On Sunday, January 5, 2020, I was one of an estimated 25,000 protesters participating in the Solidarity March against antisemitism. Chilled and tightly packed marchers began in Manhattan’s Foley Square, stepped, painfully slowly, over the Brooklyn Bridge, and congregated in Cadman Plaza.
In Cadman Plaza, a protester held up a handmade sign reading “RACIST WHITE HOUSE.” Another man persistently walked in front of that man, carrying a mass-produced “Solidarity. No Hate No Fear” sign. The first man shifted position, but the second man would not be deterred. He clearly did not want Trump-blaming to triumph. The two protesters’ eventual shouting match typifies a national debate. How to understand recent attacks by blacks against Jews? Is it all Trump’s fault, or the fault of white supremacists? Or is there such a thing as black antisemitism?
That sign was just one of many attempts to attribute recent attacks on Jews by blacks in the New York City area to Donald Trump or white people in general. Democratic Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib blamed “white supremacists.” Tlaib is herself a Palestinian-American who has made inflammatory statements about Jews. Jewish Currents editor David Klion warned against “right-wing forces” “exploiting attacks” to “legitimize racism.” An invited speaker at Sunday’s rally said that racism was a problem for “the past three years,” that is, the years that Donald Trump has occupied the White House.
This article hopes to demonstrate that, contrary to leftist historical revisionism, headline-making incidents of black antisemitism stretch back decades. Though separated by time and space, these incidents share enough features to be understood as a cultural trend, rather than as the bad behavior of isolated lone wolves.
Naming and analyzing black antisemitism, contra David Klion, is not a “right-wing,” “racist” exercise. I’m Catholic and Polish-American and I have no problem calling out Catholic or Polish antisemitism. The folk motif of the blood libel, the derogatory Polish word “Zydokomuna,” the radio broadcasts of Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, are all part of my heritage. I explicitly reject them, condemn them, and distance myself from them. No, all African Americans are not antisemitic; only a minority are, but denunciation is all the more vital and urgent given persistent efforts to deny the very existence of black antisemitism, and to silence any discussion of it.
Van Wallach, a Times of Israel blogger, quotes antisemitic themes in African American writing dating back to 1965. A previous Front Page article mentioned the 1995 Freddy’s Fashion Mart protests that culminated in eight killings, the deadly 1991 Crown Heights pogrom, Khalid Abdul Muhammad’s 1993 speech at Kean College, and the 2002 Amiri Baraka poem that blamed Jews for the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Here’s another incident. On January 17, 1994, Castlemont High School students went to the movies in Oakland, California. The movie was Schindler’s List. The students talked and laughed continuously throughout the film until, one hour into the showing, theater manager Allen Michaan stopped the projector. Audience members, “shaking with anger,” complained. “I’ve never seen such furious, hurt customers. Some were Holocaust survivors, and one woman was sobbing,” Michaan said. The students were asked to leave and their departure was applauded by the audience. A Castlemont student said that audience members applauding her departure was “so uncomfortable.” An NPR producer highlighted how victimized the students felt. “There was always a feeling of being policed or policing yourself if you’re young, brown, and carefree in a white space. That can harden you really quick.” Castlemont students’ behavior made national news.
Castlemont is a low-ranked, mostly black and Hispanic high school. Recent news stories describe it as a place of shootings, homelessness, manipulated test scores, and football protests featuring Colin Kaepernick himself.
Back in 1994, prominent persons said that African American students should not be criticized for laughing at Jewish suffering because African American students have very hard lives and are victims of oppression. When Schindler’s List producer and director Steven Spielberg visited the school, the Jerusalem Post reported on April 13, 1994, “About 100 students and others protested Spielberg’s appearance, saying the Holocaust does not speak directly to them.” “We don’t have any problem talking about their Holocaust. But there hasn’t been anything about the Asian holocaust, the Latino holocaust, the black holocaust,” said one Castlemont student. Another student said, “It was long ago and far away and about people we never met. We don’t know about those concentration camps, but I do hear a lot of Jew jokes.” Another student said, “We see death and violence in our community all the time. People cannot understand how numb we are toward violence.” And another, “I don’t want to hear anything about anybody else’s Holocaust before I hear my own.”
Those protesting Spielberg’s visit carried signs that said, “How can a Zionist Jew teach us about racism and oppression?” and “Zionist Jews are the new Nazis.” Before Spielberg took the mic, a student performed a monologue that began, “Dear Mr. President, I am a woman with three children and no food to eat.”
California’s Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, accompanied Spielberg. Wilson had previously said that welfare “seduces teenage girls into a life of poverty and encourages irresponsibility.” One student said to Wilson that she saw his visit “as an opportunity to vent the anger, and the spite, and the animosity I feel toward your entire time in office. I mean, I want to know was your main purpose in portraying yourself through the streets of my city where you have cut welfare, education, and many young futures, like mine” (sic).
A Castlemont teacher organized an “African Holocaust Day. There were musicians and African dancers, lectures on ancient Egypt and Jim Crow.” A speaker “wearing a regal brown and gold dashiki, a kufi, with a leather-bound neck pouch, walked up and down the front of a classroom, commanding students’ attention, pointing to placards listing the names of people who had been lynched … This is the Maafa … Maafa is another word for the African Holocaust.” One student’s takeaway from these presentations was the false impression that “Slave ships were owned by Jews.” A Jewish social worker at the school was asked, “Did your family own slaves?”
Film scholar Dennis Hanlon said that many students’ comments reflected their feeling that “their own history and suffering were largely ignored and that before they should be asked to understand another communities’ suffering, they should be allowed to learn more about their own.” Spielberg agreed, telling students that they were victims of bad press. Partly in reparations for these black students’ alleged victimization, Steven Spielberg made Amistad, about a slave uprising.
By 1997, the Washington Post published the false claim that “The only people who laughed during Schindler’s List were skinheads.” National Public Radio’s This American Life addressed the Castlemont incident in 2018. Times of Israel blogger James Inverne argued that This American Life’s handling of the topic perpetuated the notion that if Jews protest against antisemitism expressed by black people, they risk “creating more hatred towards Jews.”
A different event, thousands of miles away, echoes some of the same themes evident in the Castlemont incident. Those who insist that “black antisemitism” is a misnomer meant to distract attention from white racists, a recent invention, or that blacks who commit antisemitic acts are programmed to do so by white racists or Donald Trump might be surprised by a New York Times article entitled, “Jews Debating Black Antisemitism.”
“Confronted by racial and religious hatred … a shocked Jewish community is debating what to do about it,” the article begins. The article mentions suspicious synagogue fires in New York City. Some Jewish leaders quoted in the article argue for “vigorous” condemnation and counter action. Others fear that “defensive reaction might bring on a backlash and hasten the political antisemitism that all Jews seek to avoid.” Some argue that the Holocaust ended antisemitism. Others allege that anti-Jewish “incitement” gains momentum when religious, cultural and political leaders de not rapidly condemn it. When New York City’s mayor did speak out against antisemitism, a black teacher responded that the mayor was trying to “appease the powerful Jewish financiers of the city.”
“Jews Debating Black Antisemitism” feels entirely of the moment. It reads as if it had been published in 2020. It wasn’t. The Times published this article on January 26, 1969, fifty-one years ago. The article is as if frozen in amber. The same debates are happening today, and there has been no resolution to them. “Jews Debating Black Antisemitism” concerns one of the most headline-grabbing outbreaks of allegations of black antisemitism. These allegations swirled around the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike.
Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood, changed over decades from being predominantly Jewish to being increasingly black. Teachers were often Jewish. In the late sixties, African American activists demanded community control of schools. These activists were funded, ironically enough, by the Ford Foundation. This funding source for what would become an antisemitic manifestation is ironic because Henry Ford himself was a notorious anti-Semite. By 1968, Henry Ford had been dead for twenty-one years. His foundation, Heather MacDonald argues, had been radicalized into a steamroller of leftist social engineering. The Ford Foundation, MacDonald writes, exercised its considerable financial might to advance black separatists and anti-Semites. African American Civil Rights leader Bayard Rustin was critical of the black separatist position, but he didn’t have the heft of the Ford Foundation at his back.
Black activists terminated Jewish teachers. Albert Shanker lead teachers on what has been called the longest and largest teachers’ strike in US history. Shanker became so nationally prominent that his name was the punchline in a 1973 Woody Allen movie, Sleepers.
The terminated teachers protested, saying that they had seniority and that their dismissal was based on their racial identity, rather than their competence or qualifications. An African American judge determined that there were no credible accusations against these teachers, but activist Rhody McCoy stated, “Not one of these teachers will be allowed to teach anywhere in the city. The black community will see to that.” Activist Sonny Carson said, “I don’t think that any white person is interested in giving a black child an education … By any means necessary [whites] are going to be kept out.” Pamphlets appeared alleging that Jews are “Blood-sucking Exploiters and Murderers … the So-Called Liberal Jewish Friend … is Really Our Enemy and He is Responsible For the Serious Educational Retardation of Our Black Children.” “The Black Community Must Unite Itself Around The Need To Run Our Own Schools And To Control Our Own Neighborhoods Without Whitey Being Anywhere On The Scene,” the pamphlet said.
Inflammatory rhetoric was sometimes accompanied by violence. Leslie Campbell was a teacher who, like many involved in this strike, would go on to jettison his “slave name” and take an African-inspired name, in his case Jitu Weusi. In another case, a student named “Cheryl” became “Monifa”. Campbell / Weusi exhorted his students, “You have to stop fighting among yourselves … You’ve got to get your minds together. If you steal, steal from those who have it. … When the enemy taps you on the shoulder, send him to the cemetery. You know who your enemy is.” Afterward, three teachers were injured “including one white woman who was punched, had her hair torn, and her clothes ripped.”
The Rev. C. Herbert Oliver was chairman of the new community-control governing board. He signed the letters dismissing the Jewish teachers. When he was confronted on how his terminations would hurt the teachers and also hurt black-Jewish relations, Rev. Oliver said, “We have had three hundred years of scars and it’s about time those scars were healing.” In other words, Rev. Oliver argued that black suffering trumped any suffering the teachers might experience from being abruptly dismissed from their jobs, and that progress is a zero sum game. For blacks to advance, others must go back.
Separatists promoted their idea of an appropriate education for black students. Students were told that they descend from the Yoruba tribe, and from “African kings and queens.” They were trained to perform African drumming and dances. One student remembers feeling humiliated and terrorized by her “white” schoolwork. Students were taught that “racism is inherent in the educational system” a system rife with “white privilege and white ignorance.” This “white” schoolwork, for example, taught that Isaac Newton made advances in the sciences and mathematics. They were taught that Newton’s work was not new, and Africans were the first to come up with innovations attributed to Newton. Students in the new curriculum read Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, H. Rap Brown, and Mao Tse Tung. “We became international,” one former student remembers. “It’s a good thing because black people are the Third World.” “We’re going to do Kwanza and not Christmas,” another student remembered.” We will, she said, “get rid of white Jesus.” Students sang the Black National Anthem. (Accounts can be found here, here, here, here, and here.)
This curriculum suggests at least one potential irritant between blacks and Jews in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike. When Ashkenazi Jews first arrived in the US in large numbers in the late nineteenth century, they were a visible, vulnerable, hated and vilified minority. Many Jewish immigrants to America responded to their ghetto identity by shaving their beards, adopting American dress, and naming their children “Sylvia” and “Sheldon,” non-Jewish names selected by Jewish immigrants exactly because the names were not Jewish. These Americanized Jews became teachers, and no doubt many believed that they were handing black children the keys they themselves had used to enter Die Goldene Medina, the Golden Land.
Jews were not just teaching these keys to success in America. Jews embodied these keys. A mere 23 years before the strike, Auschwitz and Dachau were still functioning. American Ivy League universities still had anti-Jewish quotas, and social, housing, travel, occupation, and employment opportunities were restricted for American Jews. And yet Jews overcame. Public education played no small part in their rise.
Albert Shanker epitomized this saga. Shanker’s mother, Mamie, was from a family impoverished by antisemitic laws and corruption in Russia. Mamie herself had to hide in a Christian neighbor’s barrel under potatoes to survive a pogrom. Her half-sister was raped by soldiers and subsequently died. Shanker’s father, “Morris rose at 2 A.M. seven days a week, pushed a cart stacked with bundles of the city’s half dozen morning newspapers through a five-mile area of Queens, then returned at 10 A.M. to deliver the afternoon newspapers.” Shanker hardly ever saw his father. His mother worked long hours in a sweatshop. “So grueling was her work that Mr. Shanker once visited her factory and could not recognize her as she sat bent in sweaty concentration at her [sewing] machine.” Even so, Mamie bought and discussed novels and poetry and attended the opera when she could afford the “standing room only” section. Shanker didn’t speak English when he entered school. He encountered antisemitism. But he excelled. Shanker learned “the value of public education to civic identity.” The phrase “civic identity” is key. Part of public schools job is “e pluribus unum“: out of many, one. Shanker entered school a despised Jew who could not speak English. He emerged as an American leader of national importance.
Jewish teachers wanted to hand these keys over to black students. Their very presence announced, “America is a Golden Land. We did it. You can, too. Yes, you will face prejudice, but don’t respond with violence or despair; respond with hard work, family support, and determination.” That route was rejected by black nationalists. During the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike, the Jews who traveled and embodied that route were rejected, as well.
Dr. Eunice G. Pollack argues that “Black nationalists wanted to discredit the integrationist movement. Malcolm X called the March on Washington the Farce on Washington. Black nationalists are black separatists. The way to discredit integration is to discredit the leading whites of the integrationist movement, the Jews. ‘They are really Nazis. They dominated the slave trade,'” black nationalists falsely claim of Jews.
Richard D. Kahlenberg, in Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy, argues that the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike pitted cherished liberal ideals, and two reliable liberal demographics, against another: blacks v. Jews, unions v. identity politics, integration v. separatism. Kahlenberg says that liberals have never resolved the conflicts generated by the strike.
Can white teachers educate non-white students? If black students do poorly in schools, is that because of their white teachers’ racism? Do black students require “Afrocentric” curricula to succeed? Do efforts to raise student self-esteem improve student academic performance? Should liberals support unions and their concept of seniority, or identity politics and the black-teachers-for-black-students model? If white teachers can’t teach black students, can black teachers teach white students? Are there such things as educational standards, authority, and competence, or do standards vary depending on the skin color of the student? Is it more important for a black student to learn African drumming or reading, writing, and arithmetic, that is, subjects that have constituted a basic curriculum for millennia? Is education “white” and “racist”? Does one group – for example, newly hired black teachers – rise only at the expense of another group – that is, the Jewish teachers whose employment was terminated? Can we ever overcome tribalism? Do we want to? Does progress have to be a zero sum game?
A remarkable document emerged from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers’ strike. On December 26, 1968, Campbell / Weusi appeared on WBAI, a left-wing radio station. Campbell read a poem that he said was written by one of his students in response to Jewish teachers. There are various versions of the poem on the web. One version is below.
Hey Jew boy, with that yarmulke on your head
You pale faced Jew boy. I wish you were dead.
I can see you Jew boy. No you can’t hide.
I got a scoop on you. Yeh, you gonna die.
I’m sick of your stuff …
about the murder of six million Jews
Hitler’s reign lasted for only fifteen years
For that period of time you shed crocodile tears
My suffering lasted for over 400 years, Jew boy …
Jew boy, you took my religion and adopted it for you
But you know that black people were the original Hebrews.
On January 29, 2019, the Brooklyn Historical Society hosted a fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strike. An audience member who identified as a former teacher and member of the African Teachers’ Association recommended the poem. Audience members applauded. They were probably ignorant of the poem’s contents. But no one on the invited panel of experts objected, and either they knew the contents of the poem and let the mention slide, or they were not, as identified, experts.
Again, there are consistent cultural threads connecting events as dispersed as a teachers’ strike over fifty years ago, a high school field trip twenty-six years ago, and recent violent attacks. Both the Rev. C. Herbert Oliver and Castlemont high students cited black suffering as justification for indifference to Jewish suffering. One version of Jitu Weusi’s student’s poem identifies Jews as imposters who have stolen black people’s real identity from them. That very libel fueled both the 2019 Jersey City killers and the Monsey stabber.
The concept of Jews as thieves of black identity is the new blood libel. It is a metaphor. Those who embrace it are saying, “Jews, you are paler than I am and you have suffered. You are stealing my narrative that identifies all blacks as victims and all whites as privileged. Your suffering teaches people that blacks are not the only people who have suffered. Suffering offers some rewards, and I will not share those rewards with you. Suffering is a competition, a kind of Olympic event. You have the Nazi era? I will claim hundreds of years of slavery and trump you. If you mention millennia of antisemitism, and that Jews were slaves in Egypt, I will deny your story and insist that you stole it from me. I will claim that the Bible’s characters were really black.”
Responses, too, echo down the years. Should we ignore black antisemitism, on the grounds that black people have suffered enough, and are stereotyped enough, and any attention brought to black antisemitism only increases black people’s considerable burdens? If we draw attention to antisemitic motivations for violent behavior, do we risk increasing that behavior and damaging important alliances? We asked these questions fifty years ago, and we ask them today.
Only a minority of black people are anti-Semites, but those that are, are not lone wolves. They are not inventing the wheel. Rather, they are steeped in a significant cultural trend, a trend that persons of conscience will name, confront, analyze, and denounce.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery