“Wherever my people are is where I must be.”
That was Tamika Mallory’s response against the backlash for attending Saviour’s Day, an annual gathering held by the Nation of Islam in Chicago, and headlined by the volatile, misogynist, homo-antagonistic, and notorious anti-Semite, Louis Farrakhan. (Well, her second response, anyway. The first was fairly dogwhistle-like in nature.)
It exploded into a critique of anti-Semitism being a crippling blindspot for the left, demands for Mallory to denounce Farrakhan, questioning the silence and encouragement of fellow organizers Linda Sarsour and Carmen Perez on the matter, and explanations on why a condemnation of Farrakhan from Mallory was unlikely to ever occur, given the social role that the Nation of Islam and its initiatives play in underserved African American communities.
Watching all of these interactions simultaneously from the inside and from the outside looking in, it felt oddly familiar. Almost the exact inverse of the Crown Heights riots in a way, with a singular inciting event disingenuously detached from its greater social context because of truths neither side was really willing to hear.
Yes, Farrakhan is a highly problematic figure spouting extremely volatile ideologies, and doesn’t particularly seek justice and equality for peoples of color as he is simply seeking to replace the hegemony of toxic white masculinity with the hegemony of toxic black hegemony. However, while broken clocks might be wrong 1,438 times a day, they are right twice a day, and buried in Farrakhan’s tirades are enough kernels of truth about American Judaism’s relationship and perpetuation of white supremacy that ring true enough to garner a tacit assent, if not explicit support, as both Yitzchak Yosef—Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Israel—and the subsequent response from the American Jewish community proved as true.
Delivering a sermon discussing a tractate in Berachot 58, the good rabbi not only referred to African descended peoples by the pejorative of “kushi”—roughly analogous to the English n-word—but also went further to create an imaginary scenario which compared African-descended people to monkeys.
Now where were those brave, outraged, passionate voices condemning Farrakhan just the week before?
Well, the Republic Jewish Coalition, for example, called for the resignation of seven Democratic leaders over “ties” with Farrakhan. Yet no such demand was made of rabbis with “ties” to Yitzchak Yosef or the rabbinate. In fact, they’re still railing about Farrakhan.
Rabbi Ruti Regan proudly retweeted Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii’s decision to “part ways” with Mallory, yet somehow the ADL’s lukewarm tweet condemning racism didn’t quite make the cut.
Jews of Color noticed, by the way, with some tweeting “Every White Jew I saw losing their shit about Louis Farrakhan better be reacting with the same outrage about Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef comparing Black people to monkeys.”
And among mainstream Jewish organizations, If Not Now—one of the few organizations to denounce Farrakhan as an “antisemite, homophobe and transphobe”, own that it was “painful and confusing to see Women’s March leaders” embrace Farrakhan, yet also criticize Jewish groups for their “outsized” reaction—commented quite succinctly, “Looking forward to two weeks of posts and articles from @ADL_National, @JGreenblattADL and the rest of the establishment denouncing Rabbi Yosef with the same intensity as they called out Tamika Mallory.”
All of this, of course, is the perfect illustration of the fallacy of “black/Jewish” relations, its monolithic implications of “[non-Jewish] black/[white] Jewish relations,” and the pitfalls of excising “black Jewish/white Jewish” and “Jewish black/non-Jewish black” relations from that conversation.
Someone black not disavowing anti-Semitism is not the same mechanism as someone white not disavowing anti-Semitism. Of course, there are instances of black anti-Semitism fueled by the “Christ-killer” narrative, but in most cases it aligns with Baldwin’s observation that “Black people are anti-Semitic because they’re anti-White,” i.e., for black anti-Semites, “Jews” are just another kind of “white people”, equally invested in the systems of white supremacy that they are in conflict against.
This is the perception that opportunists like Farrakhan exploit, and also why walking back anti-Semitism can often be a hard sell for African-Americans, who feel as if it’s being demanded of them to say “This group of white people and how they exist in the structure of white supremacy is bad, but these white people (Jews) and how they exist in the structure of white supremacy is just fine.”
But NOW let ME talk about our skinfolk for a minute. Because while there has been significant dialogue about and around the diversity of American Jewry, there have not been as many inroads made on the Jewish black/non-Jewish black spectrum.
Yes, us black Jews understand what Farrakhan represent for African Americans. For better or worse, he is the lone surviving leader from the civil rights era. Jesse Jackson was an attaché of Dr. King. Al Sharpton was running around touring with James Brown in the 60s. But Farrakhan was the leader of a major movement with significant impact during the civil rights movement, and has not only outlived his contemporaries, but still finds ways—however salaciously—to stay relevant. Yes, us black Jews feel the emotional resonance that Farrakhan taps into, that he represents the unabashed and proud refusal of African Americans to just lie down and suffer the subjugation of institutional racism, a voice from bygone days.
But he is toxic. And he is—among other things—an anti-Semite.
“We are not free until everyone is free” remember? And black Jews are not on Farrakhan’s list of black people he’s trying to help be free. And when one of the most dynamic speakers of the next generation, Naomi Wadler, is not someone you’re here for, then that’s a problem.
Because some of your people are in synagogue and temple, too.
MaNishtana is the pseudonym of Shais Rishon, an Orthodox African-American Jewish writer, speaker, rabbi, and author of Thoughts From A Unicorn. His latest book is Ariel Samson, Freelance Rabbi.