In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and in remembrance of his friendship with Rabbi Abraham Heschel
Unfortunately, many have never learned about Blacks’ and Jews’ long history of working together to advance civil rights. From the time of W.E.B. Du Bois and the founding of the NAACP to the present, African Americans and Jewish people have worked in partnership. In 1964, a group of rabbis penned a letter, “Why We Went: A Joint Letter from the Rabbis Arrested in St. Augustine,” explaining why they were willing to risk jail time in support of civil rights. Jews have died and their synagogues bombed because they joined with Blacks in the fight for civil rights.
I am personally troubled by anyone, especially Blacks making antisemitic remarks. As a Black man who practices Judaism, I’m often asked about antisemitic remarks made by famous Black people. Sadly, antisemitic thoughts are as ubiquitous as polluted air; we simply breathe them in without realizing it. There are so many urban legends, myths and untruths concerning Jews, and if you aren’t careful, you’re bound to repeat one without knowing it. Most non-Jews have an unconscious bias when it comes to Jews, as they do toward many groups other than their own. They might not even be aware they have these assumptions. The problem is, once people make such comments publicly, they are accountable for their remarks, whether they intended to offend or not.
When it comes to Jews, Judaism and Israel, I frequently say that I don’t know anything, and what I do know is wrong. There’s a learning curve. That’s why I can empathize with people who don’t realize their remarks were offensive until after the fact. Many times, I can tell they were just repeating something they’d heard. I often cringe the moment I hear it and think to myself, “They have no idea what they just said and how many people will take offense.” It is at those moments I regret that someone hasn’t educated them.
Misunderstandings can have major consequences. Many Blacks were surprised and disappointed when Jewish leaders, who indeed believe that Black lives matter, as demonstrated by their long civil rights advocacy, didn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement. Jewish leaders didn’t endorse the BLM movement or organization because they saw it as anti-Israel and antisemitic. I’m not sure most Blacks knew or understood that some of the positions taken by the movement or its leadership would be perceived as such.
This topic is important to me because Blacks and Jews had a mostly positive relationship during the 20th century. In this time of intense polarization, I appreciate opportunities to come together. Careless remarks hurt the partnership we have shared. While I don’t like attacks on Jews from the right, I expect them. I’m more saddened by attacks from the left, often on college campuses. I wonder whether the speakers know the facts and have thought through their arguments or whether they’re simply repeating the campus zeitgeist.
I’ve heard liberal whites make racist comments about Blacks because they simply didn’t know better, and I can understand Blacks making the same type of mistake with regard to other groups, including Jews. In the same way Blacks expect non-Blacks to learn what is hurtful and racist, other groups have the same expectation.
So, although I’m still learning, here is how I attempt to pass on what I’ve learned to others:
If you’re Black, your parents may have taught you that being Black meant you didn’t have the freedom to do the same things that white kids could do without repercussions. Similarly, just because you may hear a white person say something antisemitic without getting demonized for it doesn’t mean that’s how it would work out if you said the same thing. Henry Ford, Coco Chanel and many other prominent figures were widely known to be antisemites, yet they didn’t suffer repercussions such as boycotts.
James C. McReynolds, was openly antisemitic and racist. It is hard to imagine how he got nominated let alone approved to sit on the Supreme Court of the US. It is even harder to imagine that anyone thought he could be impartial. Former president Donald Trump has made many antisemitic statements, yet there has been no organized boycott against him. People still rent his apartments, stay in his hotels, license his name, and buy his products. I’ve even heard Jews defend Donald Trump, saying he’s been the best friend to Israel the Jewish people have ever had.
Don’t ever …
Don’t say Israel doesn’t have the right to exist. Opposition to Israel’s existence might be an accepted position in some circles, but most people don’t have the protection of academic tenure or United Nations membership.
Don’t deny or minimize the Holocaust. Don’t say the Middle Passage of slavery was worse or that slavery as an institution killed more Blacks than the Nazis killed Jews. Horror is horror and genocide is genocide, and nothing good comes from trying to measure one group’s suffering against another’s.
Don’t say anything positive about Hitler. If you feel compelled to discuss the positive qualities of an autocratic leader, then talk about Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Castro or Mao — not Hitler.
Don’t imply Jews control Hollywood or Wall Street or are conspiring to rule the world. You might have heard words such as cabal or illuminati in relation to the Rothschild family or Jews in general, but don’t make the mistake of repeating such conspiracy theories. These lies were promulgated in “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the most widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times. I’ve heard Minister Louis Farrakhan reference this document in sermons and speeches, which is among the reasons the Southern Poverty Law Center refers to him as an antisemite.
Don’t stereotype Jews as being cheap or as cheaters by using “Jew” as a verb meaning to bargain, haggle or cheat. Many people have grown up hearing and using the term without considering the hurtful connotation. Even if you’re familiar with specific incidents involving Jewish landlords and Black tenants or Jewish merchants selling to Black customers, it’s unfair to generalize from specific examples to all people in a group.
Don’t refer to Zionism in a negative or derogatory manner. Zionism is the movement to establish and support a homeland for Jews in Israel. Repeating slogans such as “Zionism is racism” is hurtful. There are Zionists of every skin tone and ethnicity, including Africans. There are Zionists who support the Palestinian cause and are working for a just peace. If you identify with the Palestinian cause, be specific as to why, e.g. they are an oppressed minority group. Also be careful when discussing Black and Palestinian intersectionality. Remember that even though Palestinians are a Semitic people, antisemitism specifically refers to prejudice against Jews, so supporting the Palestinian cause can be seen as antisemitic, depending upon the reason given.
Don’t repeat any derogatory terms Jews may use among themselves. Just as Blacks may use the N-word when talking to each other or in song lyrics, but are rightly offended by a white person using it, Jews are rightly offended when non-Jews refer to them using ethnic slurs.
Don’t generalize and don’t scapegoat. When speaking about Jews, follow the same rules you would use when referring to any other group. Starting out a sentence with “The Jews …” or “Jews are …” is a bad idea even if you think you’re saying something positive, because whatever follows will probably be a generalization that will offend people.
Don’t repeat religious tropes or heresies about Jews, such as saying that they killed Christ or are tools of Satan or that they use the blood of Christians in religious rituals. For 2,000 years, Christians have used the words of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus and the Apostle Paul’s criticisms of Israel’s religious leaders and have applied it to all Jews. Because Jews didn’t convert to Christianity, Martin Luther felt Jews should be treated the same way pagans were treated in the Old Testament, which included killing them.
It’s best not to talk about Jewish slave owners. While it’s true that some Jews owned slaves, it’s also true that many other people and institutions owned slaves, including Ivy League schools such as Harvard or other Africans. Pointing out that some Jews somewhere owned slaves during a time when it was common throughout the United States will make people wonder why you’re singling out Jews for criticism.
Criticizing Israel or its political leadership is tricky. It’s like criticizing someone’s family. You might complain about your own spouse or child, but you wouldn’t want someone outside your family to do it. Jews from the right, left and center have plenty of criticism to offer about Israel, but non-Jews should be careful to direct any criticism of Israel to specific policy issues, platforms, parties or individuals, not toward the country, and back it up with facts from academic or policy references.
Before saying anything about Jews or Israel, do some solid research. See what the Anti-Defamation League has to say on the subject, rather than relying on a random Jewish friend. Just as a white person quoting Clarence Thomas or Alan Keyes might still have their quote deemed racist, a non-Jew quoting a Jew could still be considered antisemitic, depending on the comment. Being related to a Jewish person doesn’t give you a free pass to make antisemitic comments either.
To sum up my advice on avoiding antisemitic remarks: Be intentional, be informed, be conscientious, and be aware of your own biases and assumptions, so you can avoid causing harm unintentionally. It’s better to take a few minutes up front to do some research and vet your sources, so you won’t say the wrong thing, and to have to apologize for it later.
While I don’t have any standing, I can say there are many Black Americans like myself who are embarrassed for the comments that some have made about Jews and for that we apologize. We apologize whether the remarks or other harmful actions were intentional or unintentional, and for our complicity in not condemning such actions stronger and sooner. My prayer is you would know how some of us feel and that would be a balm to heal the hurts you have experienced. Here’s to the good work we will do together in our efforts to repair the world.
Let there be love
And understanding among us.
Let peace and friendship
Be our shelter from life’s storms.
Let there be love
And understanding among us.
Let peace and friendship
Be our shelter from life’s storms.
Let There Be Love — Hashkiveinu