I was talking to a Black friend this week about a recent string of anti-Semitic tweets from Black celebrities when he hit me with a question that caught me by surprise.
“When did Jews become the enemy of Black people?”
My quick answer: Never.
You might not know that, however, if you’ve seen a string of anti-Semitic comments from entertainer Nick Cannon, NFL wide receiver DeSean Jackson and former NBA player Stephen Jackson. All three later offered apologies for their comments, which evoked the anti-Semitic pronouncements of Minister Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam. The Southern Poverty Law Center has condemned both Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, calling their rhetoric “deeply racist” and “anti-Semitic.”
The comments by Cannon and the two Jacksons caused a stir and puzzled some who wondered how people who have presumably been victims of racism could voice prejudice towards another minority group. Luminaries such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a column asking why there wasn’t more outrage over the remarks.
These stories about supposed Black-Jewish tensions fit a pattern. They hibernate and then re-emerge every couple of years to feed a perception that there is pervasive anti-Semitism in the Black community or some historical “tension” between Black people and Jews.
But that perception is bogus. No one should let the uninformed musings of a few Black celebrities convince us otherwise. Talk to many people who know the history of both groups and they will tell you the same.
Ravi Perry, an activist and chairman of the political science department at Howard University, rejects the notion that there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism among Black people or some new tension between the two groups.
“There is no more prejudice in the Black community around people of the Jewish faith or ethnicity than any other groups,” Perry says. “Just like Black people don’t commit more crimes than White people. Just like Black people aren’t more homophobic than Whites. Black people are not more anti-Semitic than other groups.”
The historic bond between Blacks and Jews
Here’s some history you won’t hear in any of those misinformed tweets.
- Jewish people helped co-found the NAACP and the National Urban League.
- Jewish lawyers helped the NAACP Legal Defense Fund win its long court battle against Jim Crow segregation.
- A Jewish man wrote “Strange Fruit,” the iconic song about lynchings that the Black singer Billie Holiday made into a classic.
- Jewish activists fought and died alongside civil rights activists in the 1960s.
- A Jewish lawyer, Stanley Levison, was one of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most trusted advisors.
Blacks and Jews share a common history of oppression, said Edward Shapiro, a historian, in an essay, “Blacks and Jews Entangled.”
“Jews have supposed that they, more than any other group, could and did empathize with the plight of blacks, and that blacks recognized this,” he wrote. “Jewish newspapers early in the twentieth century compared the black movement out of the South to the exodus from Egypt, noted that both blacks and Jews lived in ghettos, and described anti-black riots in the South as pogroms.”
Contemporary polls suggest that some of that bond remains.
A 2018 survey by the PRRI polling firm said that while 28% of White mainline Protestant and 20% of White evangelical Protestants believe Jewish Americans experience a lot of discrimination, 44% of Black Protestants say Jewish people face a lot of discrimination.
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“African Americans are actually more likely than White Americans and the general population to say that Jews face a lot of discrimination in the US today,” says Robert Jones, founder of PRRI and author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.”
A 2019 poll from LifeWay Research found that one in five Black Americans believe Jewish people are blocking their progress.
But the survey also found that “a significant number (of African Americans) also draw comparisons to their overcoming struggles as a people and that of the ancient Israelites.”
The Farrakhan con
Why is this shared history so easily forgotten, even by educated folks?
Part of the answer can be summed up in one name: Louis Farrakhan.
You might assume Farrakhan has a large following in the Black community based on the attention he gets. But Farrakhan’s following has long been misunderstood or distorted. No matter how he portrays himself, he has not been widely accepted like an MLK or a Barack Obama. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to con you.
I covered Farrakhan at his peak popularity and attended rallies when he could fill a stadium. I sat in on an intimate, two-hour interview with him. And I wrote about the epic 1996 Million Man March.
But here’s what some people forget. His anti-Semitism was never a huge part of his appeal to Black people. For some, sure. But for most it was his message about self-empowerment, and the way he denounced White racism.
The media often misses this nuance when talking about the Nation and Farrakhan. There were churches that wouldn’t or couldn’t reach Black men in prison, or didn’t know how to reach young men. But the Nation did – and still does.
Perry, the political scientist, says a lot of Black people tune out parts of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, much like they do with other religious leaders.
“To assume that every Black church member believes everything that their pastor says out of his mouth is ridiculous,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop going to church.”
Signs of progress
That reasoning is not enough for some Jewish leaders.
Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, says there is no rising tide of anti-Semitism in the Black community. He talks passionately about the history of Blacks and Jews working together for justice.
“I have no doubt that there are some people who tune out the anti-Semitism and hatred and focus on other elements of what the Nation of Islam portends to speak about,” he said. “But picking and choosing is easy for people who are not impacted by the hate.”
He says Jews need more Black people to stand up to Farrakhan.
“Some folks in the Jewish community are asking themselves when do we know an apology is sincere after somebody makes an anti-Semitic statement?” he says. “It’s when individuals hold Farrakhan accountable for his hate. That will be a sign of progress.”
Here might be another sign of progress.
When people think about relations between Blacks and Jews, I hope one day more will think not of Nick Cannon or DeSean Jackson but of these three names: James Earl Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
They were young men – one Black and two Jewish – who were murdered together in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 while trying to register Black people to vote.
There is a soul-crushing photograph of their three bodies, twisted and tangled together where they were buried in a deserted earthen dam. They died for one another, and with one another.
That photo may no longer command the news cycle, but no ill-considered comments on social media should ever eclipse what it represents.