U.S. Jews agree on Farrakhan's antisemitism - but that's where the agreement ends

Left-wing groups have condemned large Jewish organizations for being too lenient on far-right wing antisemitism.

March 12, 2018 08:09
eligious leader Louis Farrakhan gives the keynote speech at the Nation of Islam Saviours' Day.

eligious leader Louis Farrakhan gives the keynote speech at the Nation of Islam Saviours' Day convention in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. February 19, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/REBECCA COOK)

They have both unequivocally condemned Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism. They both say that fighting antisemitism is a necessary part of the broader struggle against bigotry and oppression. They both seek to build alliances with other minority groups in that fight.

So an alliance could seem natural between the Anti-Defamation League, a legacy organization fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry, and If Not Now, a relatively new grassroots group organizing young left-wing Jews.

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But instead, in its statement criticizing Farrakhan’s bigotry, If Not Now also slammed the ADL. The group rejected Farrakhan’s bigotry and called on leaders of the Women’s March, some of whom support Farrakhan, to do more to combat antisemitism. And it criticized the ADL at length for not focusing enough on far-right anti-Semitism.

“It is unsettling to see how often the ADL and others criticize Black and Muslim activists and politicians for any association with Farrakhan,” the statement read. “That the ADL and other Jewish leaders undermining the Women’s March fail to understand that the true threat to our community today is the rise of white nationalism is a galling moral failure.”

The fire from If Not Now toward the ADL is emblematic of a split in how Jewish groups across the spectrum are responding to anti-Semitism.

Left-wing activists say focusing on anti-Semitism in their camp is a distraction from right-wing antisemites who they say have received succor from President Donald Trump.

Jews on the right, meanwhile, say the biggest threat to Jewish interests is anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism on the left. They are using the renewed focus on Farrakhan to demand retribution for his former allies.

Centrist groups are caught in the middle.

In this case, all sides agree that Farrakhan  — who has called Hitler “a very great man” and Judaism a “gutter religion” — is a repugnant bigot. But they disagree on what his anti-Semitism means and how to respond.

Nonpartisan groups like the ADL see Farrakhan’s comments as a reason to pay attention to discrimination on all sides.

“At a time when anti-Semitism indisputably is on the rise and our society seems more divided, the inability of public figures to denounce the words and leadership of Farrakhan is a problem ,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in an essay condemning Farrakhan and left-wing leaders who have praised him. “Not only for Jews, many of whom are and want to continue to be active partners in the fight against hate in this country — but also for all those who believe in equal justice and dignity for all.”

The ADL has, despite If Not Now’s charges, recently focused its energy on fighting far-right antisemitism, particularly in the “alt-right” (and has been criticized by some right-wing groups, like the Zionist Organization of America, for doing so. Still with us?). It has released reports on the alt-right and white supremacists; opened a center in Silicon Valley to combat cyber-hate and gathered a consortium of US mayors to fight hate. And Greenblatt has not been shy about criticizing Trump for being too slow to criticize his anti-Semitic supporters.

But Yonah Lieberman, a spokesman for If Not Now, said the ADL’s actions “ring hollow” because it also spends significant time criticizing antisemitism on the left, and the movement to boycott Israel. (Among other things, the ADL offers resources on combating “anti-Jewish animus, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel rhetoric” on campus.) Activists in If Not Now, which identifies as progressive and allies itself with the Women’s March, feel that right-wing discrimination is more dangerous because its purveyors see an ally in President Trump, while focusing on left-wing anti-Semitism works to divide minority groups.

If Not Now was founded in 2014 to oppose Israel’s military operation in Gaza, and it publicly protests American Jewish organizations for what it says is complicity in Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. It has repeatedly protested the ADL on that issue, including by staging a sit-in in the lobby of the ADL’s building.

“They’re blaming both sides of the political spectrum for antisemitism even though they have different amounts of power in this country,” Lieberman told JTA. “One has both chambers of Congress and the Oval Office, and the other is a series of grassroots organizations and individuals.”

In a statement to JTA responding to the  criticism, the ADL said it “has exposed all types of hate and all forms of extremism. In these times, we will continue to fight relentlessly against anti-Semitism and bigotry regardless of the source.”

Other liberal groups have also worked to find common ground with progressives who have a history of praising Farrakhan. After Rep. Danny Davis, a Democratic congressman from Chicago, praised Farrakhan, the liberal Israel group J Street met with him to discuss the issue. J Street had endorsed Davis for the 2018 election, and following Davis’ repudiation of Farrakhan after the meeting, J Street maintained its endorsement.

But groups on the right have called on their ideological rivals to take a harder line. The Republican Jewish Coalition has taken the recent focus on Farrakhan to demand consequences for people who used to be associated with him. In particular, they’ve focused on Davis and Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee who used to support Farrakhan but has since disavowed him.

“Democrat Representatives who praise known anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan do not deserve to represent us in Congress,” a March 8 RJC fundraising email read. “We need pro-Israel Republicans in office who steadfastly support the Jewish community and forcefully condemn anti-Semitism.”

Yehuda Kurtzer, president of The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, urged Jews to keep partisanship out of it when identifying and condemning antisemitism.

“There is a different way forward, and it is the most difficult. It requires us to articulate as clearly as we can what constitutes anti-Semitic behavior and to be vigilant about naming it — and not just when it is opportunistically convenient for advancing our own partisan agendas,” he wrote in an essay for Times of Israel critical of progressives reluctant to call out Farrakhan. “It also demands that we evaluate ideas and actions by a reasonable and shared definition, which treats the phenomenon of anti-Semitism as a problem proportional to its reality.”

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