The Women’s March’s Farrakhan problem, and my own

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Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, speaking at the Watergate Hotel in 2017, and Tamika Mallory, one of the Women’s March leaders. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Bebeto Matthews/AP, Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, speaking at the Watergate Hotel in 2017, and Tamika Mallory, one of the Women’s March leaders. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Bebeto Matthews/AP, Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Did you know that one of the leading figures in the Compromise of 1877, which after a deadlock in the Electoral College delivered the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for a promise to end Reconstruction, was a Jewish congressman from Louisiana named William M. Levy?

I didn’t either; I had to look it up, and only after some digging found the relevant passage in historian C. Vann Woodward’s account of that chaotic, catastrophic vote in the House of Representatives, which ushered in nearly a century of disenfranchisement and oppression of Southern blacks. And now that I do know, let me say loud and clear that while ending Reconstruction in that way was a terrible mistake, it has nothing to do with me, because I wasn’t there.

But the fact that this took place before any living Jews were born doesn’t much matter to Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader. It was Farrakhan who introduced me to Levy’s treachery in a speech he gave last year at the Watergate Hotel in Washington. Here’s some of what he had to say, at approximately the one-hour mark:

 The deal was that when we were so-called emancipated, Abraham Lincoln sent federal troops into the South to make sure black people were treated better. But the deal was if you let Rutherford B. Hayes be president, we’ll take all the federal troops out of the South and you all can go back to doing what you do. That was the great betrayal of the so-called American Negro in 1877. To the Jewish people in this hall, you weren’t there. [Footnote: C-span’s transcript reads “you were there,” but after listening to the speech I believe that’s a transcription error.]  But there was a Jewish man named Levy who was in Congress, and he sold the agreement and it became policy and Reconstruction was over.

So Jews down to the present are tainted by that betrayal. The spirit of William M. Levy lives on in us. I like to think that if I’d been there, I would have opposed the end of Reconstruction, but how can I be sure? (Full disclosure: I attended a high school in Brooklyn named for Samuel J. Tilden, the Democrat who won the popular vote in 1876 but lost the presidency to Hayes. Fun fact: Al Sharpton went there too, a couple of years later.)

Farrakhan is in the news again, not for anything new he has done or said recently — he has been saying the same things since the 1970s — but because of links to some of the leaders of the Women’s March, which is gearing up for a reprise in January of the 2017 event that helped kick off the progressive resistance to Donald Trump. The issue has been simmering since last winter, when journalist Jake Tapper called attention to Farrakhan’s three-hour speech in Chicago marking the Nation of Islam’s Saviour’s Day.

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“The powerful Jews are my enemy,” Farrakhan proclaimed. “White folks are going down. And Satan is going down. And Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew, and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.”

In the audience, as she has been many times for this annual event, was Tamika Mallory, one of the four co-chairs of the Women’s March. Farrakhan praised the Women’s March in his speech, with a personal shout-out to Mallory.

In Farrakhan’s worldview, it’s not just the benighted Levy whose sin has been passed down the generations, it’s the Jewish “plantation owners” he has railed against, and the Jews who masterminded the slave trade, who are the subject of a book published by the Nation of Islam, “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.” When it came out in 1992, no less an authority than Henry Louis Gates Jr. described it as “one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled” which “massively misrepresents the historical record, largely through a process of cunningly selective quotation of often reputable sources.” But Farrakhan is still going on about the Jews who ran the slave trade 400 years ago, an obsession he shares with, yes, David Duke.

Another belief he shares with Duke, and a common theme among anti-Semites going back to Nazi Germany, is that Jews are promoting homosexuality and effeminacy. Farrakhan is an outspoken homophobe and managed to conflate his two hatreds in the Saviour’s Day speech, blaming the Jews for “all this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out, turning men into women and women into men.”

After Tapper’s tweets began circulating, the Women’s March organization posted a long statement on Facebook opposing anti-Semitism and homophobia, but about Farrakhan personally the leadership went only as far as saying that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish, queer, and trans people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles,” about as mild a disavowal as one can imagine under the circumstances. The “Women’s March is holding conversations with queer, trans, Jewish and Black members of both our team and larger movement to create space for understanding and healing,” it said. “Our external silence has been because we are holding these conversations and are trying to intentionally break the cycles that pit our communities against each other.”

Women’s March leaders Carmen Perez, left, Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour attend the Time 100 Gala, celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world, in April 2017 in New York. (Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Women’s March leaders Carmen Perez, left, Bob Bland, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour attend the Time 100 Gala, celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world, in April 2017 in New York. (Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

If the various communities the Women’s March purports to represent are pitted against each other, it’s not for any intrinsic reason; it’s precisely because bigots like Farrakhan are inciting it. Understanding and healing aren’t likely to take place under the stewardship of Minister Farrakhan.

How should someone trying to build a movement devoted to equality and unity respond to Farrakhan? Like all demagogues, Farrakhan uses hateful language to draw attention to himself. His rhetoric is appalling although, his denunciations of Jews have a kind of abstract, ritualistic quality; they lack a specific program or call to action — unlike the neo-Nazis whose marches and chants of “Jews will not replace us” represent a much more urgent threat. It is not a member of the Nation of Islam who is accused of mailing a pipe bomb to George Soros last month, or of the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue — although as far as I can tell, Farrakhan hasn’t taken the trouble to say a word of condolence or condemnation about either event.

It was, in part, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that touched off the most recent round of controversy. The atrocity led Teresa Shook, whose Facebook page sparked the original Women’s March after the 2016 election, to issue a statement last week calling on Mallory and her co-chairs — Linda Sarsour, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland — to step down. “They have allowed anti-Semitism, anti- LBGTQIA sentiment and hateful, racist rhetoric to become a part of the platform by their refusal to separate themselves from groups that espouse these racist, hateful beliefs,” Shook wrote (using the most up-to-the-minute version of the acronym for the categories deserving protection from discrimination, which adds initials for “intersexual” and “asexual.”)

“People are hurting,” Shook told me. “I’m a heartfelt person and I wanted to speak out. I didn’t attack anyone, I just was stating my truth.” In response, a joint statement by the four leaders said Shook was acting “irresponsibly,” along with “other organizations attempting in this moment to take advantage of our growing pains to try and fracture our network.” They cited the movement’s “unity principles,” which require standing in alliance with those who share your goals, even if it’s necessary to disassociate yourself from some of their positions (like, for instance, this tweet from Farrakhan, comparing Jews to insects). “It seems like a pretty silly argument to me,” Shook said. “What if I appeared at a rally with David Duke?”

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Bland, Mallory, Perez and Sarsour did not respond to a request for comment.

How can we know the dancer from the dance? A man is the sum of his parts, but they must be added algebraically, and sometimes the result is a negative number. The Nation of Islam, in its prison ministry and community organizing, has been a force for good in the lives of many African-Americans, as it was in Mallory’s own life when she suffered a personal tragedy. But it is led by a blustering bigot who is targeting other minorities out of Biblical notions of sexual purity and over grievances dating back centuries, which he imputes to people alive today. The word for this is “collective guilt,” a source of conflict and hatred for at least 2,000 years.

As a white man in America, I recognize that I am an indirect beneficiary of centuries of oppression of African-Americans, and that is a burden I am willing to bear and work to erase. But I refuse to accept responsibility for anything done by William M. Levy 150 years ago, any more than I could claim credit for the work done by Martin Luther King Jr.’s great friend, ally and adviser Stanley Levison.

“You can’t see why they [Jews] hate me, like they hated Jesus?” Farrakhan thundered from the stage in Chicago. A few days later, Mallory tweeted this:

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Bearing the memory of pogroms, expulsions and extermination camps down through history, Jews know perfectly well what Mallory meant. I like to think that if I’d been there at the time I would have been on the anti-crucifixion side. But, as with the end of Reconstruction, I wasn’t there.

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