Antisemitism and Racist Oppression in the USA: Central to Understanding Africa American/Jewish Relations
The February 2022 suspension of actor Whoopi Goldberg from The View after she apologized for her remark, to the effect that the Holocaust had not been about “race,” epitomized several layers of the problem in disentangling antisemitism IN THE USA from the phenomenon of systemic racist oppression. It further epitomized the field of tension that exists between US African Americans and Jews.
Whoopi’s remarks were inaccurate and reflected a US-experienced understanding of the nature of “race.” Her remarks were not offered in malice or in any way attempting to minimize the nature of the Holocaust. As such, rather than a suspension, this could have been a teachable moment for the viewers of The View.
Antisemitism experienced by Jews in the USA must be distinguished from their experiences in Germany, Russia, and any number of other European countries. Antisemitism in the USA has been a form of vicious discrimination against a specific immigrant population, with the roots of this hatred found in Europe, dating back nearly two thousand years. But what does not exist in the USA is a system organized around the oppression and subordination of Jews. The bodies of Jews were not sold in the USA; Jews were not deprived of the right to education or vote; they faced forms of segregation but could sometimes avoided that through “passing.” They were not deprived of the right to form businesses. The criminal justice system has not been organized in a manner that disproportionately incarcerates Jews, the way that it does African Americans, Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Native Americans.
To be clear, this takes nothing away from the seriousness regarding the hatred meted out against Jews, particularly by many Christians, including but not limited to a long history of violence organized against Jews. Added to this hatred has been the use of caricaturizing by rightwing Christians against Jews.
The experience of antisemitism in the USA, however, is quite different from what took place in Germany, specifically, within Nazi Germany. The Nazis were very clear that, in their view, Jews were an inferior race. They were explicit in the terminology. They created an entire system of laws to codify this view (the Nuremberg Laws), ultimately leading the Nazis to, first, attempt to expel Jews from Germany and, later, attempts to annihilate Jews from within their sphere of influence. In fact, the Nazis drew from the US experience with genocide and reservations for Native Americans and Jim Crow for African Americans, along with Germany’s genocidal experience in Southwest Africa (currently, Namibia), in constructing their approach to “race.” The Nazi approach to “race” was dramatized in the outstanding HBO film from 2001, Conspiracy. The film deals with the 1942 Wannsee meeting held, under the direction of Nazi General Reinhard Heydrich, in which the Holocaust was planned, a meeting that lasted less than two hours. The film is based on actual transcripts and notes from the meeting, and what becomes obvious is that the Holocaust was possible precisely because Jews had become a “racialized” population. For the Nazis, “race” and color were not identical. “Race” was their focus and, indeed, it was a logical consequence of developments in Europe beginning around 1492 and the construction of capitalism.
This is the point that Whoopi missed. And missing this point reflected a US-centered view on “race” rather than an act of malice or intolerance. Indeed, there could have been an entire episode of The View based around understanding the Holocaust, its roots in both Germany AND the USA, and the question of racist oppression. Instead, ABC slapped Whoopi’s hand.
The suspension of Whoopi, however, contributed to an additional problem, i.e., the apparent focus on US African Americans who make or allegedly make antisemitic remarks. There is a strange pattern, at least in the eyes of US African Americans, whereby African Americans are punished for alleged or actual remarks, yet the same is not always the case when it comes to whites who make or imply antisemitic references. One obvious case in point is former President Donald Trump who repeatedly implies that Jews have a divided loyalty between Israel and the USA, a longstanding antisemitic reference that has, for years, been identified. Yet, Trump’s utterances, though usually referenced, have met with timid replies.
Obviously, this is not always the case. The notorious situation with an apparently drunk or high Mel Gibson years ago, being an example of a white person taken to the ‘woodshed’ for his antisemitic references.
Further, the penalties for racist utterances against African Americans, Latin@s, Asians, Native Americans, and Muslims, are uneven at best. Whites can be called onto the carpet, so to speak, but there is no consistency to punishment and the tendency seems to be that an apology resolves the problem, unless there is a documented pattern.
One additional complication has to do with the issue of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, or what can be more accurately described as the Israeli apartheid regime and its occupation of Palestinian territories. The default defensive posture of the Israeli regime and its supporters has been to accuse supporters of justice for the Palestinians of being antisemitic. In addition to their definition of antisemitic being overly broad and, in effect, contributing to antisemitism, i.e., suggesting that a criticism of the apartheid and aggressive practices of the Israeli regime for being illegal and immoral is somehow evidence of antisemitism, such allegations suppress any legitimate discussion regarding the proper resolution of the conflict. It would be as if those who support the Ukrainian resistance against the Russian invasion were, ipso facto, accused of being anti-Russian!
US African Americans who express sympathy for the Palestinian cause have become special targets of anti-Palestinian forces, with the attacks against members of the Congressional “Squad,” and the electronic lynching of Temple University Professor Marc Lamont Hill being prime examples. These attacks are reminiscent of the attacks that were made against Dr. Martin Luther King in 1967 when he dared to condemn the US war of aggression against Vietnam and was told, in no uncertain terms, that he should limit his remarks to those things that he allegedly knew about.
A combination of these and other factors, e.g., the attacks by members of the mainstream Jewish establishment on affirmative action allegedly in the name of opposing quotas, raised the tension levels between African Americans and Jews beginning in the late 1960s.
There are other factors, however. Jews are the “white people”/Euro-Americans, that US African Americans most frequently interact with. This is the result of the ethnic economic hierarchy in which Jews have been placed over the years, e.g., small business, education; African Americans frequently entering neighborhoods formerly occupied by Jews; as well as the reality that Jews have been disproportionately found in progressive social movements, often as the most strident opponents of racism and other forms of oppression. Proximity can breed tensions even under the best of circumstances. But you add onto the general proximity question matters of class, e.g., middle strata Jews interacting with poor and working-class African Americans; antisemitic currents within Christianity that have had an impact on many African Americans; plus the fact that the overwhelming numbers of Jews in the USA are Euro-American and, therefore, are affected, if not infected, with racial bias, and one has the makings for contradictions.
While it is absolutely the case that there has been a longstanding relationship in progressive social movements between African Americans and Jews, the mistake of not appreciating the specificity of the racial construction of US capitalism can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and condescension. The situation facing Jews in the USA is not at all similar to that of US African Americans (including African descendant migrants), Puerto Ricans, Chican@s, Native Americans, and most Asians (i.e., those whose roots preceded the 1965 immigration reforms). The situation facing racialized populations in the USA is, however, similar to the systemic construction of antisemitism in Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany, to mention only two hotbeds of antisemitism. But since we are not operating in either Tsarist Russia or Nazi Germany, the terms under which we operate must reflect the actual conditions of our existence.
Thus, altering the relationship between Jews and African Americans begins with an understanding of history and context. It does not end there. All manifestations, regardless of the author, of antisemitism and racism must be roundly condemned, and the damage must be repaired. There is no room for excuses, insincere apologies, and half-measures. The outrageous remarks of Kanye West, now known as “Ye”, have deservedly been condemned and he correctly faces ostracization, by way of example. That said, the outrage must be consistent, irrespective of the origin and, as we have noted, this is simply not the case.
From the standpoint of African Americans, I will add, we cannot be the whipping boy when antisemitism was neither created by us nor orchestrated by us. If we want to address antisemitism, then let us go after the far Right, politicians like Trump and others, and stop obscuring the real perpetrators. Under those conditions we will, indeed, discover that the main proponents of antisemitism are the same figures who articulate and practice racism against historically racialized populations in the USA.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a longtime trade unionist and writer, who also served as the president of TransAfrica Forum. He can be reached at billfletcherjr.com and @BillFletcherJr.