In a penetrating article, Dr. Cornel West says, “The Black freedom struggle is a major buffer between America’s blatant racists and the hope for a future in which we can begin to take justice and freedom for all seriously.” Then, a professor of religion and the director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University, he is one of the nation’s foremost scholars. And he advocates racial and ethnic pluralism based first on intra-group strength and unity.
In “Black Anti-Semitism and the Rhetoric of Resentment,” (1992), West cites the vicious murder of Yankel Rosembaum in the Crown Heights section of New York City as testimony to a growing Black anti-Semitism in this country. Although perpetrated from “below,” i.e., by African Americans who are essentially without power, West argues that the crime deserves moral condemnation. “Furthermore, the very ethical character of the Black freedom struggle largely depends on its spokespersons to condemn openly any racist attitude or action.”
Acknowledging that, for some, highlighting Black anti-semitic behavior in an era of racist David Dukes and unparalleled domestic conservatism, may seem misguided. But West suggests such emphasis is crucial precisely 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 below against racism from above, then David Duke (and today’s Donald Trump) represents the wave of the future. Despite Duke’s defeat in the 1992 presidential election, racial and sexual violence are on the rise and coupled with growing economic deprivation, could be the raw ingredient for a frightening future.”
West talks about African Americans searching desperately for allies in the fight against racism and they find Jews are disproportionately represented in that fight. He describes a “desperation” that sometimes informs the anti-racist struggle and hw 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.”
For West, three basic elements undergird Black anti-Semitism. First, it is a variation of anti-whitism. Jewish complicity in American racism reinforces Black perceptions that Jews are identical to any other group benefiting from white privileges in America. Second, it is the result of higher expectations some 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 ability 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. 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 states, “In the rhetoric of a Louis Farrakhan or a Leonard Jeffries, whose audiences rightly hunger for Black self-help, respect and oppose Black 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 races.”
West feels the rhetoric of Farrakhan and Jeffries feeds an undeniable history of Black denigration at the hands of Americans of every ethnic and religious group. He contends, “ ….the quest for Black self-esteem is reduced to immature and cathartic gestures that bespeak of an obsession with whites and Jews.”
For West, there can be no healthy conception of Black humanity based upon 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 insists the moral voices in Black America have been either ignored or drowned out by the more sensationalistic and xenophobic ones. Black anti-Semitism plays into the hands of the 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.
Finally. West asserts, “….Without principled opposition to xenophobia from above (white) and below (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.”