Can anti-Semitic attacks in New York be traced to the Nation of Islam?

The media finally seems to be paying attention to the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area, after the sheer number and violence of those attacks peaked last month. But while the media is beginning to acknowledge a pattern it hasn’t been willing to speculate about the source of the problem. On the contrary, a piece published Monday at Haaretz made a sustained argument that we just don’t have enough data at this point to draw conclusions:

But by far the most prevalent talking point that has simmered under the surface of mainstream discourse seems to finally have burst forth: the vast majority of the perpetrators over the last two weeks have been black.

Even the most liberal Jews seem to have latched onto this fact with a fervency that is quite astonishing. People who once recoiled at the idea of broadly linking a group to anti-Semitism seem to be acknowledging what others have been repeating ad nauseam: the black community has an anti-Semitism problem. They may have different answers to this issue, but the point these critics make is pretty standardized: so many of these perpetrators were black, and yet it seems that the only anti-Semitism we have cared to discuss in the mainstream (and certainly in the mainstream left) is white nationalism. Something needs to change…

But as I see more and more people demanding we deal with “black anti-Semitism,” I can’t help but feel there is something missing, something that many people seem both desperate for and yet not willing to truly examine.

“We just need more data.”

This is what I return to over and over.

And he does return to it over and over in the piece. Don’t draw conclusions because we don’t know enough. That’s generally good advice but it strikes me that we don’t see the media hesitate much when the attacker can be linked with white supremacy. In that case, the cause and possible solutions become fodder for days. But in New York, the desire to avoid drawing conclusions has been so powerful that the media for the most part hasn’t even been willing to connect the dots in any way at all.

In any case, the author does have a point. It’s not enough to blame a group of people as if that were an explanation. The fact is that the majority of black people, like the majority of white people, aren’t anti-Semitic. But there does seem to be something bubbling along the fringe that has reared its head in the NY area. Over at Vox, Jane Coaston looks at the same facts and tentatively suggests a possible explanation for what is motivating this: conspiracy theories involving Jews, specifically conspiracy theories spread by the Nation of Islam.

I’ve argued before that anti-Semitism, unlike many other forms of hate, is heavily reliant on conspiracy theories to replicate itself. Jewish people are believed to be secretly in charge — of the government, of culture, of the world in its entirety — forcing people to do their bidding without their knowledge. As Nation of Islam (NOI) leader Louis Farrakhan put it in 2018, “The Jews have control over those agencies of government. When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door.”

But some anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have very specific origins, like conspiracy theories tying Jewish people to anti-black racism, slavery, and police brutality. One of the Jersey City shooters, for example, posted online that the police shooting of Alton Sterling in 2016 was part of a “well planned agenda layed [sic] out by the upper echelon of Rosenbergs people” — a reference to Jewish people.

Many of these conspiracy theories heard today can be traced to a 1991 book published by the Nation of Islam, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The book falsely argued that Jewish people were the real force behind the slave trade, and a third volume of the book even stated that Jewish people were secretly responsible for the 1920s rise of the Ku Klux Klan, a famously anti-Semitic hate group.

None of that is true, but the messaging proved effective and infectious (perusing Twitter on Thursday, I saw a user making those exact points). As the historian Henry Louis Gates noted in a 1992 New York Times article, the book is “one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled,” aimed at fomenting “ethnic isolationism” to drive Jewish people and black Americans apart.

As I read it, Coaston isn’t saying this is the only possible explanation just one that might help make sense of some of what we’re seeing. It certainly doesn’t hurt her case that high-profile figures on the left—the women’s march leaders— who’ve also been accused of anti-Semitism this year had connections to Farrakhan. And Ilhan Omar, who was at the center of several anti-Semitic controversies this year, was given Farrakhan’s approval.

But what if anti-Semitism isn’t really political at all. Rather, what if it has the ability to transcends politics. That’s the view of University of Chicago dean David Nirenberg who has studied anti-Semitism. In an interview with the New Yorker, Nirenberg aruges that what we’re seeing is something more primal and dangerous than either right or left are willing to admit:

Anti-Judaism is actually a system of thought that people can use to explain many of the challenges they face, even when there are no Jews around. And that has a flexibility that, in the worst moments, allows many parts of society to agree that Jews are the problem in a way you don’t always see coalescing around other distinctions…

Let me give you an example, which spurred me to write the book “Anti-Judaism.” It happened in 2001, in mid-September. I was heading to New York City to give a talk at N.Y.U. It was the day George W. Bush was speaking at Ground Zero. There were only two other people on the subway car, and they were trying to explain to each other why this new kind of terror had struck New York. They had two answers for each other. One said that it was the Jews’ greed, and that the Jews had turned New York into a symbol of capitalism, and that’s why everybody hates us, and the other said, yes, and because they killed Christ.

O.K., you might say this is ridiculous. I remember feeling a bit of shock at hearing two explanations for 9/11 that were perfectly familiar to people in the Middle Ages. When the plague struck Barcelona, both explanations were used, about usury and the killing of Christ…

I think I see anti-Judaism anywhere that I see people explaining their circumstances by thinking about the Jews in a way that seems driven by prejudgment rather than reality. In that sense, I wouldn’t draw a distinction between a Muslim in Paris who suffers all kinds of discrimination at the hands of the French state, but who enacts his rage first and foremost against a Jewish target, and a white nationalist or a black nationalist or a left-Labour politician in England. I think all of them—to the degree that they are explaining what needs to be overcome in their world in terms of overcoming the Jews—are participating in a similar kind of thought.

He goes on to say that the unique danger of anti-Semitism is that every side can engage in it, at least a little but they only see it being acted out by the opposing tribe. So, for instance, liberals in the media only really see it when white supremacists are responsible (which would explain a lot about the lack of national coverage for most of 2019). Meanwhile, Jews are seeing it rise up all around them, from the right and the left.

This isn’t the sort of issue that can be pinned down in a thousand words, but I think the media does need to be willing to call out more than one type of anti-Semitism that happens to match their political outlook and look at the bigger picture. That may mean having some conversations around how this is spreading on the left (not just how it spreads on the right). So far, I haven’t seen much of that but maybe the pieces above are a start.