The details, of course, are well-known by now. Farrakhan, a master conspiracy theorist, emerges from out under the rocks like some monster to pronounce against his longtime enemies, “the “powerful Jews,” warning that “their time is up, your world is through.” This would have passed for ordinary doggerel from the leader of the Nation of Islam and left at that were it not for Tamika Mallory, a leader in the Women’s March movement. Tweeting from the event, she took a selfie with Farrakhan, embracing as an elder statesperson an old man with a record of black self-empowerment and demented ideas about Jews, women, gays, lesbians, and transgender people. As if played to script, Mallory dug in to defend herself. “If your leader,” she replied to a supporter, “does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader.” Other Women’s March leaders, including Linda Sarsour, jumped into the fray to defend Mallory online, and then finally the Women’s March released a statement, the tepidity of which was framed in the passive voice. Committing themselves against anti-Semitism, they avowed that Farrakhan’s views are “not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles, which were created by women of color leaders and are grounded in Kingian nonviolence.”
Jewish rightwingers are delighted. “The left is no home for the Jews,” they tell us. Indeed, the liberal and progressive Jewish left is split between those who want to ignore what is perhaps best viewed as a storm in a tea kettle, and to focus on the problems and dangers presented by the occupation and by racist and neo-Nazi alt-right here at home. But the “enemies of Jesus” and “THE leader” was too much for many who have expressed a combination of outrage mixed with confusion, and hurt at this betrayal expressed by leaders of the intersectional and feminist left.
What makes this all so particularly grotesque and what no one wants to talk about is that this particular fight is turning into a racial conflict between people of color on the activist left and white Ashkenazi Jews.
In play is the politics of “recognition” that marks the literature on “black and Jews,” “Jewish racism” and “black Anti-Semitism.” Recognition is a key term in essays from the 1990s devoted to the topic by thinkers like Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, and Cornel West. The Jewish participants in these dialogues wrote wanting African Americans to recognize Jewish suffering and to combat Anti-Semitism in their own community. African American intellectuals wrote wanting Jews to recognize black suffering, black humanity, and racism in the Jewish community. The arguments are now intensified by Jews of color now demanding their own rightful recognition in both communities. Recognition of the other and by the other has been and was always going to be the guiding thread.
Maybe it’s time to uncouple and to stop wanting the other’s recognition. Indifference to gentile opinion is a lost Jewish art, mostly among liberal and progressive Jews who tend to be anxious and even cloying about the moral politics of inclusion. Why should it matter what other people think? In the nineteenth century, the German Jewish historian and leader of the Reform Movement Abraham Geiger thought that the hard protective shell of Jewish ghetto identity was a thing of the past. But what a remarkable thing it was, a tough and unaffected structure of feeling that did not depend upon any other other than God to confirm one’s place in the greater scheme of things.
Perhaps it is time simply to say that African Americans do not need Jews to recognize their story and Jews do not need African Americans to confirm theirs. This demand that “the other” must recognize “me” is too heavy a weight. Viewed one way, there is something to be said for not caring about the other, just a little. There is too little time and energy to care about this Farrakhan foolishness and certainly no reason to be surprised by anti-Jewish myopia on the left. These things just are, and one can draw the necessary conclusions, be they as they are.
What not wanting or needing recognition means practically is that African Americans who aren’t anti-Semitic should not be forced on demand to condemn every expression of anti-Semitism in the African American community. Jews should not have to need that kind of recognition. Nor should white American Jews have to condemn every expression of racism in the Jewish community or have to prove they passed moral and political litmus tests. People will either step up to do the right thing because it matters to them morally and/or because it meets the political interest of their own community as best they understand it; or they won’t.
If the leaders of the Women’s March want to shoot themselves in the foot, if they think it is possible to be a feminist and support Farrakhan, if they think one can be opposed to anti-Semitism and homophobia while supporting Farrakhan, then that is for them to decide; but they will carry the consequence, because, really, no, one cannot split this difference.
Politics is the art of self-interest and coalition building. More important than the lack of discernment that has afflicted the leadership at the Women’s March and those parts of the left rallying behind them is the future of black-Jewish relations, the well-being of these two political communities, and the future of this country. As a mater of self-respect, African Americans and American Jews should be allowed to speak their minds and call each other out without demanding anything from the other upfront and at the start. This has nothing to do with the virtue of suffering and the virtue of solidarity. Let the chips fall where they may and then choose to pick up or not pick up the pieces if that is in the common political interest or at all relevant to the motivation of friendship. Black-Jewish relations should not have to depend upon the moralizing cant of a “recognition.”