Historian Robert Wistrich famously called anti-Semitism “the longest hatred.” But it might also be the loneliest. In the midst of a farseeing vision of racial justice at the heart of the movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, there is a destructive blindness: “Anti-racism,” as it is conceived and practiced today—months after a wave of intermittently murderous attacks on Jews in and around New York—has not just a shallow understanding of the peculiarities of Jew-hatred, but no inclination to confront it when expressed by people who have suffered racism themselves.
Since at least 1996, FBI data show that every year Jews suffer by far the most religious hate crimes. Yet in the last six weeks, anti-Semitism is enjoying major celebrity exposure—no fewer than 10 rappers, actors, comedians, TV personalities, and professional athletes have broadcast bigotry about Jews to tens of millions of people. Also new is a viral emphasis on a particular conspiracy theory—that Black people are the “real Jews” while white Jews are impostors who falsify biblical history in order to demoralize Blacks, making them more suitable for exploitation.
The rapper Ice Cube kicked it off two weeks after Floyd’s death by tweeting an anti-Semitic mural that became notorious a few years ago during Jeremy Corbyn’s transformation of the British Labour Party into the first anti-Semitic mainstream party of the left in Western Europe since World War II. Appearing in the East End of London, the mural, titled “Freedom for Humanity,” depicts old, white bankers—some with enlarged noses—playing a game of Monopoly on the backs of crouching people of color. The mural’s creator, an admirer of David Icke who goes by the graffiti name MEAR ONE, rolled his eyes at the uproar it caused: “Some of the older white Jewish folk in the local community had an issue with me portraying their beloved #Rothschild or #Warburg etc. as the demons they are.” Corbyn initially defended it.
It is unclear whether Ice Cube knew the backstory behind the mural, but what is inescapable is that, consciously or unconsciously, he found a classic expression of Jew-hatred evocative of the struggle for racial justice.
When critics on social media pointed out the true meaning of the mural and reminded him of his own history of anti-Semitism and association with Louis Farrakhan, Ice Cube hit back by tweeting a photo of the statue of King David on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which he captioned: “WE ARE THE CHOSEN PEOPLE.” Three days later, he followed up with a sinister image of a black cube embedded in a Star of David and a meme of dark-skinned ancient people captioned “Hebrew Israelites / slaves in ancient Egypt / Clearly they are black people.” Ice Cube’s rejoinder was, in effect, to argue that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic—not because he doesn’t have hateful ideas about Jewish people, but because Black people are the real Jews.
A few days later, comedian Chelsea Handler posted to Instagram an old clip of Louis Farrakhan on the Phil Donahue Show, bizarrely affirming, in the context of the present racial awakening, that she “learned a lot from watching this powerful video.” The Nation of Islam leader whose “powerful video” Handler found instructive is well known for a decadeslong public record of anti-Semitism and routinely making statements like “Satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit,” and “I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Termite.” Yet, Handler’s post was quickly reshared (and then deleted) by actors Jameela Jamil and Jessica Chastain. Between the three of them, they broadcast Farrakhan as an authority on anti-racism to over 10 million followers. Handler eventually apologized, but a couple of weeks later pop icon Madonna shared another clip of Farrakhan to Instagram.
There is a deeper link between these incidents: Farrakhan is today’s leading proponent of the racist replacement theology that Ice Cube expressed. The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930. It was one of the new religions that flowered in urban storefront churches during the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South. Common among them was the goal to restore Black self-esteem by reconstituting the history that had been cut off and polluted by slavery. A powerful way to do this was reimagining of the origin story of the Jews along Afrocentric lines: The Israelites of the Bible were themselves Black and Blacks today are their literal descendants. That gave these religions a racial register that was restorative, but also potentially exclusive.
A couple of weeks after the Ice Cube and Handler incidents, on Independence Day, a Black militia called “Not Fucking Around Coalition” staged an open-carry demonstration near a Confederate monument in Georgia. This bold display nicely fit the ongoing narrative of protest and earned praise on social media, until it was revealed that the group’s leader, Grand Master Jay, is an admirer of Hitler. On Twitter, Jay posted photos of a bogus Hitler quote, in which the Fuehrer had supposedly confided that civilization was threatened by ersatz white Jews and “Negros [sic] … are the True Hebrews.”
Bewildering as that may seem, it has a plausible link to the past. There are Black survivalists today who derive influence from the Moorish Science Temple of America, the first Islamic storefront religion, established in Chicago in 1925, which incorporated Black Israelite ideas and taught that “Asiatics”—its term for people of color—precede and morally supersede whites.
Meanwhile, a different version of the same bogus Hitler quote wound up with NFL star DeSean Jackson, who posted it to Instagram two days later, again apparently as a meditation on racial justice. The outcry was swift and Jackson apologized, but the next day retired NBA player Stephen Jackson took to Instagram to protest that DeSean was “speaking the truth.” Alluding to the myth that whites suppress the Israelite patrimony of Blacks, Jackson groused that “Y’all don’t want us to educate ourselves.” After taking flak himself, he went on Instagram Live and angrily demanded of a critic, “You know who the Rothschilds are? They own all the banks.” Next, ex-Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson joined the fray, tweeting a reference to another racist pseudo-genealogy: “Khazarian Jews are not and never have been the chosen Elect of God.” These three professional athletes reached roughly 2.5 million followers combined.
Several days later a podcast hosted by TV personality Nick Cannon gained widespread attention. Cannon had disinterred a fossil from the golden age of hip-hop—Public Enemy’s erstwhile “Minister of Information,” Professor Griff, who got himself fired from that Farrakhan-friendly rap group for being too critical of Jews—to discuss the DeSean Jackson controversy. Griff was one of Public Enemy’s archetypes of the hood, a “conscious” do-it-yourself metaphysician who is a walking pastiche of themes and ideas that resonated in the storefront churches. He wasted no time giving Cannon what he wanted—an exposition of Black Israelism and the conspiracy theories built protectively around it.
Griff: “They’ve taken our birthright.”
Cannon: “They don’t want us to be them?”
Griff: “They don’t want us to be us!”
Our weird and ugly trip ends with a British rapper named Wiley, who has about half a million followers on Twitter. In response to the Cannon controversy, Wiley tweeted a flood of anti-Semitic insults, amid claims that “ISREAL is a black peoples place [sic]” and warnings such as “Jewish People I know Who You ARE.” Twitter, which has an elaborate set of rules governing hate speech on its platform, did nothing while Wiley fired off tens of these tweets for a whole day. Finally, they suspended him for a week, while keeping his less overtly anti-Semitic tweets up on the site.
In the last eight months, we’ve seen two mass murders of Jews—one attempted and one successful—by people who expressed interest in racially exclusive Black Israelism. Grafton Thomas, who burst into a Monsey, New York, rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration and hacked at people with a machete, rambled in his journal about “Ebinoid Israelites” and “Semitic genocide.” David Anderson, who, along with an accomplice, sprayed a Jersey City kosher market with gunfire and killed three people (and a cop earlier), was steeped in Black Israelism, though he was wary of the organized sects. One wonders: When the coronavirus pandemic loosens its grip on public spaces and the proselytizing bands of Black Hebrew Israelites return to street corners to shout racist abuse at passersby, as they have done for decades without causing much controversy, will they draw the attention of anti-racist protesters?
And again, there is the steady anti-Jewish street violence. In New York City in the last two years, social media has recorded a sizable fraction of it in Brooklyn neighborhoods where Blacks and Jews coexist. Some of the perpetrators of those hate crimes revealed Black Israelite beliefs. One man beat and choked an Orthodox passerby while yelling about “fake Jews.” Another shouted “They’re not Jews!” and threw rocks at a group of Jewish women and children. Someone accosted a Forward journalist and screamed that she and her friends were “fake Jews … Whose time was almost up!” A woman berated an Israeli student on the subway: “You ain’t even a Jew, you white.” As Griff noted ominously to Nick Cannon, anticipating Wiley: “Now because you recognize [your Hebrew origin], you know who they are.”
There is not a racial crisis between Blacks and Jews. High-profile African Americans, including Charles Barkley, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Zach Banner, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, quickly and resolutely criticized DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson. And not all people influenced by Black Israelism—a broad group that includes thousands of “African Hebrew Israelites” living in Israel—are anti-Semites. But in our increasingly panicked politics, where fanciful and vicious conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon have seen viral adoption, the sudden mainstreaming of a racist conspiracy theory with demonstrated links to violence should stir serious concern.
Yet when Black people express anti-Semitism it is continually treated as nothing to worry about. It is not hard to understand why. Anti-racist thought developed in response to the racial caste system in America and is primarily concerned with power. For those who are marginalized, it sees an accretion of victimhood; a disabled Black woman experiences compounding oppression at the intersection of her identities. On the other hand, those at the top of the racial caste system—whites—are invested with an almost mystical power that tends to flatten their other identities. Jews are generally regarded as white and privileged, so in practice, Jewishness seldom registers as a marginalizable identity. Anti-racists are dumb to our global history of persecution and vulnerability in the present.
Because anti-Semitism, like all conspiracy theories, mimics a politics of emancipation, anti-Semites believe themselves to be opponents of injustice. Among progressives today, the movement to redefine racism as “prejudice plus power”—that is, to downgrade nonsystemic forms of racism to mere personal “prejudice”—has ominous consequences for Jews. It fosters the belief that people who are thought to be powerful are deserving of hostility. And when racism poses as resistance by victims of racism, as anti-Semitism often does, it disqualifies Jews from concern.
Those who favor this revisionist definition have made so much headway that Merriam-Webster has agreed to incorporate it. How will we address a form of racism that purports to “punch up” against an evil elite? Most anti-Semitism in the West is nonsystemic, but its very nature is being systematically eclipsed. The loneliest hatred lives on, as it has for thousands of years—outside the ambit of our racial reckoning.
John-Paul Pagano is a writer in New York. He blogs at The Socialism of Fools.