Analysis

The One Source of Hope About America’s Latest Antisemitism Scandal

We’ve seen and heard it all before: the antisemitic comment; the subsequent apology (some more heartfelt than others). But there has also been something different about the reaction to Nick Cannon and DeSean Jackson’s recent actions

Allison Kaplan Sommer
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DeSean Jackson, left, and Nick Cannon.
DeSean Jackson, left, and Nick Cannon.Credit: Amy Sussman, John Amis / AP
Allison Kaplan Sommer

The antisemitic conspiracy theories at the center of raging controversies involving prominent Black sports figures and entertainment celebrities sound depressingly familiar.

The “lessons” on all-powerful Jewish cabals and illuminati – which rapper Richard “Professor Griff” Griffin and “The Masked Singer” host Nick Cannon expounded on during a now-infamous June 30 episode of the videotaped podcast “Cannon’s Class” – were similar to the statements that got Griffin ousted from Public Enemy more than 30 years earlier. In 1989, Griffin, billed at the time as the pioneering rap group’s “minister of information,” said in an interview that Jews were responsible “for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe,” and that they “have a grip on America.”

Griffin and Cannon repeatedly referenced the teachings of Louis Farrakhan, whose Nation of Islam organization published “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews” in the 1990s. Farrakhan himself has been quoted over the years as calling Jews “satanic,” comparing them to “termites” and praising Hitler as a “great man.”

They also touched on theories of Black Hebrew groups that claim Africans and other racial minorities are the true descendants of the 12 Tribes of Israel, and that today’s Jews are thieving imposters who illegitimately claim their biblical heritage.

These themes were also front and center in another scandal that broke alongside the Cannon controversy last week: NFL star DeSean Jackson praised Farrakhan on social media, and posted a quote that was erroneously identified with Hitler. The quote said: “The white Jews knows [sic] that the Negroes are the real Children of Israel,” and that “the white citizens of America will be terrified to know that all this time they’ve been mistreating and discriminating and lynching the Children of Israel.” Only if “the Negroes know who they are” will the Jewish “plan for world domination” be foiled, the quote in Jackson’s post added.

Minister Louis Farrakhan displaying the Nation of Islam book "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," during his speech in March 2011 at Jackson State University, Mississippi.
Minister Louis Farrakhan displaying the Nation of Islam book "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," during his speech in March 2011 at Jackson State University, Mississippi.Credit: AP

The scandal escalated when former NBA player and activist Stephen Jackson (no relation) took to Instagram to defend Jackson “speaking the truth.” He wrote that “the Jews are the richest. You know who the Rothschilds are? ... They control all the banks.”

The Farrakhan issue

The fallout from these controversies, which had the words “Jews” and “Hebrews” trending on Twitter for several days, felt equally well-worn. We’ve seen it go both ways: Either the public figure quoting or praising Farrakhan is pressed into an apology – which usually doesn’t feel sincere – or digs in their heels and pays a price.

No matter how many times it happens, admiration for Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam organization has been difficult for American Jews and their advocacy organizations to navigate. Fighting his history of vicious antisemitic messaging inevitably reads as an attack against his messages of Black self-help and empowerment, and his work in the community.

In the past, there have been attempts by individual Jews or Jewish organizations – usually the Anti-Defamation League or the Simon Wiesenthal Center – to educate and sensitize Black public figures. Back in 1989, after Public Enemy leader Chuck D made a public apology for Professor Griff’s words and kicked him out of the group, he sat down with the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper and toured the center’s Holocaust museum.

In 2018, District of Columbia Councilman Trayon White – a Farrakhan supporter – was caught on video claiming a freak snowstorm was the fault of “the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters.” His apology activities included a Passover seder and meeting with Jewish community leaders to discuss racism over bagels and lox, and a guided tour of Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Similar outreach efforts were made without success when loyalty to Farrakhan and a refusal to clearly apologize and renounce his teachings roiled the Women’s March movement.

The friction led to boycotts of the Women’s March by Jewish women and other sympathizers, forcing some of its leaders to step down last year.

The Jackson controversy has been following the apology playbook. The NFL called the Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver’s words “highly inappropriate, offensive and divisive,” and his team issued a statement on July 7: “We reiterated to DeSean the importance of not only apologizing but also using his platform to take action to promote unity, equality and respect,” it stated.

An apology came the same day. Jackson wrote of the Hitler quotes that he “really didn’t realize what this passage was saying.” He added that it “was a mistake to post this and I truly apologize for posting it and sorry for any hurt I have caused.”

While social distancing made a Holocaust Museum visit unfeasible, Jackson did manage a Zoom conversation with a Holocaust survivor clad in his prisoner’s uniform, posting a photograph of the encounter on Instagram. “Today I had an opportunity to speak with 94 year old holocaust survivor Mr. Edward Mosberg. Thank you Mr. Mosberg for your valuable time and insight today. Im [sic] taking this time to continue with educating myself and bridging the gap between different cultures, communities & religions,” he wrote. Jackson also accepted Mosberg’s invitation to visit the Auschwitz death camp.

Articulate responses

In Cannon’s case, no outright apology was initially forthcoming, though he did post on Facebook Monday that he does “not condone hate speech nor the spread of hateful rhetoric” and called for “unity and understanding.” 

As a result, the entertainment giant ViacomCBS – with whom he had a 15-year working relationship – announced Tuesday it had “terminated” its ties with the entertainer and producer, because it was “deeply troubled that Nick has failed to acknowledge or apologize for perpetuating antisemitism.”

On Wednesday, in what appeared to be an effort to save what was left of his career – “The Masked Singer” airs on Fox – a version of the usual apology appeared on Twitter, extending “deepest and most sincere apologies to my Jewish sisters and brothers for the hurtful and divisive words that came out of my mouth.”

Cannon wrote that he was “ashamed of the uninformed and naïve place that these words came from.” He thanked “the Rabbis, community leaders and institutions who reached out to me to help enlighten me, instead of chastising me.” 

What felt different – and hopeful – about the latest antisemitism brouhaha were the articulate responses coming from members of the Black community, reflecting the serious conversations taking place there. These weren’t canned or forced apologies, but thoughtful reflections on the source and history of antisemitism in their midst.

The first came from sports journalist Jemele Hill, who wrote  in The Atlantic (“The Anti-Semitism We Didn’t See”) Monday about her own past experience of having made a joke about Hitler – for which she was suspended by her then-employer, ESPN, for a week. Looking back, she wrote, “I was, of course, aware of the Holocaust, but I had given little thought to the feelings of the Jewish community because, frankly, it wasn’t my own.”

At that time, “had anyone made a remark trivializing slavery, I would have been incensed.” She wrote that she realized “that just because I’m aware of the destruction caused by racism, that doesn’t mean I’m automatically sensitive to other forms of racism, or in this case, anti-Semitism. Black people, too, are capable of being culturally arrogant.”

In an impressive display of honesty, she admitted what must have been difficult to say: “The unfortunate truth is that some Black Americans have shown a certain cultural blindspot about Jews. Stereotypical and hurtful tropes about Jews are widely accepted in the African American community.” She called on her community to “use their own racial experiences to foster empathy for others.”

A day later, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar penned a column in the Hollywood Reporter (“Where Is the Outrage Over Anti-Semitism in Sports and Hollywood?”) He decried “the shocking lack of massive indignation” over Jackson’s antisemitic words, when “given the New Woke-fulness in Hollywood and the sports world, we expected more passionate public outrage. What we got was a shrug of meh-rage.”

Abdul-Jabbar didn’t mention Cannon by name, but he called out a set of images that rapper Ice Cube posted in June: a Star of David with a cube in its center, followed by black cube structures in different places around the world – the implication being that Jews control spans the globe. The tweets had already been criticized by Black thought leaders, and academic Marc Lamont Hill and writer Roxane Gay.

“It’s so disheartening to see people from groups that have been violently marginalized do the same thing to others without realizing that perpetuating this kind of bad logic is what perpetuates racism,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, concluding: “If we’re going to be outraged by injustice, let’s be outraged by injustice against anyone.”

Ice Cube, for his part, didn’t appreciate Abdul-Jabbar’s input, tweeting: “Shame on the Hollywood Reporter who obviously gave my brother Kareem 30 pieces of silver to cut us down without even a phone call.”

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