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Why are African Americans silent amid anti-Semitism?

Jersey City
Members of the Jewish community pass by near the scene of a mass shooting at the JC Kosher Supermarket on December 11, 2019, in Jersey City, New Jersey. Six people, including a Jersey City police officer and three civilians were killed in a deadly, hours-long gun battle between two armed suspects and police on Tuesday in a standoff and shootout in a Jewish market that appears to have been targeted, according to Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. |

For more than a decade I have worked in the area of Black-Jewish relations, specifically as they relate to Israel, so the recent shooting in Jersey City along with the horrific Bronx stabbing are both particularly disheartening for me. That two African American gunmen stormed a kosher supermarket and gunned down innocent members of the Jewish community is shameful, especially because it was rooted in anti-Semitism.

Shortly after the shooting, I began to reach out to Black leaders across the country and ask them to make a statement condemning anti-Semitism.  Many did, but surprisingly many others – including major Black institutions and scholars that I have worked with and even traveled with to Israel – were reluctant even though I gave them plenty of leeway. I did not link my request to support for Israel. I framed it as one focused solely on the twin problems of anti-Semitism and racism, and even said that they didn’t need to address the Jersey City incident specifically because the details were still forthcoming. I pleaded that this was an important moment for the Black community to condemn hatred aimed at another community, especially since the perpetrators were from our own.

The response in too many cases was silence. It was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “At the end of our lives, it won’t be the words of our enemies that wound us most, but the silence of our friends.” 

What is the knot in the throats of African Americans that keeps us from speaking out against anti-Semitism?  Why have we remained silent in the face of hate-filled speech directed at the Jewish community by Black leaders like Minister Louis Farrakhan whose venomous sermons call secular Jews the Synagogue of Satan?  Aren’t we the ones blessed with internal radars sensitive to the nuances of racism by even the most unsuspecting white bigot (“But Kristina, some of my best friends are black!)? Does our moral compass only include Black people? If that is the case, then ours is a false morality. The reason we admire righteous men like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama is precisely because their leadership extended humanity to all people.  

If I can say Black Lives Matter in the face of police corruption and brutality, then I should also be able to say that Jewish Lives Matter when members of their community are gunned down in cold blood. Because anti-Semitism is racism, and because, as the German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.  God will not hold us guiltless.  Not to speak is to speak.  Not to act is to act.”

During the last three years, I have seen a rise in anti-Semitism in the Black community. Part of this stems from a rise in hate speech across our nation that is being pushed at the highest levels of leadership. Teachings rooted in hatred of the other, left unchecked, lead to incidents like Jersey City – and Charlottesville.  But there is another issue, a specific issue, that gives otherwise morally-courageous Black leaders pause when dealing with the issue of the Jews? That issue is identity. There is a desperate cry in the heart of every African American surrounding issues of identity that our Jewish friends, even after the Holocaust, do not understand. 

Fringe Black Hebrew Israelite (BHI) sects like the one to which the Jersey City shooters belonged call into question the identity of the original Hebrews.  I do not share their sentiments but I understand their question because I hear it everywhere I go. When I’m on the campus of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), I am inevitably asked some variant of the following: “If Israel is in the Middle East, a region filled with people of olive skin and dark hair, why do the Jews we see look like white Europeans?”

Understanding this attitude helps explain a recent video on social media that showed a woman of color in a NYC subway station cursing an Israeli Jewish woman with chants of “Allahu Akbar” and slurs against “a nasty-ass Jew.” She yelled, “You’re white. You’re not a real Jew. You’re just a white boy.” I was appalled by her foul language, but what really caught my attention was her self-evident assertion that the Israeli woman was not a real Jew. I immediately recognized the source of her attack: all-too-pervasive teachings that demonize the Jewish people. My father wisely explained to me once that hatred does not seek truth, it seeks destruction. That is why the ignorant and disenfranchised are easy targets of hate speech. 

You can imagine how the narrative plays out as it relates to Israel. Once again, white Europeans have invented some excuse to throw out darker natives in order to take their land. This time they used the Holocaust as an excuse. But they also did it to indigenous peoples in the United States and colored peoples in Africa. Israel is just one more outpost of the white colonial project. This line of thinking may seem fringe, but it carries surprising weight in many Black circles. Seen through the lens of the Black experience, the theory doesn’t sound immediately outlandish. In various forms, it remains a mainstream idea on more than one hundred HBCU campuses where African Americans finally have the privilege to explore their cultural identity and racial heritage beyond the few pages given to the topic in high school history books. 

I believe there are no stupid questions. Black people, pushed out of history time and again, have every right to ask, “How do we fit into this story? Where are we?” That Black Americans question the racial identity of Jews should not be surprising given 400 years of chattel slavery. Nor should it be seen as ipso facto anti-Semitic. Those of us who see the bigger picture should take time to answer the question rather than dismiss it as purposefully hostile. Yet it is morally wrong for us to look the other way as fringe groups spread their hatred and use Black history to justify violence against other people groups. To do so is to embrace the methodology of the white supremacist.

In addition to being an African American, I am also a Christian, which gives me another perspective on the issue. After the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, Jews were dispersed all over the world. They migrated to Syria, Iran, Iraq, Greece, China, Ethiopia, Eastern Europe, France, Germany, Poland, North and South America.  Over time, they co-mingled with the people of those countries so that we now have Ethiopian Jews, Russian Jews, Indian Jews, and so on. In America, we are most familiar with the European Jew because of the migration patterns of the past. In Israel, however, you will see Jews who have come from all over the world – Jews who have, in spite of everything, held on to their culture, customs, and collective identity.

The Jews are members of a people group that, like African Americans, has been persecuted, oppressed, and murdered simply because of who they are. Now the descendants of those original Hebrews, after long sojourns in far-flung corners of the world, have come back to their original homeland which was given to them by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Here in their old-new land, holding a position of power after two thousand years, they must wrestle with difficult social issues like racism, sexuality, and economic injustice. The beautiful irony of the situation, with all its complexity, strikes me as something that only God could engineer. Our best response is to maintain a certain posture of thoughtfulness and humility.

Historically, the Black and Jewish communities have been the moral compass of America. At the 1963 March on Washington, just prior to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s delivery of his famous “I Have A Dream Speech,” Rabbi Joachim Printz opened with the following words:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

A great people, which had created a great civilization, had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America, but all of America. It must speak up and act, from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

Anti-Semitism and racism must be challenged and condemned by morally-conscious leaders in every community. May white Americans, Latino Americans, and Black Americans stand up across the nation to combat antisemitism and racism wherever it rears its head. To be silent is to support. To not act is to act.

Kristian King is the Director of African American Affairs for the Philos Project. The Philos Project African American Leadership Network will be launching a campaign fighting ant-Semitism and racism in 2020.

Kristian King is the director of African American Affairs for the Philos Project. The Philos Project African American Leadership Network will be launching a campaign fighting ant-Semitism and racism in 2020.

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