New York’s Morgan Library features an online version of an exhibit devoted to “The Book of Ruth: Medieval to Modern,” which was on view when the museum closed in March. A survey of the library’s manuscript collection of the biblical Book of Ruth, the show put the spotlight on a modern manuscript of the Old Testament story, a recent donation from Joanna S. Rose, the collector and patron who commissioned the work. Completed over a two-year period from 2015-2017, this newest Book of Ruth is an 18-foot long two-sided English and Hebrew accordion-fold vellum manuscript. Artist Barbara Wolff, renowned for her mastery of the technique of illumination, rendered illustrations in black ink, gouache, and gold and silver platinum.
As beautiful as it is, Wolff’s creation is more than just a dazzling surface; a wealth of treasures is revealed in these panels, which include both figurative and non-figurative images. Her intricate and painstaking process partners with her ability to mine underlying nuances of emotion through her choice of subject and enhances the narrative in ways that will deepen the understanding of the story of Ruth even to those possessing an extensive knowledge of the Old Testament and commentaries.
The Bible records the story of Ruth, a young widow who pledges to share the life and faith of her Jewish mother-in-law, Naomi. Together they leave Bethlehem to escape the famine. They arrive in Moab, where Ruth meets Naomi’s relation, the wealthy landowner Boaz. After his wheat is harvested, he allows Ruth to collect the leftover grain from the threshing floor. The couple is destined to marry and become the great grandparents of the future king of Israel, David, and, according to Christian tradition, possess direct lineage to Jesus.
For her sources, Wolff studied diverse and wide-ranging texts by theologians, scientists, philosophers and historians. Expanding her understanding of the narrative, they addressed topics that ranged from Iron Age (1200-1000 BCE) archeology, biblical anthropology, and 21st century climate change, to cartography and horticulture. With her thorough knowledge and understanding of the iconographical traditions of medieval manuscripts and codices that include this story, Wolff chose to follow a new path. She approached the narrative from a different perspective, augmenting the events recounted in the Old Testament through her pictures of Israel’s landscape, geology, flowers and plants as well as farming implements, shoes, clothing and textiles used during this time. As the backdrop for the Old Testament story, the illustrations convey a sense of immediacy through their subtle and poignant references to the plight of the poor, the vulnerable and the immigrant in today’s world.
Wolff’s art has been previously featured at the Morgan. Of her esoteric medium, she has noted: “It's like being an alchemist….It's magic turning these pieces into gold. You live a 13th-century timeline in the 21st century.” Wolff has observed: “the work is slow in the best sense of the word. By slow I mean with thoughtfulness, deliberation, great care.”
Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing 522D, a gift of the LeWitt family installed in the museum’s lobby space since 2018, is also available for online viewing. A giant at 20 x 30 feet, the richly colored geometric work was not painted by the artist, but existed as a set of detailed instructions, generated during the 1980s, to be executed directly in the space where it would be installed. A 20th century master, LeWitt, (1928-2007), laid the groundwork for Minimalism — a cerebral approach to art-making developed in the 1960s and ‘70s in response to the improvisatory and emotional Abstract Expressionist Movement. Wall Drawing 522D manifests the artist’s groundbreaking rethinking of process as opposed to fabrication, articulated simply and directly in his 1967 statement: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. All of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair.”
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, click here.
Two events last week have illustrated, once again, how much Europe’s tin ear on Iran, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to function, despite a rapidly changing geopolitical environment in the region.
The United Nations Security Council, in a 2-2 vote, with 11 abstentions, refused to support an extension of the arms embargo on Iran, which has been in place since 2007. Russia and China voted against, which came as no surprise. The only country that joined the United States, which has for some time supported the extension, was the Dominican Republic. But among the countries casting an abstention were Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Nine votes were needed to adopt an extension of the embargo.
The embargo not only prohibits the sale of conventional weapons to Iran but also prohibits Iran from transferring weapons to its proxies. It’s been in violation of this provision through its repeated delivery of rockets and other weaponry to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
In their explanation of why they voted as they did, the Europeans expressed concern that an embargo extension would chase Tehran away from the discredited 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ostensibly agreed to in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The United States withdrew from the plan in 2018, citing its loose provisions and loopholes that would allow, after a period of 15 years, Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program. Effective, unannounced inspections of military sites, for example — a provision touted by supporters of the JCPOA — could not be carried out under the plan because of an arcane protocol of advance notice to the Iranians. Nor was Iran’s ballistic missile program, focused on being able to carry nuclear warheads as far as the heart of Europe, dismantled.
With cover provided by the JCPOA, Iran has set about to militarily and geopolitically meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Its presence, or proxy connections in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and of course Lebanon are there for all to see. Lebanon has become part of “Iran Inc.” with its terrorist proxy Hezbollah having insinuated itself into the cabinet, and the terror group’s influence on the Lebanese army growing year-to-year. Not to mention its relationship with Hamas, in what amounts to a real time Shia-Sunni demonstration of the dictum, “the enemy of my enemy [Israel] is my friend.”
The final straw for those who cling to the JCPOA should have been Israel’s carrying off that trove of documents last year from a Tehran warehouse, that makes it abundantly clear that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons. What more could the Security Council want for evidence of Tehran’s intentions?
And as if that weren’t enough, the Gulf Cooperation Council, representing six countries with varying interests in the region, supported the extension of the embargo because of Iran’s constant threats to most of its member states.
So instead of sending a clear message to Iran that its malign behavior will no longer be tolerated, whether it be its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism or its hegemonist sweep across the region, by not voting to extend the arms embargo, Europe once again punted. Its lack of principle is not only disheartening, it is frightening.
Notwithstanding European expressions of “concern” over Iranian behavior, the real test — voting for the continuation of the embargo — has been failed miserably by governments whose modus operandi on this and many other vital issues is to do some can-kicking down the road of international diplomacy.
The other major event involving the region last week was the tremendously transformative announcement of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Along with the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements which preceded it, the Abraham Accord is the third pillar of diplomatic achievements to bring stability to the region.
For decades the conventional thinking was that if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be achieved, peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world would soon follow (see: the Fahd Plan, later called the Arab Peace Initiative, which promoted that approach to peacemaking). In fact, the 1979 agreement with Egypt, and the 1994 pact with Jordan did not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, making the point that procrastination, where real strategic interests are at stake, makes no sense.
The Palestinians have walked away from numerous opportunities to negotiate a deal with Israel. Now, time has moved on, and they are looking at a train that is rapidly moving out of the station.
That approach has now been validated by the normalization agreement announced by President Donald Trump. Reaction among most European states was favorable. For months, though, the European Union and most of its member states were obsessed with warning Israel against an annexation plan in the West Bank that they were absolutely sure would happen. They might have spent that time more productively urging the Palestinian Authority to come to the negotiating table with Israel, but preferred instead to browbeat Israel, in the-sky-is-falling rhetoric.
Notwithstanding the encomiums that have flowed in from most European capitals, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn introduced a jarring assessment of the normalization agreement, in language reminding us that old speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still alive and well in Europe.
Said Asselborn of the diplomatic breakthrough, speaking critically of the UAE with Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio: “…I think you can’t just let down your own brothers [Palestinians] in order to pursue economic interests and perhaps also have more security for yourself.”
Never have more hypocritical words been spoken. If Asselborn is right, what is Luxembourg doing in the European Union or as a member of NATO? Of course nation states pursue economic and security interests. Some also pursue policies aimed at bringing peace and stability to their neighborhoods, which is what the normalization agreement looks to accomplish.
Asselborn didn’t stop there; it gets worse: ”I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human co-existence….” He went on to say that “notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the U.N. Charter…and goes against a host of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Not only are Asselborn’s remarks an expression of sour grapes, but he has crossed a red line in diplo-speak. He is charging Israel, citing none other than the Ten Commandments, with stealing from the Palestinians, which takes it dangerously into blood libel territory. The old Yiddish expression — “vos iz oyfn lung iz oyfn tsung” — or what it is you breathe (really believe) is what you say,” — has never been more apt.
How can countries whose representatives hold such views, given the history of the region and the complexities of peacemaking, ever present themselves as honest brokers or even objective observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum?
The European abstentions in the Security Council vote on extending the arms embargo on Iran, and the Asselborn comments on the Israel-UAE normalization pact are stark reminders that in parts of Europe old attitudes and biases die hard. It’s not only imagination that’s lacking in Europe, it is an inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to act on principle. Standing up to bullies like Iran or recognizing that the diplomatic winds blowing out of the Gulf represent initiatives that might in fact lead to some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians, are the shape of things to come.
Stuck somewhere in the 20th century, Europe is late to the game, the one where tectonic shifts which present new opportunities to bring about positive changes in the world order, are taking place every day.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO of B'nai B'rith International.
The trial of the Halle synagogue shooter – lessons to be learned amid resurgent anti-Semitism in Germany
On the 21st of July, the trial of Halle neo-Nazi terrorist Stephan Balliet began in Magdeburg, Germany. He faces life in prison for the murder of 40-year-old Jana L. and 20-year-old Kevin S., as well as 68 cases of attempted murder and incitement to racial hatred following his attack on Halle’s synagogue last year. Amid growing anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism, this was the deadliest anti-Jewish attack in Germany since WWII.
On the 9th of October 2019, Yom Kippur eve, the 28-year-old right-wing extremist drove up to the small-town synagogue, sporting military attire and geared up with explosives and firearms. As just over 50 worshipers gathered in prayer, the attacker started shooting at the building, where a now-memorialized wooden door resisted the shots and helped save the lives of all those inside. Upon failing to enter the synagogue, the attacker started shooting on the street, killing a passer-by and a kebab salesman the shooter assumed to be an immigrant.
Prior to the attack, Balliet published an online manifesto, which detailed his hatred for Jews and his belief in the Great Replacement theory”– a conspiracy myth that claims Jewish elites promote feminism to deter birth rates in predominantly white European countries to replace white males. He also broadcasted the attack live. It was viewed over 2,000 times and archived to right-wing platforms before being taken down by Twitch, a platform owned by Amazon.
Balliet was imprisoned following a police chase, but he attempted to escape this May, climbing an 11-foot fence during a walk through the courtyard. It was only after this incident that he was transferred to a maximum security prison.
Forty-three coplaintiffs, a majority of whom were in the Halle synagogue during the attack, were present at the trial as the terrorist testified about his desire to "commit a massacre", as per the indictment. He showed no remorse.
The Halle attack came amid a pandemic of right-wing extremist attacks globally – notably the attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg and on the Christchurch mosque in New Zealand – which, as the Halle synagogue attacker himself admitted, served as inspiration.
It also came on the backdrop of resurgent far-right terrorism in Germany. In 2019, Germany’s federal government recorded just over 22 000 right-wing extremist attacks over 2,000 explicitly anti-Semitic attacks, both representing the largest numbers in past years. It was in the same year that a neo-Nazi sympathizer fatally shot centrist politician Walter Lübcke, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party. In the Germany city of Hanau this February, a right-wing extremist supporting anti-Semitic and racist views killed nine people he believed were foreigners.
Branches of the army and police are currently engulfed in scandals amid uncovered links to extreme right groups. Over 600 soldiers were investigated by Germany’s military counterintelligence. After several far-right incidents were discovered, the KSK, Germany’s elite Special Commando Forces, was disbanded.
Thomas Haldenwang, president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution who is tasked with protecting Germany from extremists on right and left, drew attention to an “informal network” of right-wing extremists in strategic areas ranging from the domestic intelligence service, as outlined above, to media. Anti-Semitic messaging was, according to Haldenwang, being subtly infiltrated into public discourse.
Facing the reality of resurgent anti-Jewish hatred, given its history, Germany has put in place strong measures to tackle antisemitism.
Federal Commissioner for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Anti-Semitism Felix Klein and a growing list of regional coordinators oversee Germany’s attempts to address the phenomenon. Major Jewish institutions are provided with security; prosecution of hate crimes is well established in the criminal justice system; legislation was recently passed that tightens regulations for online platforms to report and take down illegal hate speech; Holocaust education is well anchored in curricula; numerous exchange programs with Israel exist; and the political establishment has a deeply enshrined culture of speaking out in support of the Jewish community.
Following the attack on the German synagogue, President Steinmeier and Chancellor Merkel both attended vigils, in Halle and Berlin, and recommitted to increase efforts to address anti-Semitism, particularly regarding the lack of security in smaller communities.
In response to the recent resurgence of right-wing extremism, Germany placed the more extreme branch of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party under surveillance, and, in a first, banned a series of clubs belonging to the far-right movement Citizens of the Reich.
It’s a matter of perspective whether all this is re-assuring, or all the more alarming in Germany’s feebleness when confronted with the trends outlined earlier. One thing is clear: More needs to be done.
Lessons for moving forward
The terrorist attack in Halle offers many specific policy points of reflection. The streaming of the attack online feeds into ongoing discussions about platforms’ accountability for users’ content. The attacker’s gamer profile points to the violent inclinations of gaming platforms. His declared world views, a signal that more must be done to address the formation and dissemination of conspiracy myths. The now-flimsy wooden synagogue door is a testament to the need for heightened security, even in smaller communities.
Yet beyond these specific points, a recurring theme emerged from testimonies of those who survived Halle: The trial cannot be about this singular incident. Rather, it must raise awareness about deep-rooted anti-Semitism and extremism in many corners of German society. As Commissioner Klein noted in a recent interview, a welcome outcome would be increased discourse about anti-Semitism in German society, and real understanding among civilians and policy-makers alike about the real scope of the challenges faced.
Alina Bricman is the Director of EU Affairs at B’nai B’rith International. She formerly served as president of the European Union of Jewish Students (EUJS) from 2017 to 2019 and worked for the Representation of the European Commission in Romania and for the Median Research Centre, a Romanian civil society NGO focused on civil engagement and combating xenophobia. She studied political science at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies in Bucharest and at the Central European University in Budapest.
In May, my wife and I received our ballots to vote by mail in Maryland’s primary. The whole process was easy. We voted and put our ballots in the provided self-addressed envelope. Given COVID-19, we preferred to vote by mail since we are trying to limit our exposure to the virus. The entire experience got me thinking, “What if every American was able to vote by mail in the general election?” Because of the pandemic, every effort should be made to ensure that all Americans are given the ability to vote by mail, particularly seniors, who are more susceptible to the virus.
According to the United States Census Bureau, 70 percent of seniors (65+) turned out to vote in the 2016 presidential election (for more information please see “Seniors and Voter Participation”). Seniors are a reliable voting block; however, given the pandemic, there are now clear obstacles stopping them from being able to vote. Polling places have been removed from senior living facilities to limit the residents' exposure to the virus. This is a necessary safety move but an obvious downside because it makes voting for seniors more difficult. Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Project, indicates in-person voting during COVID-19 brings risks because of shared touch screens, ballot marking devices and pens. We certainly don’t want anyone choosing between their health and safety and their right to vote.
Complicating matters further, Pew Research Center found a majority of poll workers are 61 and over. Furthermore, The Washington Post reported that states have had a hard time staffing polls during the pandemic. For example, in Anchorage, Alaska, 95 percent of their typical poll workers opted out of working a local election. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, polling locations for the primary election were reduced from 180 to five. It’s hard to blame people, especially older Americans, who feel working at the polls brings inherent dangers during a pandemic. Obviously, having less staff at the polls will make in-person voting more challenging and only furthers the need to increase voting access by mail.
States vary on how to administer voting through the mail. A few states will automatically mail residents a ballot, most states have “no excuse” absentee voting and a handful of states require a reason. You might be saying, “so what’s the problem? An overwhelming majority of states will mail seniors a ballot or allow them to request one.”
Unfortunately, during a pandemic, it’s not that simple!
What happens if older Americans are required to get a witness signature on their absentee ballots? Countless seniors are self-quarantining because of the virus, which makes getting a witness signature impractical, especially if the signature must be from another registered voter in their state. Teresa Maples, a senior with a pre-existing health problem from Minnesota, said, "There is no question that I will be unable to vote in person because I am strictly following the social distancing and self-isolation guidelines. Because I live alone and cannot safely obtain a witness signature, my vote may never be counted." According to Pew Research Center, this is a problem with potentially far reaching consequences, as 27 percent of people age 60 and above live alone in our country.
Also, what about people who live with their elderly parents and fear voting in person will expose them and, in turn, their parents to the virus? This could be a real problem in states that require “an excuse” to vote absentee. For instance, Martha Christian Green from Louisiana, whose 80-year-old mother lives with her, has a risky situation. “If I cannot vote by absentee ballot in the 2020 elections, I will be forced to choose between voting and protecting my mother’s health,” Green told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Voting has always been important to me and my family. My father took me to register to vote when I turned 18. I have a strong family legacy of voting – almost genetic. I believe it is my civic duty.”
Thankfully, there have been lawsuits filed around the country on these and similar matters to ensure everyone’s right to vote is protected. Recently, in Minnesota, litigation was settled because both parties agreed that a witness’ signature would not be required to submit a ballot through the mail. However, legal challenges to this agreement by the Minnesota House of Representatives is still a possibility. While we can expect this type of litigation to continue around the country up until Election Day, in the end I hope that our judicial system will recognize that every citizen’s right to vote is paramount and not place any undue burdens on people’s ability to make their voices heard.
Ideally, all elected officials would be working to expand voter access during a pandemic. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be consensus on voting from home because of the virus. Some government officials argue that voting by mail will lead to election fraud.
When evaluating the propensity for voter fraud through the mail, it’s important to recognize the rigorous existing safeguards. For example, The New York Times reports that Washington state confirms personal information and works to ensure voters are only registered once throughout the state. On top of that, election offices ensure signatures on file match those on the ballot. It should be noted that the state of Washington votes largely by mail.
Any conversation about mail-in voting should start with the premise that election fraud is not prevalent; therefore, there is no justification to force people into crowded polling places during a pandemic. Amber McReynolds, CEO of the National Vote at Home Institute, and Charles Stewart III, director of the MIT Election Data and Science Lab, have reported that during the past 20 years in our country, 250 million votes have been cast through the mail, which have resulted in only 143 criminal convictions for voter fraud.
Obviously even one case of voter fraud is a problem that should be prosecuted, but given its minuscule presence in our country, politicians who scare everyone into thinking this is a crisis are not engaging in an honest dialogue.
Pew Research Center reports a whopping 70 percent of Americans believe that voters should be allowed to vote by mail. With an overwhelming amount of support, let’s all start working together to increase access to voting. Older Americans and their loved ones shouldn’t have to choose between their health and exercising their constitutional right to vote. Life in quarantine can be frustrating enough, let’s make things a little easier and expand everyone’s ability to vote.
Evan Carmen, Esq. is the Legislative Director for Aging Policy at the B’nai B’rith International Center for Senior Services. He holds a B.A. from American University in political science and a J.D. from New York Law School. Prior to joining B’nai B’rith International he worked in the Office of Presidential Correspondence for the Obama White House, practiced as an attorney at Covington and Burling, LLP, worked as an aide for New York City Council Member Tony Avella and interned for Congressman Gary Ackerman’s office. Click here to read more from Evan Carmen.
Few causes are as naturally resonant with Jews as the never-ending quest to protect the very lives of people of color.
The Torah teaches that all human beings are born in God’s image, and commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The rabbinic compendium Ethics of the Fathers says: “Do not look at the vessel, but what is in it.”
Central to Jews’ own history is their oppression beginning with enslavement in ancient Egypt.
For Jews, who have suffered so much at the hands of bigots – including those invoking the absurdity that is racial supremacy – inequality on account of superficial appearance is a moral outrage of the highest order. It was for this reason that so many Jews have played an outsize part in advocating for the human rights of Black people, in America and elsewhere.
As early as 1902, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, wrote that “once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish also to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” In 1942, B’nai B’rith’s National Jewish Monthly stated that “Jews must be as ardent for the defense of Negro rights as they are of their own.”
In 1964, the two white men murdered by the KKK along with a Black man for helping Mississippi African-Americans to vote were Jewish. American Blacks and Jews jointly battled Jim Crow laws, and successfully partnered to enable the Civil Rights Act. In 1965, Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the rabbis joining Black leaders marching in Selma, Alabama. Heschel said, “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America… I call upon every Jew to hearken to his voice, to share his vision, to follow in his way.”
Jews helped found, fund and staff predominantly African-American civil rights bodies like the NAACP. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written that “it was usually in the Jewish communities where desegregation began.” Despite the stark risks, individual Jews were to be found in disproportionate numbers among those resisting apartheid in South Africa. Later, Jews played a key role in spreading awareness of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and in bringing international attention to mass violence in the Darfur region of Sudan.
And whether through the aid agency MASHAV or a growing array of non-governmental organizations, Israel – despite its small size – has contributed to developing Africans’ agriculture, health services, infrastructure and more.
In turn, many Africans and African-Americans alike, not least those looking to the Bible for inspiration, have felt a deep bond with Jews. Imagery of the Israelites’ exodus to the Promised Land was especially poignant for Black slaves. Black soldiers helped to fight and defeat Nazism – and were treated barbarically by Hitler’s Germany when taken captive by it.
Multiple African countries have also been home to their own Jewish communities. Ethiopia has proudly traced its ties to the fabled relationship of King Solomon with the Queen of Sheba. Sub-Saharan Africans broadly welcomed early support from and close cooperation with Israel, largely pioneered by Golda Meir.
Mainstream African-American leaders have long stood against anti-Semitism – particularly King, who notably added, “Peace for Israel means security, and we must stand with all our might to protect its right to exist, its territorial integrity.” He recognized Israel as “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
Later, soul legend Ray Charles told a B’nai B’rith audience: “Israel is one of the few causes I feel good about supporting… If someone besides a Black ever sings the real gut-bucket blues, it’ll be a Jew. We both know what it’s like to be someone else’s footstool.”
DILEMMAS SURROUNDING #BLM
Indeed, almost always, white supremacists have hated Jews of all colors as much as they do people of color. Their equal-opportunity malice again surfaced in Charlottesville, Virginia, where – nominally gathered in 2017 to defend the “heritage” embodied in Confederate monuments – many chanted “Jews will not replace us.” These racialists, oblivious to the hollowness of their ideology, see even white Jews as biologically impure and as responsible for race-mingling more generally.
But the protest movement under the banner of Black Lives Matter has presented Jewish supporters of the anti-racist cause with some dilemmas.
First, even while recognizing the need for dramatic change, minorities have rarely benefited from a climate of extreme polarization or from unnuanced reactions to complex societal problems – all these intensified by things like a pandemic, economic crisis and heightened populism.
Many activists have demanded not just comprehensive reform of police departments but their defunding or even disbanding. Yet Jews – who have been, even in America, by far the leading target of faith-based hate crimes – could be among the many populations made more vulnerable in the absence of active policing. The reality is that we are obliged to guard against abuses by those in power, but also against misconduct by those who do not wear a uniform.
Second, it is true that on practically every continent are to be found markers of those who were associated with ideas and actions that we rightly consider abhorrent today. It is not always clear who should decide which demerits warrant landmarks’ demolition.
This said, a distinction can reasonably be made between preserving sites that simply record history and keeping in place, without critical commentary, tributes glorifying those guilty of dehumanizing others. Most American Jews – whose voting patterns are remarkably aligned with those of African-Americans – would oppose the prominent display of statues celebrating a Confederacy that destroyed American unity and championed racism.
But one might wonder: why isn’t there widespread insistence on similar treatment of those who persecuted or fomented hatred of Jews? These could include almost countless figures – from Augustine to Chaucer, Martin Luther to Peter Stuyvesant, Voltaire to Wagner, Melville to Ford, Helen Thomas to Malcolm X.
Which leads us to the more central Jewish concern regarding the revitalized movement against anti-Black racism: the potential for even it to be exploited by those who harbor a different but no less destructive bigotry, anti-Semitism.
No community is immune to prejudice, to emotional blind spots and to absorbing slurs and stereotypes from the wider society.
After migrating from the South, many African-Americans encountered Jews as teachers, social workers and doctors, but also as landlords, employers and store owners, experiencing a distinct differential in their respective socioeconomic positions. Too few Jews and people of color have had genuinely meaningful interaction during their formative years. Israeli society, too, is not devoid of divisions and disparities. More broadly, many Jews, scarred by dispossession, humiliation and endless atrocity, have certainly yearned to be associated with the dominant Western culture – sometimes internalizing its errant “conventional wisdom.”
EXPRESSIONS OF ANTI-SEMITISM
But some people of African descent, too, have been influenced by prejudiced ideas or impulses.
Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, has praised Hitler as a “very great man,” called Judaism a “gutter religion,” threatened the Jewish community with “destruction” and described Jews as “termites,” “bloodsuckers” and the “synagogue of Satan.” Yet he denies he is an anti-Semite – and was seated beside former President Bill Clinton on stage at the funeral of Aretha Franklin. On a cable channel founded by Sean “Diddy” Combs, Farrakhan again referred to Jews as “Satan” last month, and said, “it is my job now to pull the cover off of Satan so that every Muslim, when he sees Satan, picks up a stone as we do in Mecca.”
Farrakhan has also been lauded by celebrities including Kanye West, hip hop artist Jay Electronica, rapper Ice Cube and NFL player DeSean Jackson, who apologized for posting a quote, which he attributed to Hitler, saying that Jews “extort America” and “plan for world domination” while “Negroes are the real Children of Israel.” Now, former Kansas City running back Larry Johnson has written of a “Jewish cabal” guilty of “Human Trafficking, Sex Trafficking, Ritualistic Child Torture, Perversion [and] Human Sacrifice/Murder.”
Weeks ago, television personality Nick Cannon reposted an interview he had conducted with rapper Professor Griff – who previously blamed Jews for “the majority of the wickedness that goes on around the globe” – in which Cannon praised Farrakhan as well, and commended his guest who said he was “speaking facts” about “the Cohens and the Moskowitzes.”
Radio host Charlamagne tha God said that ViacomCBS then cut ties with Cannon, who subsequently expressed remorse, because “Jewish people… have the power.” British hip-hop artist Wiley added, “Jewish [sic] would do anything to ruin a black mans [sic] life.”
A few more prominent Black figures have also made anti-Semitic remarks in the past – the Rev. Jesse Jackson used pejoratives like “Hymies” to refer to Jews during his presidential campaign in 1984, while the Rev. Al Sharpton employed incendiary rhetoric (“If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house”) around the time of the deadly 1991 Crown Heights riots.
The late Georgia state representative Billy McKinney declared that “Jews have bought everybody. Jews, J-E-W-S” – while his daughter Cynthia, who became a member of the U.S. Congress, promoted anti-Israeli conspiracy theories related to 9/11 and suggested that the number of Holocaust victims is inflated. Both continue to have Georgia motorways named for them.
After two African-Americans killed six people in 2019 at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, an African-American member of the local Board of Education, Joan Terrell-Paige, called Jews “brutes” who threaten to bring “drug dealers and prostitutes” into the Black community, and said rabbis were suspected of “selling body parts.” She retained her post nonetheless.
Some African studies programs have promulgated a theory that anti-Black racism has its roots in a supposed Jewish belief that the biblical Noah’s son Ham was “cursed” with blackness. Author Alice Walker – while championing Palestinian nationalism – has called on Jews to “abandon race and culture and religion,” smeared the Talmud as the cause of global evil and referred to “Zionist Nazis.” Poet Amiri Baraka’s writing included such lines as “I got the extermination blues, jewboys [sic]. I got the hitler [sic] syndrome figured.”
On the African continent, meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s longtime strongman, periodically made anti-Jewish assertions and called white farmers so “hard-hearted, you would think they were Jews.” Idi Amin, the Ugandan president, said Hitler “was right to burn six million Jews.”
Among a new generation of activists, Tamika Mallory, former Women’s March co-chair, extolled Farrakhan and reportedly accused Jews of collective guilt as exploiters of people of color. Somali-born Rep. Ilhan Omar, who once wrote that “Israel has hypnotized the world,” was censured for saying, of the sway of pro-Israel activists, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby.” Marc Lamont Hill, previously a CNN commentator, also attempted to spin Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and delivered a speech at the United Nations – echoing jihadists’ aspiration to completely destroy Israel – that called for a “Palestine from the [Jordan] River to the [Mediterranean] Sea.”
And French-Cameroonian political candidate and comedian Dieudonné popularized a Nazi-like salute, while calling Holocaust commemoration “memorial pornography.” He also co-founded an “Anti-Zionist Party” and implied approval of a lethal terror attack, by an Islamist of Malian ancestry, at a Jewish supermarket in Paris.
Even Johannesburg-born Trevor Noah, years before having been chosen to host “The Daily Show,” joked about the Holocaust and wrote that “South Africans know how to recycle like Israel knows how to be peaceful.”
A FRAUGHT MOMENT
As to Black Lives Matter, the Movement for Black Lives – which is a loose coalition that includes BLM, itself highly decentralized – adopted in 2016 a platform that mimics Palestinian polemics by singling out Israel, the world’s only Jewish state, as an “apartheid” state that commits “genocide.” Yet Israel is the Middle East’s sole pluralistic democracy – and Palestinians have over the course of its existence actually multiplied in number significantly. Their leaders have also rejected every serious proposal of statehood and peace alongside Israel.
Unfortunately, ANC officials and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among the South African leaders who came to spearhead sub-Saharan realignment with anti-Israel Arab regimes – some in Africa – that are no paragons of human rights. The country’s role in this regard was perhaps symbolized by its hosting, in Durban in 2001, of a U.N. conference on racism that – true to the world body’s double standards against Israel, resulting from the combined power of nearly 60 Muslim-majority member states – labeled Israel alone as racist and featured shocking displays of anti-Semitism.
Fast forward to 2020. The defacing during protests against police brutality of a Los Angeles synagogue with graffiti reading “free Palestine” and worse, claims by BLM in Britain that the suffocation of George Floyd was taught by Israelis, the shouting at a French anti-racist demonstration of “dirty Jews” and the chanting at a Washington BLM march of “Israel, we know you, you murder children too” are just some examples of scapegoating that – by targeting Jews, demonizing Israelis, delegitimizing Israel and denying a Jewish right to equal self-determination – would be considered modern anti-Semitism.
But some progressives, keen to associate racism exclusively with the far-right, have not only excised anti-Semitism from their conception of intersectional prejudice but also sought to preempt legitimate opposition to anti-Israel bias with a straw-man claim that Jews tar all “criticism” of Israel as anti-Semitic. In any other context, it would be a liberal article of faith that others have no business casting aspersions on a minority group’s ongoing experience of bigotry.
The result of this antipathy is a searing quandary for Jews whose very whiteness is rejected by white supremacists but who are implicated in undifferentiated white privilege by some more strident Black rights activists. Vocal elements of both these factions have embraced Palestinian symbols to signal virtuous solidarity – while employing the technique of typically, but not always, targeting “Zionists” instead of Jews.
For their part, even Palestinian extremists argue that they “can’t be anti-Semitic” because they are Semites too – only to then stigmatize Jews as foreign to the land and Israel as “racist” for policies born not of interracial subjugation but mutual conflict over territory, sovereignty and, especially, security.
This is not to say that Israel cannot be critiqued fairly – it can – but superimposing distorted analogies between white colonial oppressors and Israeli Jews does not serve the cause of anti-racism or reconciliation. Neither does depriving Palestinians of their own agency and responsibilities in peacemaking.
In sum, we are compelled to grapple with the full complexity of bigotry. Anti-Black racism, both overt and subtle, is insidious, and it remains frighteningly resilient. But anti-Semitism too – whether undergirded by class tensions, inherited teachings of religious contempt, European racial myths, Arab anti-Zionist narratives, resentment of support deemed paternalistic or a simple identification of Jews with advantaged whites – must be acknowledged and tackled.
The writer James Baldwin long ago said that “just as a society must have a scapegoat, so hatred must have a symbol.” He conceded, “Georgia has the Negro and Harlem has the Jew.”
EMPATHY, NOT RIVALRY
Surveys by observers including the Anti-Defamation League have in fact shown the persistence of anti-Semitism among people of color at higher rates than most other Americans. In some cases, this has been linked to a spate of assaults on Orthodox Jews in the New York City area, the largest Jewish population center outside Israel.
Clearly, it is all too easy even for members of victimized groups to generalize, to focus on examples of benevolence and hardship in one’s own community but wrongdoing and undue advantage in the other.
What, then, should be the principles guiding a vital but sometimes delicate relationship like the one between African-Americans and Jews?
To begin with, we must avoid competition over virtue and victimhood – stressing mutual empathy instead, and shared objectives.
No minority should be shamed for any success that some of its members may have achieved – nor for responsibly advocating its rights.
Civil rights campaigners should never accept the exclusion, marginalizing or vilification of certain communities but not others.
An oppressed community must certainly never be told that the sheer extent of the bigotry to which it has been subjected suggests that victims have brought their suffering upon themselves.
No minority should have its history, let alone its identity, denied or appropriated. Of course, denigrating others’ culture or appearance is also wrong, as are epithets – no matter the target.
And even when a particular stereotype does contain some kernel of truth, it must not be stripped of critical context. While, for example, certain social challenges may be pronounced in parts of the Black community, these are chiefly the result not of any predisposition or dereliction but sustained, compounded disadvantage that still has not been fully rectified. While some Jews have come to be successful in finance – though Jews were subjected to hatred both when capitalist and socialist, when rich and poor – this is not on account of some unusual delight in banking or usury, but because Christian rulers barred them for centuries from many other vocations.
Not least importantly, demagogues from any corner – like Farrakhan, no less dangerous and unrepentant than David Duke – should be shunned consistently, and without equivocation.
THE ALLIANCE LIVES ON
Fortunately, there have been plenty of heroes in a Black-Jewish allyship that is both reciprocal and profound.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., wrote that “for the tacticians of the new anti-Semitism, the original sin of American Jews was their involvement – truly ‘inordinate,’ truly ‘disproportionate’ – not in slavery, but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.” In 1943, the Central Conference of American Rabbis said of African-Americans, “It is we, their fellowmen – who have acquiesced in or been apathetic about their maltreatment – who have suffered spiritual hurt, for no soul that tolerates oppression remains unspoiled or unsullied.”
Decades later, Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins were among the civil rights icons who mobilized to push back at anti-Semitic sentiment in the African-American community. Rustin confronted radicals “speaking material directly from ‘Mein Kampf’” and said that some activists’ identification with those attacking Israel “is based on a terrible perversion of the truth, not only the truth about the P.L.O. but the truth about our own movement as well.”
In 1988, B’nai B’rith presented an award – named jointly for King and Heschel – to John Lewis, the Georgia congressman laid to rest last week, who stood out by eschewing the 1995 Million Man March for having been “fatally undermined by its chief sponsor,” Farrakhan.
In the run-up to the lockdowns this year over the novel coronavirus – one which, early on, revealed intolerable racial discrepancies in enforcement of social distancing, and in access to superior healthcare – I traveled to multiple African countries and witnessed an unmistakable rebirth in African-Israeli friendship, notwithstanding the African Union’s own exclusion from its proceedings of Israelis, but not Palestinians.
Here in the U.S., after a young bigot murdered study group members at a historic Black house of worship in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015, a local synagogue responded: “Today we are all members of the Emanuel AME Church.” Southern synagogues are now pushing for the removal of a Charlotte, North Carolina, statue of Judah Benjamin – the highest-ranking Jewish official in the Confederacy. It was the Jewish mayor of Minneapolis who responded emotionally and swiftly to the death of George Floyd, earning praise from his friend, the African-American mayor of neighboring St. Paul.
W.E.B. Du Bois, despite some early expressions of anti-Semitism of his own, came to describe Jews as a “tremendous force for good and uplift.” Jackie Robinson, the beneficiary of special affinity from fellow baseball trailblazer Hank Greenberg, backed Jews facing job discrimination by the Arabian-America Oil Company, and he called for the dismissal of a Black figure who told Jews that Hitler “didn’t kill enough of you.”
He wrote in his autobiography that he was “ashamed to see community leaders who were afraid to speak out when blacks were guilty of anti-Semitism.” Honored by B’nai B’rith as well, Robinson asked: “How could we stand against anti-black prejudice if we were willing to practice or condone a similar intolerance?”
Likewise, NBA Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote over recent weeks that hostility to Jews is “a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement, but so too is the shocking lack of massive indignation.“ Zach Banner, a member of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, added: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate… We need to uplift them and put our arms around them.”
Although tethered to a body long characterized by systemic anti-Israelism – condemning the Jewish state more than all other countries combined – U.N. chief Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who married the half-niece of Holocaust rescuer Raoul Wallenberg, said, “I know that… it has sometimes seemed as if the United Nations serves all the world’s peoples but one: the Jews.” During his own tenure, however, the U.N. held a first-time seminar on anti-Semitism, an international Holocaust remembrance day was instituted and he eventually urged that scrutiny of Israel not “monopolize” the organization’s activity.
And days ago, South Africa’s Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng withstood rebukes from the ANC for saying that by maintaining a one-sided stance toward Israel, “We are denying ourselves a wonderful opportunity of being a game-changer in the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” He added: “Hatred is toxic.”
Of course, it was none other than Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews.”
Since George Floyd’s recorded killing – just one more casualty of bigotry, added to the innumerable casualties not documented on camera – a most common description by African-Americans of their emotional state is exhaustion. People of color are exhausted of dying, exhausted of fighting to live, exhausted of trying to explain their entitlement to lives of dignity, exhausted of trying to explain that racism is still a problem.
After thousands of years of adversity, Jews are exhausted, too. They’ve experienced genocide only to have it denied even as the last survivors remain among us. They withstood persecution in exile only to rear children suffering not just violence on Jews’ native soil but the accusation of having collectively morphed from a David into nothing less than a Goliath.
Despite all these challenges, progress in pursuing civil rights has, of course, been made – and this has come precisely through a determined partnership between Black and Jewish people, among so many others. Our communities’ core aspirations truly are intertwined. It is only through mutual empowerment that we will see them continue to materialize.
Let us take care never to undercut the cause of fighting bigotry by deploying it against our closest allies in the fight.
Read David's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
David J. Michaels is Director of United Nations and Intercommunal Affairs at B'nai B'rith International, where he began working in 2004 as Special Assistant to the Executive Vice President. A Wexner Fellow/Davidson Scholar, and past winner of the Young Professional Award of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, he holds degrees from Yale and Yeshiva University. Click here to view more of his content.
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