The steady decline in black-Jewish relations since their supposed heyday in the 1960s can be seen in the fact that such notorious anti-Semites as Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan are no longer kept at arm’s length by mainstream figures, and that the national organization of the Movement for Black Lives has made the destruction of Israel part of its platform. But while these trends have been much lamented, intelligent suggestions as to how they can be corrected are few and far between. Chloe Valdary offers a path forward—but first looks back at the formation of two of the 20th century’s most influential anti-Semitic black leaders:
Both [Malcolm X] and Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, grew up as the sons of preachers who, in traditional Protestant fashion, preached their own messianic vision of a coming apocalyptic hellfire in which all would be damned unless they found salvation. . . . It’s easy to see how some people who were hated, beaten, and bloodied for their dark skin would be motivated to proclaim that the very thing that made them hated by others was what made them beloved by God. It’s also easy to see how those same people would view all others who claimed to be God’s chosen people as usurpers, a threat to a hard-fought sense of purpose and belonging in an unforgiving world.
The roots of the Nation of Islam’s relentless demonization of Jews come from various sources, many of them religious. But the psychological attraction of that anti-Semitism—the reason the Nation has had such success in attracting both converts and admirers—derives at least partly from a sense of competition for chosenness. Not for nothing does Louis Farrakhan constantly accuse Jews of being imposters.
The antidote, Valery argues, comes in embracing what she calls “enchantment,” and taking an approach radically different from that favored by today’s professional “anti-racists.”
Where many of today’s anti-racists are more often interested in appearances than in possibilities, in counting up what a person or an organization lacks (namely, participation by minorities), enchantment asks us to imagine, and work toward, what we and our institutions can become. Where zero-sum-game anti-racism marinates in division, resentment, and mutual recrimination, literally dividing people into race-based “affinity groups,” enchantment asks people to take deeper notice of one another, not just in terms of what confounds or confronts us, but also in what delights and dazzles us.
Imagine individuals from each community doing so as personal friends or professional colleagues, in book clubs, reading circles, activity groups, or Shabbat dinners. Imagine Birthright-like trips for teenage black Americans to Israel, or March of the Living-like trips to Auschwitz. Imagine Freedom Summer-like trips for students in Jewish day schools to the American South, tracing the story of civil rights from Atlanta to Birmingham to my hometown of New Orleans—with plenty of detours for great music and food.