In less positive news, a raft of celebrities and influencers have endorsed or defended Farrakhan and, implicitly or explicitly, his antisemitism. They include Sean Combs, Snoop Dogg, Chelsea Handler, Jessica Chastain, DeSean Jackson, Nick Cannon, Ice Cube and Cornel West.
Jackson, Handler, Cannon, and Chastain, at least, have expressed some kind of regret or apology, but others have remained painfully unrepentant. Rapper Ice Cube, for example, said, “What if I was just pro-Black? This is the truth brother. I didn’t lie on anyone. I didn’t say I was anti anybody. DONT BELIEVE THE HYPE. I’ve been telling my truth.”
If there is one silver lining to this, it is that several prominent Black writers and activists, such as Kareem Abdul Jabbar, have publicly slammed and repudiated Farrakhan. We must hope those in the Black community like Jabbar prevail in this debate — which is a debate only the Black community can have. But the problem of Farrakhan cannot be solved without solving the larger problem of Black antisemitism.
In the early 1960s, the great African-American writer and activist James Baldwin — who was not entirely free of antisemitism himself — tried to get to the bottom of it all.
“In the American context,” Baldwin wrote, “the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man. … The Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.”
To Baldwin, then, Black antisemitism was at its core driven by two factors: that to Blacks, the Jew was white, and therefore part of the problem; and that Jews did not think of themselves as white.
Putting aside the fact that a very large number of Jews are not white, the problem with this is that while it may be true that Black people believe the Jews are white and therefore benefit from white racism, the racists have always disagreed. White supremacists in the US have never believed that the Jews were “white,” and to the extent that they have seen Jews as superior to Black people, it is only in our supposed preternatural genius at using Black people as a weapon to destroy white people.
It is true that the otherness of Jews in America, and elsewhere, is not the same as that of a Black person. A Black person wears that otherness on their face, every day for all to see. With a handful of exceptions, he cannot “pass,” even if he wanted to. The ability of the Jew to blend in, to be unidentifiable, is thus to the Black person a privilege he cannot enjoy.
But the Jews do not by any means always “pass.” Some of us do wear it on our faces. I have been “made” as a Jew several times, as have many of my friends. In one case for one of those friends, the results were quite egregious. And many of us wear it on our bodies through the kippah, the black suit, the shtreimel or the tzitzit: precisely those “visible Jews” who have recently been the object of assaults by people of color in New York and New Jersey.
Moreover, however comfortable American Jews may feel at any given moment, any of them who are even vaguely aware of Jewish history know from long and painful experience that the bottom could fall out at any moment. There can always be the knock on the door. One wrong move, we often fear, one step in the wrong direction, and we will be dealing with more than a shanda, we will be facing a catastrophe.
And this may be the great tragedy of the reemergence of Farrakhan. It has shown that many African Americans do not understand the otherness of Jews. It is a different otherness, but it is very real. It is born of the simple fact of being very different from everybody else. And as such, it makes certain demands of non-Jews, even Black non-Jews.
It is true that American Jews owe to Black Americans the simple acknowledgement and understanding of what they have been through and the legitimacy of their sense of injustice. But there is also, it is uncomfortable to say, something that Black people owe to Jewish people.
The Black community is asking America what the responsibility of a country that is overwhelmingly non-Black must be to them, and they are right to do so. But they must also ask what the responsibility of a country, of a world, that is overwhelmingly non-Jewish must be to the Jews. And African Americans are part of that vast gentile majority. It is true that the majority of which they are not a part owes a responsibility to them; but they, as members of that other majority of which they are a part, owe a responsibility to us.
I believe that, born of the experience of their own otherness, and the possibility of empathy that experience inherently creates, Black Americans will fulfill that responsibility. But it will be, as it always is, a struggle. And that struggle is a moral struggle that makes considerable demands upon us all. Malcolm X once famously said, “By any means necessary.” For us, however, it is a question of finding the necessary means.
Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel correspondent for The Algemeiner.