Every generation that struggles against oppression stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. But even as we honor those who taught us, we must also challenge them when they stray from the path of fighting for justice, and fall into the trap of stigmatizing one community to uplift another.
For Black feminists, The Color Purple author and activist Alice Walker has long been a luminary and leader, guiding us on a path towards personal and collective liberation through her work. Unfortunately, this week many of us find ourselves in the painful but necessary position of having to push back on anti-Jewish words and endorsements that are especially harmful coming from someone so influential in the fight against patriarchy and white supremacy.
Understanding and critiquing Walker’s actions is important. But in doing so we must also avoid making her mistake in another form by adopting the racial stereotypes and mischaracterizations that so often haunt conversations that lie on the intersections of race and anti-Jewish thought in the United States.
In an interview with The New York Times Book Review this week, Walker recommended “And the Truth Shall Set You Free” by British conspiracy theorist David Icke, a book that alleges the existence of a Jewish-influenced cabal set on world domination and positively cites notorious anti-Jewish forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The book also blames Jews for hate crimes against their own communities and supports Holocaust denial being taught in schools to counterbalance the history of the Holocaust itself.
Icke is also perhaps most widely known for his promotion of “reptilian” conspiracy theories, which allege alien lizard people are controlling our politics and species, an idea prominent in the Youtube rantings of Alex Jones.
In the New York Times interview, Walker glowingly described Icke’s book as “a curious person’s dream come true” with no comment or critique from the interviewer. Her other recommendations include books by Maya Angelou, Daniel Black and other well-respected and methodologically meticulous authors of color.
Walker’s endorsement of Icke is especially disappointing because it does so much to undermine her own good work.
The anti-Jewish tropes found in Icke’s writings are steeped in the ideology of white supremacy and white power, which casts Jews as simultaneously a perennial social other, a communist scourge and somehow in control of world banking, politics and media.
These conspiracies have no business being promoted by those fighting against white supremacy and only serve to damage all of our struggles against it. They are deeply tied to anti-Black notions common in white supremacist thinking, which posit that this same “Jewish cabal” is the real force behind Black organizing, culture and critique of white power.
These conspiracy theories are in fact a critical point where Black and Jewish struggles are deeply linked, and are just one modern manifestation of the way that European Christian supremacist exclusion and hatred of Jewish people was deeply influential on colonialism, the racist eugenics movement and the white nationalist resurgence of the Trump era.
Walker’s support of these conspiracy theories is puzzling and especially tragic given that her daughter and former partner are both Jewish.
Walker’s comments immediately drew condemnation from Jewish outlets like Tablet and were covered in the UK Guardian other publications, they also created a flare-up in a deeply fraught conversation about anti-Semitism in the Black community that can often exhibit anti-Black stereotypes as much as it calls out anti-Jewish ones.
One instant association made by some on Twitter following Walker’s remarks was with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has called Jews “termites,” claimed they control the US economy, denied the Holocaust and held Jews primarily responsible for the transatlantic slave trade.
These comments provide a Black nationalist cover to the same tired anti-Jewish tropes recycled from white Christian hegemony.
Farrakhan is an expert in demagoguery who uses statements like this to rile up his supporters and incite media controversy that raises his profile, which has faded significantly since the Black Power era when the NOI came to prominence.
He knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes these statements, and he does it so effectively that outside the Black community he’s become a kind of stand-in for the specter of the Black radical who has taken things too far.
This image is partly based on his own words and actions, but also reflects long-held white supremacist fears of Black freedom struggles, which are steeped in racism.
While Farrakhan has rightly been condemned for these comments, his name has also been reduced to a guilt by association dog whistle used to portray Black and POC organizers as holding views that they simply do not have.
Most recently, when Marc Lamont Hill came under fire and lost a CNN job for his comments in front of the UN calling for equality for Palestinians “from the river to the sea,” one commenter remarked that Hill had gone “full Farrakhan.”
While the geography of Hill’s remarks is certainly challenging to some working from a two-state solution mindset on Israel and Palestine, they did not amount to Holocaust denial or calling Jews termites, and Hill himself is quick to decry anti-Semitism.
Using Farrakhan as an image of Black anti-Jewish thinking gave some white commentators permission to paint Hill as an extremist in a way they might not otherwise have gotten away with.
The attempts by some to frame Hill this way required adding on additional inflammatory messaging that was never part of his commentary or analysis and wrongly portraying him as being motivated by hate for Jews rather than wanting freedom and dignity for Palestinians.
While Black-Palestinian solidarity may be uncomfortable for some in the Jewish community, it is built on decades-long intercommunal relationships, similar to those that can be found between Black and Jewish activists.
These relationships cannot be dismissed as simply anti-Jewish; they are part of how oppressed communities survive and support each other.
Sadly, the need for these relationships is exemplified in the removal of Hill’s voice from the CNN platform. Hill’s commentary on CNN covered far-ranging issues of race and social struggle beyond just Israel and Palestine, and his firing from the network is a national loss when these intersectional conversations are so sorely needed.
Demands for condemnations of Farrakhan from Black and POC community leaders are also a common political cudgel, most recently in connection with the leadership of the Women’s March.
This conversation is complicated by the former prominence Farrakhan held in the Black community during the Black Power era and the charitable work the NOI still does, especially with those caught up in America’s racist criminal justice system, which makes it hard for some to condemn him wholesale.
Still, even as a Black Jewish woman who is loud and out about why I find Farrakhan’s views repulsive, I run into near-constant demands from white folks, including many in the Jewish community, to condemn Farrakhan time and time again.
Much of this occurs as a deflection tactic when I’m trying to discuss issues of anti-Black racism in the Jewish community, but it also happened when I made comments criticizing Walker’s remarks, even further showing casing the knee-jerk racist reaction that often spawns them.
While for some it may be tempting to claim that Walker learned from Farrakhan, uncritically conflating the two is inaccurate, harmful and racist.
Walker was clear in recommending Icke’s book, and her previous anti-Jewish statements that have resurfaced show his conspiracy theory corner of Youtube is likely a major source of these views.
Politically speaking, Farrakhan and Walker also couldn’t be farther apart.
Alice Walker is a Black queer feminist, while Minister Farrakhan has long painted LGBT people in the Black community as a white man’s plot to undermine Black masculinity.
Conflating left and right simply because the voices in question are both Black is nakedly racist and speaks to why Farrakhan is such a poor symbolic tool for addressing anti-Jewish attitudes in the Black community.
Many who would have no problem denouncing him as a figure, due to either religious or political differences, could still hold his backward views on the Jewish community.
While Farrakhan may be the loudest source of anti-Jewish demagoguery in the Black community, these views can’t be boiled down to one man’s influence, but are instead a reflection of the complex and often troubled relationships of marginalized communities under the stratified hierarchies created by US white supremacy, which pit us against each other.
Our relationships are also colored by both our interactions with each other and the stereotypes we encounter in media and public spaces.
In his seminal essay, Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White, a helpful if somewhat dated resource on Black-Jewish relations, James Baldwin called anti-Jewish thought “the most devastating of the Christian vices.”
He further explains that, for many Black folks, first contact with Jewish Americans came in communities where their Jewish neighbors enjoyed the fruits of white privilege and power that were denied to them and participated in the system that oppressed them.
This relationship with Jews was then further complicated by the stereotypes of them in the US culture, with its fraught images of Jewish people created by Christianity and white supremacy.
While our two communities have many crossovers, intersections and shared struggles, in many cases, neither is able to fully view the other outside this false lens of white supremacy.
The only remedy for this problem is to continue to work to build deep and meaningful relationships with each other, such as those that formed during the civil rights movement.
Organizations like Jews for Racial and Economic Justice in New York are leading the way in this regard, creating principled solidarity in which Jewish, Black and Muslim communities are showing up for each other’s struggles and Jewish voices of color are given a platform to speak to the connections that already exist between them.
Ultimately defeating anti-Jewish and anti-Black prejudice in our communities depends on principled solidarity and rejection of the tropes created by white supremacy.
It means calling out Walker’s remarks and anti-Blackness in Jewish communities, but also examining and debunking the source of these ideas so they don’t persist.
Finally, it means remembering that the origins of our struggles are the same, even if our places in the hierarchies differ.
The end of Baldwin’s essay includes an important reminder for all of us in these discussions: “If today I refuse to hate Jews, or anybody else, it is because I know how it feels to be hated.”
Rebecca Pierce is an African-American and Jewish filmmaker, photographer and journalist. Her work highlights racial justice issues from the United States to Israeli and Palestine, with a focus on issues affecting African Asylum seekers.