Blacks and Jews, Part One

May 30th, 2005 by Dan Charnas


Jews on bikes, Ashkelon, Israel.

While in Israel, I got a call from a friend at the Village Voice about the brewing battle between Russell Simmons and the ADL. When I returned, I ended up in the paper.

Ironic for me that, in all my time as a journalist, I’ve never addressed the Black-Jewish rift. Even in my discussions with Chuck D; even through the Griff controversy; I never made it an issue. I guess I felt that my Jewishness came second to my identity as a member of the Hip-Hop Generation, and all the multicultural politics that entailed.

I resolved the question for myself when I was in college: The Great Battle to be fought in America wasn’t against anti-Semitism, but against white supremacy. Sure, Farrakhan and Griff said some crazy shit about Jews. But I felt it was important to keep my eye on the ball. I still do.

But it seems fitting now that my first trip to Israel should precede my first public comments on the topic.

I’ve never had strong feelings about Farrakhan one way or the other. I’m ambivalent. And that ambivalence is appropriate, because Farrakhan himself is so all over the place on issues dear to my heart.

On the one hand, he’s the only leader currently capable of motivating and mobilizing millions of Black folks. He’s the only one who really speaks Truth to Power.

On the other hand, he speaks Bullshit to the Powerless, especially when it comes to his ideas about Jews.

On the one hand, he says “No real Muslim can hate a Jew.” And on the other hand, he takes pains to single the Jews out: “Jewish people don’t have no hands that are free of the blood of us. They owned slave ships, they bought and sold us. They raped and robbed us.” He said this, by the way, three months ago.

Farrakhan wants to believe that the Jews masterminded the slave trade. He wants to believe that the Jews control world banking, that we control the Federal Reserve, that we’re behind the Iraq war as part of some diabolical, monolithic agenda regarding Israel. Shit, every evil that’s going down, according to Farrakhan, we’ve got something to do with it. He wants to believe it so bad that he tried to prove it by commissioning a book called “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.” Why does he want to believe it? I don’t know. Perhaps by believing it, he gets some measure of comfort in grasping a very simple answer to a complex problem: The Jews did it, and are still doing it. Not a very original answer; it’s one shared by white supremacists the world over.

And yet he says, “I wish you life.”

So, no, I do not trust him. I certainly trust that Farrakhan has Black folks’ best interests at heart. And as a human being, therefore he has many of my own best interests at heart. But as a Jew, however, he does not have my interests at heart. He doesn’t know a thing about me, in fact.

As a member of the Hip-Hop generation, he gives support to many of the causes I espouse, among them Black empowerment and Black liberation.

As a Jew, he defames me.

But here’s the thing. Even with that defamation, I don’t require that my friends “renounce” Farrakhan. In fact, I understand perfectly why they respect him. Farrakhan’s appeal is based on his love and dedication to Black people, not his ideas about Jews.

This is what Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish leaders don’t understand. In my experience, most Black folks don’t know much about Jewish people, and don’t much care either, for that matter. They’ve got their own problems to deal with, and frankly those problems are a lot more serious than the ones we face as Jews in America.

This wasn’t always true. There was a time, in the early 20th century, when American Jews were lynched right alongside Blacks in the south, when quotas kept us out of universities. It was during that era that Jewish leaders teamed with Black leaders to found the NAACP, the Urban League, and other Black cultural institutions. This partnership continued through the early Civil Rights era, and broke apart in the 60s when Black nationalists began to chafe under the paternalism of an increasingly assimilated and conservative Jewish leadership. Basically, Jews had become white.

Since then, I can’t think of an instance in which Jewish organizations have aligned themselves with powerful Black leaders. Instead, the ADL finds some leaders to be demagogues and then alienates the others by demanding that they denounce the former.

This perennial strategy has been an utter failure.

First, it shows a complete lack of understanding: If there’s one thing about which Black leaders are vigilant, it’s in spying the age-old strategy of “divide and conquer.” That’s basic “Black History For Dummies,” which apparently Foxman hasn’t bothered to read. For Foxman and others to attempt to split those precious moments of Black unity, he might as well be standing on 125th Street screaming “nigger.” That’s how much that strategy turns Black people off.

Second, it shows a lack of respect: Frankly, who the hell are the Jewish leaders of today to demand anything of Black folks? In the last 30 years, has the Jewish community thrown its weight behind any issue of real meaning to Black people?

Third, it shows a lack of compassion: Black people are dying. Dying from crime-and-drug infested neighborhoods, dying from police brutality, dying from economic neglect, dying from lack of proper health care. In an America where most Jews are pretty well ensconced in the middle-class, we can’t compare our occasional bouts with verbal anti-Semitism to the carnage of racism and classism. Yes, it’s important that we dispel the ignorance that leads to anti-Semitism, but how can we then ignore a much more urgent, much greater pain?

Lastly, it shows a lack of savvy. In the Voice, I asked, “Does the ADL want to be right, or effective?” Sure, in decrying Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, the ADL is technically doing the right thing. But as a tool to combat anti-Semitism, it is completely counter-productive. It pushes all the wrong buttons. The ADL demands that Black leaders denounce each other: Instead, Black leaders close ranks, resent the Jewish leadership, and the public finds more evidence of Jewish high-handedness that feeds all the stereotypes we’re trying to crush. Jews don’t care about Black people; they care only about themselves.

I am sure that Foxman, a holocaust survivor himself, is a decent man. And, from my own experience, I do think that Black anti-Semitism is a big problem, one I’ll address in my next post. But I think his lack of savvy regarding the Black communities of America is doing a great disservice to American Jews, particularly of my generation.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Foxman’s ludicrous pursuit of Russell Simmons to renounce Farrakhan. Russell Simmons?!

First of all, if there’s anyone who loves him some Jewish people, it’s Russ. People like my former boss, Rick Rubin. People like everyone’s current boss, Lyor Cohen. People like Bill Adler, who has famously said, “If anything, Russell’s a philo-Semite.” Russell loves Jewish people almost
as much as he loves lesbians, Asian women and models. And if that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

But even Russell has his limits. Simmons, with good reason, lashed out at Foxman’s latest public attempt to embarrass him. Now the ADL has lost a good friend. And because of the publicity that Foxman has generated, we’ve exposed a whole new generation of Black people to the lovely experience of holier-than-thou Jews getting all in their business and trying to tell them what to do.

The Israelis, I learned recently, have a saying for a politician who’s so obsessed with an opponent that he’ll destroy his own career and self-interests in pursuit of that person. It’s from the Torah, Judges 16:30. Samson says it as he pushes apart the pillars of the house to destroy both his enemies and himself: “Let my soul die with the Philistines.” Sort of like our own phrase, “Cutting off his nose to spite his face.”

In my opinion, that’s exactly what Foxman is doing. He’s a latter day Samson, callously making new enemies of friends and making the work of creating a polycultural America that much harder.

24 Responses to “Blacks and Jews, Part One”

  1. Hashim says:

    “First of all, if there’s anyone who loves him some Jewish people, it’s Russ.”

    haha…very true.

    But Foxman is no dummy either, I’m assuming. I’m sure he’s a hero in some circles for being so outspoken against such an easy target like Farrakhan.

  2. Yo,
    More talks like these need to happen….I wrote a thingy on my blog about some of my ideas on this subject last week…

    Muslims and Jews, Black and Jews, should be much more closer. Holding onto so much of the past can hurt us both…Because it keeps us from really appreciating and loving NOW and the future…

    Heres a podcast I dropped of Hamza Yusuf. I think it is an accurate insight to how Muslims and Jews used to act, and how they CAN and SHOULD act in the future if the world is to really move forward.

    http://www.audioblogger.com/media/45152/195561.mp3

    -Adisa

    http://www.netweed.com/lyricalswords

  3. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know why I laughed so much while reading this article. I guess sometimes I laugh like that when the truth resonates.

    The divide and conquer thing is so true. Another aspect is that, in the Jewish community, the paranoid, reactionary, Zionist, fearmonger element has alienated those Jews who might otherwise serve as a voice of reason, sympathy, and leadership.

    For all the talk about Jewish conspiracy, my observation is that Jews are very much a divided people. Statistics show that Jews are steadily becoming non-religious and intermarrying with non-Jews. Many Jews are simply abandoning Jewish culture.

    Not so for Black folks, whose Blackness seems forever under the microscope and undetachable, even for those of mixed heritage.

    I bet Foxman is jealous. He’d be hard-pressed to round up a dozen Jews for anything but a trip to the deli. Meanwhile, Farrakhan, with all his specious contradictions, effortlessly reaches out to the Black community.

    I see less need for an alliance between Black and Jews and more need for a few specific Jewish leaders to simply back off.

    _eric

  4. ronnie brown says:

    “In my experience, most Black folks don’t know much about Jewish people, and don’t care much either.”

    “Jews don’t care much about Black people; they care only about themselves.”

    These two quotes pretty much sum it up. Thing is, Jews as a collective represent much confusion in the minds of Black folk. For the church going among us, they claim a religious kinship that’s supposed to imply we are partners in a common struggle…for the community member, Jews were no different than any other racist white guy, retail merchant, pundit, or politician…for the afrocentric-minded Black person trying to fill in the historical/heritage gaps that the slave trade created, he’s troubled that the public face of Judaism is always these white guys…you mean that the ancient Hebrews who were enslaved in AFRICA looked liked these white dudes????…please!

    In private, i believe that Farrakhan is askin’ the same thing most regular Black folks are askin’…who are you people?…His public pronouncements of so-called anti-semitism, for me, represent a poor stop-gap to make up for the lack concrete knowledge of the history of Jews and Judaism. Bottom line, Jews claim some mystical bond with us, but for all intents and purposes, don’t act any different than the average white man.

    Before you endavor to put a finger on “black anti-semitism”, care to clear up this confusion first?

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Who are you people?”
    The Jewish diaspora is as diverse and multi faceted as the African diaspora… it’s not just the corporate white guy with the Lawn Guyland accent that the media puts forth as the standard image of the Jew and, with all due respect, the image that most people CHOOSE to see.
    Dialogue and education is needed, but it’s misleading to think anyone can ever really “know” an entire group of people. From what I’ve seen that inevitably leads to misunderstandings, nasty stereotypes and eventually mutual hatred and isolation.
    They may all share somewhat similar values coming from a similar history but Foxman doesn’t represent all Jews any more than Condi Rice speaks for all Black people. And while some Jews may agree on some important issues with Foxman (or Dov Hikind or Joe Leiberman), they may disagree on other key points just as Simmons might with Farrakhan. I don’t see why Foxman can’t allow Simmons his individuality, with his own views and agendas. By the same coin I don’t see how folks can turn around and say, “Oh, there go those JEWS again,” like Foxman speaks for everybody.
    I think it’s pretty arrogant to assume you know everything about a person based on what you’ve heard about their particular ethnic group, or what a self-proclaimed “representative” of that group is going around saying. Foxman and Farrakhan BOTH would do well to recognize that. (Of course, that’s what’s been screwing the Dems over these past few years… thinking they “know” Blacks and Jews and taking their vote for granted. But that’s another topic.) You’d get more unity addressing people’s common goals rather than pigeonholing them for your own convenience.
    But as long as corporate and political America has “demographics” they can market to, I suppose stereotyping and pigeonholing will always be lucrative. It’s up to us to reach out to each other as individuals and see who we really are. I hope that this time around, we can do that.
    P.S. Charnas, Adisa and Hashim in 2008…if only….

  6. WHOOOO ME DAN AND HASHIM IN 2008??!?!?! IM HONORED!!!

    We might just paint the White House black after all…

    Or, at least a nice tan….

    :)

    -Adisa

  7. ronnie brown says:

    “The Jewish diaspora is as diverse and multi-faceted as the African diaspora”…

    That’s interesting; because there are a lot of us black folk who have entertained the notion that the Hebrews of biblical times were and are a part of the AFRICAN DIASPORA!…but that’s a discussion for another time.

    Nevertheless Anonymous, if it were only an issue of dispelling stereotypes and lazy pigeonholding we might have come to a quick agreement…but it’s not.

    From the earliest stirrings of the Black liberation movement in America, Jewish leadership had positioned itself as an fellow sufferer, using a purported common heritage of enslavement in a foreign land as a basis for a coalition.

    Black folk, being a church goin’ people for the most part were susceptible to such an overture. We were a people who had our cultural, historical and family ties snapped by the slave trade; we just took it by faith that the Jewish community was our “natural ally”…

    But history has shown that this “alliance” was superficial at best and downright deceitful and opportunistic at worst. As Jews made inroads to assimiliating into American culture, they took route of other old-world European stock…they joined the white club! From the orthodox to the non-religious, you became as racist and reactionary as the average anglo-saxon…and you don’t think Black people have the right to ask, “who are you people?!!!”

    For me, the political/public face of Jewish leadership in relationship to the Black community is summed up in three words: pompous, paternalistic and patronizing.

  8. RONNIE BROWN: “For me, the political/public face of Jewish leadership in relationship to the Black community is summed up in three words: pompous, paternalistic and patronizing.”

    Ok, but now, what about the faces of the Jewsih men who died in the south? They died. A lot of Jews, before and during the civil rights era were serious in their dedication. So, it’s unfair to say that they were ALWAYS like that.

    I must say though, that TODAY, and really, since at least the late 80′s thats a pretty accurate statement- about the LEADERSHIP only….

    Ironically, I just had the realization that most of the Jews I know, is because of Hip Hop.

    So, there’s gotta be a way for the Blacks and the Jews of the Hip Hop generation to come together…

    Leaving the baggage of the old Jewish and Black eras to create a new one based on mutual respect.

    -Adisa “The Muslim They Love to Hate” Banjoko

  9. My original rant on the Millions More Movement and other NOI/ADL/Simmons related stuff:

    http://lyricalswords.blogspot.com/2005/05/noi-farrakhan-and-mm-march-and-other.html

  10. ronnie brown says:

    Adisa,
    Good brother, the substance of my post is not dedicated to the EXCEPTIONS to the overall rule. The fact that there were many principled white and european Jewish citizens who bore the scars of our struggle is a given; but exceptions do not an “alliance” make. Leadership by its very nature has the greater responsibility to make sure that the community they represent is not perceived in a matter that calls their integrity or overall motives into question.

    The public posture of Jewish leadership in regard to our community is offensive. I appreciate the fact that Dan was willing to bring this festering sore between our peoples into the open…

  11. Dan Charnas says:

    Stay tuned for part two, coming soon… Very much appreciating the discussion here.

  12. RONNIE: exceptions do not an “alliance” make.

    point taken *adisa sits down and listens 4 sheeez*

    -Adisa

  13. Anonymous says:

    If it were a matter of Jewish “leadership” needing at least some soul-searching and at best an overhaul, I’d agree with you, Ronnie. But…

    “From the earliest stirrings of the Black liberation movement in America, Jewish leadership had positioned itself as an fellow sufferer, using a purported common heritage of enslavement in a foreign land as a basis for a coalition.

    Black folk, being a church goin’ people for the most part were susceptible to such an overture. We were a people who had our cultural, historical and family ties snapped by the slave trade; we just took it by faith that the Jewish community was our “natural ally”…”

    You could look at that both ways. You could say that Jews foisted a superficial image on “church going” Black people as “fellow sufferers” or you could just as easily argue that Jews were already seen in that way by African Americans, especially through images of the ancient Jews in the Bible and by the the shared imagery of Moses in Egypt and liberation from slavery which figures in both Judaism and the Black Gospel tradition. (Maya Angelou and August Wilson have both gone into this at length and have done a much better job of it than me.) You can also rightfully say that Jews were discriminated against in the U.S. up until the late ’50′s and many of them DID get passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement (arguably more so than their non-Jewish counterparts) not only because of American anti-Semitism but because of recent memories of the Jewish Holocaust. (Many of the Jews on the Left had direct experiences with Nazi Germany.)
    THis is not to say that all Jews were perfect, and many of them abandoned their principles and tried to become “white”. (I say “tried” because while they may have tried to assimilate, I doubt they’ll ever be truly accepted as “white.”) But you may do well to remember that some Black folks have done this too, so it’s not like this is some phenomenon specific to Jews only.

    “From the orthodox to the non-religious, you became as racist and reactionary as the average anglo-saxon…”

    “You”? “You” as in “Me?” LOL! I’m anonymous… you don’t even know me! Why are you lumping all Jews (assuming I AM Jewish) into a single category if you don’t accept the same towards yourself?

    “and you don’t think Black people have the right to ask, “who are you people?!!!”

    Never said that. What I DID say is that you’ll have trouble finding a definitive answer. If you want some more insight into the Black-Jewish thing though though you might try reading Jonathan Kaufman’s “Broken Alliance: the Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America” or Cornel West’s “Race Matters,” they both go into this stuff pretty deep. (Keep in mind they’re just suggestions, no one’s telling you what to read!)

    Or why don’t you just find a Jew & ask ‘em yourself?

  14. Anonymous says:

    If it were a matter of Jewish “leadership” needing at least some soul-searching and at best an overhaul, I’d agree with you, Ronnie. But…

    “From the earliest stirrings of the Black liberation movement in America, Jewish leadership had positioned itself as an fellow sufferer, using a purported common heritage of enslavement in a foreign land as a basis for a coalition.

    Black folk, being a church goin’ people for the most part were susceptible to such an overture. We were a people who had our cultural, historical and family ties snapped by the slave trade; we just took it by faith that the Jewish community was our “natural ally”…”

    Now you could look at that another way. You could say that Jews foisted a superficial image on “church going” Black people as “fellow sufferers” or you could just as easily argue that Jews were already seen in that way by African Americans, especially through images of the ancient Jews in the Bible and by the the shared imagery of Moses in Egypt and liberation from slavery which figures in both Judaism and the Black Gospel tradition. (Maya Angelou and August Wilson have both gone into this at length and have done a much better job of it than me.) You can also rightly say that Jews were discriminated against in the U.S. up until the late ’50′s and many of them DID get passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement (arguably more so than their non-Jewish counterparts) not only because of American anti-Semitism but because of recent memories of the Jewish Holocaust. (Many of the Jews on the Left had direct experiences with Nazi Germany.)
    THis is not to say that all Jews were perfect, and many of them abandoned their principles and tried to become “white”. (I say “tried” because while they may have tried to assimilate, I doubt they’ll ever be truly accepted as “white.”) But you’d do well to remember that some prominent (and not-so-prominent) Black folks have done this too, so it’s not like this is some phenomenon specific to Jews only. All groups have their share of those who forget where they came from.

    “From the orthodox to the non-religious, you became as racist and reactionary as the average anglo-saxon…”

    “You”? “You” as in “Me?” I’m anonymous… you don’t even know me! Why are you lumping all Jews (assuming I AM Jewish… I never said I was) into a single category if you wouldn’t accept the same towards yourself?

    “and you don’t think Black people have the right to ask, “who are you people?!!!”

    Never said that. What I DID say is that you’ll have trouble finding a definitive answer. If you want some more insight into the Black-Jewish thing though you might try reading Jonathan Kaufman’s “Broken Alliance: the Turbulent Times Between Blacks and Jews in America” or Cornel West’s “Race Matters,” they both go into this stuff pretty deep. (Keep in mind they’re just suggestions, no one’s telling you what to read!)

    Or…why don’t you just find some Jewish folks & ask ‘em yourself?

    Anyway, I think we agree more than we disagree, Ronnie. But I just think you’re being unfair if you’re saying that Jews somehow “exploited” their imagery as sufferers or victims of oppression in order to purposely take advantage of the Black community and gain Civil Rights for themselves only… I can see from your post how people can perceive it like that but I hope I cleared that up a little.

    And I hotly disagree that there isn’t a common thread between Black/Jewish histories and experiences in America. And that this thread, if allowed to grow, could form a real and meaningful alliance that could get a lot of concrete results for both sides. But petty BS like what Foxman is perpetraing right now only serves to set us back.

    Of course, one wonders what’s to be gained by media outlets giving air time to Foxman’s petty grievances, but that too, is a topic for another day!

  15. Anonymous says:

    sorry for the double post.. I edited it slightly the second time ’round!

  16. ronnie brown says:

    Anonymous,

    Firstly, for the sake of clarity, come out from behind the “anonymous” moniker. I’m a Black man expressing an opinion. If you’re a Jewish individual, then make it plain. Why engage in the needless sideshow of “you, as in me?, you don’t even know me!”…If you don’t understand that i’m speaking in the COLLECTIVE then perhaps this isn’t the conversation for you.

    Secondly, if possible, i try to avoid debates where the only counter to my premise is for one to retreat into the realm where “all things are possible”. Your notion of Black folk solicting the help of the Jewish community based on the “imagery” of “ancient Jews” and Moses is (with all due respect) patently absurd. What “imagery” are you referring to??…the white european Jew?…boy, i can certainly see the resemblance!…and the paternalism.

    While i appreciate your recommendation of the works of Kauffman and West, i’m already familiar with their works. Though well-intentioned, i’m looking for an analysis that goes way beyond the desire to not to offend.

    Lastly, your desire to be flip notwithstanding, i’ve already taken you up on your suggestion to “find a Jew and ask him yourself”…i’ll refer all questions to the author of this blog…Mr. Charnas.

  17. Mixitup says:

    Great post!
    I’m reading this as an arabic-african muslim born and living in europe on my way to a jewish-lesbian wedding in a couple of hours.
    That’s the power of a postmodern culture like Hiphop. Mixing the diffrent fabrics of life into something fresh.

  18. mixitup is existing between so many cultures in makes my head spin….i had to read that like 3 times just to be clear!!! LOL!!

    who says the internet does not bring a lot of people together?

    -Adisa

  19. Anonymous says:

    LOL! So true!
    One Nation Under A Groove, indeed! :)

  20. beez says:

    Just to say word and some props for that and for the discussion here.

    As a non-black-non-jewish-foreigner it seems to me that the main priority for black leaders in america right now is promoting black unity and finding a powerful voice for black people in america. Wheras the main challenge facing Jewish leaders is dispelling the (growing?) myth that it’s all a big conspiracy against non-jews and that they’re runnin’ thangs like Busy Bee on the quiet.

    If these things are true then its clear who is furthering their course in this instance and who is setting themselves back.

    I’m gonna say
    INCREASE THE PEACE
    ‘cos I’m having a 91 throwback evening.

  21. Gangalee says:

    Funny how, in article #1, Jews are portrayed as trying to run things. How/why would Foxman insist Russ denounce Farrakhan? Any other examples of rich powerful Jews throwing their weight around?
    Yet, in article #2, Jews don’t have the power, they’re not the problem…

  22. You raise some good points, but I think your analysis is off base.

  23. How do I transfer my Blogger feed readers to my WordPress blog?

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