A year ago, the Women’s March punctuated Trump’s inauguration with what was likely the largest single-day mass demonstration in American history. Today, it finds itself embroiled in an unexpected controversy after the initial refusal of several of its leaders to distance themselves from one of America’s leading anti-Semites, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. It’s a conflict that stems from the long, entangled history between black and Jewish communities in the United States, in which friendship and friction are giving way to struggle over the dimensions of peoplehood. It also reveals anti-Semitism as a crucial blind spot of contemporary left-wing activism.
Like a series of other contemporary movements for social justice—Me Too, Time’s Up, Never Again—the Women’s March emphasizes accountability. Activists target not only perpetrators of different types of violence, but also what they see as their institutional enablers, from Hollywood bigwigs to the NRA and its congressional allies, in an effort to dismantle the structures that sustain social evils. The leadership of the group has taken on some high-profile activists, and it is now focusing on impressing its agenda on the 2018 midterms.
Mass movements are sewn together from a wide variety of sources, so they often sweep in unwanted companions as they move toward their goals. No one, however, expected to discover that three Women’s March co-chairs—Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory—had ties to Farrakhan. More mysterious and disturbing was the extended reluctance of the Women’s March, nearly a year since it became public, to acknowledge Farrakhan’s extremist views and disassociate themselves from them.
It all came to a head last week, after Farrakhan delivered his address to the annual Nation of Islam gathering for Saviours’ Day, the sect’s three-day holiday honoring its founder, Wallace Fard Muhammad. Farrakhan denounced “Satanic Jews,” said that “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door,” and at the climax of his speech, proclaimed, “White folks are going down, and Satan is going down, and Farrakhan by God’s grace has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew—and I’m here to say, your time is up.”
Naturally, this renewed interest in just what the Women’s March was thinking. Mallory further stoked controversy when a woman questioning her about Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism drew a response from a preacher asking her to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and praying for Jesus to cast out the “wicked spirit laying on her heart.” Linda Sarsour surfaced to say the man was “too blessed,” and Mallory tweeted, “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!”
Understanding the controversy requires the context of more than a century of relations between Jews and African Americans. The two minorities are linked by histories of extreme and prolonged oppression, but the differences in their experiences are more meaningful than the similarities. The seminal one is that of origin: Jewish Americans are largely the product of immigration, often in flight from persecution, whereas black Americans mostly descend from people stolen from Africa to become slaves.
If Jews in the early 20th century could empathize with the African American experiences of ghettos and exodus, the two groups also found that their proximity, on the margins of society, bred tension. Jewish landlords and shopkeepers were willing to serve black communities; in the New South cities that flourished after the Civil War, many treated black customers with courtesy unusual for their era to win their business, addressing black customers as “Mr.” and “Mrs.” or letting them try on clothes. But these relationships could quickly sour. Black customers complained about aggressive sales tactics, exploitative credit arrangements, and other abuses—and that pattern repeated in urban settings after the Great Migration, as well. James Baldwin remembered “some who were certainly as thoughtful as the bleak circumstances allowed—but all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them.” At the end of each business day, Jews would close up shop and resentful blacks would watch them leave the neighborhood with their money.
It would be a mistake, though, to tarry too much on the specific origins of African American anti-Semitism. Conspiratorial hatred of Jews has been the poor man’s religion for centuries. For most of this time, Christianity was the vector by which people have been infected with anti-Semitism, and African Americans, among whom the religion is a touchstone, are no less susceptible to the idea that Jews draw preternatural power from an association with the Devil. If that hatred finds vigorous expression with the Nation of Islam, the idea can be heard all the way back in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote that “the Jew is the heir to the slave baron in Dougherty, [Georgia].” (Du Bois later excised such references to Jews, because he could “see that harm might come if they were allowed to stand as they are.”)
The persistent tension existed alongside remarkable cooperation. Cornel West wrote that the alliances between blacks and Jews that culminated in their cooperation during the civil-rights movement were “a major pillar of American progressive politics” in the 20th century. This period spanned nearly 70 years, fueled by Jewish philanthropy, solidarity, and mobilization. Jewish activists fought to desegregate the South during the 1960s. Two Jewish volunteers for the Mississippi Summer Project, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were murdered along with James Chaney by local white supremacists.
Yet even this often-romanticized era was fraught. The phrase “Mississippi Summer” has an odor of dilettantism that underscores the divide between blacks and Jews, whatever fraternity in oppression was thought to bind them together. The political scientist Andrew Hacker observed that local black organizers sometimes felt patronized by their well-meaning, drop-in Jewish allies. But resentment ran deeper than this. Hacker reported that Harold Cruse, author of The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual—a work of early importance to black nationalism that urged the decoupling of black-Jewish alliances—once remarked that he found Jewish activists cloying because they seemed to presume: “I know how you feel because I, too, am discriminated against.”
And this is the fundamental, unbridgeable difference: Jews found asylum and assimilation in the United States, a path denied to African Americans. Eastern European Jews, who from 1880 to 1924 made up the largest wave of Jewish immigration to America, fled poverty, oppression, and even mass violence in the form of pogroms. While they initially inhabited an underclass, their refuge was real and permanent, and a road to assimilation was open to them. A not-precisely-altruistic United States then vanquished Hitler and liberated the death camps. In the two decades after the Holocaust, Jews achieved a great degree of upward mobility in their wealthy and bustling adopted home while actualizing the dream of Zionism in the Jewish state of Israel.
James Baldwin expressed how differently America functioned for African Americans: “The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.” African Americans are, by and large, not voluntary immigrants. They are a stolen people, cut off from their history. They have been denied the opportunity to assimilate and gain upward mobility, persecuted from slavery through Redemption and Jim Crow, and without recourse to the glittering dream of a Zion past or present, they remain captive in mind and body to a country whose institutions despise or ignore them.
This is the lot of a decapitated diaspora. In tragic and persistent ways, black people inhabit an orphaned exclave in America. This diasporic difference guaranteed that Israel would become a flash point of black-Jewish relations.
The heightening of that tension, as the civil-rights movement gave way to the revolutionary politics of black power, can be traced in the life of Stokely Carmichael. The historian Clayborn Carson argues that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Carmichael were strongly influenced by New York City Jewish radicalism. The group worked with a small but influential core of Jewish volunteers, and the first demonstration Carmichael attended in high school was on behalf of Israel. Yet by the mid-1960s, SNCC was imbued with a black nationalism that crudely racialized the Arab-Israeli conflict, deeming Palestinians a people of color and the Israelis white imperialists, even as Mizrahi and other non-Ashkenazi Jews poured into Israel from Arab and Muslim countries. Carmichael became Kwame Ture, a cartoonish revolutionary in Guinea who would periodically yell, “The only good Zionist is a dead Zionist!”
It was against this backdrop that African American new religious movements accelerated a project of reconstruction—to rearticulate the history of black people so as to establish an ethnic nation. To this end, the Nation of Islam teaches a theology of racist, Afrocentric conspiracy theories. White people, compared invidiously to the “Original Black Man,” are the evil and ephemeral product of a mad scientist’s genetic experiment. The Jews among them are “Satanic” usurpers responsible for slavery and the ongoing affliction of black people, who are the indigenous and true children of Israel.
Farrakhan has cobbled together a history in which African Americans are centered as the children of light, and a replacement theology in which they assume the identity of the Jews—God’s chosen people. “Holy Land don’t belong to a white Arab or a white Jew,” Farrakhan admonished last May in an interview, “You are settlers on our land.” The Nation’s theology is, in this respect, Zionism mutated into anti-Semitic form.
But for many in the African American community, Farrakhan’s specific theological or historical claims are of secondary importance. The Nation rebuilds and uplifts the neighborhoods it dwells in, and this has won it deep respect and gratitude—especially during the horror and anomie of the crack epidemic. Consequently, there is little Farrakhan might say that could threaten his standing among many of his admirers—his pronouncements may be crazy and hateful, but the Nation can really clean up a street corner.
“The black community is very complex,” Tamika Mallory explained to her critics. “This means other [people] may not understand how we organize and all that it takes to deal with our pain.” This, of course, is inadequate. No antiracist activist can contain a contradiction this profound. Worse is that an advocate for her people would help sell them a snake oil of racist nonsense.
The shameful reticence of Women’s March is easier to dispose. When it comes to racism, the modern left purports to be consequentialist. That is, they are less concerned with antiracist ideals, such as equality of opportunity and colorblindness, than with antiracist results. As the dogma goes, “racism equals prejudice plus power.” So the idea that black people, who are systemically oppressed, might be racist toward the whites who oppress them is derided as illogical and ridiculous. What matters are consequences, not feelings.
Anti-Semitism reveals the problem with this approach. Unlike anti-black racism, which punches down at a constructed underclass, anti-Semitism in the main is a racist conspiracy theory. That means it punches up at a perceived oppressor—the Jews, whom it casts as a diabolical elite that enslaves and exploits humankind. Punching up is naturally appealing to any group that is, or feels like it is, being ill-used by history. As often as not, anti-Semites are socially weaker than the Jews they target. And antiracist campaigners today have absorbed the specious racialization by 1960s radicals of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In their mental shorthand, Jews are white and privileged.
So what happens when an intersectional campaign learns that several of its officials have a powerful black ally whom the Anti-Defamation League considers to be “virtually synonymous with anti-Semitism”? Pretty much nothing for almost a year, until a groundswell of outrage stirred by one of the most visible journalists in America finally made official silence untenable. In a Facebook post, Women’s March characterized as “indefensible” a series of hatreds including anti-Semitism and said mildly that Farrakhan’s statements about Jews and others were “not aligned” with its Unity Principles. With an arcane flourish, it explained its ongoing silence as a strategy to “break the cycles that pit our communities against each other.”
The perspectives of the movement’s leaders are, perhaps, clearer in off-the-cuff comments. “How can a black woman be racist?” asked co-founder Bob Bland of those challenging Mallory. “I think [Farrakhan] is a distraction,” said co-chair Carmen Perez.*
In reality, just like everyone else, people on the contemporary left pick and choose when to be practical and when to be idealistic. That there appears to be no desire on the part of Women’s March to confront Jew-hatred specifically and substantively, even as most religious hate crimes target Jews and anti-Semitism stats rise, is something that should trouble anyone of genuine antiracist sentiment. That the group refuses to be accountable for a high-level alliance with an open anti-Semite disqualifies it from ranking among today’s movements for social justice.