The lengthy relationship between Jewish Americans and African Americans is a complex and multi-faceted one. It is most profoundly defined by the collaboration on racial justice and civil rights exemplified by the partnership between leading figures like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. This alliance can just as easily be defined by a shared enemy, such as when two Jewish activists, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan, alongside with their Black compatriot, James Chaney, while registering Black voters in Mississippi in 1964.
This relationship, like any decades-long alliance between groups numbering in the millions, does not lack complications. White Jewish Americans have benefited in the same kinds of ways all white Americans have from the systemic oppression of African Americans. Likewise, non-Jewish Black Americans are shielded from anti-Semitism; some have spread hatred and bigotry and, in a few cases, even committed acts of violence and other hate crimes motivated by anti-Semitism. Condemning hate, directed at any group by a member of any group, should require no hesitation, but recent events have proven otherwise. Thankfully, several Black thought and cultural leaders have shown us how it should be done, and called out those who have failed to do so unequivocally.
Although this article focuses largely on anti-Semitic language and images expressed by prominent African Americans, let me make one thing perfectly clear up front, something I’ve stated on more than one occasion: Anti-Semitism from the white nationalist right—the sort of hate spewed by the terrorist who killed 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh—poses a significantly greater threat to American Jews. In terms of political and media figures, anti-Semitism coming from the right is, again, far more widespread and reaches far higher into the ranks. All the way to the top, in fact, as this little anti-Semitic two-for-one demonstrates.
Just in recent weeks, some despicable examples of Republican anti-Semitism have manifested at the national level. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom the The New York Times last week characterized as “perhaps the most unabashedly pro-QAnon candidate for Congress,” will likely be the next U.S. representative from Georgia’s very conservative 14th District. Trump tweeted out his congratulations after she finished first by a wide margin in the Republican primary last month (there’s still a runoff). A few days later, video emerged of Greene making disgusting, bigoted statements about Jews, Blacks, and Muslims. While leading congressional Republicans have repudiated her, as of this writing, the racist-in-chief has not.
Last week, “The Man Behind The President’s Tweets,” top White House aide Dan Scavino, Facebook-shared a political cartoon drawn by known anti-Semite (and QAnon devotee) Ben Garrison. And when I say “known,” I mean known by the Trump White House, which invited and subsequently, after facing heat from Jewish organizations, banned Garrison from a White House function. This cartoon from Garrison—please take note of puppetmaster George Soros and the uberpuppetmaster identified as “Rothschilds,” exemplifies textbook anti-Semitism. As I’ve written before, Trump is no friend of the Jews. Mary Trump also just revealed that her uncle Donald constantly used both the n-word and anti-Semitic slurs in front of her.
Unfortunately, African Americans with a large public platform have also expressed hateful rhetoric toward Jews in the past few days and weeks. Last month, Ice Cube—who has left a lengthy trail on this topic—tweeted a large number of anti-Semitic memes to his 5.3 million followers. The Guardian offers some detail on the worst of the images.
It’s not just the big, hooked noses and evil expressions that make this iconography offensive and troubling, these depictions mirror anti-Semitic propaganda used by Hitler and the Nazis to whip up hatred that led to the massacre of millions of Jews. This extends to the table these figures are sat at, resting on human bodies, as the Nazis also depicted.
Then, in early July, Philadelphia Eagles receiver DeSean “D-Jax” Jackson—one of the best at his position, entering his 13th year in the NFL—made an anti-Semitic social media post of his own. Jackson shared an image that included words incorrectly attributed to Adolf Hitler: “The white Jews...will blackmail America. [They] will extort America, their plan for world domination won’t work if the Negroes know who they were.”
D-Jax had multiple defenders, including Stephen Jackson (no relation). The latter Jackson is a former NBA player who was very close to George Floyd; additionally, he has been a leader in the protests that followed Floyd’s murder by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis. His defense also contained a number of anti-Semitic tropes. “The Jews are the richest,” Stephen Jackson asserted. “You know who the Rothschilds are? They control all the banks.” Fictions about the power of the Rothschilds specifically, and about Jewish control of banks or the economy in general, are just that: fiction.
Thankfully, both Stephen Jackson and DeSean Jackson have apologized and disavowed their remarks, and both have acted to repair the hurt they caused. They are to be commended for that. Stephen Jackson spoke with Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles, telling him “I understand the hurt. That’s why I was comfortable initiating an apology. Your hurt and our hurt is no different.” DeSean Jackson stated his intention to further educate himself, and has taken steps to work directly with and donate funds to Chabad Young Philly, a Jewish organization. Additionally, he most recently agreed to visit Auschwitz with Edward Mosberg, a 94-year-old who survived time in a Nazi concentration camp.
Malcolm Jenkins, one of the leading NFL voices on Black Lives, criticized D-Jax’s anti-Semitic post, which is of course worthy of praise. Unfortunately, Jenkins immediately made a sharp pivot. “All of this back-and-forth that’s going on right now is a distraction….We gotta stay focused, because Breonna Taylor’s killers are still not arrested. We’re still fighting for justice. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and this ain’t it.” In response, Sam Rosenthal wrote in The Philadelphia Citizen that Jenkins’ statement represents “the notion that this isn’t important. That anti-Semitism isn’t worth spending time discussing or combatting. That Jews don’t really matter.”
African American journalist Jemele Hill, formerly of ESPN and now writing about race and sports at The Atlantic, stated on CNN that the kind of thinking seen in Jenkins’ remarks are not at all uncommon: “I think that's why you have seen a little less outrage than maybe you would have seen if this involved somebody White saying something about somebody Black. Nobody wants to be accused of undermining and undercutting the (Black) struggle.” In 2018, Adam Serwer, writing for The Atlantic, offered another thoughtful explanation for why this is the case, in particular when Nation of Islam leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan is connected (as he often is).
It’s worth noting that the right-wing faux outrage machine has gone to its usual level of bonkers in response to anti-Semitism expressed by African Americans—see Ben Shapiro’s comments about DeSean Jackson, for one example. However, as Dave Zirin pointed out in The Nation, they never seem to achieve the same kind of “volcanic energy” when the hatred of Jews comes from white people. I wonder why that is.
In the non-sports world, it came to light last week that TV personality Nick Cannon had made anti-Semitic remarks during a recent episode of his podcast and YouTube show, released in late June. His guest was Richard Griffin, aka Professor Griff, a former member of Public Enemy who was fired from the group in 1989 after saying that Jews are responsible for “the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”
Cannon and Griffin discussed how Jews today supposedly control the media—a long-standing anti-Semitic trope. The host of the show offered: “I find myself wanting to debate this idea and it gets real wishy and washy and unclear for me when we give so much power to the ‘theys,’ and ‘theys’ then turn into Illuminati, the Zionists, the Rothschilds.”
African Americans embracing these kinds of myths about Jewish power—and inaccurately connecting them to real, systemic oppression they face—are only helping their oppressors. Hen Mazzig, a Jew of color whose grandparents were forcibly expelled from Iraq and Tunisia, explained this clearly in an essay for NBC News. “We need to grasp that dangerous forces are attempting to create tension between Jews and people of color. Anyone blaming Jews for systemic racism is doing the bidding of organized white supremacists.”
To his credit, Cannon apologized “to my Jewish Brothers and Sisters for putting them in such a painful position, which was never my intention.” He went further, and made clear that he has engaged in real dialogue with rabbis and other members of the Jewish community.
Cannon lost his job with Viacom CBS this past week, although Fox—who employs him as the host of The Masked Singer—chose not to sever ties after expressing satisfaction with his acts of remorse. Last Friday, it was announced that his daytime talk show, which was scheduled to debut later this year, is now being delayed until fall 2021.
In a demonstration of the aforementioned complexity of this situation, and affirming that anti-Semitism can be found within the Black community, Cannon is now facing backlash from some African Americans as a result of these apologies.
Popular Black radio host Charlamagne Tha God weighed in with more of the exact same anti-Semitic verbiage. “Listen, Nick is my guy. I hate it had to be him, but that's what you can do when you have the power. And if there's one thing Jewish people have showed us, it's they have the power.”
Sean “Diddy” Combs declared “We got your back,” and offered to host Cannon’s media projects on his Revolt TV network. Diddy himself had recently shared a video in which Rev. Farrakhan referred to Jonathan Greenblatt, a Jewish American and the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, as “Satan,” before adding “those of you that say you are the Jews, I will not even give you the honor of calling you a Jew. You are not a Jew. You are Satan, and it is my job now to pull the cover off of Satan so that every Muslim when he sees Satan, pick up a stone, as we do in Mecca.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified Farrakhan as an extremist and an anti-Semite. DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson both expressed support for Farrakhan, as did Cannon. Finally, there’s a deeper question we need to explore. Hate has come tumbling out from so many Black people who aren't even actively pursuing anti-Semitic aims in the political arena. Given that, one wonders just how widespread these sentiments actually must be.
Despite the bad, there is also a lot of good, coming in the form of powerful and meaningful statements made by Black Americans who stand with Jews, and against anti-Semitism—even when it comes from members of their own community.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is one of the greatest players in NBA history, and has long been a major cultural figure among African Americans. He published an op-ed piece in the Hollywood Reporter on July 14, in which he denounced Ice Cube, and DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson, as well as other people who aren’t Black, but who have recently spewed bigoted words about Jews. Disturbingly, Ice Cube rejected Abdul-Jabbar’s criticisms in terms that, themselves, evoke anti-Semitic tropes.
Abdul-Jabbar also asked why we hadn’t seen “more passionate public outrage” in response to this bile. He pointed out that these remarks portended “a very troubling omen for the future of the Black Lives Matter movement. … After all, if it’s OK to discriminate against one group of people by hauling out cultural stereotypes without much pushback, it must be OK to do the same to others.”
Of Stephen Jackson’s remarks specifically, the NBA legend noted “That is the kind of dehumanizing characterization of a people that causes the police abuses that killed his friend, George Floyd.” Bravely calling out anti-Semitism no matter who perpetrates it, Abdul-Jabbar added: “It’s so disheartening to see people from groups that have been violently marginalized do the same thing to others without realizing that perpetuating this kind of bad logic is what perpetuates racism.”
Roxane Gay, a major figure in the literary and media world, is an author of multiple books and a New York Times columnist, not to mention a eminent voice against white supremacy and anti-Blackness. When Ice Cube set off this recent chain of events in June, Gay didn’t mince words.
She didn’t stop there.
This week, after the Nick Cannon story broke, she offered a broad condemnation that made clear exactly where things stand.
Two Pittsburgh Steelers responded specifically to DeSean Jackson’s remarks as well. One, Cam Heyward, had stepped up and stepped forward after the Tree of Life attacks—which took place not only in the city where he works, but also the neighborhood to which his family is deeply connected. Nearly two years later, Heyward is speaking out again.
Heyward’s teammate, Zach Banner, posted his own heartfelt video message on Twitter, in which he said he wanted to go beyond what DeSean Jackson said and address the “idea and mindset that sparked it in the first place.” Banner, like Heyward, mentioned the murders at the synagogue in his city, and displayed some raw emotion as he explained the experiences and pain Jews and Black Americans share.
Please watch the whole video if you can.
Banner makes a crucial point.
We need to understand Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I'm not trying to get emotional right now, but I want to preach to the Black and brown community that we need to uplift them and put our arms around them. Just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves, we can't do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves, and that's very, very important to me, and it should be important to everyone.
We can't preach equality but in result...just...flip the script and change the hierarchy, if that makes sense. Change your heart, put your arm around people, and let's all uplift each other.
In the Daily Beast this week, Cassie Da Costa offered an analysis called “The Disturbing Rise of Anti-Semitism Among Black Celebs.” Da Costa, who is Black, communicated her profound sense of outrage.
Like anti-Black racism, anti-Jewish racism cannot have a place in any legitimate anti-racist liberation movement, yet unfortunately, like with anti-Black racism, those who spout anti-Jewish ideas refuse to acknowledge their prejudice, instead qualifying their hateful words with claims to good intentions.
It’s easy to center the self, particularly when the self can serve as an avatar for an entire diaspora. But part of freedom work means imagining well outside of and beyond the self, persistently being in community with others committed to similar work. When Black celebrities claim that their anti-Semitism is actually a “pro-Black” stance, they assert that the only possible form of liberation for Black people is through creating our own “Other.” There is a huge difference between critiquing whiteness—a racist fabrication with undeniable social consequences—and denigrating Jewishness.
Anti-Black racism (as well as anti-Arab racism) as practiced by Jewish institutions and individuals ought to be critiqued where observed, but on the basis of white assimilation and imperialism, not on the basis of Jewish identity. Scapegoating Jewish people—rather than challenging harmful institutions formed and led by people of any identity—plays directly by the fascist rulebook.
The aforementioned Jemele Hill shared her perspective on DeSean Jackson and related matters. Hill is someone with a public platform who had herself written something that had unintentionally trivialized the Holocaust, and then made sure to educate herself about anti-Semitic language and grow from the experience:
The unfortunate truth is that some Black Americans have shown a certain cultural blindspot about Jews. Stereotypical and hurtful tropes about Jews are widely accepted in the African American community. As a kid, I heard elders in my family say in passing that Jewish people were consumed with making money, and that they “owned everything.” My relatives never dwelled on the subject, and nothing about their tone indicated that they thought anything they were saying was anti-Semitic—not that a lack of awareness would be any excuse. This also doesn’t mean that my family—or other African Americans—are more or less anti-Semitic than others in America, but experiencing the pain of discrimination and stereotyping didn’t prevent them from spreading harmful stereotypes about another group.
[...] Black people’s fight for their humanity is unrelated to Jackson’s error, but they must use their own racial experiences to foster empathy for others...The thirst for liberation and equality can never come at the expense of dehumanizing other marginalized groups—especially at a time when hate crimes against Jews have increased significantly.
Commentator and columnist LZ Granderson also penned an eloquent piece on these issues that was published last Friday in the Los Angeles Times. Without any qualification, he proclaimed that anti-Semitic language is “fundamentally wrong” and “harmful.” After stating that this is always true, Granderson added that “those (anti-Semitic) words coming from a Black person doesn’t change that.” As a young man, Granderson admitted, he was also drawn to Farrakhan, but “eventually Farrakhan’s repulsive words about the Jewish community became too much for me to ignore. I just don’t believe you need to tear another group down in order to lift your group up.”
Later on Friday, another all-time NBA great, Charles Barkley, posted a Facebook video bringing together most of the recent events discussed above, and stood with Abdul-Jabbar’s Hollywood Reporter article. Barkley declared “We can’t allow Black people to be prejudiced also. … I don’t understand how you beat hatred with more hatred. … We gotta do better.”
To be clear, this is far from the first time, and these are far from the only African Americans who have stood with Jews, even just recently. After a series of acts of anti-Semitic violence in the New York area late last year—including the murder of Rabbi Josef Neumann in Monsey, New York, which was committed by a mentally ill African American—Black leaders, including Rev. Al Sharpton and New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, were part of a large, diverse coalition who came out to support the Jewish community and denounce anti-Semitism. Jews noticed, believe me.
The last thing I want is for this post to be interpreted as another example of a white person telling Black people what to do. Rather, it’s about a member of one vulnerable group asking allies—who also happen to be members of a vulnerable group themselves—for help. And we need as much help as we can get.
Anti-Semitism in America is all too real, and all too dangerous. Jewish Americans are concerned, not primarily about large-scale structural oppression or discrimination, but about the individual who hates us, and who decides to act on that hate with violence. The more hateful language, images, and tropes that are spread by public figures of any background, the more people absorb that increasingly normalized hate.
Jewish Americans are also angry—angry that even after the murders in Pittsburgh and Monsey, and other incidents of violence driven by hate, that nakedly, baldly anti-Semitic outbursts are not greeted with the same vociferous, unequivocal, universal, and immediate condemnation we see in response to similar public expressions of hate aimed at just about any other group. This imbalance, unfortunately, appears particularly acute when the outbursts come from African Americans.
This is especially painful and even disorienting for progressive Jews, which is to say most Jews in the U.S. (after Black Americans, Jewish Americans consistently vote for Democrats at a higher rate than any other demographic group). We know what hate can do. We know what can happen when dehumanizing stereotypes are adopted widely. When so many Black public figures talk in ways that directly echo the language that undergirded the attempt to execute every single Jew on the planet, it causes real anguish. It caused me real anguish. When the initial reaction from Black thought leaders was tepid at best, that really set off the alarm bells for Jewish Americans. If their fellow progressives don’t fully have our back, who will? I can only imagine the conflict felt by those who are both Jewish and Black.
Having said that, we Jews are grateful, and very much appreciate the prominent Black voices—as well as the not-so-famous ones—who have publicly stepped up to demonstrate their allyship. Folks like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Roxane Gay, Charles Barkley, Cam Heyward, Zach Banner, Jemele Hill, LZ Granderson, and Cassie Da Costa are doing exactly that. It’s especially noteworthy that they are speaking out now—when the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of police officers has sparked the largest protest movement in American history. I have hope that their voices, along with those of many others, will move their audiences to see things in a different way.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)