Louis Farrakhan, Meir Kahane, and the Politics of Purity
The recent speech by Louis Farrakhan laced with anti-Semitic vitriol has stirred up much angst in the liberal and progressive Jewish community, further alienating many Jews from the progressive left. In a recent blog post in his JEWISHPHILOSOPHYPLACE.COM, Syracuse University Jewish Studies professor Zachary Braiterman posted an assessment of this old/new issue of the left and anti-Semitism by comparing Farrakhan to the iconoclastic militant rabbi Meir Kahane who was known for his racist attitudes toward blacks and Arabs (https://jewishphilosophyplace.com/2018/03/11/reactionary-not-radical-meir-kahane-louis-farrakhan/). In some sense, the comparison is apt. Kahane was once asked in a radio interview what the difference is between him and Farrakhan. He responded, “The only difference is that I am right.”
Notwithstanding Kahane’s clever quip, the similarities and distinctions are more nuanced. Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is certainly quite explicit, while Kahane’s racism was arguably more oblique. On the question of Jewish racism and “black anti-Semitism,” Farrakhan and Kahane certainly both engaged in the grammar of racism. The term “grammar” I borrow from film theorist and Afro-pessimist Frank Wilderson III when he writes, “Semiotics and linguistics teach us that when we speak, our grammar goes unspoken. Our grammar is assumed. It is the structure through which the labor of speech is possible.” Understood this sense, the question of “racism” means something more than the attitudinal stance of an individual. In their 1971 book Black Power Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton define racism this way:
Some observers have labeled those who advocate Black Power as racists; they have said that the call for self-identification and self-determination is ‘racism in reverse’ or ‘black supremacy’. This is a deliberate and absurd lie. There is no analogy – by any stretch of definition or imagination between the advocates of Black Power and white racists. Racism is not merely the exclusion on the basis of race but exclusion for the purpose of subjugating or maintaining subjugation. The goal of the racist is to keep black people at the bottom, arbitrarily or dictatorially, as they have done in this country for over three hundred years. The goal of black self-determination and black self-identity – Black Power – is full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people, and recognition of the virtues in themselves as black people.
For Carmichael and Hamilton, racism is not just a matter of individual bigotry; it requires the power of implementation. Racism is structural and requires some institutionalized form of policing. Attitudes about race alone are insufficient, in this view, to constitute “racism.” One could then say that the existence of racists in a society does not necessarily mean that society is “racist.” A parallel argument could be made for anti-Semitism.
In America, Afro-pessimists, from Frank Wilderson to Ta-Nehisi Coates, argue that structurally America is a white supremacist country. Few would argue America is an anti-Semitic country (even Kahane didn’t think so either – see his book Time to Go Home). This coheres somewhat with Arthur Hertzberg’s claim in the 1970s that “for all intents and purposes, there is no anti-Semitism in America.” He did not mean that there are no anti-Semites in America. Rather, he suggested that anti-Semitism as a societal problem requires social tolerance. And there is little social tolerance in America for anti-Semitism. I offer one anecdotal example to illustrate Hertzberg’s claim. A colleague who returned from a trip to Prague once approached me and said, “You wouldn’t believe the problem of anti-Semitism in Prague. When I went to the synagogue there were Czech police checking the bags of all who entered.” “That’s not anti-Semitism,” I responded, “If there was really a problem of anti-Semitism there would be no Czech police securing the synagogue!”
Many will certainly disagree with Carmichael and Hamilton’s definition of racism (and this could apply to anti-Semitism as well), but I think the distinction is important to think with. Otherwise, racism, like anti-Semitism, is simply a term that begins to lose critical meaning; it undermines our ability to make distinctions and becomes simply an accusation. New polls show that instances of anti-Semitism have increased since Trump’s election. While this is certainly troubling, I think the real criteria to assess anti-Semitism as a problem to is evaluate the societal tolerance of these acts and not just their occurrence. When anti-Semitic acts are tolerated by legislators, pundits, clergy, or local law enforcement, then a problem indeed exists.
One could argue that according to Carmichael and Hamilton Kahane may not have been guilty of “racism” in America (although he may have been a racist) but he was guilty of “racism” in Israel. It is only in Israel that his racist attitudes had potential political consequences. For example, Kahane strongly advocated against Jewish intermarriage in America (he even published a book about it, Why be Jewish? in 1975). Was that racist? Most American Jews are arguably against intermarriage. But when part of his platform in his 1982 bid for election to the Knesset included a legal prohibition against intermarriage in Israel, that was racism (or so the Knesset decided). This example supports Carmichael and Hamilton’s thesis.
When Jews respond to Farrakhan by arguing that anyone who has any association with him (for example, Temica Mallory or Linda Sarsour) is guilty by association of anti-Semitism, we have entered a phase of political puritanism that I believe damages the liberal Jewish agenda and the progressive left. It begins to undermine any distinction between who is, and is not, and anti-Semite. This recent politics of purity (from anti-normalization to guilt by association) has permeated the left. But it wasn’t always this way. For example, Stokley Carmichael said many negative things about the Jews. But read what Hertzberg wrote about him in 1966, six months after Carmichael’s famous speech on June 16, 1966 in Greenwood Mississippi that inaugurated the Black Power movement, excising whites (many of whom were Jews) from the movement. In fact, Hertzberg called Carmichael “the most radical kind of Negro Zionist.”
He [Carmichael] talks exactly the language of those Jews who felt most violently angry at the sight of Hitler and most hurt by the good people who stood by. What Mr. Carmichael is asserting is “Zionist” in more fundamental respects than the anger it is expressing. He is saying very simply that no community is given freedom or equality as a gift: that not even one’s best friends can be the leaders in a struggle in which their personal futures, and those of their children, are not invited except indirectly; and that no community has any real position in this nasty world unless it translates its appeals to conscience into the beginnings of a power base, both economic and political, of its own. But this is precisely what the Zionists theorists, from Herzl through Borochov, were talking about. (Symposium on Negro-Jewish Relations” Midstream Magazine, December, 1966, 49).
Hertzberg, a life-long Zionist, understood Black Power as an exercise in black sovereignty no less than Zionism was for the Jews. Even when people in the Black Power Movement made comments that were anti-Israel.
In this latest instantiation of Jews and the left, I submit that Farrakhan is not the issue. Farrakhan has been making anti-Semitic comments for decades. And many who view him as a prominent part of the black movement today do not agree - more strongly, openly disagree – with his vitriolic anti-Semitic rants (even back in the late 1960s when the Black Power movement was making similar remarks, polls showed that backs were actually less anti-Semitic than whites in America). Likewise, many Jews who supported Kahane’s Jewish Defense League in the late 1960s did not share his racist views. In fact, some early supporters of the JDL were active in the Civil Rights Movement.
What agitates many American Jews today about the progressive left is not really Farrakhan; we already know who he is and what he stands for. It is people such as Tamica Mallory and Linda Sarsour. As I see it, Sarsour in particular is driving many liberal Jews crazy in the way Edward Said drove liberal Jews crazy in the 1980s (recall the iconic photo of Said symbolically throwing a rock from the Lebanese border in solidarity with Palestinian resistance that went viral in the Jewish media). Why? Because Sarsour is a charismatic progressive activist who is doing all the “right things” like fighting for migrant worker’s rights, helping unions, fighting for prison reform, advocating for gun control, and organizing the Women’s March, and yet she is a Palestinian woman in hijab that is openly anti-Israel. But her anti-Israelism has a catch. She is anti-Israel because she is Palestinian. That is a more difficult claim to contest. Why should she be pro-Israel? Why should she have to accept the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine while her relatives live under a crushing occupation? There certainly may be answers to these questions, but they are not easy and require nuance that is often not heard among many American Jews. The accusation that Linda Sarsour is anti-Semitic is common. Is she? Is Mallory anti-Semitic because she posed with Farrakhan such that Jews should refuse to support her endeavors even when she openly stated that she does not agree with Farrakhan’s comments on Jews (even if that admission was less forceful than we hoped)? One can say that they don’t believe her. But then why believe anyone? Well, if like Kahane one makes no distinction between Zionism and Judaism, or Zionism and the Jews, then certainly both are anti-Semites. If one believes in anti-Semitism by association, then surely they are anti-Semites. But if one makes such distinctions like those made by Arthur Hertzberg and others when responding to Black Power in the 1960s, it is more complicated.
I want to be clear: I am not calling to either support or renounce Mallory or Sarsour. My intervention is simply to suggest that those who agree with much of the progressive agenda they represent should think in more nuanced ways about why Mallory and Sarsour have become so problematic for progressive Jews. I personally think Mallory and Sarsour are making a big mistake by not strongly denouncing Farakkhan’s blatant anti-Semitism. Farrakhan’s comments are not against Israel; they are openly against Jews. There is no excuse for such hatred. And couching denunciations in “yes, but…” rhetoric is not satisfactory. As a progressive, I hope they come around to seeing that such a denunciation is not only a moral imperative but is important for the progressive movement more generally. I am not asking them to love, or even support, Israel. Why should they? But I am asking them to denounce the open hatred of Jews. But the guilt-by-association “politics of purity” of many Jews is also problematic. And it is infecting both sides. The left excludes Jews with any connection whatsoever to Israel and many Jewish liberals seem wed to anti-Semitism by association or the unwillingness to consider that anti-Israelism is not by definition anti-Semitism. It is a trap that in the end undermines the progressive agenda. Progressive activism needs the Jews and people of color to work together for common causes. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once wrote that “faith that extends beyond its measure brings destruction to the world. And this is not only regarding faith in things that are false (emunah shel sheker) but even true faith (emunah emet). (Kook, Orot Emunah, 47). The over-extension of purity is destructive. Purity can also produce defilement.
So the real issue for progressive Jews is not Farrakhan but people like Mallory and Sarsour. They are the ones doing the work, they are the future of American progressive activism. And their voices are not playing into the Jewish demand for support of Israel uber alles and the anxious attempt to erase any divide between anti-Israelism (or anti-Zionism) and Judaism. And they refuse to submit to the notion that one must agree with everything one says to be seen with them in public. They too are guilty of excluding Jews who have any connection to Israel. Anti-normalization is also a politics of purity that, when over-extended, defiles.
The three Abrahamic religions that many of us identify with are each guilty of maligning the other yet many of us still practice them. Anti-Jewish passages in the Gospel of John and anti-Jewish passages in the Quran are read in the Christian and Islamic liturgical calendars. And next week many Jews will celebrate Jewish liberation from Egypt by reading the Passover Hagaddah that includes a request that God “pour out God’s wrath of the nations that know God not” (like others, I refuse to recite that passage). And yet all who recite these passages are not guilty of xenophobic hatred. Nor are all who support the settlement project even though some of its leaders have made openly racist statements about Arabs. And the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel Rabbi Yizhak Yosef just recently referred to blacks as “monkeys” in a speech (claiming he was citing a Talmudic passage, as if that made it any better). Should we now disqualify anyone who has posed with him?
This demand for purity, on both sides, is corrosive and in some way succumbs to subtle structural Kahanism that has permeated our collective consciousness. But even Kahane didn’t go that far. He appeared publicly with the Mafioso Joseph Colombo and when asked about it he said that he didn’t believe everything Colombo said or did but he felt that Colombo could help the Jews. If you believe in the progressive causes Mallory and Sarsour are working for, you should challenge them to disassociate themselves from Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic views. And to some degree they have. To refuse to engage with them anyway seems to me asking something of them that we as Jews don’t live up to either.
Farrakhan is an anti-Semite. He always has been. But he is not the issue. He is not the future. But Mallory and Sarsour (among others) certainly can be the future. We need them and they need us. And the extent to which our call for purity excludes them as partners, that is our problem.
Shaul Magid is the Jay and Jeanie Schottenstein Professor of Jewish Studies, Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, and editor of Jewish Thought and Culture for Tikkun. He is presently a senior NEH research fellow at The Center for Jewish History where he is writing an intellectual biography of Meir Kahane.