Twenty four years ago, Dr. Cornel West published an article on Black anti-Semitism. Although the topic gets little attention these days, West’s thought-provoking arguments are obviously still relevant in 21st century America.
In the article. Dr. West contends, “The Black freedom struggle is a major buffer between the (racist) David Dukes of America and the hope for a future in which we can begin to take justice and freedom for all seriously.” West, then a professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton, is one of this nation’s foremost scholars. He advocates racial and ethnic pluralism based first on intra-group strength and unity.
West’s article, Black Anti-Semitism and the Rhetoric of Resentment (1991), appeared in Tikkun, a Jewish periodical. In it, he cites the vicious murder of Yankal Rosenbaum in the Crown Heights section of New York City as testimony to a growing Black anti-Semitism in this country. Although perpetrated by African Americans who are essentially without power, he argues the crime deserves the same moral condemnation. “Furthermore, the very ethical character of the Black freedom struggle largely depends on its spokespersons to condemn openly any racist attitudes or action.”
Acknowledging that, for some, highlighting Black anti-Semitic behavior in an era of David Dukes and unparalleled domestic conservatism may seem misguided. West contends this focus is crucial because, “We Black folk have been in the forefront of the struggle against American racism…. If African Americans fall prey to anti-Semitism, principled attempts to combat racism forfeit much moral credibility…If the Black freedom struggle is simply a power-driven war that pits xenophobia from African Americans against racism from whites, then David Duke represents the wave of the future…..” (Despite Duke’s political defeat, racial and sexual violence were on the rise and coupled with growing economic deprivation were potentially prime ingredients for a frightening future.)
West talks about African Americans searching desperately for allies in the fight against racism and finding Jews to be disproportionately represented in that fight. He describes a “desperation” that sometimes informs the anti-racist struggle and asserts escalating Black anti-Semitism is a symptom of such desperation gone sour. “It is the bitter fruit of a profound self-destructive impulse concealed by empty gestures of Black unity.”
He contends three basic elements undergird Black anti-Semitism. First, it is a variation of anti-“whitism.” Jewish complicity in American racism reinforces Black perception that Jews are identical to any other group benefiting from the white-skin privileges in racist America. Second, it is a result of higher expectations Blacks have had of Jews, holding them to a moral standard different from that extended to other white ethnic groups. This double standard assumes that Jews and Blacks are “natural” allies, since both have long suffered degradation and oppression at the hands of racial and ethnic majorities. Third, Black anti-Semitism is a form of underdog resentment and envy directed at another underdog who has made it in American society. The remarkable upward mobility of American Jews lends itself to myths of Jewish unity and homogeneity.
Ironically, calls for Black solidarity and achievement are often modeled on myths of Jewish unity as both groups respond to American racism. However, in today’s climate, many African Americans view Jews as obstacles rather than allies in the continuing struggle for racial justice.
The recent upsurge of Black anti-Semitism exploits two other prominent features of the political scene identified with the American Jewish establishment: The “top-dog” military status of Israel in the Middle East, and the visible, conservative Jewish opposition to affirmative action. However, what West calls “vulgar” anti-Semitic critiques by African Americans are on the rise. Such critiques, usually based on ignorance and a “misinformed thirst for vengeance” add an aggressive edge to Black anti-Semitism.
West says, “In the rhetoric of a Louis Farrakhan or a Leonard Jeffries, whose audiences rightfully hunger for Black self-help, respect and oppose degradation, these critiques misdirect progressive Black energies arrayed against unaccountable corporate power and anti-Black racism, steering them instead toward Jewish elites and anti-Black racism in Jewish America. This displacement is disturbing, not only because it is analytically and morally wrong, it also discourages any effective alliances across racial lines.
West asserts the rhetoric of Farrakhan and Jeffries feeds an undeniable history of Black denigration at the hands of Americans of every ethnic and religious group. But he contends the quest for Black self-esteem can be reduced to immature and cathartic gestures that indicate an excessive obsession with whites and Jews.
For West, there can be no healthy conception of Black humanity based on such obsessions. Rather, Black humanity must be affirmed alongside that of others, even when those others have, at times, dehumanized Blacks. If the best of Black culture wanes in the face of Black anti-Semitism, Black people will become more isolated as a community and more deeply immersed in immorality.
West says the moral voices in Black America have been either ignored or drowned out by the more sensationalist and xenophobic ones. Black anti-Semitism plays into the hands of old style racists who appeal to the worst of the citizenry amid the moral silence of white America. Without some redistribution of wealth and power, downward mobility and killing poverty will continue to drive people to desperate ways.
He concludes: ”Without principled opposition to xenophobia from whites and African Americans, others of color and the poor, these desperate channels will produce a cold-hearted and mean spirited America no longer worth fighting for.”