TERRA INCOGNITA: Why the blind spot to antisemitism?

Those confronting antisemitism have not done a good job of exploring how it festers.

Religious 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)
Religious 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)
Washington, DC, Councilman Trayon White is done apologizing. In a Facebook Live post he claimed that he is the victim now of the media. “It’s gone too far, I apologized, it’s over, I’m trying to move on.” He will be allowed to move on because there is a blind spot when it comes to antisemitism in the US. Instead of a zero tolerance policy for antisemitism, as there is for other forms of racism, antisemitism is treated as a special category and when antisemitic comments emerge there is no real expectation that offensive voices will be held to account.
The DC councilman is symbolic because he sits on a council in the US capital and his views are about much more than just one person. He first gained attention for a video blaming the Rothschilds for controlling the weather. It emerged that at a February 27 meeting of city officials he went further. “There’s this whole concept with the Rothschilds, control the World Bank, as we all know, infusing dollars into major cities,” The Washington Post quoted him as saying. “They really pretty much control the federal government.”
And how did the city officials gathered around him react? They said nothing. Local Jewish leaders embraced White after his comments, inviting him to attend a Passover Seder and meetings, breakfasts and other events. An op-ed at The Forward defended the councilman’s comments. “White mistakenly believed that one family of Jews controlled the weather. And while the Rothschilds are frequently used as a stand-in for Jews more generally, it’s entirely possible to believe the Rothschilds are evil manipulative masterminds while also not believing this of all or even most Jews,” the author claimed in a March 20 piece. He went on to claim that “many use it [Rothschilds references] independently of its Jewish connection, referencing ‘Rothschild’ as a stand-in for ‘capitalist’ rather than ‘Jew.’”
This is the blind spot when it comes to antisemitism. Instead of confronting the comments, and being outraged that a member of the city council of the US capital believes in such offensive things, the reaction was to want to “educate” him a bit and also excuse his views. Host him for a Passover Seder. Whitewash his comments by legitimizing him.
Then the councilman was invited for a visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to reports he was shown a picture of a woman wearing a sign reading “I am a German girl and allowed myself to be defiled by a Jew” and White asked if the crowd was “protecting her.” No, the guide said, the crowd was humiliating her. According to reports, when shown a picture of the Warsaw ghetto, one of White’s staff claimed it was “a gated community.” Instead of standing up to this comment, the rabbi present said “I wouldn’t call it a gated community, more like a prison.”
Unsurprisingly the city councilman has now been linked to a “Saviour’s Day” event in February where Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan claimed “powerful Jews are my enemy,” the Washington Post reported. This reminds us that Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory was criticized in March for standing by Farrakhan as well.
At The Root Terrell Jermaine Starr says that “many black people have had either direct or indirect interactions with the Nation of Islam.” He points out that a group of black women signed a letter denouncing efforts to “smear Ms. Mallory” for her association. He claims that the NOI is controversial due to “it’s homophobia and, most notoriously, its unmitigated hatred of whites and, under Farrakhan’s leadership, Jews,” but writes that the NOI has “another side that’s more familiar to many black people: facilitators of black dignity and prison rehabilitation.”
Starr’s piece makes an important point. Intersectionality has provided a bridge to antisemitism by connecting far-right voices like Farrakhan with ostensibly left-wing and civil rights causes. The blind spot on antisemitism once again makes its appearance, because any attempt to confront antisemitism is said to somehow harm people like Mallory who are powerful voices for African-Americans and the women’s movement. So instead of zero tolerance for antisemitism, it is allowed to have a seat at the table.
To understand the larger problem let’s recall the case of Oberlin College assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, Joy Karega. She also shared antisemitic content on Facebook. One showed a photo of Jacob Rothshild with the text “we own your news, the media, your oil and your government.” In January 2015 she also shared the following post: “considering the Rothschilds’ propensity for whacking scientists who dare interfere with their repopulation agenda, of which AIDS is a key component.” This was shared by an up-and-coming academic at a prestigious college and no one noticed it for a year or so until an investigation by The Tower revealed the posts.
Karega, White, Mallory and Farrakhan are connected by the same blind spot. The familiar reactions consist of claims the statements are “controversial” and then there is some pushback about how “we need to understand that they are voices in their community,” and then they become “victims of the media.” Lost is any question about why so many people hold antisemitic views and why these views are welcomed at the heart of Washington, on college campuses, and in major social justice events in the US. These aren’t marginalized views. People at the very heart of US culture, many of them young and rising influencers, hold and spread them. White, Mallory and Karega are all in their thirties.
They aren’t loners who came to these theories on their own. They are products of a milieu that encourages stories about “Rothschilds.” In fact this kind of terminology hasn’t been used so often in the US since the time of Henry Ford’s antisemitic publications in the 1920s. One hundred years have gone by and the US has produced a large number of people in intellectual circles who talk about “the Rothschilds” among friends, colleagues and eventually on social media, where they think the comments are normal, until there is some pushback.
Karega, Mallory and White happen to be African-American and some see the attacks on them as attacks on black Americans or a double standard for social activists from their community. Coddling of antisemitism is a recent phenomenon among some African- American activists. Ralph Bunche, a US diplomat who won the 1950 Nobel Prize, was once asked about antisemitism.
“I know the flavor of racial prejudice and racial persecution,” he said. Because of that, he said, he could never be an antisemite. So hatred of Jews has only emerged recently in some circles in America, primarily because no one confronts these views and demands zero tolerance.
Mallory, Karega and White are depicted as simply ignorant or in need of a bit of outreach to “educate” them on the issues. But what about Valerie Plame, the former CIA operative who shared an article titled “America’s Jews are driving America’s wars.” She initially defended sharing the article, which she claimed was “provocative and thoughtful.” The blind spot on antisemitism reared its head again.
The blind spot misses the forest for the trees. According to those suffering from this blind spot, all these examples are just individuals, and most of them just made a mistake, a bad choice of words, and an invitation to a Passover dinner will sort it all out. People don’t suddenly wake up in the morning and think the Rothschilds run the World Bank or that Jews “drive” America’s wars. No one wakes up in the morning and suddenly thinks that one wealthy Jewish family is responsible for depopulating the world with AIDs.
No. People are led to think such things through years of conditioning and being in circles where everyone talks this way. No one becomes a racist overnight. They become a racist by being exposed to racism, learning it through relatives, friends, family, at religious events and social events.
Those confronting antisemitism have not done a good job of exploring how it festers. How about a survey to see how many people believe that “the Rothschilds” are responsible for all the ills in society? How about a survey asking whether people think “the Jews” are responsible for America’s wars? Maybe some voices don’t want to ask direct questions about antisemitism because it might reveal a troubling fact, namely that it is growing and is already worse than it was 10 years ago, worse than it was 50 years ago and that it is bubbling up in influential, educated circles, to the extent that professors, politicians, civil servants, religious leaders and major leaders of social movements openly hold antisemitic views.