Why Do Jews Keep Tearing Down Black Leaders?
Tamika Mallory. Marc Lamont Hill. Alice Walker. Angela Davis.
Every week seems to bring with it another black leader running afoul of the Jewish community — and an angry, effective response.
Mallory’s refusal to denounce the notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, a man she had previously praised, led Jewish activists to call for her to resign from the Women’s March, calls which eventually erupted into a huge media maelstrom. Hill warned an audience at the U.N. not to romanticize non-violence in the case of the Palestinians, and used a phrase viewed as a dog whistle popularized by Hamas: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Walker was quoted in the New York Times praising another notorious anti-Semite. And most recently, Davis had an award rescinded when members of the Jewish community, along with others, opposed the award thanks to her pro-Palestine activism.
I’m struggling with how to think about this, how to feel about it.
On the one hand, Mallory, Hill and Walker have said some truly problematic things that have caused real distress to members of the Jewish community.
Surely, every Jewish voice raised in anger at Walker’s inclusion in the paper of record was just in its outrage.
And I wouldn’t want to silence a single person who felt appalled as I did when Hill justified violent resistance against Israelis, urging his audience not to “endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting” and not to “romanticize or fetishize” peace.
And surely, someone who has praised a man who called Jews termites can be expected to later denounce him.
Even Davis denied Jews imprisoned in the Soviet Union any compassion, while finding common cause with Rasmeah Odeh, who confessed to assisting in the murder of two Israeli civilians in a horrific terror attack.
On the other hand, these are hardly comparable offenses. Many Jews have come to the defense of Davis, Hill, and Mallory, Jews upset that in the angry responses to these figures, there has been no distinction made between Walker’s straight out anti-Semitism and Mallory’s refusal to denounce an anti-Semite — hardly the same thing.
And certainly, Angela Davis is no anti-Semite; even her detractors have stopped short of smearing her as one, and her affinity for Odeh, who insists her confession was the result of torture, stems directly from Davis’s work opposing political incarceration all over the world.
Nor has there been a distinction made between Walker’s anti-Semitism and what Hill later clarified was a call for a non-Jewish, binational state instead of Israel — which is really anti-Zionism rather than anti-Semitism.
It all lends to a spectacle of an insensate mob out to attack any and every black leader.
And I feel sickened by it. When did Jews become the face of attacks against the black community? When did we abandon the sacred legacy of Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Torah scroll in hand? How must this look to the Black community, to say nothing of Black Jewish members of our own community?
In fact, this tearing down of black leaders has bled into tearing down black Jewish leaders in a recent spate of horrific, racist screeds against vocal black American Jews in Israeli publications.
It’s not just an outraged mob, either, that’s been coming for black leaders; it’s an effective one. Hill lost his job at CNN. Davis lost an award. The Women’s March is teetering, with local marches defecting every week.
There’s a lot of talk about anti-Semitism on the left, but when push comes to shove, when the Jewish community is angry, we get our way — including in lefty spaces. As Rabbi Mike Rothbaum put it in these pages in response to Davis losing her award, “When Jews are outraged, people listen.”
“The Jew can be proud of his suffering, or at least not ashamed of it,” James Baldwin wrote in a 1967 essay that could have been written yesterday. “His history and his suffering do not begin in America, where black men have been taught to be ashamed of everything, especially their suffering.”
I’ve heard some argue that there’s a reason all these black leaders are being lambasted by Jews: It’s because of the anti-Semitism in the black community.
Certainly, there is anti-Semitism in the black community; there is anti-Semitism in every community, including the Jewish community. And certainly, many spaces on the left where people of color organize are hostile to Israel. Black-Palestinian solidarity has been a powerful force for both communities since the beginning of the occupation in 1967.
But to denounce that hostility to Israel as anti-Semitism is not only false and defamatory; it actually endangers Jews by cheapening the accusation. How can we be taken seriously if opposition to Israel — an increasingly illiberal ethnostate with a serious civil and human rights problem — is immediately deemed anti-Semitic?
To call any person of color an anti-Semite who supports the Palestinians, even to the extent that Hill does, is simply to invert the situation many Jews complain about — that they are asked to check their Zionism at the door of liberal causes. We who resent being asked to denounce Zionism in order to participate in lefty causes should surely not demand that others embrace Zionism to avoid being smeared as anti-Semites.
A better way to make those spaces less hostile to Israel is to show up and explain why Israel matters to us.
Instead, we have abandoned those spaces, and denounce their leaders from a distance.
Is this the destiny of the American Jewish community?
It fills me with despair. This is how we are using our voice, not to help those more oppressed than we are but to tear down their leaders?
One hears Jews complain that our own history of oppression is not taken seriously enough. And yet it is simply undeniable that we white-skinned Jews do not suffer the ills of being a person of color in America. As Tema Smith pointed out, this has always been the case. “Jewish whiteness has always been presupposed by American law,” writes Smith. “Jews both Sephardic and Ashkenazi were classed as ‘free white persons’ by the first Congress in 1790. Likewise, unlike other racial groups, Jews were never subject to anti-miscegenation laws, and indeed, could marry Christian whites — and did.”
We have historically faced social discrimination, which certainly cannot be dismissed; Jews were barred from home ownership in some areas, and there were the famous quotas in universities to keep Jews out. Even today, anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, to say nothing of the 11 Jews massacred in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year.
And yet, we Jews are America’s most beloved religious group. More importantly, from the point of view of the American government, we are awarded all the privileges other whites enjoy. There are no systematic attempts to deprive us of our votes. A carceral state has not been elaborately set up to keep us imprisoned. We get fair trials, fair hearings. Police officers don’t shoot us; they literally throw themselves in the line of fire to protect us.
It is this legal whiteness that grants us the power we have, and which makes our suffering here matter. As Baldwin put it, “The Jew is a white man, and when white men rise up against oppression, they are heroes: when black men rise, they have reverted to their native savagery.” It’s a discrepancy that stings, Baldwin says. “The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the [black person’s] understanding. It increases [his] rage.”
I find myself drawn again and again to Baldwin’s words, more true today than ever before. Our suffering, whether it is caused by a murderer or a swastika drawn on a synagogue or ugly words printed in the New York Times, is treated as real, noble, worthy of redress. People are fired. Marches are canceled. Awards are rescinded. The system works for Jews.
And should it cease to work, we have another country we can flee to the minute we don’t feel safe or cherished enough here.
And it’s from this position of doubly-guaranteed safety, doubly-guaranteed privilege, that we are demanding that a people who continue to be enslaved and oppressed measure their words to protect our feelings — or lose their jobs.
Is it really the American Jewish community’s role to abandon the most vulnerable in our own society and denounce their leaders in order to police a discourse about another country that we, too, find fault with when we are being honest? And what are we offering as a reward for those who pass our purity test?
What are we doing to ensure that their civil rights are protected? As we demand sensitivity to our history, what are we doing to make sure that their bodies are safe from the bullets of cops and the cells of Rikers Island and pollsters in Georgia turning them away from voting booths?
I can’t defend Tamika Mallory or Marc Lamont Hill or Alice Walker or even Angela Davis. Each of them has hurt my feelings, to lesser and greater degrees, as well as those of beloved members of my community. I honestly believe the Jews who tell me that these people made them feel less safe, and they have every right to give voice to those feelings.
But taken as a collective, this tearing down of black leaders is a horrifying spectacle to behold.
This is not who we are. Or at least, it is not who we are meant to be.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward.