The NAACP-Farrakhan Axis

June 08, 1994|By MICHAEL LERNER

New York -- When Louis Farrakhan participates in the ''National Leadership Conference'' of the NAACP in Baltimore Sunday afternoon, many Jews and others sensitive to anti-Semitism will be demonstrating outside.

Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism and homophobia are well documented. They are not matters of the distant past when he was talking about Judaism as a ''gutter religion.'' Although he flirted briefly with lowering his anti-Semitic profile, and tried to dissociate from the worst excesses of his lieutenant Khallid Abdul Muhammad, in a recent TV call-in show in California he reverted his old hateful ways, suggesting that the Jews had set up the Federal Reserve and retained control over its money.

Imagine how black people would feel if a prominent Jewish leader were going around the country and drawing large Jewish crowds to hear him denounce ''black crime.'' Now, the truth is that there are disproportionate numbers of blacks who are arrested for crimes of violence, but there is nothing that makes their crimes ''black'' crimes, even though perpetrated by African-Americans. Identifying it as ''black'' suggests that there is something in the racial group that is the problem, and such a suggestion is false and racist.

Similarly, there are Jews who have economic power, but they are not exercising that power for the sake of the Jewish community, under the auspices of the Jewish community, or by virtue of being representatives of the Jewish community. To point to their Jewishness is to try to stir up resentments by others who have less economic power, and to suggest that it is ''the Jews'' who run things. This is false and racist.

It's false because it ignores the many Jews who are poor, the many Jews who are working-class, the many Jews who are professionals and business people who are struggling hard, and it falsely suggests that affluent Jews function in some corporate way as Jews to exercise disproportionate economic power, which they don't. In short, it falls into the old Nazi stereotype.

Many African-Americans have legitimate reasons to be angry about an economic system that has a structured rate of unemployment that guarantees that at least 6 percent of the population won't get a job, and then concentrates that unemployment in a vastly disproportionate way on the black community. But instead of focusing anger at the real economic and political elites, Mr. Farrakhan and other demagogues encourage blacks to express that anger against Jews.

African-American leaders should be reminding blacks that the majority of Jews were the only group to side with them in opposition to Presidents Reagan and Bush in the '80s, and continue to back liberal programs of which they are the major beneficiaries. Moreover, if blacks ignore racism in their own community, how can they expect others to fight its inevitable resurgence in the larger American polity should economic conditions worsen?

Many Americans, caught up in the ethos of selfishness that continues to dominate this society, are only too happy to find excuses to lower their own taxes by voting against candidates who support social programs for the poor. It has often been Jews who have been in the vanguard of groups reminding their fellow citizens of their moral responsibility toward the most oppressed.

While many of us will continue to play this role out of our commitment to Torah values, there are many more, torn between idealism and self-interest, who are becoming increasingly resistant to a social-justice agenda when they perceive that the most oppressed are spitting in their face.

Mr. Farrakhan may be marginal at the moment, but the NAACP invitation has given him new avenues of entrance to more respectable communities. Taking the hint from its national office, the Fresno, Calif., chapter of the NAACP sponsored a major rally at the Fresno convention center at which Mr. Farrakhan was the featured speaker. The more that this voice is legitimated, the more that his poison will seem acceptable.

Yet Mr. Farrakhan is only the tip of the iceberg, as was made clear last month when black students at San Francisco State unveiled a mural about Malcolm X replete with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel symbols in it, then insisted that their ''free speech'' was being challenged when Jewish students asked them to remove the offensive symbols.

So we who will be demonstrating against Mr. Farrakhan will also be making a much more positive demand: that black leadership join with us and other progressive Jews to instigate a joint campaign against racism in the Jewish community and anti-Semitism in the black community. To keep it honest, the anti-racism campaign in the Jewish community should be supervised by blacks, and the anti-anti-Semitism campaign in the black community should be supervised by Jews.

It would be a wonderful moment if those non-Jews, particularly African-Americans, who oppose anti-Semitism would join our Sunday afternoon protest. In that single act they could reassure Jews that Mr. Farrakhan is not the wave of the future and that Jews will not be alone in facing this kind of racist assault.

While some blacks have demurred, fearing that they will be seen as ''giving in to Jewish pressure,'' others realize that Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism is a poison that does damage to black interests, and that joining with Jews to protest this vicious hater should in no way imperil their credibility except among those who are already hostile to Jews and whose concerns they ought not accommodate.

Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, a bimonthly Jewish magazine of politics, culture and society.

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