The new black anti-Semitism is top-down and dangerous

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

July 22, 1992|By Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Cambridge, Mass. -- DURING the past decade, the historic relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans -- a relationship that sponsored so many of the concrete advances of the civil-rights era -- showed another and less attractive face.

While anti-Semitism is generally on the wane in this country, it has been on the rise among black Americans.

A recent survey finds not only that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold anti-Semitic views but -- significantly -- that it is among the younger and more educated blacks that anti-Semitism is most pronounced. The trend has been deeply disquieting for many black intellectuals. But it is something most of us, as if by unstated agreement, simply choose not to talk about.

When Jesse Jackson, in an impassioned address at a conference of the World Jewish Congress on July 7, condemned the sordid history of anti-Semitism, he not only went some distance toward retrieving the once abandoned mantle of the Martin Luther King Jr.'s humane statesmanship; he also delivered a stern rebuke -- while not specifically citing black anti-Semitism -- to those black leaders who have sought to bolster their own strength through division.

Mr. Jackson and others have learned that we must not allow these demagogues to turn the wellspring of memory into a renewable resource of enmity everlasting. We must begin by recognizing what is new about the new anti-Semitism.

Make no mistake: This is anti-Semitism from the top down, engineered and promoted by leaders who affect to be speaking for a larger resentment.

This top-down anti-Semitism, in large part the province of the better-educated classes, can thus be contrasted with the anti-Semitism from below common among African-American urban communities in the 1930s and '40s, which followed in many ways a familiar pattern of hostility toward the neighborhood vendor or landlord. In American cities, hostility of this sort is now commonly directed toward Korean shop owners.

Anti-Jewish sentiment can also be traced to Christian anti-Semitism, given the historic importance of Christianity in the black community, but the old paradigms will not serve to explain the new bigotry and its role in black America.

For one thing, its preferred currency is not the mumbled epithet or curse but the densely argued treatise; it belongs as much to the repertory of campus lecturers as community activists. And it comes in wildly different packages.

A book popular with some in the "Afrocentric" movement, "The Iceman Inheritance: Prehistoric Sources of Western Man's Racism, Sexism and Aggression" by Michael Bradley, argues that white people are so vicious because they, unlike the rest of humankind, are descended from the brutish Neanderthals.

More to the point, it speculates that the Jews may have been the "'purest' and oldest Neanderthal-Caucasoids," the iciest of the ice people; hence (he explains) the singularly odious character of ancient Jewish culture.

Crackpot as it sounds, the book has lately been reissued with endorsements from two members of the Africana Studies Department of the City College of New York, as well as an introduction by John Henrik Clarke, professor emeritus of Hunter College and the great paterfamilias of the Afrocentric movement. Dr. Clarke has recently attacked multiculturalism as the product of what he called the "Jewish educational Mafia."

And while Leonard Jeffries' views on supposed Jewish complicity in the subjection of blacks captured headlines, his intellectual cohorts such as Conrad Muhammad and Khallid Muhammad address community gatherings and college students across the country purveying a similar doctrine.

College speakers and publications have played a disturbing role in legitimating the new creed.

Last year UCLA's black newspaper, Nommo, defended the importance of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the notorious Czarist canard that portrays a Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. (Those who took issue were rebuked with an article headlined: "Anti-Semitic? Ridiculous -- Chill.")

But the bible of the new anti-Semitism is "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," an official publication of the Nation of Islam that boasts 1,275 footnotes in the course of 334 pages. Sober and scholarly looking, it may well be one of the most influential books published in the black community in last 12 months.

The book's conclusions are, in many circles, increasingly treated as damning historical fact. One of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled, it was prepared by the historical research department of the Nation of Islam.

It charges that the Jews were "key operatives" in the historic crime of slavery, playing an "inordinate" and "disproportionate" role and "carving" out for themselves a monumental culpability in slavery -- and the black holocaust." Among significant sectors of the black community, this brief has become a credo of a new philosophy of black self-affirmation.

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