Last Wednesday, Temple University professor and former CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill gave a now-infamous speech to the United Nations on International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.
His conclusion sent shockwaves through the Jewish community. At the end of his impassioned speech condemning Israel, he suggested that there is a place for resistance outside of non-violence, endorsed the BDS movement and called for “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.”
Critics of his speech attributed to Hill a call for violence against Israel’s Jewish population.
Some commentators even went so far as to charge that he had promoted genocide.
In the immediate aftermath, Temple University’s board chair accused Hill of hate speech and CNN severed ties with him, though media watchers suggest that this latest incident was not the main cause of his termination, but rather the straw that broke the camel’s back.
At first, Hill dug in.
“My reference to ‘river to the sea’ was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza. The speech very clearly and specifically said those things. No amount of debate will change what I actually said or what I meant,” he tweeted:
My reference to “river to the sea” was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza. The speech very clearly and specifically said those things. No amount of debate will change what I actually said or what I meant.— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) November 29, 2018
By Saturday, though, Hill’s stance softened.
“I take seriously the voices of so many Jewish brothers and sisters, who have interpreted my remarks as a call to or endorsement of violence, Hill wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Rather than hearing a political solution, many heard a dog-whistle that conjured a long and deep history of violence against Jewish people. Although this was the furthest thing from my intent, those particular words clearly caused confusion, anger, fear, and other forms of harm. For that, I am deeply sorry,” Hill continued.
At a time when hate crimes against Jews are increasing at an alarming rate, Jews have been especially invested in showing up in activist spaces to work for equity and to dismantle systems of oppression in the United States.
It is in this context that Hill’s apology was a welcome start. This mea culpa, which took responsibility for his use of a statement frequently viewed as an anti-Semitic dog whistle, was unequivocal.
“As a communicator, I must take responsibility for the reception of my message,” he continued, adding that his problematic choice of idiom distracted from the substance of his speech. Earlier this fall, Hill distanced himself from notorious anti-Semite, homophobe and misogynist Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, tweeting his strong disagreement with Farrakhan’s anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-Semitic beliefs.
He fell short, though, of condemning Farrakhan outright, saying he preferred to critically engage him on issues than throw him away:
Black people are the only group who are demanded to throw people away, rather than critically engage and challenge them. Regardless of what headlines say, that is not my position.— Marc Lamont Hill (@marclamonthill) October 20, 2018
The leadership of the Women’s March could learn a lot from Hill.
Hill did not distance himself from his view of justice in the Middle East.
He did not apologize for his inflammatory statements in support of BDS or armed resistance.
He simply said, I used a phrase that you heard as an existential threat and that is not what I meant. I am sorry. I will do better.
When called out on his association with Farrakhan, he immediately acknowledged the Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Semitic and homophobic statements and distanced himself from them.
Contrast this to Tamika Mallory, the Women’s March co-director who, shortly after refusing to distance herself from Farrakhan, tweeted: “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities. Ostracizing, ridicule and rejection is a painful part of the process…but faith is the substance of things!”
If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities. Ostracizing, ridicule and rejection is a painful part of the process…but faith is the substance of things!— Tamika D. Mallory (@TamikaDMallory) March 1, 2018
When Jews pointed out the similarity of her statement to blood libels that have circulated for millennia that have been the springboard for anti-Semitism throughout the Christian world, she tweeted, “Funny how folks interpreted my mention of one having enemies the same as Jesus, as me describing a certain group of people. That’s your own stuff. My point…Jesus had a number of enemies as do all black leaders. Period point blank,” in response.
Funny how folks interpreted my mention of one having enemies the same as Jesus, as me describing a certain group of people. That’s your own stuff. My point…Jesus had a number of enemies as do all black leaders. Period point blank.— Tamika D. Mallory (@TamikaDMallory) March 2, 2018
This, coming from the leader of a social justice movement that aspires to represent all women, was jarring.
One would expect a leader of a national organization to take seriously the crucial principle of community building and anti-oppression work, that impact is greater than intent.
This means that when we hurt someone else, when we fall into traps of prejudice, racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, et cetera, no matter what we meant when we made our statement, it is on us to listen to the person aggrieved and apologize, without caveat, for the hurt caused.
The incident above was not the only time that a moment that called for acknowledgment and apology has led instead to equivocation on the part of the Women’s March.
More than once, leaders of the March have claimed that the focus on Mallory’s embrace of Farrakhan was planted by the right to fragment the progressive movement.
And of course, they have also charged that criticism of the Women’s March distracts from the true source of violence, most recently in their now infamous lukewarm condemnation of Farrakhan in early November.
David Schraub, a doctoral candidate in political science and lecturer at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, tweeted: “When I see a good apology from someone w/a bad record, I neither ‘forgive and forget’ nor dismiss the apology as disingenuous. I express gratitude, and the watch for what happens next. Either it’s the start of a change or it isn’t. Only way to find out which is to wait and see.”
When I see a good apology from someone w/a bad record, I neither “forgive and forget” nor dismiss the apology as disingenuous. I express gratitude, and the watch for what happens next.
Either it’s the start of a change or it isn’t. Only way to find out which is to wait and see.— David Schraub (@schraubd) December 1, 2018
Hill has earned that from the Jewish community, whether we find his politics on the Middle East ill-informed, reprehensible or worse.
Mallory, on the other hand, has not, and will not, until a statement in her own name comes out taking ownership for the hurt she has caused.
By no means is the rift in progressive circles over Israel healed.
There is much more work to be done there — and in fact, it is unlikely that progressive Zionists and anti-Zionists will ever agree.
Likewise, as hard as it might be, progressives must acknowledge that, as reprehensible as Farrakhan is, his Nation of Islam has filled a role in poor black communities, and that this has won his unlikely followers, including the leader of a progressive women’s movement.
Black-Jewish relations are and have been strained for decades, and will probably continue to be for the foreseeable future, a rift that often places Jews of Color in uncomfortable situations.
However, it is time that both sides commit themselves to listen to each other and to acknowledge the impact of their words.
This is the behavior that has been modeled this past weekend by Marc Lamont Hill.
And this is ultimately the behavior that will strengthen our fight against racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny in pursuit of a better America.
Tema Smith is the Director of Community Engagement at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. You can find her tweets about Jewish community, race and identity @temasmith