Hours before he murderously stormed into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, Robert Bowers posted a chilling message on the dark web, declaring that the “powerful Jews are my enemy.” He vowed to pull “the cover off of that Satanic Jew,” and threateningly added “I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.”
Oh wait. That wasn’t Robert Bowers. It was Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, speaking at Saviour’s Day last February, while thousands cheered his every word. Although he has spouted anti-Semitism, homophobia, and misogyny for decades, Farrakhan is still accepted in some quarters of the American left, welcome in polite company, and rebuked, if at all, only in the mildest terms. After a leader of the Women’s March was seen on the dais at the Saviour’s Day rally, for example, the organization itself issued a bland statement explaining only that “Minister Farrakhan’s statements about Jewish ... people are not aligned with the Women’s March Unity Principles.”
As should be obvious, Farrakhan and Bowers are purveyors of the same poison. On the web platform Gab, Bowers actually wrote that “Jews are the children of Satan,” inveighed against “the filthy EVIL Jews,” and blamed HIAS, the Jewish agency helping refugees, for bringing “invaders to the United States.” Compare that to Farrakhan’s years of references to “Satanic Jews” and his statement that “when you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door.”
The main difference is that Bowers also hates Muslims, while Farrakhan hates gay people. Thus, Bowers believes that Jewish-inspired Muslims are slaughtering his people, whereas Farrakhan finds Jews “responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out and turning men into women and women into men.” They are otherwise as one in their evocation of classic anti-Semitism, in which Jews are blamed for all the ills of the world.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, Twitter was filled with messages of love and support from individuals and organizations across the political spectrum, including some who had previously defended their association with Farrakhan (or excused those who did).
It is all too easy to express solidarity with the victims of mass murder. While many progressives condemned Farrakhan's anti-Semitism, some lacked the courage or integrity to speak out in circumstances where it might actually have made a difference to living people. That would have required expending political capital that they were evidently loath to risk.
Many leftists have likewise marginalized Jews and ignored anti-Semitism in the social justice movement. The leaders of the Chicago Dyke March were unwilling to tolerate a Star of David on a rainbow flag, and Jewish student organizations on campuses have been excluded from diversity coalitions. Supporters of Steven Salaita quite reasonably defended him on academic freedom grounds when the University of Illinois revoked his faculty appointment following complaints about his many tweets. But Salaita’s supporters were never willing to admit that his most objectionable tweets—including a comparison of “Zios” to scabies; that is, Jews to vermin—were anti-Semitic. It isn’t hard to recognize the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories of the right wing, but how different are they from blaming wholly imaginary “Zionist pressure” for administrative decisions at Fresno State University?
The right, of course, must be held accountable for its much more frequent forays into anti-Semitism, some of which appear to have inspired Bowers. His deranged claim about HIAS, for example, plainly expanded upon the many fevered accusations against George Soros—originated by Hungary’s authoritarian Victor Orban, but repeated even post-Pittsburgh in Republican television advertisements—that include financing the “illegal alien invasion.”
Condemning Bowers while accommodating Farrakhan is no more meaningful than President Trump’s professed sympathy for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub slaughter—spoken while he planned to eliminate civil rights for gays and transgender people. The words mean nothing in the absence of deeds. Even South Carolina’s Republican legislature removed the Confederate flag following the murders at the Mother Emanuel Church. Fox News has banned a commentator who reviled the “Soros-occupied State Department,” although the program’s host still appears nightly.
Neither Bowers nor Farrakhan arrived at anti-Semitism on their own, and it is not a mere coincidence that they both associate Jews with Satan. They learned their anti-Semitism from the same age-old sources and shaped it to fit their particular ideologies. The progressive advocates of intersectionalism ought to recognize that Bowers and Farrakhan represent different branches of the same diseased tree.
Farrakhan's politics surely ought not to endear him to progressives. During the 2016 election, he praised Trump as the only candidate “who has stood in front of the Jewish community, and said I don’t want your money. Any time a man can say to those who control the politics of America, ‘I don’t want your money,’ that means you can’t control me. And they cannot afford to give up control of the presidents of the United States.” Farrakhan later walked that back a bit, explaining, “Not that I’m for Mr. Trump, but I like what I’m looking at.”
Farrakhan has admitted that his “incendiary rhetoric” helped “create the atmosphere” that led to the assassination of Malcolm X. No Farrakhan follower has killed any Jews, but neither had Bowers or any other Gab habitué before the Pittsburgh massacre, which should serve as a reminder that anti-Semitism and violence inevitably go together. The time to stand up to anti-Semitism is before the murders, not afterward. Silence about Farrakhan continues to enable and encourage his most extreme diatribes.
I don’t expect much from Fox News, and there is no way to influence the alt-right, but I care deeply about progressive social justice movements and I retain every hope that good sense and shared humanity can eventually prevail.
American leftists therefore face a clear challenge to repudiate anti-Semitism wherever it appears, starting with Farrakhan’s invective and including every other form of discrimination, exclusion, and vilification, even when undertaken in the name of anti-Zionism
They must do this not for the benefit of the dead. They must do it for the living.