Black nationalist antisemitism on campus requires Jews to be ‘white’

Amiri Baraka. Louis Farrakhan. Kwame Ture. Leonard Jeffries. Tony Martin. Joy Karega. Tamika Mallory. Each one of them has a message of strength and empowerment for African-Americans that uses Jews or Israel as a contrasting example of corruption and evil. But responding to such rhetoric is complicated, in part because their messages also position Jews as the quintessential symbol of whiteness, racism and oppression. This can be particularly problematic when issues erupt on college and university campuses.

In a recent controversy, Kwame Zulu Shabazz, an interim professor in the African Studies department at Knox College in Illinois, took to Twitter to condemn Jewish profit-mongers and explain that contemporary Jews have malign intent toward others in the Middle East because the “brutal” God of the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to commit genocide. While this type of rhetoric would not be out of place at a gathering of white supremacists, Shabazz has garnered support from both students and faculty who support his black nationalist views and dismiss any negative reaction to his views as an inconsequential reaction of coddled white students.

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According to an article in The Knox Student, Shabazz concurs with this assessment.

“Jews have aspired to whiteness, integrating into the white category,” he explained. “I’m writing as a black person who is a victim of white supremacy, of which Jews are a part of that group.”

In relation to his tweets, Shabazz explained, “There are currently a subset of Jewish students on this campus who are very hurt and I respect that. And I tell my white students this in classes: whenever a white student feels uncomfortable about something, you can get a fleeting sense, a very fleeting, superficial sense of what it’s like to be black in America.”

This type of incident has recurred for decades, and the pattern is, unfortunately, familiar. A black academic, public intellectual, or activist makes some sort of oral or written comment depicting Jews or Israel as white oppressors, often in terms that evoke historic antisemitic tropes or imagery and sometimes included as part of a message of empowerment. Spokespeople and organizations in the Jewish community react to what they see as the antisemitic content of the comment, and the generator of the comment (along with his or her supporters) then responds in one or more of the following ways:

• Denial of antisemitic effect or intent (sometimes accompanied by an apology, whether sincere or pro forma).

• Justification of the comment because Jews or Israel are white oppressors.

• Approbation of the original comment, even if it might be antisemitic, because it is “the truth.”

Jews in the mainstream speak out forcefully against the statement. Right-wing commentators are unabashedly condemnatory, while progressives are likely to hedge (“speaking as a liberal who supports affirmative action and understands the serious problems of structural racism, I oppose the recent statements of…). Others on the more progressive Left wish to rid themselves of the distraction of antisemitism by citing the more pressing need of communities of color. Admonitions to Jews of “check your privilege” and warnings not to make this issue about antisemitism inevitably follow.

On campuses, progressive students and students of color rally to the side of the accused. Some progressive Jewish students and faculty, loath to be pulled into the melee (even if they agree with the charges of antisemitism) because they do not want to be seen as opposing a left-wing coalition, disappear from the discourse. Those who do speak out can be subject to harassment and worse; in the case of Knox College, a crude and offensive graphic was slipped under the office door of the few Jewish professors who spoke out against the antisemitic content of Shabazz’s tweets.

Why are positive messages of black empowerment tainted by anti-Jewish and antisemitic tropes? And why do they portray Jews, who are themselves reviled by white supremacists, as the ultimate symbol of whiteness?

Shabazz and others use the negative aspects of black life in the United States as the central paradigm for measuring discrimination, prejudice and oppression. Consequently, any detail that contradicts this approved pattern must be deleted, ignored, explained away, or denied. And university and college officials are often reluctant to condemn the offending statements because they are afraid of provoking charges of racism and insensitivity to black issues and concerns. Legitimate Jewish concerns are often downplayed or ignored.

American Jews, although the majority are defined and identify as white, clearly do not fit neatly into the category of white oppressors for historical and contemporary reasons. The fact of the Holocaust, although it has been described dismissively in other instances as “white-on-white crime,” is that Jews were persecuted on the basis of race. White supremacists’ opposition to Jews is also based on the concept of Jews as a separate race. Thus, to force the example of American Jews – and, similarly, Israel – to follow the outlines of his explanatory paradigm, Shabazz and others are forced to resort to conspiracy theories, specious arguments, crude stereotypes and denial of basic factual information.

Analysts must continue to explain that while threats to Jews can be expressed through religious, ethnic and racial hatred that share characteristics with classic elements of racism, the more dangerous elements of antisemitism are the fantastical conspiracy theories, canards about disproportionate power and influence in government and the corporate world, and allegations that Jews reap financial gain through cheating others. Any individual who employs such theories should understand that Jews must combat these falsehoods because they have resulted in existential threats in the past, and no amount of security, affluence and comfort that contemporary Jews might experience – whether they live in Israel, the United States, France, or any country in the world – can erase that difficult, paradigm-shattering truth.

The author wrote a dissertation on antisemitism in academia at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is the Senior Research Associate at the Academic Engagement Network.