How Art Can Bridge Divides Between Jewish And Black Communities
2018 has not been a good year for those of us who care about the relationship between the black and Jewish communities — or for those whose Jewish identities comprise a mix of both. At the heart of these rising tensions seems to be a debate over power: who has it, who doesn’t, who can use it and who can’t. I want to believe that there is a path forward for improving these relationships, but it will involve taking a more nuanced view of power.
The way that power manifests through art is a good place to start. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the initial release of Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back,” a landmark work which stands out not only as one of the most influential albums in hip hop, but as an innovative and ground-breaking piece of modern American art that resonates just as powerfully today as it did decades ago.
Having been educated in the sheltered confines of Canadian Jewish private schools, I didn’t yet have the language to question some of the subtle hints of racism I encountered within our community when the album was first released. But hearing the album and seeing Public Enemy play live not too long after had an indelible impact on me. Their art offered a powerful window into a world that was completely other. Sure, there was one African-Jewish family in our community, but it was understood that their Jewish identity needed to shine brighter than their African identity. Public Enemy expanded my sympathies to the lived experiences of those portrayed in their songs, as great art has the power to do.
Listening to Public Enemy as a Jew has always been both rewarding and challenging. One song off of “Nation” in particular, “Bring the Noise,” became something of a pop-culture anthem. Various iterations of the tune would cross genres and reach fans in the rock world, as well. Unfortunately, some of the lyrics were tough to hear back then, and are even more difficult to listen to now. But that’s the point of confrontational art.
I used to wonder what Chuck D meant when he bellowed, “Well, Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to, what he can say to you.” I wondered who this message was being directed toward. That line was tough to hear as a teenager because Farrakhan’s racist views were already well known by the time those rhymes were pressed. As documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Farrakhan took to the stage in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1985 and exclaimed, “Jews know their wickedness,” elaborating further in Baltimore in the fall that the Jewish religion is a “dirty religion” which practices “lying and stealing and cheating and murder and whore-mongering.”
But in the late 1980s and early ’90s, an association with Farrakhan did not necessarily make you a cross-cultural pariah. There could still be a respectful alliance between African Americans who were excited by Farrakhan and Jewish folks who recognized that revolutionary art would sometimes be accompanied by difficult birth pangs. We were in agreement then that the power of art could bring us together to fight the power of oppressive politics.
As an artist, Chuck D knew that he had access to a particular type of power. In a 2013 interview, Chuck D offered this fascinating insight into his intentions with “Bring the Noise”:
“It was really interesting seeing young Jewish kids into that after “How low can you go, death row, what a brother know/Farrakhan’s a prophet and I think you ought to listen to…” It sounded great to them. It was like “Wow, do I really want to say this guy’s name?” It was a good challenge as a writer and also it was a good challenge as a Hip-Hop head to see if you want to complete the rhyme in the verse… We just wanted to knock down some of these barriers and the hype that was out there.”
Chuck D used the power of art to push at some controversial boundaries, knowing the problems some of his audience may encounter, but hopeful that it would spur dialogue. Simply putting certain words out into the cultural marketplace of ideas could sometimes have a profound effect, anticipated or not. The editors of Commentary Magazine’s ill-advised special issue dedicated to questioning African-American/Jewish relations learned this the hard way. Rather than start a useful conversation that may lead to closer ties, they seemed intent on reinforcing the element of otherness between these two communities, and, in the process, erasing those whose identities overlap as African American Jews. To me, the failings of this effort could be attributed to the fact that the issue collected too many cold arguments and lacked the warmth of art. Even the cover image signaled hostility, telling potential readers that nuance was not to be found in the enclosed pages.
But even more troubling to me, as I re-listened to Public Enemy while catching up on the news, is the reminder that racial tension between and within our communities is not simply a North American problem. The Times of Israel broke the story that leading Israeli winemaker Barkan had banned employees of African descent from coming into contact with the wine during production as a concession to the Eda Haredit in Barkan’s efforts to expand their Haredi market share. The Sephardi chief rabbi called the move “pure racism,” as it was rooted in questioning the authenticity of African Jewishness. As of the time of this writing, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi has remained silent.
In defending his actions, the CEO of Barkan was recorded saying this:
“Because of the kashrut, I need to transfer Yair (another Ethiopian worker) to a different workstation… so that he won’t be next to the doors touching the filling [containers]… Everyone has their values, and I have mine, and you are a Jew, he’s a Jew and I’m a Jew. But, at the end of the day it’s business, and business is business… We can’t leave this market for [rival winery] Teperberg.”
As a professor of business ethics, my heart sinks every time I hear this oft-repeated defense. It’s lines like these that give fuel to anti-capitalist fire and deepen the burn of classist resentment. At the end of the day, business is about relationships. The beauty of economic exchange is in its power to bring diverse folks together. I have always taught that good strategy is more art than science. Balancing the needs of diverse stakeholders requires nuance and a moral sense. There is nothing good, decent or justifiable about choosing to hurt the African Jewish community in order to sell more products to Haredim. Indeed, after the public outcry, Barkan allowed their Ethiopian employees to return to their regular jobs… and subsequently lost their kashrut certification from the Eda Haredit.
In fact, it was the business relationships that Public Enemy cultivated which made it safe for me to be exposed to their challenging art. The bright star of Public Enemy had a number of Jews within its constellation. They have always publicly credited the Beastie Boys with giving the band their big break by choosing them as openers for their major international tour. They were signed and produced by Rick Rubin. Their publicist was Bill Adler. Their manager was Lyor Cohen. And “Bring the Noise” was covered by Anthrax under the direction of Scott Ian Rosenberg and with the participation of Chuck D.
Yes, early on, there was controversy when Public Enemy’s “Minister of Information” Professor Griff made anti-Semitic comments, but Chuck D firmly rebuked him and the band broke up for a bit. Looking back, Chuck D recently referred to 1987-1991 as the band’s “war years.”
So how can we begin to heal and move our communities past these prejudices? John-Paul Pagano has done an excellent job in unpacking the complicated history of Jewish and African American communities. Writing recently for The Atlantic, Pagano observes the existence of a “fundamental, unbridgeable difference: Jews found asylum and assimilation in the United States, a path denied to African Americans.”
As a consequence, two things happened. First, Pagano notes, new African-American religious movements like the one helmed by Farrakhan started to teach Afrocentric conspiracy theories in order to “rearticulate the history of black people so as to establish an [ethnic nation].” Second, by embracing the racism = prejudice + power equation, Farrakhan’s antisemitism becomes acceptable because “it punches up at a perceived oppressor — the Jews, whom it casts as a diabolical elite that enslaves and exploits humankind. Punching up is naturally appealing to any group that is, or feels like it is, being ill-used by history.”
Sociologist Amitai Etzioni explains that there are different forms of power types in institutional settings: coercive, which involves physical threats; utilitarian, which consists of financial or material incentives and threats; and normative, which is symbolic. Both the capitalist right and the social-justice left place an unwarranted emphasis on the middle type of power. They both believe economic power to be the type that matters most in shaping cultures and institutions. What they ignore, though, is the alienating effect that economic power has, and the nuanced power of art.
As a business researcher, I have found that firms trying to win over the hearts and minds of customers by flexing their economic muscle are rarely successful. What truly influences are not displays of financial power, but efforts to persuade with principles. Our research found that when a firm chose to put its economic power on display, the near-term effect caused the folks they sought to influence to take notice, but the long-term effect was negative as it served to alienate those who were looking for more. Barkan may win the Haredi market share in the near-term, but they will lose out on other markets over time. They realized this quickly and reversed course, but the reputational damage has already been done, and the Haredi market will be captured by Teperberg, as they feared.
In contrast, what Etzioni termed “normative power” is the most effective source of long-term influence. It is based on prestige, respect, esteem and acceptance, which are “pure” symbols that do not involve a threat of material harm. It does not produce an aversive effect. It is a method of control rooted in persuasion. It’s the power Chuck D deployed when he deliberately name-checked Farrakhan in a rhyme.
In the short-term, the prejudices of the Eda Haredit has the power to cause harm on a number of fronts to those outside of their community. By questioning the religious status of African Jews and wielding the power of their kashrut-certifying brand, they can influence those incentivized by money, like the CEO of Barkan, who may not share their prejudices. But, if we raise our voices, this can be a fleeting type of consent to prejudice. It does not imply internalization of the bigotry. It may be easy for bigots to buy temporary compliance, however it does not assure long-term commitment to the prejudice. In the case of Barkan, it only lasted a day.
Because Barkan was motivated by money, they quickly distanced themselves from the prejudices of the Eda Haredit. Much more damaging, and what leads to the institutionalization of racism, is when an individual seeks to establish or maintain a substantive personal relationship with a bigoted individual. Personal relationships are far more impactful. We enter them for reciprocity, where we may feel like we owe something to the bigot, or modelling, where we start to adopt some of the bigoted behavior. This is the troubling effect we witnessed when Tamika Mallory and other leaders of the Women’s March refused to distance themselves from Farrakhan as a person, even as they released a weak statement distancing themselves from his bigoted views. When our relationships are personal, as opposed to professional, we often feel a strong sense of identification with the other party. While these ties build healthy and thriving societies, a bigoted individual can exploit them to spread their poison and institutionalize their prejudices. It’s happening on the Farrakhan-aligned left. It’s what we also see happening with the Haredim that look to the Eda Haredit for guidance.
Thirty years on, I’m still going to blast “Bring the Noise.” I’m going to use the power in Chuck D’s art to start conversations with my children about these difficult topics. I’m going to make noise about Barkan wine. I’m going to push for more religious students to be exposed to art. And while I don’t hold out much hope for the current crop of leaders, maybe the next generation will see racism as racism and prejudices as prejudices, and appreciate the subtle differences between power in all of its forms.
By having a discussion around each of our sources of power and being mindful of the intricacies of social influence, maybe new alliances can be forged between our different communities. Maybe we can use art to once again broaden sympathies and fight the power that matters together. Maybe we all need to orbit in more diverse constellations.