Attacks on Jews in NYC and Media Double Standards
Why we need to change the way we talk about black anti-Semitism.
December 26, 2019, the day after Christmas, those Americans who emerged from their holiday celebrations to check world headlines were in for a shock. Police reported several attacks on Jews in New York. Americans don't think of their largest city, a world center of finance and the arts, a cosmopolitan capital where one can enjoy cuisine from any continent at any hour of the day or night, as a place where Jews are unsafe on the streets. New York is the city of Seinfeld, of Woody Allen and three-time mayor Michael Bloomberg. Former Mayor David Dinkins famously called New York a "gorgeous mosaic" of diverse peoples. But in fact, these Christmas-and-Hanukkah-week attacks were part of a trend. As bad as they were, worse was yet to come. On Saturday, December 28, Rabbi Chaim Rottenberg and his guests celebrated the closing nights of Hanukkah in Monsey, a suburb north of Manhattan. An intruder burst into the home and stabbed five people.
Recent attacks on Jews in New York City typically involve unprovoked punching, cursing, and hurling of objects ranging from soft drinks to large and potentially deadly stones. Victims range from children to the elderly, and include mothers accompanied by their babies. Attackers sometimes yell anti-Semitic comments.
Videos reveal that attackers are frequently black. In one startling video from November 4, 2018, a group of young African Americans congregate outside a Brooklyn synagogue, talk among themselves, hurl a pole through the synagogue window, and then run away. In another attack, a Jewish man is walking down the sidewalk when what appears to be a black youth runs up behind him and punches him hard in the head, nearly knocking him over. In a March, 2019 assault, an apparently healthy, young man kicks a toddler's stroller being pushed by the child's mother. Attacks are not always violent. In one videotaped confrontation, a black woman screamed verbal abuse at a Jewish man on the New York City subway.
On December 10, 2019, David Anderson and Francine Graham killed four people in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Deceased victims include Police Detective Joseph Seals, Leah Ferencz, owner of a kosher grocery store, Moshe Deutsch, a rabbinical student and a shopper at that store, and Douglas Rodriguez, a store employee and immigrant from Ecuador. Shooter David Anderson was an anti-Semite who had been influenced by the Black Hebrew Israelites, who claim that Jews are not really Jewish, and that the characters in the Bible were all really black. In this ideology, contemporary Jews are labeled "imposter Jews" and "so-called Jews." This idea is not limited to violent extremists. On December 14, Saturday Night Live comic Kenan Thompson referred to "historically correct black Jesus." Jersey City killer David Anderson used the word "imposter" to refer to modern-day Jews. Anderson and Graham's killings were classified as a terrorist incident and a hate crime. The New Jersey attorney general said that the killers "had a tremendous amount of firepower. They had a pipe bomb in their van."
In the wake of this attack, Jersey City school board member Joan Terrell-Paige appeared to attempt to justify it. Terrell-Paige called "jews," as she spelled the word, in lower-case, "brutes," and said that people should seek a "message" in the killers' actions.
Clearly, black anti-Semitism is a problem. It is found among juvenile delinquents, TV stars, terrorists, and those entrusted with educating the young. Black anti-Semitism has an articulated ideology. Not all black people who don't like Jews adhere to this ideology, but it's available to them. Today's Jews are merely "so-called" Jews, "imposter Jews," "usurper Jews," "interloper Jews," and "Johnny-come-lately Jews." In this ideology, the real descendants of the Jews of the Bible are African Americans.
Mainstream media often declines to identify the race of those who attack Jews. On December 27, 2019, media reported that an attacker hit a Jewish mother in the head as she walked with her son in Brooklyn. The attacker, an account reported, was 42 years old and female. But the account did not identify her race, and no mugshot was provided.
Mainstream media's hand-wringing around the racial identities of attackers is evident in an October 31, 2018 New York Times article with the disconcerting title, "Is It Safe to Be Jewish in New York?" The "first inkling" of danger for Jews appeared in 2016, the Times reported, when the words "Go Trump" appeared in a playground alongside swastikas. Really? Trump's election was really the "first inkling" of trouble for Jews in New York City?
In fact, New York City hosted a deadly anti-Semitic pogrom in Crown Heights in 1991. According to one account,
"It was the most terrifying four days and nights in American Jewish history … with shouts of 'Kill the Jews' and 'Heil Hitler'; roving mobs in Crown Heights throwing stones at Jews; police standing passively; gangs breaking into homes with mezuzahs while Jews hid in closets. One Jew was murdered; others beaten to a pulp; an Israeli flag was burned."
In 1995, Al Sharpton fomented deadly hatred during his Freddy's Fashion Mart protests. One of the protesters killed eight people, including himself.
In 2002, Amiri Baraka, aka Everett LeRoi Jones, New Jersey's Poet Laureate, published a poem blaming Jews for the 2001 terror attacks.
No, the election of Donald Trump was not the "first inkling" of trouble for Jews in New York City.
The Times must confess that "During the past 22 months, not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an anti-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group." The Times gingerly acknowledges "it is the varied backgrounds of people who commit hate crimes in the city that make combating and talking about anti-Semitism in New York much harder."
The reader comments section is not so careful to use the phrase "varied backgrounds." The most popular reader comment next to the above-linked Times article blames the "Many members of minority communities" who have participated in attacks. The second most popular comment is even more direct. "for left-leaning New Yorkers, anti-Semitism is an issue worth addressing only when the perpetrators of anti-Semitism fit their narrative. If a Nazi or white supremacist does it -- take note and take action. If the perpetrator is less convenient to the Narrative (evil can only emanate from straight white males), like if the perpetrator is black or Muslim, then they play it down and ignore it."
National Public Radio surprisingly allowed Bari Weiss to speak bluntly in a September 21, 2019 broadcast. "To judge from the footage of many of these attacks, at least some of the perpetrators seem to be young black men or teenagers. And perhaps that's one of the reasons that so many people want to avert their eyes from what's happening in places like Crown Heights," she said.
What we are seeing here is the economy of truth. If it benefits the speaker to condemn white anti-Semites, the speaker will do so. If it damages the speaker to condemn black anti-Semites, the speaker will avoid doing so. This rhetorical game has nothing to do with respecting or helping black people. It has everything to do with covering one's own posterior, and hoarding one's own political correctness points.
My book Bieganski devotes a chapter to black anti-Semitism. The purpose of the chapter is to demonstrate a media double standard. I compare press coverage of two clusters of events that involved accusations of anti-Semitism. One cluster of events involved Polish Catholics; the other involved African Americans.
In November, 1993, Khalid Abdul Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, made a speech at Kean College in New Jersey. Muhammad said, inter alia, that Jews were not related to the main characters in the Bible, who were black (although, somehow, black Jesus' killers were Jews), that Jews hold economic, cultural, and political control of American and African blacks, which they use to torment and oppress blacks, that Jews were responsible for the Holocaust because of their obnoxious behavior in Germany, that Jews control the press worldwide, and that Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights Movement was a ploy to get blacks killed.
These charges were leveled in non-standard, frequently obscene and contemptuous language. For example, when Muhammad accused Jews of controlling the world gem trade, he said, "That's why you call yourself Mr. Rubenstein, Mr. Goldstein, Mr. Silverstein. Because you been stealing rubies and gold and silver ... we say it real quick and call it jewelry, but it's not jewelry, it's Jew-elry, 'cause you're the rogue that's stealing all over the face of the planet earth." When ridiculing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Muhammad imitated a Yiddish accent. Muhammad, in future speeches, called for death to all Jews: "Never will I say I am not an anti-Semite. I pray that God will kill my enemy and take him off the face of the planet Earth."
In response to such research-grade anti-Semitism, mainstream press accounts did not begin with full-throated condemnation. In fact, mainstream press articles about Muhammad's speech and attendant controversies are so formulaic that they appear more like the scripture of some obsessive religious doctrine than the result of a free and vigorous press.
One of the refrains of this formula was reference to black suffering. The following quotes, though all similar, are taken from different articles, authors, and sources. Some listed: "drugs, violence, high rates of teen-age pregnancy, poor schooling and poor discipline," "unemployment, alienation, drugs, violence, health care, education, and lack of economic opportunity," "poverty, hopelessness, and despair," "drugs, poverty, hopelessness and crime," "crime, poverty, and inequality," "drugs, poverty, and bitterness," "misery, drugs, crime, poverty, and dying hope," "bitterness, alienation, and mistrust," "the bank that refuses to lend a dime to the inner city to the boy who lives next door and carries a pistol, a crack vial and a heart turned to stone by disappointment and hopelessness" as being responsible for misbehavior.
Other articles recounted black suffering in more intimate detail, often using vivid anecdotes: "The teen-ager pulled up his shirt to show the bandage on his lean belly and the round hole on his back that had been sealed shut. He had been shot the other week, walking down the street to buy a hamburger." "The year was 1948 and the laws of segregation were in full force. For Muqaddin, who is black, it was a shattering experience that left him seething with rage against white America." A Black Muslim woman was asked to remove her veil while shopping in a mall. The woman reported: "she was 'humiliated' by the encounter with the St. Paul police, who forced her to uncover her face. 'I don't want men lusting after the way I look or sound. It's like someone else being made to pull down their undershorts in public.'"
Many references to black suffering went without amplifying commentary. The reader was invited to use his own devices to weigh black suffering in some ethical scale against anti-Semitism. Other writers offered more guidance, and advanced complex rationalizations as to why black suffering ought either to dilute or erase focus on anti-Semitism.
Notre Dame American Studies chairman Robert Schmuhl spun references to black suffering into support for Ishmael Reed's argument that the real story was the threat to blacks and Jews posed by white Christians. The Times argued that since blacks were suffering so much, they needed to embrace and support each other, regardless of ideology. The Times pointed out that blacks, consumed by their suffering, might be "too politically unsophisticated" to differentiate between ideologies. Writer Thulani Davis repeated this view in Time. One African American woman was quoted as saying that since African Americans faced so many threats from white society, it was necessary to choose a force that could protect them, and that that force was the Nation of Islam, regardless of its anti-Semitism. This need for protection was also stated in The Christian Century.
USA Today argued that black suffering made blacks hate all whites, not just Jews. The Humanist argued that the traumas of slavery created a mythic vacuum that NOI was filling. Benjamin Chavis, in the Times, argued that the suffering of blacks "has created an ... alarming chasm of attitudes and perceptions"; thus, whites could not judge people so different from themselves. He also explicitly stated that black suffering, not the racism of NOI, was the real story, the story the press should be covering. This was repeated in several articles, by several authors, including in Time and Maclean's, and by Rabbi Michael Lerner.
Great care was taken to avoid condemnatory headlines and to provide headlines that strove to represent "both sides," without, somehow, stressing that one side was eliminationist anti-Semitism. With the use of such headlines and such "balance," America's mainstream press changed the story. Muhammad's anti-Semitism was not the issue on which focus needed to be trained; focus needed to be trained, rather, on an effort to hear the "other side." An article in which Farrakhan alluded to blood libel and a Jewish conspiracy to destroy him was headlined, "Farrakhan Softens Tone."
Readers were invited to focus on white haters, not black ones. The Progressive compared Muhammad to David Duke. Shelby Steele, in the Times, compared him to Meir Kahane and the KKK. Bob Herbert in the Times compared him to "[Theodore G.] Bilbo and [George] Wallace in blackface." Henry Louis Gates, also in the Times, summoned memories of those who watched Kitty Genovese die and repeated a vivid quote by a rabbi at Baruch Goldstein's funeral: "One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail." New York magazine ran one issue with two covers; one featured an anti-Semitic NOI preacher; the other, conservative radio personality Bob Grant. The magazine's editor-in-chief, Kurt Anderson, said, "This idea of parallel covers began to make sense and seemed like a way to demonstrate that they go full circle to illustrate the different strident ends of the spectrum."
These comparisons were not buried towards the end of articles, but appeared up front, to confront the reader head-on. The important event to focus on was not the anti-Semitism of a black man, but racism in general. The New York Times entitled one Muhammad-inspired editorial with a generalized headline: "The Stew of Hate." The lead sentence never mentioned Muhammad: "Religious and racial bigotry never recede entirely, witness the ebb and flow of Klan membership." Yes, condemnation of the Klan is laudable, but the Times was changing the subject to one easier to discuss.
Publications simultaneously engaged in a contrary tactic: anti-Semitism among African Americans was dismissed as unworthy of note. "Less news than soap opera" comparable to the competition between figure skaters Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, reported a political science professor. "Just a pimple" said Franklyn Jenifer, president of Howard College, in US News and World Report. "I don't get so upset by Farrakhan," yawned Michael Lerner in Time. Jews are never mentioned in the annual Ebony poll of urgent issues, sociology professor Raymond Mack reminded his readers. "Forget Farrakhan" ran a headline in the Times, under which Bob Herbert advised: "It's time to turn to other matters."
The mainstream press used cautious and trivializing vocabulary to report anti-Semitism among African Americans. Maclean's trivialized: "the Jews took a special shellacking, not much of a surprise." Professor Doris Wilkinson asked whether or not it was even possible that there be such a thing as "black anti-Semitism." In the lead sentence of one article, the Times reported that "Black racism" is, for some blacks, "a laughable oxymoron." Some articles began with "balanced" rhetorical questions, as in this profile of the leader who invited Farrakhan to an NAACP summit: "Who is Benjamin Chavis Jr., and what in the world is he trying to do to the venerable NAACP? Is he a brash and brilliant innovator, pumping life into a sclerotic organization whose glory days are past and whose current relevance is questioned? Or is he an unrepentant radical and a peripatetic neophyte?" When Farrakhan made classically anti-Semitic statements, echoing blood libel: "The same people opposed to [Jesus] are opposed to me. It's the Passover season. It's the right time;" the Times said merely that these statements "may register on many ears as patently anti-Semitic." Time said that Farrakhan "appeared" to be putting down other people; that he was "misunderstood."
Statistics and anecdotes were cited to indicate that black anti-Semites were not representational of the black population. This in spite of other statistics that showed that African Americans are more anti-Semitic than the general population, and unlike the general population, become more anti-Semitic as they become more educated
Reports of anti-Semitism among African Americans were, it was posited, part of a hidden, nefarious, anti-black agenda. Charles Rangel suggested that the ADL might have been milking Muhammad's speech for money and publicity. The Amsterdam News accused the ADL of "willful and cynical exploitation of a people for the purpose of raising money from Jews by frightening them." Michael Lerner also suggested that Jews were using accusations of anti-Semitism among African Americans, in this case as "an excuse to deny our own racism toward blacks" and as "justification for some Americans to declare themselves 'disillusioned with the oppressed'" and to cut social programs for the poor. The Times repeated this; charges of African American anti-Semitism were allegedly "an excuse for doing little to reduce inequalities."
Writer Thulani Davis, in Time, wrote that accusations of anti-Semitism among African Americans were "attempts to set the terms of the discussion of racial conflict solely on African American xenophobia. Like all litmus tests, this one is reductive and promotes self-defense rather than thought and disclosure."
Davis also pointed out that in the litmus test atmosphere, "African Americans do not even feel comfortable to debate in public ... in such a delicate public discussion it is dangerous to risk having words taken out of context, ideas abbreviated into unrecognizable and harmful sound bites ... If the issue is used simply to identify enemies, few will step forward." Davis further stated that media reports of anti-Semitism among African-Americans were part of a wider effort to create negative images of black people that fed off of whites' fears of "black hate." "Black hate, though, is only a new wrinkle in the increasingly negative portrayal of blacks as a whole," she wrote. This fear of black hate is taught to "each group of new immigrants settling in the big cities of America."
A letter to the Times denounced as "racist" and "paternalistic" A.M. Rosenthal's request that blacks denounce Muhammad. Rosenthal, implied the writer, was not just to blame for his whiteness, he was also a parvenu who told African-Americans, "in their own country" "what to do and say ... even by those that just arrive on these shores."
Accounts veered into victim blaming. Blaming Jews for the anti-Semitism of blacks goes back at least to Michael Lerner's 1969 manifesto in Judaism, where he wrote: "black anti-Semitism ... is ... a tremendous disgrace to Jews, for this is ... rooted in the concrete fact of oppression by Jews of blacks in the ghetto. In short, this anti-Semitism is in part an earned anti-Semitism." Lerner was ready with similar accusations to explain anti-Semitism among African Americans in 1994: "Jewish neoconservatives at Commentary and neoliberals at the New Republic have led the assault on affirmative action" and Jews have "delighted in the prospect of throwing black women and children off welfare as soon as possible." Others also blamed Jewish opposition to affirmative action for alienating blacks.
This is but a brief summary of my comparisons of press accounts of accusations of anti-Semitism among African Americans, versus press accounts of accusations of anti-Semitism leveled against members of other demographics, especially persons or groups most associated with Catholicism. In this brief summary, one can discern a pattern.
For months now, the media has presented alarming reports of random, innocent Jews aggressively attacked on New York City streets. The attackers, video suggests, are often African American. This is a problem, a problem that needs to be addressed with courage, frankness, and dedication. If members of less-protected demographics, Catholic high school boys from the American South, for example, were attacking Jews on the streets, there would be an international outcry, a flood of tweets from average citizens as well as celebrities, television broadcasts, academic conferences and articles, and demands for an immediately available curriculum to educate bigoted persons. A review of the above paragraphs outlining my research on how media reacted to an overtly genocidal African American anti-Semitic speaker suggests a reason why so few have been willing to state the obvious. No, not all African Americans are anti-Semites, but some are, and those that are include some who commit violent crimes, including murder, in the name of anti-Semitism. This hatred, and these assaults, are not random, but are supported by a detailed and deeply rooted ideology that declares that Jews are "imposters," "interlopers," "Johnny-come-lately Jews" and "usurpers" who have co-opted black people's real identity.
Further, apologias for these assaults rely on a competition for victim status created by leftist ideology. The left awards its certified victims with virtue, innocence, authority, and tangible benefits through programs like Affirmative Action. As long as being the biggest victim is valuable, some African Americans will resent Jews, perversely, for the Jews' own victimization.
"The black holocaust is one hundred times worse than the so-called Jew holocaust," said Khalid Abdul Muhammad on the campus of Howard University. This articulated hatred must be described, denounced, and deconstructed. There should be forthright academic articles, conferences, and curricula, now, condemning this murderous anti-Semitism. Those who take on this task face daunting odds. Those odds make this work no less vital and urgent.
Yes, African Americans have suffered grievous harm. Yes, statistics indicate that African Americans today are, as a group, poorer, less educated, less healthy, and more likely to be incarcerated than white Americans as a group. Yes, all Americans must do everything they can to close the gaps between whites and blacks.
But separate systems of ethics for blacks and whites are no more moral than separate water fountains for blacks and whites. Human decency should not be emblazoned with a "whites only" sign. It is not imperialist or racist for people who aren't African American to speak out against black anti-Semitism. It is paternalistic for mainstream media to resort to transparent weasel words when reporting on vile street attacks on Jewish elderly persons, women, children, and toddlers in strollers. If hitting an old man in the head with a ten-pound paving stone is behavior that is beneath contempt for a white person, it is also beneath contempt for a black person. Those who refuse to say so clearly are guilty themselves. Let us not rewrite Martin Niemoller's famous warning to read, "Then they came for the Jews / And I did not speak out / Because I did not want to risk being accused of being politically incorrect."
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.