In the battle against racism and anti-Semitism in America, there have always been well-meaning people who, while willing to stand up against hatred and prejudice when they see it directed against others, nonetheless seem to have a blind spot when hatred emanates from within their own community.
This has been the case recently with two high-profile public figures, the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan and the African-American minister Louis Farrakhan. Despite their well-documented track records of indulging in blatant anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry, Buchanan and Farrakhan continue to get a pass from many in their communities.
Make no mistake: These are not passive or erstwhile bigots. Buchanan and Farrakhan, each in their own ways, have established themselves as leading purveyors of anti-Semitism and racism. Their rhetoric is well documented, and their reputations as serial racists well deserved.
And yet Buchanan, despite his history of playing with anti-Semitism and the despicable anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric of his most recent book, continues to enjoy the support and encouragement of many conservative white Americans who will tell you that he is no racist. It was only until recently, when the racism of his new book provoked enough of a popular backlash, that his tenure as a political commentator at MSNBC came to an abrupt end.
Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic and racist leader of the Nation of Islam, who has been spreading anti-Jewish invective for more than two decades and who in the past few years has turned his ministry into one of the leading disseminators of religion-based anti-Semitism in America, is likewise warmly embraced by many in the African-American community who will tell you in no uncertain terms he is a hero, not a bigot.
It is frustrating, to say the least, that Farrakhan continues to fill stadiums where thousands of his followers cheer him on as he tells them that Jews control Wall Street, Hollywood and government and are responsible for their community’s economic and social failures. And it is equally frustrating that so many well-meaning leaders in the African-American community remain silent in the face of his hatred.
One can only speculate as to why there are so few African-American leaders today who are willing to stand up and reject Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. Perhaps it stems from a “circle the wagons” mentality of protecting your own from those outsiders who would disparage them, or from an instinct that criticism outside of a community from those who cannot closely identify with its experiences, is somehow illegitimate or unacceptable.
Remarkably, there are some leaders who even go so far as to hold themselves up as standard bearers against anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and racism and yet are unable to deal with it when it is manifested in their own communities.
Take Russell Simmons, the recording industry mogul who, through his leadership at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, takes pride in “strengthening relations between ethnic communities.” Simmons, who is appearing this week in a program at the JCC in Manhattan along with Rabbi Marc Schneier in a discussion on Islamophobia moderated by Chelsea Clinton, has described Farrakhan as “a great hero of mine” and an inspirational figure who deserves to be noticed by all African-Americans.
On the one hand, Simmons has done laudable work speaking out against anti-Semitism. On the other hand, his embrace of one of the leading anti-Semites and racists in America is not only counterintuitive, but terribly hypocritical, sad, and ultimately damaging.
“I know him well, I’ve heard his heart and know how beautiful his higher intention is,” Simmons said of Farrakhan in a 2011 interview. “I understand that not everyone feels that way about him, but I hope that one day they’ll appreciate him the way that I do.”
In 2009, Simmons wrote an article praising Farrakhan and referring to him as his “second dad” and the “man who helped hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of black people to love themselves.” And two years earlier, in 2007, Simmons played a supporting role in the Nation of Islam’s annual Saviours’ Day event in Detroit, spearing on stage with Farrakhan during his keynote address and making what organizers later described as “a significant charitable donation in honor of the event.”
It’s not as if Simmons has no idea what Farrakhan has been up to with his Jew-baiting and racism. Over the years I have told him about our concerns and shared with him numerous examples of Farrakhan’s hateful rhetoric. But Simmons has pretty much ignored these concerns or brushed them aside.
And so the blind spot continues.
To be sure, we as a Jewish community have not been immune, either, to this blind spot to prejudice. At times we have been unable to stand up as we should when there were bigots among us. There are many Jews, for example, who hold up Pamela Geller of “Stop Islamization of America” and others like her as truth-tellers, when in fact they are in many ways no better than Farrakhan or Buchanan.
If we are truly interested in building a better society, it is time for those who have a blind spot to bigotry to understand that we cannot win the war against racism and anti-Semitism until we are courageous enough to take off the blinders and to stand up and reject the bigots in our midst.
Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and author, most recently, of “Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype.”