I owe a huge part of my writing success to Louis Farrakhan.
One night in March, I wrote a profanity-laden tirade against the leader of the Nation of Islam, expressing frustration that despite his hateful rhetoric towards Jews, LGBTQ people, and women, there were still some in the black community who supported him or turned a blind eye to his bigotry. A friend of mine suggested that I send it to The Forward, and by the next afternoon, I had hundreds of new followers and a platform where I could express my views.
I’m grateful for the opportunities that have arisen since, opportunities to share the thoughts and experiences of myself and other Black Jews who exist in white Jewish spaces.
But as I continue down this path, I become more and more aware that my early success came about because of the way the discourse surrounding Farrakhan has become weaponized against black people in the Jewish community.
For black people, and doubly so for black Jews, it’s exhausting to exist in white Jewish spaces where Farrakhan is obsessed over as if he’s the main threat of modern anti-Semitism. Whenever he says anything anti-Semitic, white Jewish spaces erupt in a frenzy. But there’s a racism and toxicity baked into the way white Jews talk about Farrakhan. And it’s black Jews who suffer the consequences.
Of course, Farrakhan is a detestable, vicious anti-Semite, as I’ve written twice. I don’t think any black Jewish person would disagree with me on that.
But he has absolutely no power to enact any policy that would harm white Jewish people. He has no institutional power over white Jewish people.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitic American politicians who actually have power, like Congressman Steve King, receive a negligible amount of coverage in comparison. White racists literally control all three branches of government at the moment, but black people still bear a large brunt of the blame for modern anti-Semitism.
In fact, the people Farrakhan has the most power to hurt are black Jews. Or queer black people. Or black women. And it’s frustrating when these people, who Farrakhan actually poses a threat to, are not centered in the conversation about him.
Growing up in DC, a region where the Nation of Islam had a heavy influence, I encountered countless situations where Farrakhan’s rhetoric made me feel unsafe. It’s not a social media issue for me. It’s an issue where professors, friends, and even family support this man.
And yet, my voice and the voices of other black Jews are not seen as valid in this conversation. Whenever we speak out about how white Jewish people incite racism with Farrakhan criticism, we are told that we don’t know what we’re talking about. We’re talked down to and accused of being anti-Semites.
Black Jews hate Farrakhan — with a passion. But we are preoccupied with threats to our lives and bodies, and it feels so alienating to see how obsessed everyone is with black anti-Semites when black anti-Semites in America have literally no power over white Jewish people.
Why does black anti-Semitism — admittedly a pernicious and ugly force — get so much more attention than white anti-Semitism, though it poses less of a threat?
In a horrifyingly racist article published in 1963 in Commentary Magazine, Norman Podhoretz articulates the heart of the issue perfectly: “The hatred I still feel for Negroes is the hardest of all the old feelings to face or admit,” he writes. “How, then, do I know that this hatred has never entirely disappeared? I know it from the insane rage that can stir in me at the thought of Negro anti-Semitism.”
Black Jews who exist in white Jewish spaces are more than familiar with this “insane rage.” We see it directed towards Tamika Mallory, Trayon White, Quai James (who isn’t even an anti-Semite, and yet was publicly shamed as one), and Black Lives Matter (another situation in which the charge of anti-Semitism is questionable). We even see it directed at ourselves, when we dare to call out racism in Jewish spaces, or when we question Israel’s racist policies.
And we see it in the white Jewish response to Louis Farrakhan, which is crushing in its implied or expressed anti-blackness.
When black people point out that Farrakhan has no institutional power, some people argue that Farrakhan’s cultural influence is great, extending beyond what David Duke or Steve King have been able to accomplish. And that may be true. But consider why black people support Farrakhan, and I’m not talking about the people who cultishly believe everything he’s said.
I’m talking about the people who support Louis Farrakhan for his role in organizing the Million Man March and the educational and social programs he’s started. In a world that is literally trying to murder black people, many people find it hard to justify letting go of someone who actually fights for us.
Not to mention that Farrakhan, the son of Caribbean immigrants, likely has Jewish ancestry himself, according to historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
It’s no longer a secret that many, many black Jews have had extremely negative, racist experiences from white Jewish people, oftentimes people in their own family. I once spoke with someone whose friend described synagogues as “places of hate” because of the racism that she had experienced from her own Jewish family.
And while nothing justifies anti-Semitism, you simply cannot separate conversations about black anti-Semitism from the fact that many black people have directly experienced oppression from white Jewish people.
You can express anger and disappointment at the bigotry of Hebrew Israelites, but you have to acknowledge that many people are drawn to that movement after being denied the opportunity to convert in white Jewish congregations. You can be upset at Trayon White for saying that the Rothschilds control the climate, but you also have to acknowledge the role that white people have played in gentrifying DC, and the real impact that environmental racism has on black communities.
And you have to understand that much of the reaction to his comment was racist and mocking.
No form of anti-Semitism is acceptable. But not all forms of anti-Semitism are alike. White anti-Semites are motivated by a hatred of Jews and a desire for power. Black anti-Semites are motivated by anger over gentrification, police brutality, and slavery.
White Jewish people have not caused these issues, but they are — like all white people — part of the racist system that keeps black people under the foot of this society. This is the pain from which black anti-Semitism arises and that has to be acknowledged, even as we condemn anti-Semitism in this form.
I’m not asking you to stop talking about Farrakhan. I’m asking you to be mindful of how conversations about him can be toxic, how they can be devoid of important context, and how they’re alienating the people of color in your communities.
If we matter to you, you’ll find a way to express your feelings about Louis Farrakhan that doesn’t end up hurting us. Because we — not you — are Farrakhan’s biggest target.
Nylah Burton is a sexual assault survivor advocate and a student from Howard University. Follow her on Twitter, @yumcoconutmilk.