Black Lives and Jewish Lives Deserve Empathy, Not Enmity

Few causes are as naturally resonant with Jews as the never-ending quest to protect the very lives of people of color.

The Torah teaches that all human beings are born in God’s image, and commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The rabbinic compendium Ethics of the Fathers says: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.”

Central to Jews’ own history is their oppression beginning with enslavement in ancient Egypt.

For Jews, who have suffered so much at the hands of bigots – including those invoking the absurdity that is racial supremacy – inequality on account of superficial appearance is a moral outrage of the highest order. It was for this reason that so many Jews have played an outsize part in advocating for the human rights of Black people, in America and elsewhere.

BLACK-JEWISH BONDS

As early as 1902, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote that “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” In 1942, B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly stated that “Jews must be as ardent for the defense of Negro rights as they are of their own.”

In 1964, the two white men murdered by the KKK along with a Black man for helping Mississippi African-Americans to vote were Jewish. American Blacks and Jews jointly battled Jim Crow laws, and successfully partnered to enable the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the rabbis joining Black leaders marching in Selma, Alabama. Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America… I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way.”

Jews helped found, fund and staff predominantly African-American civil rights bodies like the NAACP. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “it was usually in the Jewish communities where desegregation began.” Despite the stark risks, individual Jews were to be found in disproportionate numbers among those resisting apartheid in South Africa. Later, Jews played a key role in spreading awareness of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and in bringing international attention to mass violence in the Darfur region of Sudan.

And whether through the aid agency MASHAV or a growing array of non-governmental organizations, Israel – despite its small size – has contributed to developing Africans’ agriculture, health services, infrastructure and more.

In turn, many Africans and African-Americans alike, not least those looking to the Bible for inspiration, have felt a deep bond with Jews. Imagery of the Israelites’ exodus to the Promised Land was especially poignant for Black slaves. Black soldiers helped to fight and defeat Nazism – and were treated barbarically by Hitler’s Germany when taken captive by it.

Multiple African countries have also been home to their own Jewish communities. Ethiopia has proudly traced its ties to the fabled relationship of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. Sub-Saharan Africans broadly welcomed early support from and close cooperation with Israel, largely pioneered by Golda Meir.

Mainstream African-American leaders have long stood against anti-Semitism – particularly King, who notably added, “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.” He recognized Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”

Later, soul legend Ray Charles told a B’nai B’rith audience: “Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting… If someone besides a Black ever sings the real gut-bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”

DILEMMAS SURROUNDING #BLM

Indeed, almost always, white supremacists have hated Jews of all colors as much as they do people of color. Their equal-opportunity malice again surfaced in Charlottesville, Virginia, where – nominally gathered in 2017 to defend the “heritage” embodied in Confederate monuments – many chanted “Jews will not replace us.” These racialists, oblivious to the hollowness of their ideology, see even white Jews as biologically impure and as responsible for race-mingling more generally.

But the protest movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter has presented Jewish supporters of the anti-racist cause with some dilemmas.

First, even while recognizing the need for dramatic change, minorities have rarely benefited from a climate of extreme polarization or from unnuanced reactions to complex societal problems – all these intensified by things like a pandemic, economic crisis and heightened populism.

Many activists have demanded not just comprehensive reform of police departments but their defunding or even disbanding. Yet Jews – who have been, even in America, by far the leading target of faith-based hate crimes – could be among the many populations made more vulnerable in the absence of active policing. The reality is that we are obliged to guard against abuses by those in power, but also against misconduct by those who do not wear a uniform.

Second, it is true that on practically every continent are to be found markers of those who were associated with ideas and actions that we rightly consider abhorrent today. It is not always clear who should decide which demerits warrant landmarks’ demolition.

This said, a distinction can reasonably be made between preserving sites that simply record history and keeping in place, without critical commentary, tributes glorifying those guilty of dehumanizing others. Most American Jews – whose voting patterns are remarkably aligned with those of African-Americans – would oppose the prominent display of statues celebrating a Confederacy that destroyed American unity and championed racism.

But one might wonder: why isn’t there widespread insistence on similar treatment of those who persecuted or fomented hatred of Jews? These could include almost countless figures – from Augustine to Chaucer, Martin Luther to Peter Stuyvesant, Voltaire to Wagner, Melville to Ford, Helen Thomas to Malcolm X.

Which leads us to the more central Jewish concern regarding the revitalized movement against anti-Black racism: the potential for even it to be exploited by those who harbor a different but no less destructive bigotry, anti-Semitism.

No community is immune to prejudice, to emotional blind spots and to absorbing slurs and stereotypes from the wider society.

After migrating from the South, many African-Americans encountered Jews as teachers, social workers and doctors, but also as landlords, employers and store owners, experiencing a distinct differential in their respective socioeconomic positions. Too few Jews and people of color have had genuinely meaningful interaction during their formative years. Israeli society, too, is not devoid of divisions and disparities. More broadly, many Jews, scarred by dispossession, humiliation and endless atrocity, have certainly yearned to be associated with the dominant Western culture – sometimes internalizing its errant “conventional wisdom.”

EXPRESSIONS OF ANTI-SEMITISM

But some people of African descent, too, have been influenced by prejudiced ideas or impulses.

Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has praised Hitler as a “very great man,” called Judaism a “gutter religion,” threatened the Jewish community with “destruction” and described Jews as “termites,” “bloodsuckers” and the “synagogue of Satan.” Yet he denies he is an anti-Semite – and was seated beside former President Bill Clinton on stage at the funeral of Aretha Franklin. On a cable channel founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Farrakhan again referred to Jews as “Satan” last month, and said, “it is my job now to pull the cover off of Satan so that every Muslim, when he sees Satan, picks up a stone as we do in Mecca.”

Farrakhan has also been lauded by celebrities including Kanye West, hip hop artist Jay Electronica, rapper Ice Cube and NFL player DeSean Jackson, who apologized for posting a quote, which he attributed to Hitler, saying that Jews “extort America” and “plan for world domination” while “Negroes are the real Children of Israel.” Now, former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson has written of a “Jewish cabal” guilty of “Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Ritualistic Child Torture, Perversion [and] Human Sacrifice/Murder.”

Weeks ago, television personality Nick Cannon reposted an interview he had conducted with rapper Professor Griff – who previously blamed Jews for “the majority of the wickedness that goes on around the globe” – in which Cannon praised Farrakhan as well, and commended his guest who said he was “speaking facts” about “the Cohens and the Moskowitzes.”

Radio host Charlamagne tha God said that ViacomCBS then cut ties with Cannon, who subsequently expressed remorse, because “Jewish people… have the power.” British hip-hop artist Wiley added, “Jewish [sic] would do anything to ruin a black mans [sic] life.”

A few more prominent Black figures have also made anti-Semitic remarks in the past – the Rev. Jesse Jackson used pejoratives like “Hymies” to refer to Jews during his presidential campaign in 1984, while the Rev. Al Sharpton employed incendiary rhetoric (“If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house”) around the time of the deadly 1991 Crown Heights riots.

The late Georgia state representative Billy McKinney declared that “Jews have bought everybody. Jews, J-E-W-S” – while his daughter Cynthia, who became a member of the U.S. Congress, promoted anti-Israeli conspiracy theories related to 9/11 and suggested that the number of Holocaust victims is inflated. Both continue to have Georgia motorways named for them.

After two African-Americans killed six people in 2019 at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, an African-American member of the local Board of Education, Joan Terrell-Paige, called Jews “brutes” who threaten to bring “drug dealers and prostitutes” into the Black community, and said rabbis were suspected of “selling body parts.” She retained her post nonetheless.

Some African studies programs have promulgated a theory that anti-Black racism has its roots in a supposed Jewish belief that the biblical Noah’s son Ham was “cursed” with blackness. Author Alice Walker – while championing Palestinian nationalism – has called on Jews to “abandon race and culture and religion,” smeared the Talmud as the cause of global evil and referred to “Zionist Nazis.” Poet Amiri Baraka’s writing included such lines as “I got the extermination blues, jewboys [sic]. I got the hitler [sic] syndrome figured.”

On the African continent, meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime strongman, periodically made anti-Jewish assertions and called white farmers so “hard-hearted, you would think they were Jews.” Idi Amin, the Ugandan president, said Hitler “was right to burn six million Jews.”

Among a new generation of activists, Tamika Mallory, former Women’s March co-chair, extolled Farrakhan and reportedly accused Jews of collective guilt as exploiters of people of color. Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, who once wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” was censured for saying, of the sway of pro-Israel activists, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Marc Lamont Hill, previously a CNN commentator, also attempted to spin Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and delivered a speech at the United Nations – echoing jihadists’ aspiration to completely destroy Israel – that called for a “Palestine from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea.”

And French-Cameroonian political candidate and comedian Dieudonné popularized a Nazi-like salute, while calling Holocaust commemoration “memorial pornography.” He also co-founded an “Anti-Zionist Party” and implied approval of a lethal terror attack, by an Islamist of Malian ancestry, at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.

Even Johannesburg-born Trevor Noah, years before having been chosen to host “The Daily Show,” joked about the Holocaust and wrote that “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.”

A FRAUGHT MOMENT

As to Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives – which is a loose coalition that includes BLM, itself highly decentralized – adopted in 2016 a platform that mimics Palestinian polemics by singling out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, as an “apartheid” state that commits “genocide.” Yet Israel is the Middle East’s sole pluralistic democracy – and Palestinians have over the course of its existence actually multiplied in number significantly. Their leaders have also rejected every serious proposal of statehood and peace alongside Israel.

Unfortunately, ANC officials and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among the South African leaders who came to spearhead sub-Saharan realignment with anti-Israel Arab regimes – some in Africa – that are no paragons of human rights. The country’s role in this regard was perhaps symbolized by its hosting, in Durban in 2001, of a U.N. conference on racism that – true to the world body’s double standards against Israel, resulting from the combined power of nearly 60 Muslim-majority member states – labeled Israel alone as racist and featured shocking displays of anti-Semitism.

Fast forward to 2020. The defacing during protests against police brutality of a Los Angeles synagogue with graffiti reading “free Palestine” and worse, claims by BLM in Britain that the suffocation of George Floyd was taught by Israelis, the shouting at a French anti-racist demonstration of “dirty Jews” and the chanting at a Washington BLM march of “Israel, we know you, you murder children too” are just some examples of scapegoating that – by targeting Jews, demonizing Israelis, delegitimizing Israel and denying a Jewish right to equal self-determination – would be considered modern anti-Semitism.

But some progressives, keen to associate racism exclusively with the far-right, have not only excised anti-Semitism from their conception of intersectional prejudice but also sought to preempt legitimate opposition to anti-Israel bias with a straw-man claim that Jews tar all “criticism” of Israel as anti-Semitic. In any other context, it would be a liberal article of faith that others have no business casting aspersions on a minority group’s ongoing experience of bigotry.

The result of this antipathy is a searing quandary for Jews whose very whiteness is rejected by white supremacists but who are implicated in undifferentiated white privilege by some more strident Black rights activists. Vocal elements of both these factions have embraced Palestinian symbols to signal virtuous solidarity – while employing the technique of typically, but not always, targeting “Zionists” instead of Jews.

For their part, even Palestinian extremists argue that they “can’t be anti-Semitic” because they are Semites too – only to then stigmatize Jews as foreign to the land and Israel as “racist” for policies born not of interracial subjugation but mutual conflict over territory, sovereignty and, especially, security.

This is not to say that Israel cannot be critiqued fairly – it can – but superimposing distorted analogies between white colonial oppressors and Israeli Jews does not serve the cause of anti-racism or reconciliation. Neither does depriving Palestinians of their own agency and responsibilities in peacemaking.

In sum, we are compelled to grapple with the full complexity of bigotry. Anti-Black racism, both overt and subtle, is insidious, and it remains frighteningly resilient. But anti-Semitism too – whether undergirded by class tensions, inherited teachings of religious contempt, European racial myths, Arab anti-Zionist narratives, resentment of support deemed paternalistic or a simple identification of Jews with advantaged whites – must be acknowledged and tackled.

The writer James Baldwin long ago said that “just as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol.” He conceded, “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”

EMPATHY, NOT RIVALRY

Surveys by observers including the Anti-Defamation League have in fact shown the persistence of anti-Semitism among people of color at higher rates than most other Americans. In some cases, this has been linked to a spate of assaults on Orthodox Jews in the New York City area, the largest Jewish population center outside Israel.

Clearly, it is all too easy even for members of victimized groups to generalize, to focus on examples of benevolence and hardship in one’s own community but wrongdoing and undue advantage in the other.

What, then, should be the principles guiding a vital but sometimes delicate relationship like the one between African-Americans and Jews?

To begin with, we must avoid competition over virtue and victimhood – stressing mutual empathy instead, and shared objectives.

No minority should be shamed for any success that some of its members may have achieved – nor for responsibly advocating its rights.

Civil rights campaigners should never accept the exclusion, marginalizing or vilification of certain communities but not others.

An oppressed community must certainly never be told that the sheer extent of the bigotry to which it has been subjected suggests that victims have brought their suffering upon themselves.

No minority should have its history, let alone its identity, denied or appropriated. Of course, denigrating others’ culture or appearance is also wrong, as are epithets – no matter the target.

And even when a particular stereotype does contain some kernel of truth, it must not be stripped of critical context. While, for example, certain social challenges may be pronounced in parts of the Black community, these are chiefly the result not of any predisposition or dereliction but sustained, compounded disadvantage that still has not been fully rectified. While some Jews have come to be successful in finance – though Jews were subjected to hatred both when capitalist and socialist, when rich and poor – this is not on account of some unusual delight in banking or usury, but because Christian rulers barred them for centuries from many other vocations.

Not least importantly, demagogues from any corner – like Farrakhan, no less dangerous and unrepentant than David Duke – should be shunned consistently, and without equivocation.

THE ALLIANCE LIVES ON

Fortunately, there have been plenty of heroes in a Black-Jewish allyship that is both reciprocal and profound.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote that “for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement – truly ‘inordinate,’ truly ‘disproportionate’ – not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.” In 1943, the Central Conference of American Rabbis said of African-Americans, “It is we, their fellowmen – who have acquiesced in or been apathetic about their maltreatment – who have suffered spiritual hurt, for no soul that tolerates oppression remains unspoiled or unsullied.”

Decades later, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins were among the civil rights icons who mobilized to push back at anti-Semitic sentiment in the African-American community. Rustin confronted radicals “speaking material directly from ‘Mein Kampf’” and said that some activists’ identification with those attacking Israel “is based on a terrible perversion of the truth, not only the truth about the P.L.O. but the truth about our own movement as well.”

In 1988, B’nai B’rith presented an award – named jointly for King and Heschel – to John Lewis, the Georgia congressman laid to rest last week, who stood out by eschewing the 1995 Million Man March for having been “fatally undermined by its chief sponsor,” Farrakhan.

In the run-up to the lockdowns this year over the novel coronavirus – one which, early on, revealed intolerable racial discrepancies in enforcement of social distancing, and in access to superior healthcare – I traveled to multiple African countries and witnessed an unmistakable rebirth in African-Israeli friendship, notwithstanding the African Union’s own exclusion from its proceedings of Israelis, but not Palestinians.

Here in the U.S., after a young bigot murdered study group members at a historic Black house of worship in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, a local synagogue responded: “Today we are all members of the Emanuel AME Church.” Southern synagogues are now pushing for the removal of a Charlotte, North Carolina, statue of Judah Benjamin – the highest-ranking Jewish official in the Confederacy. It was the Jewish mayor of Minneapolis who responded emotionally and swiftly to the death of George Floyd, earning praise from his friend, the African-American mayor of neighboring St. Paul.

W.E.B. Du Bois, despite some early expressions of anti-Semitism of his own, came to describe Jews as a “tremendous force for good and uplift.” Jackie Robinson, the beneficiary of special affinity from fellow baseball trailblazer Hank Greenberg, backed Jews facing job discrimination by the Arabian-America Oil Company, and he called for the dismissal of a Black figure who told Jews that Hitler “didn’t kill enough of you.”

He wrote in his autobiography that he was “ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when blacks were guilty of anti-Semitism.” Honored by B’nai B’rith as well, Robinson asked: “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”

Likewise, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote over recent weeks that hostility to Jews is “a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation.“ Zach Banner, a member of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, added: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate… We need to uplift them and put our arms around them.”

Although tethered to a body long characterized by systemic anti-Israelism – condemning the Jewish state more than all other countries combined – U.N. chief Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who married the half-niece of Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, said, “I know that… it has sometimes seemed as if the United Nations serves all the world’s peoples but one: the Jews.” During his own tenure, however, the U.N. held a first-time seminar on anti-Semitism, an international Holocaust remembrance day was instituted and he eventually urged that scrutiny of Israel not “monopolize” the organization’s activity.

And days ago, South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng withstood rebukes from the ANC for saying that by maintaining a one-sided stance toward Israel, “We are denying ourselves a wonderful opportunity of being a game-changer in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” He added: “Hatred is toxic.”

Of course, it was none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews.”

Since George Floyd’s recorded killing – just one more casualty of bigotry, added to the innumerable casualties not documented on camera – a most common description by African-Americans of their emotional state is exhaustion. People of color are exhausted of dying, exhausted of fighting to live, exhausted of trying to explain their entitlement to lives of dignity, exhausted of trying to explain that racism is still a problem.

After thousands of years of adversity, Jews are exhausted, too. They’ve experienced genocide only to have it denied even as the last survivors remain among us. They withstood persecution in exile only to rear children suffering not just violence on Jews’ native soil but the accusation of having collectively morphed from a David into nothing less than a Goliath.

Despite all these challenges, progress in pursuing civil rights has, of course, been made – and this has come precisely through a determined partnership between Black and Jewish people, among so many others. Our communities’ core aspirations truly are intertwined. It is only through mutual empowerment that we will see them continue to materialize.

Let us take care never to undercut the cause of fighting bigotry by deploying it against our closest allies in the fight.

About the Author
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B’nai B’rith International, which maintains full-time, accredited representation at U.N. bodies worldwide.
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