Activism

Criticism of Women’s March leaders reminiscent of attacks on Jesse Jackson 30 years ago

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Recent criticism of Women’s March activists Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory over accusations of antisemitism have caused a new round of moral panic about left-wing antisemitism. Sarsour, whose anti-Zionism has been well documented and fretted over in major media outlets including the New York Times, has been a target by Zionists and conservatives for years. Mallory has largely avoided the same level of controversy as Sarsour. However, her recent interactions with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has focused attention on both her and the controversial Nation of Islam leader. Allegations of antisemitism and sanctimonious calls for Women’s March leaders to educate themselves about Farrakhan and denounce him echo attacks on Jesse Jackson three decades ago.   

Jackson first found himself targeted by supporters of Israel in 1979, when United Nations ambassador Andrew Young was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had met with representatives of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was against American policy. Young was the first African American appointed to the position, and both his appointment and resignation came with much press coverage and analysis. The Young Affair inflamed tensions between American Jews and African Americans, with Jewish groups and intellectuals going on the defensive and arguing that they were unfairly under attack by African Americans angry about Young’s forced resignation.

Neoconservative media such as Commentary and the New Republic used the controversy surrounding the Young firing as proof of systemic changes in the relationship between American Jews and African Americans and blamed the Black community for the tensions between Jews and African Americans that were becoming more strained. The pages of both magazines were filled with accusations of antisemitism mixed with calls for American Jews to support Ronald Reagan for president because, they argued, the Democratic Party no longer supported Jewish interests. Writing about Andrew Young’s ouster from the UN in Commentary in 1979, neoconservative commentator Murray Friedman argued that the reaction by African Americans to Jewish organizations’ efforts to get Young removed was unfair and that African American leaders in the late 1970s were not making a concerted effort to challenge antisemitism in the African American community.

When Jackson visited Israel in September 1979, Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan helped to ensure that he would not be officially received by the Israeli government. This was in direct response to Jackson’s support for Andrew Young in the wake of the PLO controversy. Israeli officials took issue with Jackson calling then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin a terrorist for his past involvement in the militant right-wing Irgun. Jackson also called Israel a theocracy.

Jesse Jackson’s Presidential campaigns in both 1984 and 1988 were ended in large part due to unfounded accusations of antisemitism stemming from Jackson’s support for increased dialogue with the PLO and his association with Louis Farrakhan. Months before Jackson made his infamous comments where he referred to New York as “hymietown” in an interview that he thought was off the record, a group called Jews Against Jesse Jackson took out an advertisement in the New York Times rallying against Jackson. The ad ran on November 11, 1983. It read, in part, “We believe that Jesse Jackson is a danger to American Jews, the state of Israel and to America itself.”

Jackson also received extensive criticism from Jewish leaders for his association with Black Nationalist leader Louis Farrakhan, whom Jackson finally denounced in June 1984 over Farrakhan’s antisemitic and anti-Israel statements. American Jews not only refused to support Jackson in his efforts to become president, but in many cases, Jewish groups actively worked against Jackson. The attention paid to him by the media during Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign helped to make Farrakhan a household name. The Nation of Islam was a small and relatively obscure religious group that was most famous for its association with Malcom X, who broke with the Nation shortly before his assassination in 1965. By the early 1990s, Farrakhan was going on national speaking tours. Without being used to attack Jackson, Farrakhan would almost certainly have remained a minor figure.

Supporters of Jesse Jackson believed that the Jewish criticisms of Jesse Jackson were far too harsh. Jackson himself argued this shortly after making the comments, saying that Jewish groups did not take the threats against him by the Jewish Defense League and radical groups. [1] Other supporters of Jackson claimed that it was clear that the harsh reactions from the Jewish community were rooted in continuing resentment towards the Andrew Young affair, signaling that Jewish groups still blamed Jesse Jackson for making them look like they forced Young out of his position as ambassador.

The fallout from Jackson’s 1984 Presidential run lasted for years. By the time that Jackson left the primary contest, his reputation among American Jews was in shambles. He spent the next fours trying to re-build his reputation in the Jewish community by traveling to synagogues, as well as making visits to the sites of European death camps and emphasizing Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.

Jackson’s efforts to mend fences did not help him politically. When he prepared to run again for President in 1988, Jewish Democrats were hesitant to offer their support for his campaign. New York’s Jewish mayor Ed Koch claimed that Jews would be “crazy” to vote for Jackson based on Jackson’s earlier statements as his support for the PLO. Many Jews clearly agreed with Koch’s sentiment and Jackson received only 7 percent of the Jewish vote in the New York Democratic primary. [2]

Polls conducted by the American Jewish Committee in 1988 showed a notable lack of support for Jackson among American Jews. Fifty nine percent of American Jews believed that Jackson was antisemitic versus only ten percent who said he was not. According to the same poll, otherwise liberal Jews would be willing to shift their vote to Republicans if Jackson was elected with a generic Republican beating Jackson 44 to 24 percent with the rest undecided. [3] This number is even more shocking when you consider that American Jews voted predominantly for the Democratic Party since the 1930s.

American Jewish relations with Jesse Jackson over the course of the 1980s show how much the Jewish community was changing. While Jews overall remained liberal, there were clearly defined limits to this liberalism. When African American leaders including Jackson openly voiced their support for the Palestinians, or even the idea that Palestinians exist and should have the right to meet with the United States diplomatically.  By the early 1980s, the state of Israel had become a central tenant to American Jewish identity, and old issues that had defined American Jewish identity for decades, such as support for advancing African American civil rights, were no longer any match for an identification centered on specifically Jewish issues such as Israel.

If the Jewish community’s experiences with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s teaches progressives anything, it should be that accusations of antisemitism can be weaponized to de-legitimize those on the left, especially people of color. Jesse Jackson, Linda Sarsour, and Tamika Mallory all work to make American society more equitable. Forcing them to contend with unfounded accusations of antisemitism functions only to distract from their broader messages and suppress their voices. Accusations of antisemitism against Palestinian solidarity activists have become commonplace, and as campaigns such as the BDS movement grow in strength, Zionist supporters will no doubt continue to use similar tactics to silence challenges to Israeli hegemony over Palestinians. Jewish allies need to learn from the past and be prepared to speak up and not allow unfounded accusations of antisemitism that threaten to derail social justice and solidarity movements to go unchallenged.

Notes

1. Bob Faw and Nancy Skelton “Thunder in America” (Austin, TX: Texas Monthly Press), 1986. 75.

2. Sol Stern “Jesse’s Jews: The Unlikeliest Constituency” The New Republic June 20,1988. P.19.

3. Jews Still Favor Democrats, but Anti-Semitism is a Concern American Jewish Telegraph Agency October 14, 1988

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thank you Eric Morgenson, very interesting. especially regarding history i have heard about but am not that familiar with — what happened w/jesse jackson and andrew young. i have some other ideas especially wrt that link to the commentary article. but first, a couple questions. Supporters of Jesse Jackson believed… Read more »

Farrakhan had a series of meetings with rabbis of the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta, as a result of which Farrakhan acknowledged that his earlier anti-Semitic position was mistaken and began to distinguish between Jews and Zionists.

” it should be that accusations of antisemitism can be weaponized to de-legitimize those on the left” I am sure that I am not the only one out there be it left right centre or all three mixed up but I used to inwardly groan when I heard or read… Read more »

Too bad mw can’t afford an editor. Maybe you meant moral panic, rather than moral manic. Certainly you meant tenets rather than tenants. Malcom x was murdered because of the (true) gossip that he spread about the womanizing of “the honorable”elijah muhammad. Farrakhan, faithful disciple, called for malcolm’s death. I… Read more »

ERIC MORGENSON- “Recent criticism of Women’s March activists Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory over accusations of antisemitism have caused a new round of moral panic about left-wing antisemitism.” Charging anti-Semitism appears to be the one-size-fits-all weapon of choice to attack those who the Jewish elite wish to discredit. Apparently, it… Read more »