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.