Not All Nationalists Are the Same

Louis Farrakhan. Tehran, 2016.

In a recent piece for LobeLog, I touched on the overtly racist Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party in Israel. Ever since it became clear that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was going to do everything in his power to ensure that they joined with HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party to secure a few more seats for his next far-right coalition, there has been widespread condemnation of the party.

You can tell a lot about the sincerity of objections to the overt racism of Otzma Yehudit by whether it’s accompanied by condemnation of Netanyahu for his role in promoting it. Most of the so-called “centrist” groups in the US—such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and AIPAC—have not done that. Otzma Yehudit is a small party, one which would not have made the Knesset on its own. Yet it was still necessary to cajole and bribe even a far-right party like HaBayit HaYehudi had into letting Otzma Yehudit join with them.

The real issue is that Netanyahu, the prime minister, did the cajoling. Many respondents have recognized that, but in their numerous tweets, comments and op-eds, they have often compared Otzma Yehudit and Netanyahu to Louis Farrakhan and Tamika Mallory. It’s the wrong comparison.

One of the more prominent examples of this came from Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum, who wrote an op-ed in the Forward entitled, If You Called Out the Women’s March Over Farrakhan, You Better Call Out Netanyahu. In commenting on this piece over Twitter, Koplow said, “If you have ever complained about politicians appearing next to Farrakhan (and I’m on board with that criticism), what Bibi has done in partnering with Otzma Yehudit is much, much worse.”

He’s right that it’s much worse. It is also a completely separate set of circumstances, both in terms of Farrakhan/Otzma Yehudit and Mallory/Netanyahu.

As a Jew, a bisexual man, and the father of a gay son, I am not about to minimize, much less defend, Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism and homo/transphobia. They are self-evident, and he makes no effort to conceal or shade any of it. His words are reprehensible, and it saddens and worries me greatly that he has followers who hear them, believe them, and take them to heart.

For many of us, and for most white Jews especially, the anti-Semitism that Farrakhan espouses is the sum of who he is. We may be aware that he and the Nation of Islam have done important work in the black community, but that’s not part of our visceral reaction to him. For the most part, not only is Farrakhan’s bigotry the headline, it’s the overwhelming majority of the discourse around him in the white Jewish community. That’s not unfair, but it is quite different from the way many in the black community—including those who do not support Farrakhan and NOI—understand him.

In Adam Serwer’s important piece in The Atlantic last year on Tamika Mallory and the Farrakhan controversy, he quoted Amy Alexander, a journalist who edited an anthology of black writers on Farrakhan called The Farrakhan Factor, saying “Farrakhan knows who his constituents are. If he can cause some controversy and grab some headlines, he’s gonna do it. I think it’s kind of a hustle. He’s been doing it for years, it’s not going to change. It’s almost like he’s that kid on the schoolyard, who in front of the teacher will drop the f-word just to get the teacher riled up. And if the teacher falls for it every time, what’s that kid’s incentive to stop doing it?”

Farrakhan’s work within the black community is part of the bigger picture of who he is. That changes nothing about the bigotry he espouses, but it is part of why it’s a lot more complicated for people in the black community—especially those who have taken on the mantle of leadership within that community—to denounce Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI) than for Jews to denounce Otzma Yehudit, a group whose sole purpose is to promote a hateful, supremacist nationalism.

Tamika Mallory and other black leaders face frequent calls to “denounce Farrakhan.” Mallory—who was helped personally and directly by the Nation of Islam through a tough time in her life, when her child’s father was murdered—said that Farrakhan’s words were not hers, but she stopped well short of denouncing or condemning him. Many people, even on the left, could not understand why that was so difficult for her to do and were further incensed each time she refused to do so.

The leadership of the Women’s March has repeatedly stated that they acknowledge that they didn’t respond satisfactorily to the concerns around Farrakhan. Many didn’t accept that apology, but it seemed that nothing, short of condemning Farrakhan completely, was going to satisfy them anyway. And that is a problematic demand for a mostly white group of people to make.

The group Jewish Women of Color (JWOC) Marching seemed to me to strike a particularly important chord. For instance, one JWOC, Sabrina Sojourner said, “The way to get things done is to stay in conversation, to stay in relationships, to work it through, to understand that there’s a place in which you disagree and to continue to probe deeper to try and find out what are the ways we are talking past each other or not hearing each other. (You) feel like Louis Farrakhan has become a boogeyman and a litmus test, and it’s ridiculous.  The real problem is white supremacy, because … they are the ones who are organizing not only against the Jewish community but also against the African-American community, the Latino community.”

Ilana Kaufman, director of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative, put it beautifully, saying, “Louis Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, he’s a homophobe, he’s a misogynist, he is unappealing to a number of communities trying to come into unity with each other. If people want to criticise Minister Farrakhan, criticize Minister Farrakhan. At the same time, we must acknowledge the Nation of Islam has helped marginalised black communities, especially in environments where no one else expressed care. We need to remember that leaders and movements are not the same thing. The Women’s March is … bigger than Louis Farrakhan.”

While Mallory is a leader of the Women’s March—and, therefore, a leader of women in the US in general, very much including white women and Jewish women of all races—she is also a leader in the black community. That is not comparable to being a leader in the Jewish community. 

Despite the horrifying rise of anti-Semitism in recent years, the current Jewish experience is not comparable to the current black experience. The vast majority of US Jews are white (around 80%, as of 2005, according to Gary Tobin, who estimated that the figures cited of over 90 or 95% often reflected dramatic undercounting of Jews of colour), and that brings a full dose of white privilege that exists side by side with the effects of anti-Semitism.

The point here is not to say that Mallory handled the situation correctly. Her response certainly alienated many—not only Jews—from the Women’s March, and I am no different from many Jews and members of the LGBTQI* community in feeling hurt and disappointed that she has not yet taken our concerns more seriously. 

I am not trying to pass judgment on the controversy writ large, and I feel especially unable to do so as I am neither a person of colour nor a woman. But as a white Jew, and as one who has personal issues with Farrakhan’s hate speech for reasons aside from my Judaism, I feel it’s important to say that the matter of expectations on black people regarding Farrakhan is more complicated than many make it out to be.

There is no better illustration of the need for nuance on this matter than the erroneous comparisons to Otzma Yehudit. The party, and its leaders—Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel, and Itamar Ben-Gvir—have a much less complicated identity than Farrakhan. They stand for ultra-nationalism, bigotry, and for Jewish supremacy in Israel. That’s why the correct comparison, one that has been widely made, is with the Ku Klux Klan, and, if you want to put a personal face on it, David Duke.

It is right and just for Jews to demand that Otzma Yehudit be rejected, as the Israeli government did with its previous incarnation as Kach when it was led by Meir Kahane. It is right and just for others, especially Palestinians, to expect that Jews in Israel and around the world join in that rejection. And, crucially, it is right and just that Netanyahu be called out for legitimising the worst kind of Jewish bigotry.

But Farrakhan, for all his awful and bigoted statements (which he engaged in again over the weekend, blaming “the wicked Jews” for the entire Women’s March controversy), is a more complicated case. Mallory, who didn’t handle the controversy satisfactorily, has been open to dialogue, has responded to it, and certainly seems, from all reports, to be willing to learn more about anti-Semitism and why it should be a concern.

People will obviously have a variety of views on Farrakhan and on Mallory. Many feel genuinely hurt by the response of the Women’s March leaders and Mallory to the concern over Farrakhan. Others, sadly, are using Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism to cynically shift attention away from the much more widespread and grave problem of white supremacist anti-Semitism to anti-Semitism that purportedly comes from “the left” (although, ironically, in using Farrakhan, they are somehow managing to blame liberals and progressives for the anti-Semitism of a very conservative figure). 

If you don’t think that’s a real dynamic, just look at how the conversation about anti-Semitism has been dominated by accusations against people of colour, whether with justification (as in the case of Farrakhan and, painfully, Alice Walker) or, more often, either unjustly or disproportionately (as with Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, Marc Lamont Hill, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and more).

But neither the issue of anti-Semitism within the Women’s March nor the broader fault lines between the overlapping Jewish and black communities (an overlap which makes it particularly painful for Jews of Color, whose voices need to be listened to much more than they currently are) are going to be properly addressed by demands for denunciation and a refusal to see nuance that is so profoundly central to the lack of communication around these issues.

Tamika Mallory is no Benjamin Netanyahu, and Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, as anti-Semitic as many of their statements and beliefs certainly are, are not Otzma Yehudit. 

While there may not be a solid basis for dialogue with Farrakhan and the NOI, we Jews must neither ignore his anti-Semitism nor be so knee-jerk about it that we put the people of colour we do need to dialogue with—which is the overwhelming majority—in a position where they have to choose between us and a leader who, although highly problematic, is not always seen in his community primarily for his bigotry, but for works that help many community members.

Let’s not compare Mallory to Netanyahu in this matter, which only shuts down the possibility of dialogue and mutual education. Instead, let’s work to bring the full scope of our communities together. I have no doubt that down that path lies a place where the voices of liberation will drown out those of bigotry.

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia. Published under a Creative Commons license.