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Why are anti-racism forces silent on anti-Semitism?

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The recent spate of African American celebrities disseminating anti-Semitic conspiracies and images on social media has grabbed national attention and has many wondering: Where are anti-racism advocates when the offense is anti-Semitism? 

The expressions of Jew-hatred, including Twitter tirades glorifying violence, are not limited to athletes and artists with massive social media followers. Rodney Muhammad, head of the Philadelphia NAACP, shared a message attributed to a neo-Nazi. 

Among the few anti-racism activists who have spoken up, former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar admirably called out the “shocking lack of massive indignation” against anti-Semitism in Hollywood and sports and warned of the blind spot’s deleterious impact on the social-justice movement. 

Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation, charged that athletes’ comments demand a better response, not from the “craven right that abides it in their own ranks — and not as an excuse for anti-blackness.”

Zirin is right. With anti-Semitism on the rise and a coalitional social movement under way, public intellectuals — and African Americans in particular — shoulder a heavy burden. What they say matters; they influence broader culture in ways some may not appreciate.

Consider the roots of ideas disseminated by celebrity artist Nick Cannon on a recent episode of his podcast, “Cannon’s Class.” The show was hosted at Howard University, where Cannon is pursuing his graduate studies. Cannon’s guest, hip-hop artist Professor Griff, was promoting his book, which apparently was informed by illiberal views including the “Cress Theory of Color Confrontation.”

In the 1970s, psychiatrist and Howard professor Dr. Frances Cress Welsing articulated a theory of racism that ascribes white supremacy to white people’s biological inferiority. Unsurprisingly, proponents of such views identify “melanin-deficient” Jews as uniquely culpable in white supremacy’s atrocities.  

Welsing and like-minded activists have occupied a significant place in recent Black American experience, with all its competing visions of racial solidarity and political consciousness for Black liberation. 

Despite mainstream rejection of her unscientific anti-white theory, many African Americans outside the ivory tower still embrace Welsing. In peer-reviewed journals, Welsing has been praised for providing the “intellectual antecedent of critical race studies.” 

Her devotees appear in popular media and promote her views in cultural avenues. “The Breakfast Club” — recently lauded as “must-listen radio for racial reckoning” — addressed Cannon’s imbroglio sympathetically as mere discussion of an esteemed psychiatrist’s theory.  

Commendably, Cannon met with a rabbi and reacted to Bari Weiss’s “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” Yet he also is effusive in reviewing the work of John Henrik Clarke, a key proponent of Afroncentrism who notoriously injected Islam-bashing and anti-Semitism in his lectures and community organizing in the 1990s. Then, historians, psychologists and others denounced Clarke’s and Cress’s notions of race relations, rife with homophobia and misogyny.  

In 1992, filmmaker and Harvard intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr. identified a new form of anti-Semitism taking hold among educated, younger Black Americans in a New York Times piece, “Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars.” Gates scorned intellectuals affiliated with the Nation of Islam for exploiting their position within academe to propagate anti-Semitism, and he decried those peddling Cress’s ideas “as the bid of one black elite to supplant another.” He wrote that this “requires us, in short, to see anti-Semitism as a weapon in the raging battle of who will speak for Black America — those who have sought common cause with others or those who preach a barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity.”  

Where are such rebukes today?

Journalist Jemele Hill captured one explanation for the reticence to condemn Jew-hatred in her acknowledgment of anti-Semitism’s troubling acceptability. 

Some fear that a stronger rebuke would stoke division and/or fuel the anti-racism movement’s detractors. This impulse to remain focused on the overwhelming injustice and state violence against Black Americans is understandable.

At the same time, we are not talking about offhand tweets, and hatred undermines progressive movements, a perspective that NFL star Zach Banner has advocated. Banner joined the Pittsburgh community just before a white supremacist targeted the Tree of Life Synagogue, in part because of its progressive congregation’s involvement in intersectional justice work. In clarifying his message, Banner implored Black Americans not to step on the backs of another minority. He aptly demonstrates how to feel rage because Black bodies are under threat and also empathize with Jewish insecurities. 

The historical record of Jewish wellbeing during global pandemics, political or social upheaval, and economic uncertainty does not exactly inspire optimism for American Jews. This brings us to the “Farrakhan factor.” Last month, journalist Roland Martin asked celebrity philosopher Cornel West about the contradiction presented by antiracism advocates’ embrace of a misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic bigot such as Louis Farrakhan, who was trending on Twitter. West ascribed public perceptions of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism to corporate media. He disingenuously dwelled on two of Farrakhan’s 1984 statements that have been contested as distortions and do nothing to negate Farrakhan’s decades-long Jew-hatred.

In fact, at the 2010 Black Agenda Forum, Farrakhan wedded a colorist attack and anti-Semitic conspiracy to delegitimize President Obama, saying he had been “selected” for office by Goldman Sachs because of his light skin color. The response from West and others seated with Farrakhan at the table? Silence.  

Sports commentator Shannon Sharpe, reacting to DeSean Jackson’s recent anti-Semitic posts, also defended Farrakhan, by implausibly arguing that Farrakhan is simply not anti-Semitic. Farrakhan’s role in organizing might render him too big to ignore, but his hateful ideas must be confronted. Today, everyone is accountable. 

Scholars, too, have used anti-Semitic language to disparage their opponents. On MSNBC, an ordained sociologist decried Justice Clarence Thomas’s 2013 vote to invalidate elements of the Voting Rights Act. The scholar lamented, “A symbolic Jew has invited a metaphoric Hitler to commit Holocaust and genocide upon his own people.”  

When celebrities and activists disseminate racist anti-Semitic conspiracies and call on “clergy, experts and spokespersons” for course-correction, public intellectuals should show up. Honesty  and self-accountability are the minimum. 

Unchecked, anti-Semitism in popular culture cross-pollinates online to amplify forces antithetical to justice. As African Americans seek solutions to their suffering, they deserve not to encounter hateful ideas disguised as knowledge and truth. How illuminating would it be for Cannon or The Breakfast Club to host not a rabbi but a respected scholar who has challenged the “Melanin Madness” and its attendant anti-Semitic, homophobic, misogynist ideas that enjoy far too much exposure today?   

The history of Black-Jewish relations is fraught with mutual harm and disappointment beyond anti-Semitism. Everyone has a role to play in healing. Fulfilling the anti-racism movement’s objectives requires us to shine a light on the weaponization of anti-Semitism, who it serves and its impact on the partnership between two historically oppressed communities in their quests for security and justice. 

Rachel Kantz Feder, Ph.D., is a historian of modern Iraq focused on the influence of human ideas and a lecturer on Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. She recently was a visiting researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., examining the roles of religion, psychology and psychiatry in decolonization movements.

Tags Antisemitism Clarence Thomas Discrimination Frances Cress Welsing Louis Farrakhan racial justice protests Racism

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