President Op-ed in InsideSources: Facebook, Twitter on the Right Side of History With Bans on Holocaust Denial
Anti-Semitism’s lengthy history is built on ignorance and the perpetuation of lies by people who hate Jews. It’s a disease far more incurable than a pandemic.
Over the centuries, despots disliked a people whose theology introduced a code of morality and justice that flipped civilizations. From pharaohs to Hitler and too many others to name, rulers responded with force and power, mostly sentencing Jews to slavery, ghettos and death.
Today, people continue to foment hate fueled by ignorance and lies, and still targeting Jews. The weapon of choice for ignorance and lies is a platform of recklessness called social media. Oh sure, when used responsibly, social media is a very productive tool. Such responsible behavior is not common these days.
But on Oct. 12, Facebook, with its users representing one-third of the world’s 7.8 billion people, decided to do something really bold about this recklessness by simply acting responsibly — the social media platform decided not to allow people to lie about the Holocaust.
Days later, Twitter announced its “hateful conduct policy” issued its own prohibition of “attempts to deny or diminish” violent events, including the Holocaust. Twitter has taken aim primarily at white supremacists and neo-Nazis.
Facebook’s Monika Bickert announced in a blog a hate speech policy update, specifically “to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust.”
The company’s decision was prompted by the recent rise in anti-Semitism, not just vandalism or insults, but shootings and physical attacks, and an “alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust.” Bickert noted a recent survey that showed that one in four American adults between ages 18 and 39 believed the Holocaust is a myth.
One might wonder how on earth is this ignorance possible in the United States?
For decades, survivors have made presentations. Newsreel footage starkly shows the horrifying, shocking images. Books on the subject fill libraries. Two-thirds (34) of the states in the U.S. mandate some form of Holocaust or genocide education.
About the same number of states have impressive museums, mostly in major population centers, or monuments seen by many others. The 16 U.S. states without such mandates have less population cumulatively than California.
There are 43 countries in the world with Holocaust museums or memorials. In Europe, Germany boasts 22 memorials and museums. France has 13 Holocaust memorials or museums. Greece has 10 museums and monuments. Those numbers don’t include memorials and displays in synagogues and temples.
Yad Vashem — The World Holocaust Remembrance Center — makes available “ready to print” exhibitions. Auschwitz-Birkenau is widely visited, but the solemnity of this hallowed earth is lost with eye-catching signage that welcomes tour buses.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center has exhibitions ready for travel. Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation has created captivating holographic interviews of survivors that will give life to eyewitness accounts long after survivors take their final breaths.
The United Nations and its agencies, notably UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization), with all of its flaws, embraces Holocaust education with permanent displays of art and various publications.
In May, the latest Holocaust-related legislation passed in Congress was the Never Again Education Act. More than 30 countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism.
Despite all of the access to information, what has the world learned? It has learned that ancient hate thrives in the modern world.
So, Facebook’s banning of Holocaust denial is an important, courageous act of media leadership.
It’s been a long time coming and B’nai B’rith International has long advocated such a move. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is to be commended, though the company admits that enforcing the policy, policing the platform, will be quite a challenge.
Twitter’s announcement is equally welcome. But if the bright Facebook and Twitter coders can write algorithms and direct users with hashtags and other tools, they should be able to identify keywords that will curb the volume of hate posts before they hit the digital universe.
Germans worked hard to keep the Holocaust secret.
Rumors swirled as work camps becoming death camps — Dachau, Chelmo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz — were shockingly real. But the Nazi’s own record-keeping carefully lays out the horrific truth of the Holocaust.
Nazis even documented mass shootings, starvations, experimental surgeries, the crematoria, the piles of skeletal bodies. Thousands of camps dotted Nazi-controlled European countries. Eleven million people, more than six million Jews, were systematically murdered.
Of course anti-Semitism didn’t begin, or end, with the Holocaust, and rulers have been complicit in Jew hatred for thousands of years.
With the modern Jewish State of Israel maturing nicely at 72, the lies that generated anti-Semitism continue today from across the political spectrum, from extreme Islamists and with U.N. resolutions denying any ancient Jewish connection to the Western Wall, not to mention any Jewish roots there in general.
The United Nations could and should learn from the example of Facebook. Resolutions that deny undeniable Jewish history insult the U.N. mission. As for other media — all media — they should learn from the Facebook and Twitter examples.
For a media platform that could never police itself adequately from lies, rage baiting and hate — all things wrong — Facebook got this one right.
And Twitter followed.
Read Charles' expert analysis in InsideSources.
Charles O. Kaufman is president of B'nai B'rith International.
A lot goes on to keep the viewer spellbound in "God of the Piano," an award-winning and much talked about Israeli film written and directed by Itay Tal that’s currently available for viewing online. Anat, its protagonist, is a pianist from a musical family who gives birth to a deaf baby. Throughout the movie, her actions shock us. Almost as a contrast, she uses speech to hide rather than reveal. Information about her inner life is withheld from us. Few clues are provided, so God of the Piano is indeed a mystery. The assumptions we make about Anat’s motivation become a component of the narrative as we are compelled to understand what drives her recklessness.
Played by the beautiful Naama Preis, Anat may hope that her son’s talents will be the catalyst to reconnect with her detached, virtuoso father; if so, this plan fails. In the end, the identity of the god of the piano, if there is one, is still unknown to the audience, and perhaps to Anat herself.
The god referenced in the title may only exist in Anat’s imagination, but devotees of the instrument can attest that Israeli goddesses of the piano are quite real and we can hear them every day.
For the past two decades, Jerusalem-born Orli Shaham has received critical acclaim for her brilliant pianistic technique and her special affinity for classical composers of the last three centuries, particularly Mozart. She also enjoys a reputation as a musical commentator, on both NPR and on her own show, “Dial a Musician,” broadcast over the Classical Public Radio Network. As an educator, she has achieved recognition as one who has developed the concert experience to encourage the love of the classical repertory in children as young as four.
Shaham appears throughout the world playing with noted orchestras, in recital and in chamber music, often onstage with her equally renowned violinist brother, Gil Shaham. She has acquired a following through her acclaimed recordings. In 2019 she initiated The Mozart Project for Canary Classics, a series of CDs that will eventually encompass all of the composer’s works for piano. Shaham will finish the complete piano sonatas over the next year and releases a new excerpt each week via her website.
Inspired by her own twin boys, Shaham in 2010 founded “Baby Got Bach” (now called Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard), curated concerts she hosts for kids including stories, performances with youthful guest artists, hands on encounters with musical instruments and the playing of specially adapted pieces by the “Three Bs” and others. These special events have been produced in music venues nationwide. With the recent pandemic, the pianist has now brought her Bach Yard “play dates” to children who can view the concerts online.
Although on hiatus now, award-winning composer and pianist Dr. Orit Wolf will continue to provide an innovative approach to music for those who attend her twice weekly Tel Aviv Museum of Art series, “On a Personal Note.” Combining the visual arts and the concert experience with breezy and often impromptu dialogues with guest artists from many musical genres, Wolf interviews them about the creative process, curates the programming, joins them in performance and often does a solo turn herself.
Like Shaham, Wolf wants to see younger people connect with classical music.
Wolf, from Tel Aviv, also appears on stage with orchestras and chamber groups around the world, giving about 90 concerts each year.
Wolf is also known as one of Israel’s most creative thinkers, who often writes and lectures on the intersection between technology, creativity, business, leadership acumen and the arts. Watch her TED Talk on the matter here.
In 2010, she was named by Marker, the Israeli magazine, as one of Israel’s 100 most influential people. Speaking and writing about the positive aspects of failure, she has noted: “Do not strive for perfect balance. The greatest creativity occurs when we let ourselves meet imbalanced moments.”
Playing professionally by age 11, Wolf went on to study at the Tanglewood Institute and Boston University, obtaining two degrees by age 23 from London’s Royal Academy of Music, where she now teaches.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a popular tweet going around shared by many in my Millennials generation by “The Conscious Kid” which is an organization dedicated to “parenting and education through a critical race lens.” With almost 2 million followers, it is highly influential to this generation’s activists dedicated to anti-racist education — a noble and important effort we must acknowledge if we care about a better future for every American. Anti-racism asks that people not merely be passively against racism but actively work against it.
The tweet going around social media states, “You can’t be anti-racist without also condemning anti-Semitism, which is also rooted in White Supremacy.” Now, there is much truth to this, obviously, and I very much appreciate that “The Conscious Kid” came out with it, in light of the ongoing anti-Semitic comments coming from a wide array of athletes to celebrities — but let’s pause a moment. Anti-Semitism goes so much deeper and if people are now willing to look inward at their biases, and hold others accountable, are Jews allowed to ask that society does the same for them? After the brutal killing of George Floyd, the Jewish community stood side by side with those demanding justice, recognizing the very real problem of racism in this country. We understood that the moment was not about us, and we respected that fully. But alas, as it always does, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head, not once, not twice, but enough that we cannot be silent.
The last few weeks we’ve witnessed an uptick in age-old anti-Semitic rhetoric on social media, mainly inspired by the rabid anti-Semite and homophobe, Louis Farrakhan who is deeply influential to the Black community among many celebrities, musicians and athletes with huge platforms and millions of followers. Many say he represents a minority, but he has a following that shares his anti-Semitic vitriol in musical artists like P. Diddy with 17.1 million social media followers, Ice Cube who has 17.8 million followers, Nick Cannon and Desean Jackson (who have both since apologized for their blatant anti-Semitic comments) with a combined 5.3 million followers. Even superstar Madonna with 15.3 million followers shared a clip of his which has so far garnered over 700,000 views.
If you take the time to read the comments on the apology written by Nick Cannon you will see dozens of his fans tell him not to apologize, stating: “you were right!” Comedian Chelsea Handler, shared a video of Farrakhan from 30 years ago on the topic of racial prejudice with her 3.9 million Instagram followers. Even in the face of intense criticism to remove it she said, “I wasn’t thinking about the anti-Semitic thing…I don’t want to take down the post because I felt the message was powerful and a lot of people did.” Handler, who is Jewish later did remove the video and issued an apology, but her casual apathy for the “anti-Semitic thing” speaks volumes. Tamika Mallory, an influential leader and former chair of The Women’s March has still not apologized for calling Farrakhan the G.O.A.T., Greatest Of All Time. We’ve witnessed the hashtag #Jewishprivilege circulate enough so that A-list Jewish celebrities like Sarah Silverman felt the need to respond to the absurdity of calling Jews privileged. I need not list the anti-Semitic comments, or violent attacks on the streets of Brooklyn; murder sprees in Monsey, New York, Pittsburgh and Jersey City, New Jersey from just the last few years — to convince you that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the United States. The question is, where is this coming from? The answer is a myriad of places, and the hard part for people is acknowledging that.
Anti-Semitism is not rooted in white supremacy – as we know it is the world’s oldest form of hate. Given that activists are currently asking society (calling on their friends, family, jobs, corporations, organizations, even hair accessory brands) to do this “inner work” confronting their racial biases, is it OK now for Jews to ask society to speak up against anti-Semitism and more importantly to learn about from where this vast conspiracy theory stems? It’s one thing for people to apologize and promise to do better. It’s another to learn about why what they said is not just hurtful but hateful and dangerous.
In her brilliant book, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss points out that anti-Semitism is, in fact, ancient and existed hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. In early Christianity however, Weiss points out the notorious line in book of Matthew, “’His blood is on us and our children,’ the Jews say a line so historically destructive that even the unrepentant anti-Semite Mel Gibson did not translate it in the English subtitles of his film the Passion of the Christ, though it is spoken in Aramaic.’“ She goes on to explain exactly why this is so important:
"My intent here is not to blame thousands of years of Christian doctrine—not at all—or to suggest that because Western civilization grew out of these roots, it is somehow fundamentally doomed. It is simply to point out that the historical and intellectual depth of the anti-Jewish conspiracy. If the Christian Bible is the most important book in Western civilization and Jesus is that civilization’s most important figure, the Jews’ rejection of him and his message means that anti-Semitism is baked into the very foundations of the world we inhabit."
If “anti-Semitism is baked into the very foundations of the world we inhabit” then activists asking society today to take a good hard look in the mirror must do the same for anti-Semitism. How many Americans know the origins of the “blood libel”? How many Christians are familiar with the history of their religion as it relates to Jews? How many Catholics know that it was not until 1965 that the Catholic Church officially denied the collective responsibility of Jews for killing Christ? Yes, 1965. How many pogroms and Jewish children were burned at the stake throughout history because of this idea? An untold number. Jewish history is wrought with one horrific account to the next of such brutality, and I’m not including the Holocaust.
We all know the threat of neo-Nazis and white supremacists and what their ideology states — and I’m not downplaying its seriousness — but when a superstar like P. Diddy with his over 17 million followers propagates anti-Semitism by promoting a message that states the Jews are “Satan,” in a world with only a few Holocaust survivors left to tell their stories, the dangers cannot be understated. This type of language must be clearly and unequivocally denounced, and yet some are even unapologetic. In a climate of cancel culture what does it say about the state of a society when figuresas popular as P. Diddy and Madonna can share that rhetoric and it goes unchallenged by the rest of stardom?
It is not only a Western phenomenon which is what makes anti-Semitism so unique and so dangerous. It is alive and well throughout the Muslim Arab world and has been for hundreds of years. How many people in this country know that? Just last summer on a popular Egyptian talk show, a professor revived the blood libel saying that Jews use human blood for ritualistic reasons but that today it is the work of only “extreme ultra-Orthodox Jews.” How many know that there is an onslaught of anti-Semitic hatred throughout the Muslim world — and from leadership in Turkey to Iran — that blames Jews for having invented the coronavirus? There are countless examples across the modern Muslim world of blatant centuries old anti-Semitism, not just the Arab world, to point to.
This is to say nothing of Israel’s annihilationist enemies or the far-left anti-Semitism we see in the form of anti-Zionism and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It’s naïve to assume we can solve the problem of world-wide anti-Semitism, today, tomorrow or ever, and it is far too layered to explicate it in this short piece, but those of us who care about making sure we root out racism can and must educate ourselves and society writ-large on what exactly is anti-Semitism. As Weiss profoundly says: “anti-Semitism is baked into the very foundations of the world we inhabit.” Figuring out why that is, learning about the different roots and manifestations of the world’s oldest hate is an endeavor I implore my fellow Americans to attempt.
To learn more about anti-Semitism and the different manifestations it takes, see our new initiative: None Shall Be Afraid. Take our pledge and share with your friends. Anti-Semitism is everyone’s problem and we all have our part to play in combatting the oldest form of hate.
Rebecca Rose is Associate Director of Development & Special Projects at B’nai B’rith International. She holds an M.A. in Political Science in Security and Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.
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