Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis

excerpt from The New Yorker, February 28, 1994
pp. 61-66

by Paul Berman

The furor over the rhetoric of Farrakhanism is the latest episode in twenty-five years of perceived discord between America's blacks and America's Jews. What is the argument between sometime allies really about? The beginnings of an answer may lie in a discourse left behind by a hero of the French Resistance.

The striking thing was the intensity. Khalid Abdul Muhammad, the "Representative" and "National Assistant" of Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, arrived at Kean College, in Union, New Jersey, on November 29, 1993, and rays of zeal and hatred beamed from his mouth. His topic was a book published by the Nation of Islam called "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews." The National Assistant said that the Jews were "impostor Jews"--demonic liars who rejected Jesus. He said to the Jews, "Jesus was right. You're nothing but liars. The Book of Revelations is right. You're from the synagogue of Satan."

Muhammad outlined a Jewish conspiracy over the millennia. The Jews crucified Jesus. They dispossessed the Palestinians. They exploited the Germans: "Everybody always talk about Hitler exterminating six million Jews. But don't nobody ever ask what did they do to Hitler. . . . They went in there, in Germany, the way they do everywhere they go, and they supplanted, they usurped. . . . They had undermined the very fabric of the society." In the United States, they took control of the Federal Reserve and the White House. And they persecuted the blacks. They dominated the slave trade. They conspired against such great black leaders as Jesus, Marcus Garvey, and, today, Farrakhan. They participated in the civil-rights movement in order to exploit the blacks. They used Hollywood against the blacks. The Jews and the Arab slumlords are "sucking our blood in the black community." The Jews support apartheid. They "raped black women," he said. "What the Jews did. What they did against Nat Turner. It's all in here"--in "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews."

But the worst is their lie--this lie of the Jews, which is, in a sense, their essence. The Jews--"the hook-nosed, bagel-eatin', lox-eatin' "Jews--are not in fact Jews. Muhammad addressed his black audience: "For you are the true Jew. You are the true Hebrew. You are the true ones who are in line with Bible prophecy and scripture, so teaches the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan."

The speech was venomous but not inarticulate. It outlined a coherent theological interpretation of black suffering: blacks as the people of God against whom the synagogue of Satan has conspired. It was the kind of speech that, with that same language about blood-sucking and the Crucifixion, Crusaders might have given in 1095 A.D., on their way to slaughter the Jews in the ghettos of Europe. The audience at Kean College cheered--though a lone, brave black student, when given the chance to ask a question, politely but firmly likened the speech to Hitlerism.

Then came the public response. On the Op-Ed page of the Times, A. M. Rosenthal banged his fist and, along with him, Roger Wilkins and Bob Herbert. The famous ad that was placed by the Anti-Defamation League--the ad that quoted Muhammad's speech below the words "You Decide"--filled an entire page in the Times and ran in other papers, too.

The Senate voted 97-0 to condemn the Kean College speech. The Congressional Black Caucus, having recently announced a "covenant" with Minister Farrakhan, had reason to be embarrassed, and the whole weight of the black political establishment seemed to fall on Farrakhan as a result. Jesse Jackson and then a variety of other political leaders denounced anti-Semitism and called on Farrakhan to act. Farrakhan conferred with Representative Kweisi Mfume, the chairman of the Black Caucus, and then summoned a press conference and demoted Muhammad and chastised him, and praised his "truths." And once again rays of hysteria and hatred beamed outward to the world, this time on CNN.

Farrakhan held up with approval "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews." He said that "Talmudic scholars" had caused blacks to suffer "the mental anguish of believing that we are black because of some divine curse." He outdid even his own National Assistant by saying that seventy-five per cent of the black slaves in the Old South were owned by . . . Jews! He was raving--our American Zhirinovsky--which did not prevent the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from declaring itself "satisfied" with Farrakhan's statement. The N.A.A.C.P.'s director of communications said the part about slaveowners in the South "may have exaggerated the historical fact," but that it is "a matter for academics to debate."

The counterresponse was another full-page ad in the Times, this time placed by People for the American Way. There was shouting on the television talk shows and consternation at the colleges where Farrakhan's National Assistant had been scheduled to speak. Then came another counterresponse: Does the world get upset every time some white person unleashes a racist remark about blacks? There was the case of the Jewish comedian Jackie Mason, who managed to make slurs sound funny. There was the argument that demanding a denunciation of anti-Semitism from every black leader in sight was deeply unfair, and that a controversy that had begun with anti-Semitism had turned--so Time argued--into "just another kind of bigotry"; namely, anti-black racism. To which, in yet another counterresponse, A. M. Rosenthal replied--But why go on?

The intensity was startling, but nothing was new. The same sparks and flames have been shooting upward every few years for more than a quarter of a century. The anger and the arguments were no different during the 1968 school teachers' strike in New York City, or in 1979, when Andrew Young left Jimmy Carter's Administration. The intensity was the same in 1984, when Jesse Jack son made his first run for the Presidency and employed Farrakhan's military looking Fruit of Islam as his personal bodyguards and, that time, pointedly declined to repudiate Farrakhan and instead complained about Jewish persecution. It was the same in Crown Heights in 1991, and again in 1992, after the failure to convict anyone for the murder of a man who had been killed by a mob yelling "Get theJew!"

Yet during all those years what, exactly, has the argument been about--apart from the words themselves? Have the Jews and the blacks been fighting all this time over political spoils? Not especially. Over economic interests? Some people think so, but economic competition between blacks and Jews is strictly marginal. Has it been a war over neighborhoods? Sometimes, but not consistently. Is it a war between parties, Republicans and Democrats? Or between liberalism and conservatism? Not even that, for at the end of the day the blacks and the Jews have trooped off to the polls and in one national election after another they have, more often than not, voted for the same candidates. So what is it--this fire that burns without logs and never goes out?

One of Freud's earliest French translators was a man named Jankelevitch, whose son, Vladimir, became a hero in the French Resistance during the Second World War, then went on to a professor's career at the Sorbonne, where he was much loved by his students for his white mane and his philosophy of music. And when Vladimir Jankelevitch died, in 1985, he left behind for posthumous publication some Q. & A. interviews, which caused a shock. The interviews were about courage and hatred. The old professor reminisced about the war against the Nazis. He remembered Jean-Paul Sartre and other famous thinkers from his own generation in France, and he said that in the face of Nazism those very great philosophers had been malingerers and opportunists and had afterward made a career of their undeserved reputation for bravery. He recalled some anti-Semitism within the Resistance, which was a bitter memory for a Jew like him. He forgave nothing. He despaired. In a thousand years, he predicted, people would still be muttering "Dirty Jew." He offered a few philosophical observations, vaguely psychoanalytic in style, as befitted his father's son. He wondered why certain populations feel so strongly about one another. Why so much irrational passion, nationality against nationality? And he proposed an explanation.

Hatred between peoples comes in two varieties, he said. Racism--this is a truism--is a hatred you might feel for people who are different from you: for "the other." But the second kind of hatred is something you might feel for people who, compared with you, are neither "other" nor "brother." It is hatred for "the almost the same." In Jankelevitch's theory, relations with the other tend to be chilly--which doesn't make the hatred any less murderous, given the wrong circumstances. But relations between people who are almost the same tend to be highly charged. He invoked a passage in "Moses and Monotheism" in which Freud observes that "racial intolerance finds stronger expression, strange to say, in regard to small differences than to fundamental ones."

Jankelevitch pointed to the Dutch and the Belgians, who have everything in common and hate each other zealously--at least, sometimes they do. If the old professor had lived a few more years, he would have certainly pointed to the mass insanity in the former Yugoslavia, where the warring groups resemble one another so closely that most if us in the world beyone the Balkans cannot detect any differences at all. Why do tensions between people who are almost the same heat up into uncontrollable hatred? It is a matter of self-preservation.

To the person wose resemblance to you is close, yet who is not really your double, you might easily end up saying, "You are almost like me. The similarity between us is so plain that in the eyes of the world you are my brother. But, to speak honestly, you are not my brother. My identity, in relation to you, consists precisely of the ways in which I am different from you. Yet the more you resemble me the harder it is for anyone to see those crucial differences. Our resemblance threatens to obliterate everything that is special about me. So you are my false brother. I have no alternative but to hate you, because by working up a rage against you I am defending everything that is unique about me."

Since emotional relations fall under the star of irrationality, people who are almost the same might flip-flop into loving one another, bedazzled by their wonderful point of commonality. Or they might sink into confusion about the intensity of their feelings. "When you are in a state of passion, you don't know if you love or if you hate, like spouses who can neither live together nor live apart," Jankelevitch said.

Does anything in that analysis apply to the predicament of blacks and Jews in America? Not on the face of things. The American Jews and the African-Americans have never looked or sounded alike, and the difference in economic conditions has become more pronounced since the days of bedbug-Jewish-tenement poverty. As for the shared history of having someone's boot press on their vulnerable necks, this experience has taken such different forms for blacks and for Jews as to be barely comparable. Any important element of Jewish-and-black almost the sameness, if it existed at all, would have to lie in the zone of the invisible, which is to say the psychological, where all is murk.

Still, I think a fateful trace of such an element does exist, and can even be described, if only vaguely. Many populations have suffered catastrophic defeats; but not all defeats have the same result. The French, having been conquered by the Germans in the Second World War, were subjected to every terrible thing that Jankelevitch and his Resistance comrades worked to destroy; but, even so, the French could think back on their golden centuries of glory, and on that basis they could picutre a future of renewed freedom and national self-confidence--maybe a bit chastened.

But there is a second kind of defeat from which you don't really bounce back. The calamity lasts too long; it is overwhelming. People who have undergone that second kind of experience can no longer remember a previous state of healthy self-confidence, except, maybe, in versions that are mythological or religious; and their lack of pleasant secular memories is matched by a lack of any place on earth they can confidently regard as uniquely theirs; and their lack of geography is matched by an almost physical discomfort with their own bodies. Instead of a happy history or a home or a comfortable feeling about themselves, they carry around a memory of their own catastrophe--their "enemy- memory," in Shelby Steele's phrase. They look back and they shudder, and nothing is to be done about it. They might wish sometimes that the old injuries would fade and leave them in peace. But, in another mood, they might discover a treasure in that old frightening enemy-memory of theirs, a spur to all sorts of inventiveness, maybe to hyper-creativity or super-originality--which makes giving up the enemy-memory all the more difficult to do.

Anyone who wants to see an example of that plight in Europe today can wander into the main squares of the cities of Central Europe and contemplate the shabby-looking Gypsies. The majority populations passing on the sidewalk treat the Gypsies with contempt, and the Gypsies glower and skulk and are frightening in return. Let's say a political miracle took place and the oppressed Gypsies suddenly basked in the same rights and esteem as the majority populations, and the doors of opportunity flew open, and the days of Gypsy oppression were over. Just how quickly would the remembered accusations of their enemies stop ringing in Gypsies' ears?

Steele, in his book "The Content of Our Character," reminds us of how much harm those old memories can do--how they can leave people trapped forever in the worst moments of a bygone past, like someone huddling in an air-raid shelter long after the real-life planes have gone away. Yet if you think about the Gypsies it's easy to imagine that the ancient wounds have long ago inscribed themselves in the collective character, and around those wounds have grown all kinds of idiosyncrasies and compensatory works of originality--in music and dance, for instance, just to cite what all the world acknowledged long ago as expressions of a wholly admirable Gypsy genius. Why would the Gypsies want to abandon that? Obviously, the sound and healthy thing would be to adapt their enemy-memory to purposes that are strictly constructive, and to find a way to rid themselves of the hangdog look and the outlaw trades, as the Gypsies have done in the more enlightened democratic countries. But we can suppose that the Gypsies' room for maneuver is not unlimited--unless they want to stop being Gypsies altogether, which is inconceivable.

In the case of the American Jews, a miracle did take place merely by the act of their fleeing from the Old World to the New. The era when superstitious Christians peered into the European ghettos and interpreted the poverty and the stooped Jewish shoulders and the pasty complexions as signs of divine guilt for the long-ago murder of Jesus--this era, for American Jews, slips into the past at a rate that has come to seem posi- tively amusing. "What is the difference between the I.L.G.W.U."--the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union--"and the American Psychiatric Association?" Alfred Kazin once asked. And answered, "One generation." Yet such is the enemy-memory that both the good and the bad in American society keep the last sparks of remembrance from going out. The styles of Jewish New World success follow patterns that were established in the Old World ghettos, and the successes themselves are fated now and then to call up, out of the creepier depths of Christian civilization, the old paranoid accusations about conspiracies and evil.

Even the fat-and-happiest of American Jews has to shudder at the spectacle, which is always taking place, of some eminent person, not only spokesmen of the Nation of Islam, standing up to give the ancient libels a fresh new airing. Then there is the news about the surviving Jewish communities in the Slavic and Muslim worlds and elsewhere, which is never exactly designed to calm American Jewish nerves. Not that many years ago, a large, previously unknown Jewish tribe was discovered to be living in Ethiopia. Need it be added that the tribe was on the brink of starving to death? And between the memories of the past and what can be seen of the Jewish present outside the happy circle of Western democracy the predicament of the American Jews becomes ever more anomalous.

For the driveway may be long and circular, and the living-room carpet may be thick, but the enemy-memory does not fade--except among the handful of Jews who choose to escape Jewishness altogether. And from the perspective of that memory to prattle on about kinship between American Jewry and African-Americans seems not so outlandish after all. For anyone can see that, if the Gypsies are a tragic people and the Jews are another, the African-Americans are still another: marked by spectacular defeats; marked, too, by continuing accusations about other than fully human qualities; marked, even--and here the African- American conundrum is classic--by the compensatory feats of supreme cultural brilliance, which all the world has had to acknowledge, and which make the sufferings and the successes almost inextricable. And the whole phenomenon is, from the perspective of Jewish memory, all too familiar.

It's true that to detect invisible similarities you have to peer through a lens capable of revealing them. In a slightly sentimental mood, some American Jews like to imagine that Judaism itself is their lens. That seems to me a dubious claim. If Judaism per se had any such power of insight, there would be two or three hundred years of black-Jewish alliances in the United States by now. But history--real history, not the conspiracy fiend's version--shows nothing of the sort.

During slavery times--when Jews counted for half of one per cent, or even less, of the American population--a small number of Jews participated in the slave trade, along with vastly larger numbers of Christians and Muslims; and a small number of other Jews participated in the abolitionist movement; and the Jews failed to distinguish themselves either as slavers or as anti-slavers.

Alternatively, it is sometimes said that the European Holocaust is the Jewish lens--though the Holocaust explanation stumbles over the same problem of historical dates. Probably the first important moment in the black-Jewish alliance was the founding ofthe N.A.A.C.P., in 1909, long before the Nazi era in Europe. Yet that date--not the exact year but the turn-of-the-century era--does point, I think, to the series of ideas and sentiments that finally allowed a large number of Jews to notice similarities between themselves and the blacks.

No one can feel a boot on the neck for long without dreaming of removing it; but only after the American and the French Revolutions did the Old World Jews have the chance to dream along lines of real-life practicality. The Old World Jews had been oppressed by superstition and bigotry, by Christian and Muslim desires to organize society according to religious principles, and by the feudal idea that dynastic landowners (therefore not the homeless Jews) should dominate society. So the new political alternative promoted rationalism and education--against prejudice and superstition. It promised democratic, secular sovereignty--against theocratic domination. And it promised individual rights, equal for all, to be enforced by law--against an exclusively religious or ethnic vision of society.

Enlightenment liberalism was the new idea, and it sliced neatly through the knotty complication of being an unloved minority in a majoritarian world. For the basic unit in the liberal idea was not the exclusive group but the individual person, which opened to the Jews the appealing possibility of taking their place at last as members of a self-selected majority; namely, the grand, all-embracing majority of free and equal individuals. The French Revolution brought these ideas into the open air, and the French and German Jews took them up, and the ideas began a steady eastward push into regions where Jews were more numerous and prejudices more ferocious. The stronger the prejudices and the larger the Jewish population, the more ardent was the enthusiasm with which the new ideas were embraced, until by the time the emancipatory message finally arrived in darkest Poland and the czarist empire it was received almost in the spirit of a religious conversion.

It was the late nineteenth century by then, which was precisely when the mass emigration of Eastern European Jews got under way. Thus America's Jewish population grew in numbers and in poverty but also in ardor. And this new ardor for an emancipatory liberal vision of a better society now became, circa 1909, the lens through which some of the American Jews began to notice those oddest of their new fellow-citizens, the ones with no rights in the land of rights, the victims of majority hatred and out- rageous prejudices, their fellows in tragedy: the blacks.

The origin of the Jewish attitude in liberal philosophy accounts, I think, for several of the quirks and oddities of the blacklewish alliance that now began, very slowly, to emerge. The sympathy for blacks that certain Jews began to feel was not, by and large, a product of personal contact or cultural affinity--except, maybe, in the racially integrated bohemia of jazz and a few other places. The Jews who typically came in contact with blacks during the early and middle twentieth century--the old-time Southern Jews and, around the country, the Jewish employers of black workers, the not very rich Jewish housewives who hired black housekeepers and were famous for a lack of genteel courtesy, the landlords and the storekeepers who lingered in Northern Jewish neighborhoods after black populations had replaced the Jews--might feel no particular sympathy for the African-American cause. They might even be a little hostile, as a result of irritating face-to-face encounters or in conformity with mainstream American culture. Richard Wright drew quite a few Jewish portraits from the nineteen- twenties and thirties in his autobiography, "Black Boy," and the good, the bad, and the ugly were all represented.

When the Jews did sympathize, it was mostly as a result of abstract political reflection, and the people who indulged in the abstract reflection were not always in a rush to proclaim their own Jewishness. The emancipatory liberalism of the American Jews took an infinity of forms in the twentieth century, and only some of these movements flew a Jewish flag. Many Jews were more likely to proclaim a doctrine of purer universalism and to relegate Jewishness to the sphere of private life, or perhaps to the sphere of things to be abolished someday, along with every other threat to village atheism. From the perspective of people with the universalist idea, humanism and liberalism, not what they conceived of as Jewishness, brought them to the cause of African America. There is an old and slightly peculiar Jewish custom of rebelling against Jewishness by identifying with the most marginal of all possible groups, so as to rebel and still not assimilate into the mainstream; and this, too, played its part in attracting Jews to the black cause.

A black person who judged from his own experience with Jewish storekeepers and with abstractly motivated civil-rights supporters who didn't call themselves Jews might easily suppose that Jewish support for black causes was, even in the mid-century heyday of the black-Jewish alliance, either spotty in the extreme or mostly a matter of elite arrangements by a handful of lawyers--and, in either case, not a large and popular tendency. That was how Jewish support did, in fact, begin. The participation of a few Jews in helping to organize the N.A.A.C.P., the devotion of some Jewish philanthropies to black education (which by the nineteen-thirties was benefitting up to forty percent of Southern black schoolchildren), the fraternal relations beginning in the nineteen-twenties between some top lawyers of the American Jewish Committee and of the N.A.A.C.P.--those were important steps, but they were achieved by only a handful of people.

Support for black causes from the Socialist Party and its offshoots, during the years when Socialism enjoyed a lot of popularity among poor immigrant Jews, had a bit more sidewalk visibility. Still, Socialist friendliness to the black cause had its ups and downs. As for the Communists, their own support for black causes, eager and important though it proved to be, was no end of peculiar. Even to mention Communism among the currents of Jewish emancipatory liberalism may seem odd--except that, of course, a percentage of American Jews did, in the confusions of the Great Depression, turn to Communism out of the same impulses that led a larger percentage to turn to movements that were democratic. And if, out of the Socialist and the Communist movements, a genuine feeling for racial egalitarianism did emerge, and managed to survive the collapse of both parties into tiny sects, such that quite a few of the white liberal volunteers in the nineteen-fifties and sixties heyday of the civil-rights movement were actually Jews with backgrounds in the left-wing parties--even so, quirks and inconsistencies survived as well.

What were some of these peculiarities? Sometimes a Jewish snobbism played a part. One handsome check to the N.A.A.C.P. and a proper snob could look down forever on his ordinary American neighbors. It was possible to support black causes out of feelings that had more to do with Jewish origins than with black realities--out of a need to justify a bristly militant liberalism that no longer seemed to make much sense in relation to American Jewish causes.

The confusing quality of feeling oneself oppressed and poor yet anomalously burdened with prosperity sometimes led the more addled grandchildren of Polish and Russian peddler Jews to stand up and announce a support for blacks on the basis of a largely imagined Jewish guilt. Jewish cynics who never did express much interest in black causes looked at this heap of contradictory impulses and were beside themselves with scorn. How sappy were the Jewish liberals, how soft-hearted and daft!

Yet, for all these many twists and inconsistencies (and I could go on listing them, in a spirit of ethnic masochism), some aspect of that sympathy for black causes was authentic, and the aspect went on swelling, until the sentiments that had begun as spotty and unreliable and peculiar had become by the forties and fifties a genuine popular enthusiasm among the large percentage of American Jews who considered themselves liberals. It was almost as if to be Jewish and lib- eral were, by definition, to fly a flag for black America--as if to embark on dangerous Freedom Rides into the Deep South were to live out a supremely Jewish sense of moral action. Jews accounted for almost two-thirds of the white volunteers who went south for Freedom Summer, in 1964. Among the people who lacked that kind of physical courage, there was always the possibility of contributing money. Between half and three-quarters of the money raised by the civil-rights organizations at the height of the movement came from Jewish contributors, which is striking, considering that Jews made up by then less than three per cent of the American population.

It was a matter of one population's recognizing another. The liberal Jew said to the black, in effect, "Among all the el- ements of American society, it is you who are most like me. The similarity between us is so plain that in my own eyes, if not in the eyes of the world, you are my brother. Slavery is Nazism; lynchings are pogroms; Jim Crow is czarist anti-Semitism, American style; Mississippi is Poland; bigotry is bigotry. I am with you! I understand your plight. I understand how it is a worse plight than most people can imagine. I understand it because of who I am, and who I am is someone who fights on behalf of people like you."

There was passion in that statement. And if some kernel of practical self-interest lurked as well-if the higher-ups in the Jewish establishment always knew that people with sheets over their heads were no friends of Jewry, either, and blacks were a good ally to have--that merely shows that idealism and self-interest need not be opposites, in spite of a cheap temptation to assume that they must be. Anyway, the Jewish young people who took up civil-rights activism were not thinking of Jewish conditions. They were thinking of justice.
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