These have been a rough few years for American Jews as antisemitic attacks are at an all-time high. Animated by radical conspiracy theories that posit that Jews seek to replace ordinary Americans with immigrants, neo-Nazi extremists have targeted Jewish institutions, such as the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11. At the same time, antisemitism on the far left has fueled hostility to Israel and given rise to inflated notions of Jewish “privilege,” raising fears of mass political disenfranchisement.
So you can imagine that the recent hullabaloo over the remarks of two Black celebrities — the rapper Kanye West and the NBA star Kyrie Irving — could not have come at a worse time. In an obvious state of severe mental duress, the rapper’s demented rantings on social media going “death con 3” on the Jews and fawning over Adolf Hitler, and Mr. Irving’s recommending a film that casts Jews as demonic usurpers of the covenant–reminded Jews that they are staring at yet another face of the world’s oldest hatred: Black supremacist antisemitism.
While antisemitic attitudes have long been prevalent, the vast majority of antisemitic acts come from a small fringe. Black supremacist antisemitism took shape in the Black power movements in the late 1950s, combining typical white nationalist antisemitism with a left-wing social justice variant, along with homegrown antisemitic conspiracy theories. Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, often sounds strikingly like a White nationalist such as David Duke in waving the infamous antisemitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” but he also promulgates his own concoction, “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews,” which pushes the outlandish claim that Jews controlled the Atlantic slave trade.
Along with Black Hebrew Israelites, Mr. Farrakhan maintains that modern-day Jews stole the covenant from Black people, who are the real Jews. Radical Black Hebrew Israelites insist that Black people are the descendants of the 12 Hebrew tribes of Israel who were scattered across Africa. While menacing, neither the Nation of Islam nor Black Hebrew Israelites enjoy popular support among the majority Christian population of Black Americans.
Nevertheless, such hateful conspiracy theories have consequences. In 2019, two Black Hebrew extremists shot up a kosher grocery in New Jersey, killing four people. Violent attacks committed largely by Black men against Orthodox Jews have become commonplace in New York. In 2020, there was an average of one antisemitic assault per week. Interestingly, such violence seems confined to New York.
Leftist antisemitism variants have also gained ground in parts of the Black community. In 2016, the Movement for Black Lives, an offshoot of the Black Lives Matter movement, issued a platform that accused Israel of genocide, a fashionable calumny in left-wing circles. Radical social justice ideology insists on “centering” the experiences of the oppressed. In October 2020, a Howard University professor, Natalie Hopkinson, wrote in The New York Times, “The Women Behind the Million Man March,” which included a glowing portrayal of Mr. Farrakhan. When readers called her out for ignoring his grievous antisemitism, she replied: “You know what makes me sad? Literally a million people involved in this essay. You don’t center the marchers. You don’t center the Black women who are named and linked. You don’t even center Farrakhan. You center yourself and your feelings.” Ms. Hopkinson downgrades resistance to antisemitism to a selfish whine.
The Black-Jewish relationship has been alternatively beautiful and painful but always complicated. The Black American poet Stanley Crouch once stated that “when Negroes and Jews stared one another in the eye aesthetically … a single syllable that compresses the explosive vitality of this congress of form and human feeling: Wow.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stated that Black people encounter Jews “in two dissimilar roles. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers.”
The writer James Baldwin stated in 1967: “The most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man — for having become, in effect, a Christian. … The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.”
The Black conservative Thomas Sowell, by contrast, stated that Jews “succeed in a way that is a threat to the egos of other people … the guy who comes here with little more than the clothes on his back and a few words of broken English, and a decade later he has his own little business, and his son a few years after that is getting ready to go off to Harvard … you either got to hate yourself for stagnating or you’re going to hate him.”
Prejudice, of course, goes in both directions. Anti-Black racism was not and is not unheard of among American Jews. It will take moral leaders such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to push back against the scourge of racism and antisemitism.
“I get condemnation from people who don’t want to see any progress, and I get support from people who understand that what people like Kanye West have to say is intolerable,” the all-time NBA scoring leader recently said. “We can’t have our people … who everybody wants to emulate … talking like that. That’s not what we’re supposed to be about, especially in America, where we say that all men are created equal.”
Correction: Kanye West‘s first name was previously misspelled in a headline on this column.
• David Bernstein is the author of “Woke Antisemitism: How a Progressive Ideology Harms Jews” and founder of the Jewish Institute for Liberal Values (JILV.org). Follow him on Twitter @DavidLBernstein.