During the past few decades there has been a resurgence of both white and black extremism in the United States. The white supremacy march in Charlottesville, featuring neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and other far-right groups, coincided with the rise of anti-Semitism in both Europe and the United States, as well as with a revival of black nationalism. Spearheaded by its leader, Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam (NOI) represents the most powerful link between the anti-Semitism of the black power movement of the 1960s and its 21st-century heirs and imitators. Beyond NOI, a web of white supremacists and black nationalists are linked together by online social networks that propagate anti-Semitic imagery, wild conspiracy theories about the effort of Jews to control America, and other forms of propaganda designed to foster hatred of Jews.
Black nationalism as a movement sought the political and economic empowerment of the African American community, race pride, reparations for slavery, and resistance to integration, thus opposing Martin Luther King Jr.’s agenda that sought to reform American society through nonviolent interracial activism. Perhaps in response to MLK Jr.’s emphasis on liberal, interfaith dialogue, or their own definitions of African Americans as a colonized third-world people engaged in a struggle for national liberation, black nationalist advocates in the United States included extremists who saw Jews as among their primary enemies. Hence, anti-Semitism has been weaponized by African American anti-Semites such as Louis Farrakhan to provoke its followers against America’s Jewish population, sometimes under the pretext of supporting Palestinians in their conflict with Israel.
Not since the 1930s has anti-Semitism been so threatening to the American Jewish community. Incidents, such as the shooting at Pittsburg’s Tree of Life synagogue and the Chabad in Poway, California, have made Jews vulnerable to attacks by white extremists, while attacks in Monsey and Jersey City have highlighted the danger posed by the inflammatory language of black nationalist anti-Semitism. In a survey taken by the American Jewish Committee in October 2019, 31% of Jewish respondents reported having taken steps to hide their Jewish identity in public, and 25% stated that they avoided Jewish sites. The AJC survey was taken before the attacks in Jersey City and Monsey.
Black nationalist groups such as the Black Hebrew Israelites and the New Black Panthers have contributed to the radicalization of “lone wolf” perpetrators who are responsible for the majority of violent anti-Semitic attacks by African American perpetrators. The mentally ill black gunman who invaded the home of a rabbi in Monsey, New York, celebrating Hanukkah with yeshiva students appeared to have been influenced by anti-Semitic postings that law enforcement officers found on his computer, which included anti-Semitic tropes from black nationalist sources. Similarly, anti-Semitic provocation appears to have a primary motive for the perpetrators of the kosher market shootout in Jersey City in 2019, who apparently were influenced by the anti-Semitism of the Black Hebrew Israelites.
A bittersweet and sometimes contentious relationship between African American and American Jewish communities has existed for many decades. In the early years of the 20th century, prominent Jews were involved in the founding of the NAACP, the Urban League, and other institutions, including education, where Jewish philanthropists, such as Julius Rosenwald, built more than 5,000 schools for black children in the Deep South, and whose generosity impacted the future lives of such luminaries as novelist Langston Hughes and opera singer Marian Anderson. Jews participated in the fight to integrate the South in support of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as exemplified by the murder of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish civil rights volunteers in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1964. Members of both communities turned for inspiration to the iconic photo that depicts Rabbi Abraham Heschel marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery protest march.
With the rise of black nationalism as an alternative to the philosophy of nonviolence, the relationship of blacks and Jews deteriorated in many sections of the African American community. When the charismatic Malcolm X, the former disciple of Elijah Muhammad, was asked if the Nation of Islam was anti-Semitic, he replied:
Many Jews have guilt feelings when people talk about “exploitation.” This is because they know that they control 90 percent of the businesses in black communities, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And they benefit more from black buying power than blacks do from other parts of the white community. So they feel guilty about it. … Jews can be found on the boards of such organizations as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but, the same Jews won’t let you become president of B’nai B’rith, or any of their other organizations.
Malcolm X’s comments about Jews as exploiters of the black community would become a staple of black nationalism into the 21st century, carried forth by Louis Farrakhan and a revived black nationalistic movement. Perhaps the most potent link between white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and black nationalists can be found in the person of Farrakhan, the charismatic 86-year-old head of the Nation of Islam (NOI). In the three decades since he succeeded the late Elijah Muhammad as the leader of the black nationalist sect, Farrakhan has become a powerful force in the African American community by way of his speeches, rallies, and social networking, where he reaches a wide audience even among the black middle and upper class. Farrakhan is regularly pictured with prominent African American entertainers and has his own place of honor in the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Washington Mall. He is also perhaps the most dangerous anti-Semite in America since Father Charles Coughlin who has consistently attacked Jews as the “children of the devil,” “bloodsuckers,” and assorted other vile and disparaging descriptions.
Farrakhan has accused Jews of spreading marijuana into black communities so as to feminize the black man, and worshipping in the synagogue of Satan. He often refers to the Jews as “lying, murderous Zionists,” whom he accuses of being behind the Sept. 11 attacks. Farrakhan’s messages of hate directed toward Jews and Israel reaches large number of his followers on his websites, and through the NOI Press, which publishes the libelous Protocols of the Elders of Zion as well as the The Secret History Between Blacks and Jews, which falsely asserts that Jews dominated the slave trade. In fact, the role of Jews in the Atlantic slave trade, according to scholars, was minimal. Yet Farrakhan remains one of the most important leaders of black America in the 21st century. Despite his ongoing anti-Semitic rhetoric, oddly enough, few black mainstream leaders openly challenge Farrakhan’s bigotry.
The NOI is not the only black nationalist group that promotes the language of conspiratorial anti-Semitism. The Black Hebrew Israelites claim that they are the descendants of the Israelites of the Old Testament and are the true Jewish people. Founded in 1886, the movement over time splintered into factions which included a form of black nationalism that promoted its message through street preachers, who often employ provocation as a strategy to advance its doctrine that black people are the real “chosen people.”
The Black Hebrew Israelites depict Jews as usurpers of God’s will, a “devilish people” who have prevented the black man from realizing his true destiny. Although not a sect that engages directly in mass violence, its promotion of confrontation toward law enforcement, Jews, and white people in general, has resonated among segments of black America. In the Jersey City Kosher Supermarket shooting that ended in the death of six people, including a police officer, law enforcement found that the two suspects, David N. Anderson and Francine Graham, appeared to have been connected to the Black Hebrew Israelites. Subsequently the police found that Anderson had posted anti-Semitic and anti-police messages on internet forums. A New York Times investigation into the two shooters cited a neighbor who related hearing Anderson shouting that his religion was the only true religion, and that Catholicism and Judaism were false religions. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that, in 2019, “144 Black Hebrew Israelite organizations were listed as hate groups because of their anti-Semitic and anti-white beliefs.”
The New Black Panther Party (NBPP), another leading fount of black nationalist anti-Semitism, is not the successor to the original Black Panther Party. Nevertheless, the NBPP owes much of its anti-Semitic beliefs to the original Black Panthers, and to the Nation of Islam. The NBPP contends that the primary perpetrators responsible forthe exploitation of black people is the white race, and that Jews, in particular, wield a disproportionate amount of power over political and economic affairs—as well as over law enforcement, which consistently engages in acts of violence against the black community. The NBPP has also promoted The Synagogue of Satan, a book written by an editor of the NOI’s Final Call, a publication that includes Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories, alleging that the world is being manipulated and corrupted by satanic powers led by Jewish elites.
The NBPP shares the same message of hatred toward Israel as does the NOI, accusing “Zionist leaders” of “robbing the gold mines of Africa” and having the “blood of Palestinians on their hands.” In a 2002 rally in front of the B’nai Brith building in Washington, D.C., spokesmen for the party led chants of “death to Israel,” and “kill every goddam Zionist in Israel.” Elsewhere, the vituperative language of the Panther party, in calling for the destruction of Israel, declares that the “State of Israel has no right to exist.” The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has labeled the NBPP the most extreme organized racist and anti-Semitic group in the United States.
The anti-Semitism spread by black nationalist street preachers, their newspapers, and radio shows has proven especially dangerous in areas where Jews and blacks live in close quarters. Most anti-Semitic attacks against Jews in the New York area, for example, are perpetrated by “lone wolf” attackers residing in areas such as Crown Heights and Williamsburg, which are at once hospitable to black nationalist propagandizing and are home to large Jewish populations whose members are often easily identifiable by their distinctive dress, skullcaps, and other external trappings of Orthodoxy.
In past years, black nationalist agitation toward Jews spread through such incidents as the New York City teacher’s strike in 1968, where a struggle for community control in mostly black neighborhoods pitted a mostly Jewish-led teachers union against a black leadership urged on by black power advocates. Black nationalism also played a role in riots in 1991 when, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, black residents urged on by black anti-Semitic street demagogues turned on Chabad residents in the aftermath of an accident when a car driven by the chauffeur of the Lubavitcher rebbe accidently killed a young black child. In the Monsey and Jersey City attacks, it was individuals acting alone rather than as part of visible mobs that were influenced by the anti-Semitism of black nationalism. Grafton E. Thomas, the man charged with the attack in Monsey, had no history of in-person associations with black supremacist organizations but kept a journal in which he frequently referenced black nationalist websites.
In the last decades of the 20th century, black nationalist, anti-Semitic messaging has also found a receptive audience on college campuses throughout the country. At Wellesley, for example, one professor used The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews as a textbook and when he was accused of promoting bigotry in the name of history, he subsequently published The Jewish Onslaught, an attack on his critics whom he perceived were Jews. At Kean College, Khalid Muhammad, a disciple of Louis Farrakhan, accused Jews in a college lecture of being “bloodsuckers.” Invited by a black student group, rapper Professor Griff of Public Enemy told his audience at Southern Connecticut State University that Jewish doctors injected black babies with AIDS. These examples provide a sample of how anti-Semitic black nationalist rhetoric is being mainstreamed into academic programs that have as their stated objective the fostering of multicultural understanding.
In recent years, black nationalist spokesmen on college campuses have continued to verbally attack Jews while also using the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) to give a sheen of legitimate concern over specific Israeli government policies to mainstream their hate-filled beliefs. In using the boycott movement to attack Israel, they have found commonality with neo-Nazis and far-right extremists while gaining access to young and impressionable students. When student organizations are criticized for bringing such bigoted speakers to campus, they respond that freedom of speech requires hearing the “other side.”
In comparing BDS to the boycott in South Africa during the apartheid era, black nationalist groups have found a wider audience for their transhistorical anti-Semitic hate while cloaking it in the language of normative anti-racist politics. While one can argue about whether BDS is inherently anti-Semitic—there are perhaps a majority of BDS supporters who are sincere in support of the Palestinian cause without being anti-Semites, many of them Jewish, especially within academia—it is clear that BDS has also become a nesting place for black nationalists, neo-Nazis, and far-right extremists who use the movement to spread anti-Semitic ideas that they believe to be universal truths, and which are hardly dependent on specific Israeli government policies.
The reality is that as long as the country is divided along racial and political lines, black nationalist organizations will continue to find fertile ground to recruit the likes of those in the Monsey and Jersey City attacks without being accountable for inciting hate crimes against Jews, the LGBT community, and other vulnerable groups. There will continue to be more attacks by lone wolves, whether Grafton Thomas or Dylann Roof, who are infected by the bile of not only black nationalist but also white extremist organizations. Which raises the question as to why the leaders of hate group organizations are not held criminally responsible for promoting violence through their websites and Charlottesville-like marches. Unless and until we strengthen hate crime laws against those who encourage violence against Jews and other groups, then the Farrakhans and David Dukes of this world will continue to recruit followers through social media while messaging anti-Semitic canards on an everyday basis.
Black nationalism represents one component of a growing war of hatred against worldwide Jewry and Israel. In our country, the road to Monsey and Jersey City is not too distant from the road to Charlottesville.
Jack R. Fischel is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.