By John-Paul Pagano
A year ago, the Women’s March punctuated Trump’s inauguration with what was likely the largest single-day mass demonstration in American history. Today, it finds itself embroiled in an unexpected controversy after the initial refusal of several of its leaders to distance themselves from one of America’s leading anti-Semites, the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan. It’s a conflict that stems from the long, entangled history between black and Jewish communities in the United States, in which friendship and friction are giving way to struggle over the dimensions of peoplehood. It also reveals anti-Semitism as a crucial blind spot of contemporary left-wing activism.
Mass movements are sewn together from a wide variety of sources, so they often sweep in unwanted companions as they move toward their goals. No one, however, expected to discover that three Women’s March co-chairs—Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez, and Tamika Mallory—had ties to Farrakhan. More mysterious and disturbing was the extended reluctance of the Women’s March, nearly a year since it became public, to acknowledge Farrakhan’s extremist views and disassociate themselves from them.
Naturally, this renewed interest in just what the Women’s March was thinking. Mallory further stoked controversy when a woman questioning her about Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism drew a response from a preacher asking her to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and praying for Jesus to cast out the “wicked spirit laying on her heart.” Linda Sarsour surfaced to say the man was “too blessed,” and Mallory tweeted, “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!”
Understanding the controversy requires the context of more than a century of relations between Jews and African Americans. The two minorities are linked by histories of extreme and prolonged oppression, but the differences in their experiences are more meaningful than the similarities. The seminal one is that of origin: Jewish Americans are largely the product of immigration, often in flight from persecution, whereas black Americans mostly descend from people stolen from Africa to become slaves.
It would be a mistake, though, to tarry too much on the specific origins of African American anti-Semitism. Conspiratorial hatred of Jews has been the poor man’s religion for centuries. For most of this time, Christianity was the vector by which people have been infected with anti-Semitism, and African Americans, among whom the religion is a touchstone, are no less susceptible to the idea that Jews draw preternatural power from an association with the Devil. If that hatred finds vigorous expression with the Nation of Islam, the idea can be heard all the way back in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote that “the Jew is the heir to the slave baron in Dougherty, [Georgia].” (Du Bois later excised such references to Jews, because he could “see that harm might come if they were allowed to stand as they are.”)
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