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In the wake of the neo-Nazi terrorist attack in Pittsburgh, in which 11 were massacred at the Tree of Life Synagogue, many have suggested — reasonably, I believe — that the “anti-globalist” rhetoric of the Trumpist right wing might be contributing to the kind of anti-Semitism that can, and in this case did, lead to mass violence.
That kind of language, after all — along with the singling out of wealthy and “powerful” Jewish individuals, as with George Soros most recently — has long been associated with hatred of Jews, and parroted by those who traffic in tropes about Jewish control of the global economy and manipulation of national policies for nefarious purposes.
In reply to this argument, many on the right have asked — presumably so as to point out liberal hypocrisy on the issue of anti-Semitic rhetoric — why the left is slower to condemn the words of Minister Louis Farrakhan than we are to condemn right-wing anti-Jewish invective. For instance, they ask, where was the left when the Nation of Islam leader recently appeared to compare Jews to termites, or when he referred earlier this year to the “synagogue of Satan,” and the link between Hollywood Jews and pedophilia?
Frankly, this shifting of attention from right-wing, white bigotry and anti-Semitism to Farrakhan is a predictable pivot and one the right has deployed consistently for over 30 years, ever since Farrakhan became their all-purpose bogeyman. It’s also a deflection marinated in false equivalence, historically contextual ignorance, and supreme bad faith. Not to mention how absurd it is for conservatives to expect the left to call out Farrakhan as if his philosophy were some prototypical example of leftism. As if he were “one of ours,” so to speak, the way Trump is one of theirs, or Alex Jones.
Many on the left have critiqued Farrakhan.
One has to wonder if the people trying to link Farrakhan to the left have ever really studied the Nation of Islam’s theology? Or Farrakhan’s thinking on gender or sexuality? Or even economics? Farrakhan is a rather committed proponent of black capitalism, after all, and there aren’t many leftists who are fans of capitalism, in any color. Plus, many on the left have critiqued Farrakhan — for instance, Angela Davis and Kimberle Crenshaw, among others, were vocal in the ’90s about the sexism they felt was endemic to the Million Man March.
In short, Farrakhan isn’t of the left, and those who are of the left have often been quite critical, in case you’re keeping score.
In that vein, and before I critique the critique of Farrakhan, let me also say something I have said consistently for 23 years, since the first time I got a question about the minister from an audience member at one of my speeches. It’s something I’ve said to members of the Nation of Islam before, including Sister Charlene Muhammad, who writes for the Nation’s newspaper, The Final Call; has interviewed me often; and for whom I have much respect: Namely, that some remarks the minister has made about Jews are offensive, hurtful, and even hateful, whether intentionally or not.
And yet, this is the relatively easy part. Much more difficult, and yet important, is for us to honestly explore why so many black folks continue to respect him. If we aren’t willing to do that, we are part of the problem that created him as he is today and fed some of the beliefs that we now rightly find so objectionable.
False Equivalence: Why Farrakhan’s Views Are Not Comparable to Nazis’
Before explaining what draws so many black folks to the minister, let’s examine the false equivalence some are trying to draw between Farrakhan, whom we on the left supposedly don’t criticize, and the far-right neo-Nazis, whom we do. Because there are at least two ways in which the equivalence is false.
The first is quantitative. For neo-Nazis and modern white nationalists, anti-Jewish bigotry is literally the fuel of their movement, the glue that binds them. It isn’t a secondary issue, and anti-Jewish comments aren’t just things that pop up from time to time. To these folks, Jew-hatred is the thing, bigger than racism against folks of color, because they believe Jews are evil manipulators who use people of color to destroy whites.
Hating Jews is not the B-side of a Nazi record or an occasional errant note in their orchestra. It is the overture, and the primary cacophony of each movement.
Their racism against folks of color is of a pitying and inferiorizing type (which is bad enough to be sure). But their hatred of Jews is quite different. It’s rooted in a belief that Jews are all-powerful and intent on “genociding” Aryans. In neo-Nazi ideology, Jews like Soros “fund the migrant caravan,” support “open borders,” and push diversity as a way to divide whites and allow Jews (a small minority) to remain a powerful, unified group. In short, hating Jews is not the B-side of a Nazi record or an occasional errant note in their orchestra. It is the overture, and the primary cacophony of each movement, so to speak.
On the other hand, the Nation’s theology is not steeped in anti-Jewishness. Most of Farrakhan’s speeches, of which there are thousands, make no mention of Jews at all. Which is one of the reasons that when he goes back and draws from that particular well, we end up hearing about it. Because when it happens, it shocks us, in a way it doesn’t when a Nazi says something like that. Nazis literally always say that shit, probably even in their sleep. So it never makes the news when they do.
Unless that Nazi goes into a synagogue and massacres people during a service or marches with others on a college campus shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” Which then brings me to the second level of false equivalence: qualitative.
The anti-Jewish rhetoric of neo-Nazis like the shooter, or the Atomwaffen Division terrorist cell, or the Charlottesville organizers, or the Daily Stormer, is eliminationist in tone. They call openly for extermination of Jews or forced removal from America.
Nothing that Farrakhan has said about Jews could be viewed as eliminationist in tone or even likely to result in violence. And indeed, despite all of Farrakhan’s offensive statements about Jews over the years, no one from the Nation of Islam has done anything to harm Jews the way the Pittsburgh killer or several other neo-Nazis over the years have. Those statements may be offensive, wrongheaded, and morally objectionable, but they are not remotely comparable to “get in the oven” memes, calls for the mass murder of Jews, or the death threats right-wingers send to Jews, myself included, on social media almost daily.
Jewishness as Uber-Whiteness: The Real Source of Black ‘Anti-Semitism’
Additionally, one of the problems with equating Farrakhan’s views about Jews (and those of some black folks more broadly) with those of right-wing neo-Nazis is the fundamentally different historical context.
For Nazis, Jews are an evil race driven either genetically or culturally to destroy whites. They are an eternal “other.” For Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, and random black folks who sometimes say foul shit about Jews, the context is quite different. Indeed, in those cases, the context seems akin to what James Baldwin (who was, in many ways, quite the Judeophile) wrote in his famous essay, “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”
As Baldwin explained, black antipathy toward Jews, when it manifests, is rooted in a few very specific and historically contingent forces. First, too often the “white people” whom black folks had to deal with (especially in Northern urban areas), and with whom many had negative interactions, were Jewish. Not because Jews really held power, but because Jews have long been the middlemen between real power and the most powerless (blacks and other people of color in the U.S.).
Few if any have called for Republicans to denounce individuals and everyday evangelicals who think Jews are going to hell for “rejecting Jesus.”
So, as Baldwin noted, Jews were often the landlords or property management folks (though not building owners) who would shake down tenants for excessive rent on dilapidated apartments, or the pawn shop owners to whom blacks had to turn for high-interest loans when banks shut them out, or the shop owners who overcharged them for out-of-date food.
And additionally, he explains, black folks resent the way that Jewish suffering is recognized “as part of the moral history of the world and the Jew is recognized as a contributor [to] the world’s history,” something he notes, “is not true” for blacks.
He continues by noting that functionally, the Jew in America is white, “and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery,” in the eyes of most. And so, for instance:
The uprising in the Warsaw ghetto was not described as a riot, nor were the participants maligned as hoodlums: The boys and girls in Watts and Harlem are thoroughly aware of this, and it certainly contributes to their attitude toward the Jews.
In short, Baldwin was noting that it has really never been Jewish folks’ “Jewishness” that was the problem for black people, but rather, our adopted “whiteness.” By matriculating into that club (and often coveting membership, truth be told) we have called into question our commitment to the marginalized.
So too, it seems to me that what Farrakhan is criticizing is less Jewishness, than Jewish “whitening,” and the extent to which he feels (rightly or wrongly) that Jews have assimilated so much to whiteness that we’ve lost our connection to the marginalized and oppressed. And frankly, if the white folks whom black folks had regularly bumped up against in places like New York and Chicago had been Episcopalian, Farrakhan might well be calling out the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Bad-Faith Argumentation: Farrakhan as Symbolic White Deflection
In addition to the false equivalence problem, the “what-about-Farrakhan” question is typically dripping with bad faith. It’s something right-wingers ask whenever someone points out white racism, as a way to deflect. It’s implied in their insistence that Barack Obama disavow him in 2008, just because of the minister’s connection to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who had collaborated with Farrakhan on some community initiatives in Chicago. And it’s a challenge posited by people who tolerate folks on their side saying awful things about Jews all the time.
Trump fan and pastor Robert Jeffress has said unequivocally that Jews are going to hell; right-wing minister John Hagee once suggested Hitler was sent by God to get Jews to return to the land of Israel; and Pat Buchanan, whom conservatives tolerated for years, questioned the veracity of Holocaust survivors and called Hitler a man of “extraordinary gifts.” But few if any have called for Republicans to denounce these individuals, or for that matter, everyday evangelicals who think Jews are going to hell for “rejecting Jesus.”
Whites don’t get to decide who on “our side” is the equal of Farrakhan.
This latter belief about Jews is absolutely ubiquitous in the GOP base of evangelical white Christians, and it’s something I was told regularly by evangelicals while growing up. It’s spiritual terrorism and the ultimate hateful mentality — it suggests a spiritual supremacy over Jews and implies that Jews are cut off from God entirely unless we stop being Jews — but very few on the right condemn it. It seeks an end to Judaism altogether, no less complete than the physical destruction of Judaism sought by the Pittsburgh shooter. In either case, mass conversion or mass murder, the result is the same: no more Jews. But conservatives cozy up to people like that all the time.
The “what about Farrakhan” question is also offered in bad faith because of the illegitimate contrast it seeks to draw. For instance, white conservatives who want the left to condemn the minister say, “Well, we condemn David Duke,” as if that were the proper contrast.
But Duke got over 600,000 votes from white people in Louisiana twice — the majority of white votes each time — so had it been up to whites alone, Duke would have been a U.S. senator or governor of Louisiana. Meaning, white folk don’t exactly have a clear history of rejecting him.
And importantly, whites don’t get to decide who on “our side” is the equal of Farrakhan. If we reserve the right to call him the one we find objectionable on the “black side” of the aisle, then we have to let black folks pick the demon on our side.
Ah, ya don’t like that, do ya?
Because rather than singling out Duke, people of color might ask us when we’re going to condemn Trump? After all, most whites voted for him, and likely will again. Or they might demand that we unequivocally denounce Thomas Jefferson for owning black folks or Andrew Jackson for advocating and perpetrating American Indian genocide.
Plenty of the folks whom most whites take for granted as legitimate leaders (or at least insist on “seeing the good in,” even as we might be willing to note the bad, as with Jefferson or Jackson) are not heroes to black people. But if they told us to simply renounce them, without any appreciation of nuance, or a recognition of any of the positive elements of their philosophies (especially in the case of Jefferson), most of us would object. Yet, that is essentially what white folks, and particularly white conservatives, are doing with Farrakhan.
There is no reason, historically, for black folks to assume that whites (Jewish or not) have their interests at heart.
We regularly revere American presidents, all but one of them white, who killed hundreds of thousands or even millions in unjust wars and military interventions. We revere FDR even though he interned Japanese Americans; JFK, even though he spied on Dr. King; and folks like his brother Robert, who actually approved the wiretapping.
Conservatives love Reagan, but he told phony stories about black “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” buying T-bone steaks with food stamps, and helped bolster apartheid in South Africa for years with his coddling of white racist rule and opposition to serious support for anti-apartheid measures.
The point being, if we insist on looking at these figures from “our side” as being complicated, then fine. I’m all for that. Life is complicated, and people are too. But we don’t want to do that with Farrakhan, which drives black folks nuts for its hypocrisy, and rightly so.
To many who live in communities touched positively by the presence of the Nation of Islam — which has done excellent work with ex-offenders and helping to keep others out of criminal activity — for white folks who have no better approach to doing that (and don’t even try) to come along and condemn the minister reeks of bad faith. It is this work in struggling communities (places where whites won’t even visit, let alone help to make better) that explains why many black folks who would never join the Nation, and reject 90 percent of its theology, still respect Farrakhan.
‘Good’ Blacks and ‘Bad’ Blacks: White Moralizing and White Supremacy
It’s important to understand another reason why many black folks respect Farrakhan, or are slow to condemn him. There’s a history here. And it’s one about which most white folks don’t know very much, but about which black folks certainly do. It’s a history of white people telling black people who their “legitimate” leaders and spokespeople are, or should be, and who among them is illegitimate and needs to be rejected. This goes back centuries.
So it’s the white man’s dividing and conquering of house slaves versus field slaves, Booker T. Washington vs. W.E.B. DuBois, go-slow preachers vs. Dr. King. Then later, King vs. Malcolm X, or Whitney Young and the Urban League vs. SNCC or the Black Panthers, or Joe Frazier vs. Ali, or literally anyone vs. Jesse Jackson, or Colin Powell and Condi Rice vs. Barack Obama. Hell, Will Smith vs. NWA. See the trend?
And for black folks, rallying around whomever white folks attack is also, therefore, a long tradition, and one understood as an element of resistance to racism. Because there is no reason, historically, for black folks to assume that whites (Jewish or not) have their interests at heart.
What made Farrakhan possible as the person you detest is white supremacy.
Indeed, this attempt to tell black folks who are the “good ones” and “bad ones” in their midst helps stoke the very in-group black “protectionism” (as legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown calls it) that we then criticize, as with Mike Tyson, or O.J. (Well, for a while, at least.) Black bonding and protectionism of these folks wasn’t necessarily because they viewed them as exemplars of positive blackness — O.J. had abandoned the black community years before, and black folks knew it — but because they had been made demons in the eyes of white America, and sometimes, sadly, an attack on one seems like an attack on all. Because history is a thing that really happened. And it leaves scars.
Unless we understand the well-earned cynicism black America feels toward whites who draw lines between responsible and irresponsible, respectable and disreputable blacks, rallying around Farrakhan won’t make much sense to us. I get it. And if you so choose, you can find that support for the minister lamentable, but lamenting it won’t change it or build goodwill. Only addressing the source of the cynicism can do that, and that source is white arrogance and racism.
The bottom line is, even if you hate Louis Farrakhan and reject the nuance I’m trying to offer here about his comments and supporters, at least know this, because it is inarguable: What made him possible as the person you detest is white supremacy. Absent that, he doesn’t exist as such, at least not in this iteration. So perhaps rather than pruning the branches of the tree, you should dig up the roots.
Just a thought.