Karys Rhea and Keren Toledano
A strange notion has found purchase in progressive circles. It holds that nominally marginalized and oppressed groups, most notably Muslims and African Americans, cannot themselves espouse hateful views. According to this thinking, white people maintain a monopoly on hate, and every expression of hate by someone who is nonwhite is linked to some form of white or Western influence, whether colonialist, capitalist, or Christian.
This idea is also frequently embraced by those doing the hating. Consider the strain of anti-Semitism endemic to Palestinian society, where government-run television, media, textbooks, and mosques encourage violence against Jews, praise Hitler, characterize Jews as “apes and pigs,” and deny the Holocaust. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, widely taken to be the most moderate wing of Palestinian politics and the best chance for a partner in peace with Israel, recently released a video claiming that Jews “led the project to enslave humanity” and that Jewish behavior is responsible for anti-Semitism.
To many on the hard left, this moral inversion fits comfortably with Marxist theories about class struggle and power. When a class of people is deemed to lack power, their misdeeds are recast as noble efforts to obtain that power—even when those misdeeds might include terrorist acts against innocent civilians.
Never mind that the historical record is wholly at odds with Fatah’s explanation for Jew-hatred. Islamic anti-Semitism has been a fundamental part of Middle East culture for more than a millennium. Long before capitalism and Western colonialism, Jews were treated as second-class citizens, or “dhimmis,” under Islamic law, and they endured frequent pogroms, humiliation, and brutal oppression. Thus, denying the historical record is a necessity if one is set on absolving the wicked.
The lengths to which some will go in their denial is exemplified by a New York–based progressive organization called Jews for Racial & Economic Justice (JFREJ). Founded in 1990 by the academic and activist Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark and the activist Donna Nevel, JFREJ claims it is inspired by Jewish tradition to dismantle racism and economic exploitation. On its website, the organization highlights its work with Black Lives Matter and its efforts to fight Islamophobia and dismantle ICE, among other things.
JFREJ has published a guide called “Understanding Anti-Semitism” that takes readers through the leftist looking glass into a world where oppressor and oppressed bear little resemblance to their real-life counterparts. It is worth looking at this organization’s rhetoric as it helps shine a light on the current pathways of anti-racist activism and how it acts as a cover for Jew-hatred.
The authors of “Understanding Anti-Semitism” blame Christian dogma and hierarchies for the creation of Jew-hatred while writing off centuries of anti-Semitism in the Arab-Muslim world. They even reframe the dhimmi status imposed on Jews, casting it as a “protection” of the sultan. And while they acknowledge that this protection was bought through heavy taxation and that it facilitated “sporadic attacks, forced conversions and mass killings of Jews,” they claim that no specific “anti-Jewish ideology” persisted in the Arab-Muslim world because, after all, other non-Muslims were also oppressed. How the presence of additional prejudices makes anti-Semitism less bigoted is unclear. What is clear, however, is that Muslim anti-Semitism culminated in nearly 1 million Jews of Araby ethnically cleansed, forcibly dispossessed, and expelled from their homes in the 20th century alone.
It is telling that the JFREJ guide discusses “Islamophobia” but omits mention of the persecution of Christians currently rampant in the Arab-Muslim world. It misleadingly blames “white Christian nationalism” for the vast majority of domestic terrorist attacks in the United States, conveniently ignoring that 2019 saw roughly an even number of casualties at the hands of white-nationalist terrorists and jihadists. JFREJ also doesn’t mention that in 2017 alone, groups such as al-Shabab and the Taliban carried out nearly 11,000 Islamist attacks worldwide, resulting in 26,000 casualties.
Just as JFREJ exonerates Muslims wholesale for anti-Semitism, the group exempts racial minorities for it as well. In an interview with the Democracy Now radio show in late December, JFREJ executive director Audrey Sasson referred to New York City’s recent onslaught of anti-Semitic attacks as a manifestation of white nationalism—despite the fact that the majority of incidents were perpetrated by African Americans. In the December 28th stabbing attack on five Hasidic Jews at a Hanukkah party in Monsey, New York, for example, the assailant was a 37-year-old black male who reportedly Googled topics such as “Why did Hitler hate Jews,” “Zionist Temples in Staten Island,” and “Prominent companies founded by Jews in America.”
Some leftist Democratic politicians have dabbled in similar scapegoating. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, claimed that the rash of hate crimes in New York City was a “right-wing” problem. On Twitter, Representative Rashida Tlaib blamed “white supremacy” for the Jersey City shooting at a kosher supermarket that took the lives of three Jews and a non-Jewish police officer, even though both perpetrators were African Americans and one was affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites—a black supremacist and anti-Semitic hate group.
De Blasio later backtracked on his comments, and Tlaib deleted her tweet. But JFREJ has upheld the notion that there is no anti-Semitism apart from white supremacy, including retweeting an article from the socialist magazine Jacobin that claimed the best way to fight anti-Semitism “is to reject the centrist idea that anti-Semitism transcends politics,” and declared it was “pernicious” to point out that Jew-haters exist on the left and the right.
Yet every week, it seems, another video appears on social media, or in the news, showing a black American verbally or physically attacking a visibly Jewish victim. The attacks range from anti-Semitic tirades to throwing objects, spitting, beating, stabbing, and shooting. Indeed, one could rightly describe these frequent and vicious assaults on Jews as a slow-motion pogrom.
What is JFREJ’s solution to this problem? Apparently, the first step is to deny that it is happening at all. The group’s website claims that the real issue is “white Jews’ preoccupation with black anti-Semitism,” stoked by “a false narrative…that focuses on conflict between white Jews and black non-Jews.” And who does the organization see as the true “architects of this conflict”? Get ready for it: “Ku Klux Klan terrorists in the South forcing African-Americans to flee to northern cities”—Ku Klux Klan terrorists, that is, who were last active a century ago.
The second part of the solution is no less confounding. In Sasson’s recent interview, she said: “Our focus is to build solidarity with other groups targeted by anti-Semitism.” Other groups targeted by anti-Semitism? The very formulation defies intelligibility.
But it is revealing nonetheless. Sasson’s true intention is to deny that anti-Semitism—understood as a specific hatred against Jews—even exists. JFREJ subordinates the uniqueness of the Jewish plight to a larger narrative about racism—one that ironically excludes the Jews. This explains why, at New York City’s January 5th “March Against Anti-Semitism,” JFREJ chose to publicize the event as a generalized rally against “hate.” In their promotional material, they even mentioned Islamophobia before saying a word about anti-Semitism.
What we see here are leftist Jews leveraging their “Jewishness” to perpetuate a logical and moral perversion. In a similar fashion, the November 2019 issue of Jewish Currents featured Vermont senator and Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders conflating the fight against anti-Semitism with Palestinian liberation: “The forces fomenting anti-Semitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians….The struggle against anti-Semitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.”
Once anti-Semitism is grouped with bigotry in general, it can be ignored in favor of more fashionable concerns: namely, systemic racism in the United States. In her interview, Sasson asserted that attacks on Jews, if committed by minorities, arise from “rightful anger about real problems.” Since black Americans are perceived to be a marginalized group, their hate crimes must be rationalized as an understandable, if misguided, rebellion against oppression—as opposed to the manifestation of anti-Semitism that they are.
By this reasoning, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan—who famously compared Jews to “termites,” called Jews “bloodsuckers,” “great and master deceivers,” and the “enemy of God and the enemy of the righteous”—hates Jews because of some misplaced grudge against the system. And so when Farrakhan refers to Hitler as “a very great man” and attributes gay marriage, abortion, and anal sex to the “Satanic influence of the Talmudic Jews,” he is merely reacting to the evil of the white, Christian West.
In actuality, what we know about the Nation of Islam and groups such as the Black Hebrew Israelites is that their members have been actively enlisting people of color for decades, setting up shop and drumming up hatred in local communities. They preach that Jews are to blame for the plight of African Americans and draw an equivalence between black suffering in the U.S. and Palestinian suffering in the Middle East. This line of anti-Semitism gained particular strength after the assassination of Martin Luther King, a Zionist and friend of the Jews. King’s tragic departure from the national conversation paved the way for his views to be overtaken by those in the tradition of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad, who wedded his ideas on black power to a sci-fi version of Islam and made anti-Semitism an enduring feature of the Nation of Islam.
JFREJ has actually aligned itself with Farrakhan supporters. On its website, the group proudly states that it lets the priorities of the marginalized groups with which it partners “guide [its] actions.” Thus JFREJ has partnered with two former leaders of the Women’s March: Tamika Mallory, an African American, and Linda Sarsour, a Muslim American. Both women have voiced admiration for Louis Farrakhan. And Sarsour’s record of anti-Semitic statements in the name of Palestinian activism is well-known. She has said, for example, that Israel is “built on supremacy” and “on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else.” She also tweeted: “Nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Sarsour earned an approving retweet from former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke when she tweeted: “Israel should give free citizenship to US politicians. They are more loyal to Israel than they are to the American people.” But, as one headline on JFREJ’s website says, “JFREJ Stands with Linda Sarsour (Again, Always, with Love).” If people like Sarsour guide JFREJ’s actions, it’s no wonder that the group whitewashes hate crimes against Jews.
Above all, JFREJ prizes its “alliances” and readily dismisses the sins of its allies—even when those sins run counter to the group’s stated beliefs. In her interview, Sasson rightly described anti-Semitism as a “tool that punches up against Jews, in that it portrays Jews as powerful.” But this is precisely the conspiracist brand of anti-Semitism espoused by anti-Israel groups such as IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, with whom JFREJ partners. These outfits rely on an anti-capitalist, anti-colonialist framework that sees the Jewish collective (i.e., Israel) as the oppressive power and that equates Zionism with Palestinian suffering.
Either Sasson is displaying willful blindness or she has been corrupted by the very suggestion she claims to condemn: that Jews are the oppressor class, and Palestinians their hapless victims. The latter stance seems more convincing given the activist left’s penchant for pitting the powerful against the weak. As John-Paul Pagano has written, if Jews are perceived as the oppressor class, then overt anti-Semitism becomes “easy to disguise as a politics of emancipation,” and punching up at Jews becomes “a form of speaking truth to power.”
While it is true that abusers are often themselves the victims of abuse, and that a person’s experience of oppression may contribute to the ways in which he oppresses other people, it is intellectually dishonest to claim that this is somehow exculpatory. And while it is laudable to condemn all forms of bigotry, there is something obscene about automatically holding up the perpetrator of a hate crime as a victim and subsequently elevating his grievances above the violence done to the actual injured party. Regarding such violence, Sasson’s vigilance is wanting. On Democracy Now, she argued against greater security measures for Jews and claimed that the “answer to what is happening is not more policing.”
Anti-Semitism has long been a feature of extreme left-wing and Islamist ideologies—from Soviet Communism to Hezbollah’s exterminationist creed. As everyone knows, it has also been a feature of fascism and Nazism. It is incumbent on both the left and right to root out the Jew-haters in their midst. But some progressive groups have instead embraced them—as a display of progressive virtue, no less. As is often the case when bigotry is given the gloss of victimhood, it is the Jews who will bear the brunt of the abuse.
Karys Rhea is a fellow at the Counter-Islamist Grid, a project of the Middle East Forum. Keren Toledano is an artist and writer based in New York City.