An Anatomy of Black Anti-Semitism

By Whitfield, Stephen J. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview
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An Anatomy of Black Anti-Semitism

Whitfield, Stephen J., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought

IN AN UNUSUAL GESTURE, THE RADICAL JOURNALIST I. F. Stone invoked solidarity with American Jews when he advised this segment of his readership in 1968 "to swallow a few insults from overwrought blacks" who were espousing anti-Semitism. He recommended that such demagogues be treated with indulgence, as a passing phenomenon.(1) Since then all the evidence leads to one conclusion: however vigorously a policy of salutary neglect was pursued, black anti-Semitism is not ephemeral. This particular version of the oldest of group libels, this latest installment in the tradition of malicious and irrational falsehoods against the Jewish people, has not been driven underground. It has persisted; in part of the African-American community it has even flourished. Its purveyors are not treated as cranks whose rantings do not extend beyond a comer of Hyde Park; instead they are invited to speak on university campuses and to present their views on national television programs. They are not invisible men. They do not dominate the African-American community, but they are not exactly unpopular either.

Though American Jewish groups are understandably concerned with why such prejudice has persisted (and how it might be resisted), they themselves have not been left alone in confronting the issue. Though varying in forthrightness, leading African-American intellectuals and academics have acknowledged and condemned this species of bigotry within their own community-most notably, the ubiquitous Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the equally voluble Cornel West, as well as Roger Wilkins, Bob Herbert, and others. These recent criticisms reinforce the sense of deja vu all over again, since the topic of black anti-Semitism is about a generation old. The signposts have included anthologies edited by Shlomo Katz and by Nat Hentoff, whose contributors were mostly Jews; and Amira Baraka's repudiation of his own anti-Semitism.(2) The works of scholars and journalists like Hasia Diner, Robert Weisbord and Arthur Stein, and Jonathan Kaufman--themselves all Jewish-have also analyzed the phenomenon within a broader framework of relations between the two minorities.

If the focus of this paper is exclusively on black anti-Semitism, the excuse is not only ontological (the limitations of space and time). Nor is it not out of denial that racism exists in the Jewish community. But a concentration on black anti-Semitism would be misplaced if something symmetrical could be observed in organized Jewish life. I am confident that this is not the case, that there is none of the ideological hostility to blacks that is equivalent to what emanates from part of African-Americans against Jews. This essay is therefore preoccupied with anti-Semitism because some African-Americans are preoccupied with spreading it. I also believe that black anti-Semitism can be treated in isolation because it is an isolated phenomenon. Its virulence is unmatched; its intensity has no analog in American society. Black anti-Semitism is so singular that it demands distinctive and emphatic focus.

Four illustrations are familiar enough to require little elaboration:

1) In 1988 Steve Cokely, coordinator for special projects for the mayor of Chicago, publicly charged that Jewish doctors were deliberately infecting black infants with the AIDS virus. Herbert Martin, the African-American minister who then chaired the city's Commission on Human Relations, acknowledged that this grotesque slander had "a ring of truth"; and Mayor Eugene Sawyer's own reaction was sluggish. It took him nearly a week to fire Cokely, whose lay diagnosis of the epidemic apparently did not disqualify him from being invited to speak at the University of Michigan.(3)

2) In Albany in the summer of 1991, Leonard Jeffries, an expert on the Afrocentric curriculum who was serving as chairperson of the Africana Studies Department at the City College of New York, noted the collusion of Hollywood Jews and their "financial partners, the Mafia," in controlling "a financial system of destruction of black people.

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