Let us talk about two men.
Both are preachers. Both have a devoted following, and hold positions of influence within their respective communities. And both have used their pulpits to spread hatred of the other’s community.
Last month, the first of those men, Louis Farrakhan, stood up at his organisation’s annual Saviour’s Day conference and gave a speech littered with foul antisemitism.
“The powerful Jews are my enemy,” he declared, going on to say that “the Jews were responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behaviour that Hollywood is putting out turning men into women and women into men.”
Farrakhan has decades of form on this particular subject. He has made no secret of his loathing of Jews, which is why it was so dispiriting to see the leaders of the Women’s March, supposedly the most enlightened of organisations, vocally supporting him. Subsequently, the most supportive of those leaders, Tamika Mallory, declined to condemn Farrakhan, with her co-Presidents defending her.
For many Jews, it confirmed what they already knew – antisemitism is not really of importance to the “woke” intersectional left. People who would scream the house down if any other type of racism reared its head were strangely reluctant to do so on this occasion. With antisemitic incidents skyrocketing in America, with Neo-Nazis shouting “Jews will not replace us” at rallies, those same Jews discovered that the people who shouted so loudly about the need to combat hatred and intolerance went strangely mute after Louis Farrakhan opened his mouth.
But let us now talk about the second of those two men. Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef is the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel. Last Saturday night, he was giving his weekly sermon, when he turned to the subject of the blessing one makes if one sees an unusual sight. The Talmud gives examples, including seeing a black man, a red man, or an extremely white man.
Rabbi Yosef elaborated. The blessing should not be made every time one sees a black person, a kushi, he said - “in America you see one every five minutes.
“So you make it only on a person with a white father and mother… they had a monkey as a son, so you say the blessing on him.”
Rabbi Yosef is not a stupid man. He must know that the word kushi, although used in the Talmud, is a pejorative term for black people in modern Hebrew. Just as he must know that comparing a black person to a monkey is racism of the most vile kind.
It was gratifying to see a number of Jewish organisations, including the UK’s own Board of Deputies, condemning Rabbi Yosef’s despicable comments. But the fact that he made those comments is indicative of a wider problem in our own community.
Antisemitism is an equal opportunity form of hatred – no matter your background, you can still display it. Over the years I have received antisemitic abuse from Christians and Muslims, white people and black people. The abuse I have received from the latter has included vile antisemitic epithets and, on one occasion, children spitting at me on a public bus because I was wearing a kippah.
But I am also painfully aware of the anti-black racism present within the Jewish community. I have heard the term schwarzer, a derogatory term for black people, used often. When I was in yeshiva, I was horrified by the anti-black racism of some of my American fellow students. The “n” word was used frequently, and there were a couple of Rabbis who willingly participated in the regular racial deprecation of black people. I confronted one of them about it on one occasion, only for him to tell me that it was one of his ways of connecting with students who shared those views. There are a number of reasons why I came out of yeshiva markedly less religious than when I walked in, but this sort of despicable behaviour was undoubtedly one such cause.
In the aftermath of the latest hatemongering from Farrakhan, it was my misfortune to read a horrific article, published by an English language Jewish news site in Israel, which included the following despicable passages:
“How do we, the people of the book, find common ground among people who do not read? In 2017 the California Department of Education found that 75 percent of black boys failed to meet minimal reading and writing standards.
“How do we, the people of the law, find common purpose with blacks, who so often see family members jailed? The US Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that one in four black men will go to prison during their lifetimes.
“How do the Jews, whose foundation for thousands of years has been our strong families, find something to talk about with American blacks, whose families have disintegrated? Today, 77.3 percent of black births are to unwed mothers, according to The National Center for Health Statistics.”
I would ask some questions of my own, in response.
How do we, the people of the book, have those among us who are so ill-educated that they spread hate against others in a similar fashion to the way it has often been spread against us?
How do we, the people of the law, find those among us who eagerly break the juncture against desecrating God’s name, through their vile racism?
How do the Jews, with our history of oppression and ill-treatment, have those among us who have nothing but contempt for those who have suffered terrible oppression of their own down the centuries?
There have been many Jewish people who bitterly lamented the way in which certain people within the African-American community did not condemn Farrakhan’s comments, past or present. There have also been some – though a far lesser number - who have condemned anti-black racism within our own community. There need to be more in this latter category – people who challenge bigotry amongst our own. If we do not condemn the hate towards others which is present in our own house, we risk looking like utter hypocrites when we complain of the silence of others regarding hate aimed at us from among them.