(On Recognition) Blacks & Jews & the Women’s March (Farrakhan Again)

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The details, of course, are well-known by now. Farrakhan, a master conspiracy theorist, emerges from out under the rocks like some scaly 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 real danger 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 most, among whom many have expressed a combination of outrage mixed with confusion, and hurt at this betrayal expressed by leaders of the intersectional and feminist left.

But 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. As always, Jews of color are caught in a miserable place in the middle.

In play is the politics of recognition which marks the literature on “black and Jews,” “Jewish racism” and “black Anti-Semitism.” A key term in the literature is recognition, which one can find in essays 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 always been and was always going to be the guiding thread.

Maybe it’s time to uncouple and to stop wanting the other’s recognition. Indeed, not giving a f%&k is a lost Jewish art. Today it seems to be enjoyed by orthodox Jews, whereas liberal and progressive Jews tend to be anxious, even cloying. It matters to them, it matters to us, what “the other thinks” of them, how others represent and try to define us. Or they simply disavow any Jewish political interest. 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, an unreliant, unresponsive, unaffected structure of feeling that did not depend upon the other, upon any other other than God, to confirm one’s place in the greater scheme of things.

Perhaps, after all, 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, always, that “the other” recognize “me” is too heavy a weight for anyone to carry. 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. It simply is, and one should draw the necessary consequence, be that as it may.

I am not your “ally” and you are not mine. But people are going to be decent to each other or they won’t be, and there is nothing that one can do to assure that this kind of idiocy is not going to happen consistently across the board. People are dumb. People aren’t dumb. It really depends, and it’s best to proceed case by case, and without the blinkers of wanting the other to confirm me, whoever that may be.

What not wanting or needing recognition means practically is that African Americans who aren’t anti-Semitic should not be forced to condemn every expression of anti-Semitism in the African American community, as if on demand. If they are autonomous and free, Jews should not have to need that kind of recognition. Nor for their part, do white Jews have to condemn every expression of racism in the Jewish community, or every and single outrage, major or minor in Israel and in the occupied West Bank, as if on cue, or to meet some kind of litmus test. They will or they won’t not because they need the recognition from some other of some Jewish virtue, but because that suits the best putative Jewish political interest as one undestands it.

No one has to cringe, and that includes black activists or Jews on the liberal and progressive left. Farrakhan is an old tune, but so is the conflict between black and Jews on the activist left going back to the late 1960s and then again in the 1990s. Why should anyone be surprised that this kind of antisemitism is going to pop up at the intersectional left? Why should anyone be surprised when leftist activists refuse to acknowledge Jewish lives and dig in outrageously when they are challenged? Why do liberal and progressive Jews need that recognition so badly? One can live without it. That is what it means to be free. Genuine recognition does not require apologetic virtue signaling, and no one has to support anyone as if there was some kind of default solidarity position.

I don’t care much about Farrakhan and I don’t believe there is much support for him out in the world. If the leaders of the Women’s March want to shoot themselves in the foot, if they think it is possible be a feminist and support Farrakhan, if they think one can be opposed anti-Semitism and homophobia while supporting Farrakhan, then that is for them to decide, only that they will carry the consequence, because, really, no, one cannot. To think that one can split this difference is simply stupid, and there is no reason not to say this, regardless of what some Jews on the left might say and regardless of the resounding silence of groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

Politics is the art of self-interest and coalition building. More important than the lack of discernment, the inability to know things clearly, 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, and the well-being of these two political communities along with the future of this country. In a spirit 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, at least not upfront and at the start. This has nothing to do with virtue, the virtue of suffering, and the virtue of solidarity. Let the chips fall where they may and then choose to or not to pick up the pieces if that is, indeed, in the common political interest or at all relevant to the motivation of friendship. But can’t we say that we’re done with the moralizing cant of recognition that is independent of political interest?

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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One Response to (On Recognition) Blacks & Jews & the Women’s March (Farrakhan Again)

  1. dmf says:

    I think as long as people from all sides continue to connect their ethnicity/race to theological views of statehood/citizenship then “moralizing cant of recognition” will be the order of the day…

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