Like NBA Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley, a lot of people are “disappointed” with the fact that a number of African-American celebrities from the world of sports and entertainment have engaged in anti-Semitism recently.
Barkley’s comments reflected the frustration felt by many people of goodwill — Jewish and Black — about the way NFL star DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon, host of “The Masked Singer,” chose to reintroduce slurs against Jews into the public square at a moment when the nation was engaged in a debate about racism in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
Much of the discussion about these incidents has focused on two elements. One is the largely tepid response to anti-Semitism from other athletes or celebrities who would almost certainly have reacted more strongly to hate speech directed at African-Americans or Hispanics. The other asks if Jackson and Cannon should be “canceled” — that is, shunned to the point where their livelihoods would be in jeopardy as a punishment for their hateful remarks.
Yet lost amid what outrage does exist about these incidents is the question of what is motivating such people to not only speak so disparagingly of Jews but to put forward some of the tropes of traditional anti-Semitism. The same question often went unasked at the end of 2019, when African-American perpetrators attacked Orthodox Jews in the Greater New York area.
The usual cant about poverty or the inevitable clashes between very different neighboring communities in places like Brooklyn doesn’t suffice to explain the problem. Instead, we should look at the fact that a major figure in the African-American community is one of the nation’s leading hate-mongers, and continues to be treated by many as not merely respectable but also as a symbol of racial empowerment.
The Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan is a walking, talking absurdity. Farrakhan’s spewing of hatred at all whites and especially Jews has rendered him the moral equivalent of the white supremacist David Duke. Much of the NOI’s theology is nothing less than crackpot conspiracy theories rooted in hatred of whites and especially Jews.
But unlike Duke, who has a miniscule following and is a pariah among mainstream politicians of the right, Farrakhan continues to exist on the margins of respectability largely because of the widespread support he gets from other African-Americans.
As Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center noted, after a conversation with Cannon aimed at educating him, while it is possible to educate people who engage in anti-Semitism about the history and the consequences of such behavior, convincing blacks to abandon Farrakhan isn’t easy. For many in the African-American community, his blood libels against Jews are not as important as what they think is his message of black empowerment. His defiance of the white establishment is applauded in and of its own sake.
And Farrakhan is very much in tune with the mindset that has driven the Black Lives Matter movement, in that he is intent on convincing African-Americans that they are victims. The fact that he believes the cause of their plight to be a monstrous white and Jewish conspiracy — rather than the very real problems they face — doesn’t undermine a popularity that goes far beyond the mere tens of thousands who belong to NOI mosques.
His seeming respectability is shocking. The fact that he was given a place of honor alongside Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (both deeply problematic figures when it comes to anti-Semitism but models of rectitude in comparison to Farrakhan) and former President Bill Clinton at Aretha Franklin’s 2018 televised funeral should have alerted the country to the bizarre hold he has on the imaginations of many African-Americans. And it is equally unsurprising that when important figures in the black community do speak up against him — as basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did last week — they are denounced for siding with the Jews against their own.
The same is true for many African-American politicians who otherwise consider themselves allies of the Jewish community but refuse to confront Farrakhan out of fear that doing so will cause them to be accused of being manipulated by whites.
You don’t have to dig too deep under the surface of any of the recent anti-Semitic instances to find Farrakhan’s influence. Farrakhan’s influence within the African-American community has helped legitimize hateful attitudes towards Jews. Nor is there enough attention paid to the way Farrakhan’s hate dovetails with intersectional smears of Israel and Jews that are promoted by many on the left.
The problem shouldn’t be shunted aside out of a misguided desire to keep the focus solely on police brutality or claims of institutionalized racism.
It’s up to black religious leaders and politicians to unequivocally condemn the Nation of Islam leader. So long as Farrakhan is treated as a defensible figure whose allegedly positive messages outbalance his hate speech, it won’t be possible to truly address questions about anti-Semitism among African-Americans.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a columnist for the New York Post.