Why do Jews care so much about putative leftists buddying up to Louis Farrakhan?
The question has come up again, as Women’s March Co-Leader Tamika Mallory attended a speech by Farrakhan where he unleashed his usual fusillade of anti-Semitic invective.
Mallory eagerly promoted her attendance.
Then, faced with widespread criticism from the Jewish community, she dug in her heels.
Far from exhibiting any contrition or even curiosity as to why Jews might find being blamed for (among other things) "all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out" repulsive, or that Jews might be offended when he declared he'd "pulled the cover off the eyes of the Satanic Jew...I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through," Mallory instead unleashed a corker of a response to her Jewish critics: "If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!"
In context, it was less of anti-Semitic dog-whistle than a bullhorn.
That didn’t stop Mallory from some textbook gaslighting, saying, "Funny how folks interpreted my mention of one having enemies the same as Jesus, as me describing a certain group of people. That’s your own stuff."
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As the controversy proceeded, things only deteriorated. Fellow Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour managed to wait to intercede until the most anti-Semitic possible moment, rising to promote a minister who first tried to “but Israel” the controversy, then told his Jewish interlocutor that her “wicked spirit” would hopefully be banished by the blood of Christ.
As for Mallory, she has continued to defiantly refuse to distance herself from Farrakhan’s vicious anti-Semitism (and homophobia, and transphobia). Instead, she has insisted on her own upstanding character and declared, as against those who don’t "understand how we [in the black community] organize," that "I will not be bullied!"
Outside of the Women’s March hierarchy, Mallory has plenty of defenders; albeit virtually none who will back Farrakhan directly. Rather, the most common response has been one of deflection.
I’m not unsympathetic to the desire to defend a friend - even one who is royally screwing up - from charges she is a monster. But at the very least, there needs to be recognition of the screw up, and that many of the critiques neither depend upon, nor have any interest in, accusing the friend of monstrosity.
Otherwise we’re just reliving the same nonsense we just went through with Bari Weiss: First taking perfectly cogent critiques of an obvious misstep and reframing them in the most inflammatory terms possible, then professing outrage at the inflammation.
(Much like with l’affaire Weiss, one suspects this whole controversy would have blown over quickly had the relevant parties simply conceded error and pledged to do better. Instead, we got increasingly obstinate double-downs and utter refusal to cede an inch, all of which ironically starts to give weight to the more serious charges of ingrained bias. Anyone can make a mistake, but when this mistake is the hill you decide to die on it becomes fair to ask questions as to why.)
To be sure, the defense of Mallory hasn’t been universal. Diane Alston sharply condemned the Women’s March leadership for its inability to condemn Farrakhan, while Aminatou Sow gave a simple, "This one’s not hard, Women’s March." Rabia Chaudry pointed out how outlier Farrakhan is in the U.S. Muslim community - and called its members out for not condemning him.
Inside the Women’s March leadership, however, it was left to Sophie Ellman-Golan - the most senior Jewish figure in the organization - to issue the sole unequivocal denunciation of Farrakhan’s repulsive views (though she has remained maddeningly oblique in failing to directly call her colleagues to account.)
Yet of all the twists and turns this saga has taken, perhaps the most interesting is to think about the implications of the question posed at the outset: Why is someone like Louis Farrakhan (or even Tamika Mallory) worth all this fuss?
David Klion took this approach: agreeing that Farrakhan is an anti-Semite, but suggesting that his influence is negligible compared to right-wing anti-Semites and thus not worth paying attention to.
Several months earlier, Linda Sarsour made a similar argument at the notorious New School panel on anti-Semitism: Why, given the rise of alt-right anti-Semitism whose influence extends all the way to the Oval Office, do Jews care about what a relatively powerless, over-the-hill black preacher is saying? Even JTA got into the act with a telling headline: "Louis Farrakhan is an anti-Semite. Is he still relevant?"
Of course, the easiest answer to this is to observe that Farrakhan apparently remains influential enough to attract the fulsome praise of some of the most prominent feminist leaders in America.
Still, on one level, questioning why Jews care so much about fringe black preachers or even newly-emergent feminist leaders makes perfect sense.
The 2018 Jewish death toll from intersectional feminists (or Nation of Islam preachers), by contrast, remains at zero.
When some on the Jewish right make the ridiculous assertion that Jews are objectively more threatened by left-wing anti-Semitism than rightward counterparts, it isn’t wrong to ask them to recheck their calculations.
On another level, however, the claimed befuddlement as to why Jews care about leftists - out-of-power, comparatively marginal - praising Farrakhan is sadly revealing regarding how some on the left conceptualize Jews. For there is an obvious reason why Jews might take it extra hard when persons on the left endorse the rank bigotry of Louis Farrakhan.
It’s because most of us are of the left too. And there’s nothing strange about feeling extra hurt when members of your own community are the one’s causing the wound.
This reason is so obvious that it’s worth dwelling on why it is so often overlooked. And here we begin to see the real stakes of the controversy: whether Jews are indeed recognized as members of this left-liberal community.
While both left- and right-wing anti-Semitism matter to Jews, they affect us along very different vectors.
Put bluntly, in the United States the anti-Semitism that is most likely to put a bullet in my brain emanates from the right. That matters, and nobody should be in denial about that raw and sobering fact.
But on a day-to-day basis, left-wing anti-Semitism is far more likely to obstruct Jews from joining movements we want to join, or force us out of communities and spaces which are very much ours.
Deeply embedded in the puzzlement over Jewish concern in cases like this is the assumption that the left is not our home; that Jews come to this controversy as strangers. The Jewish presence on the left is always at best probationary, and so any time Jews criticize the left we prove we are unworthy of membership. Those who would self-identify as left are denied that label. We are infiltrators, rabble-rousers, coming in under false pretenses.
Hence Klion’s declaration that, "The Jews leading this charge are not lefty and do not have the left’s best interests at heart."
It’s a trap. Jewish criticism of the left can never come from inside the left; the fact of the critique proves we’re not and never were one of them to begin with.
And so Jews are experiencing a doubly-marginalizing hit.
First, there’s the feeling of betrayal. And then there’s the realization that Mallory and her defenders can’t even conceive of it as a "betrayal," because "betrayal" implies we were recognized co-community members to begin with.
The only reason it’s hard to understand why Jews care about left-wing anti-Semitism is if one implicitly doesn’t believe Jews should care about the goings on of the left, because one does not see Jews as fundamentally part of the left.
But many - most - of us are. So when I watch conservatives play footsie with Holocaust deniers and alt-right neo-Nazis it is simultaneously more worrisome, because conservatives currently control the levers of American power, and less worrisome because I’m not a conservative. I have no ties to them. I have no expectations from them. And I certainly have no desire to become one.
When the left partakes in anti-Semitism, by contrast, it is infecting the political community and project that embody my hopes for the future. I have every right to care about that. I have every right to stake my claim to this space, to participate in the development of this project as an equal member. I do not come to this cause as a stranger.
Which should I care more about: that the powerful people I consider my adversaries hate me, or that the people who are alongside me organizing the resistance to that power don’t care about me?
It is a question that only makes sense if one thinks Jews don’t already come with political attachments that matter to us. It is a question that, upon being asked, answers why even Jews on the left know they will never be acknowledged to be at home on the left.