Facing Up to Anti-Semitism Among Blacks


April 15, 1993|By GREGORY P. KANE

When Prof. Leonard Jeffries made a speech at Johns Hopkins University recently, he launched a salvo that will not win him any invitations to a bar mitzvah or B'nai B'rith dinner.

Professor Jeffries broached the ever-sensitive, always-controversial subject of black-Jewish relations. He's agin 'em, judging from the tone of his remarks. Jews, through their control of Hollywood, are responsible for the negative images of blacks in films, according to him.

Mr. Jeffries, a professor of African-American Studies at the City College of New York, has long been notorious for such comments, which have caused angry reactions before. His Jew-baiting tirade at JHU was no different.

Several students showed up to protest Mr. Jeffries' speech, standing to display ''I Am Against Racism'' signs at the moment he started attacking Jews.

It might have suited their purpose better if they had put down the signs and simply asked the good professor if he seriously believed the images of blacks would have been better if Hollywood were controlled by white Gentiles.

Mr. Jeffries is one of a number of black nationalists who have skillfully worked Jew-baiting into their repertoire of speeches. It's almost as if they have to bash Jews to establish their credentials as black nationalists.

They are a quite fanatical lot on the issue. Fanatical in the Churchillian sense, meaning they won't change their minds and won't change the subject.

"Damn the Jews," Marcus Garvey is said to have blurted after his 1923 trial for mail fraud, the culmination of his anti-Semitic tirade throughout the trial. He apparently blamed Jews for his conviction. Black historian J. A. Rogers' view was less conspiratorial. He reasoned that the charismatic black nationalist leader was convicted because he had the silliness to act as his own attorney.

Even Malcolm X wasn't above Jew-baiting. Though he acknowledged in his autobiography that the only white person who treated him with anything remotely approaching decency was a Jew, that didn't prevent him from telling Nation of Islam converts that ''a Jew is the worst kind of devil.'' This should make you wonder whether a man as intelligent as Malcolm really believed in degrees of devilment.

The black nationalist practice of Jew-baiting is so commonplace that you would think there was a manual on it somewhere. But what motivates it? Several reasons come to mind. The first is that anti-Semitism among blacks in general is more pervasive than we think. Black nationalists simply try to appeal to it and exploit it.

I didn't get my first inkling of how widespread black anti-Semitism was until I became supervisor of the patient transport department at Sinai Hospital. Over 80 percent of my supervisees were black, and hardly a day passed without one of them uttering an anti-Semitic crack of some kind. ''Anti-Semitic comments are not allowed in this office,'' I'd constantly tell offenders, ''especially since you work at a Jewish hospital."

When I wasn't censoring some Jew-bashing slur, I was having to defend my decision to hire Jewish Russian immigrants as patient transporters. ''Look,'' I'd snap, ''we're getting more and more Russian patients every day. Many of them speak no English. When they need someone to translate what they're saying, are you gonna interpret for 'em?"

African-American support for the Palestinian cause led some to become anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. Apparently several crossed the thin line that separated the latter two from anti-Semitism. Ironic as it sounds, black anti-Semitism may have been reinforced by the intra-Semitic quarrel between Jews and Arabs.

A curious aspect of African-American support for the Palestinian cause has been the stifling silence of black American leaders about Arab transgressions against blacks in Africa.

Arabs in the northern part of Sudan continue to wage a civil war against the blacks in the south. Emerge magazine has gone so far as to say that a war of extermination is being waged against one black ethnic group, the Nuba.

In Mauritania, the ruling Arab Muslim elite has been responsible for the jailing, torture, murder and expulsion of their black African Muslim brethren.

Compare that to Israel's rescue of Ethiopian Jews -- and then go figure why Louis Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries can't even mumble a syllable about Arab genocide of black Africans.

But such is the essence of black nationalist anti-Semitism which -- like all nationalisms -- is right-wing in nature and seeks scapegoats to attract followers.

Scapegoats are only valuable if they are handy. Hence American black nationalists don't bother to bash Arabs. Jews, and increasingly Asians, are the targets. It is a ruse we shouldn't expect black nationalists to give up any time soon. Scapegoating is the first refuge of those who feel terminally oppressed.

Gregory P. Kane is a free-lance writer in Baltimore.

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