Bringing Light to the Media Darkness

Can a Jewish leader coexist with an anti-Semitic extremist?

The NAACP’s Jewish board members need to speak out or resign as the venerable civil-rights group allows a Nation of Islam chapter president to keep his office.

Rabbi Jonah Pesner. Source: YouTube.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner. Source: YouTube.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

As it turns out, it isn’t Rodney Muhammad who is on the spot in the controversy about the NAACP and anti-Semitism. The people who should really be worried about the controversy engendered by Muhammad are the Jewish members of the national board of the NAACP, like Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who are being discredited by the organization’s failure to draw a line in the sand about Jew-hatred.

Muhammad is the Philadelphia chapter president of the venerable civil-rights group who sparked controversy last month with a blatantly anti-Semitic Facebook post. The post combined pictures of African-American celebrities who had recently made anti-Semitic statements, and included the image of a Nazi-style caricature of a hook-nosed Jew above a fake quote from Voltaire that said: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” The obvious point was the false claim that powerful and sinister Jewish forces are working to suppress criticism of their fiendish hold on society by courageous but oppressed black people.

While Muhammad was bitterly criticized by various Jewish groups, as well as local politicians and public figures, he doesn’t seem so concerned about his future as a public figure, even after such a gross display of prejudice. The national leadership of the NAACP was slow to issue a statement about the incident and when it did, its condemnation stopped well short of demanding Muhammad’s resignation or his firing by the Philadelphia chapter.

As the African-American newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune reported, local black leaders such as Bishop J. Louis Felton, the first vice president of the Philadelphia chapter, said they had not received any instructions or guidance from the group’s national office. Instead, the Tribune reported that NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson would be meeting with Muhammad, as well as local community and faith leaders, to “open a dialogue and continue the educational conversations.” But the time for dialogue about this scandal is over. That statement could be reasonably interpreted as an indication that the national leadership has no interest in breaking with Muhammad, despite the fact that a state board could vote to call for his removal and he is up for re-election in November.

The reluctance of the NAACP to take swift and decisive action is disappointing. Jews were active in the organization’s founding. And there is a direct precedent in which the NAACP was faced with a similar situation in the not-too-distant past.

In August of 2000, Lee Alcorn, president of the group’s Dallas chapter, sparked controversy by denouncing the selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) as the Democratic candidate for vice president. Alcorn said he opposed Vice President Al Gore’s running mate because “if we get a Jew person, then what I’m wondering is, I mean, what is this movement for, you know? … So I think we need to be very suspicious of any kind of partnerships between the Jews at that kind of level because we know that their interest primarily has to do with money and these kind of things.”

NAACP president Kweisi Mfume responded immediately. He not only condemned Alcorn’s remarks as “repulsive, anti-Semitic, anti-NAACP and anti-American,” he also immediately suspended him from the organization.

What changed in the last 20 years?

The difference may stem from the fact that Muhammad is the minister of the Nation of Islam’s Mosque No. 12 in North Philadelphia and a longtime supporter of Louis Farrakhan, the NOI’s national leader.

While Farrakhan, whose open advocacy for anti-Semitism and race hatred is often spoken of as being beyond the pale, his organization has far more grassroots support in the black community than is widely understood. Many African-Americans see the group as standing for black empowerment and responsibility, not hate. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the rash of anti-Semitic comments from black celebrities or the surge in hate crimes committed against Jews in the Greater New York area in the last year without taking into account the way Farrakhan is honored by many in the black community.

In the past, having an official of the NOI—whose toxic mix of conspiracy theories and race and religious hatred ought to mark all of its adherents, let alone its ministers, as members of the lunatic fringe—as a local NAACP leader would have been unthinkable. But Muhammad’s local prominence illustrates the way the Nation of Islam has been mainstreamed.

Seen in that context, it’s hardly surprising that the NAACP would be reluctant to confront the extremists. The NAACP may have a long and honorable history in civil-rights advocacy, but it’s no longer on the cutting edge of activism with the more radical Black Lives Matter movement drowning out more traditional groups.

Still, the NAACP’s soft approach to the NOI leaves the group’s Jewish allies and supporters in a difficult position. National Jewish organizations say that while they are willing to speak out strongly against Muhammad and the way the NAACP is tolerating him, they won’t cut ties with the group. That sends a signal that Jewish leaders are satisfied with lip service about anti-Semitism, rather than action.

It’s the NAACP’s Jewish board members, however, whose reputations are being called into question by this controversy. Of particular interest is the presence of Pesner, the head of the political action arm of the largest Jewish religious denomination in the country. The RAC’s liberal political agenda makes it a natural fit for any group on the left. But Pesner’s spot on the NAACP board is as much a tribute to the long history of Jewish support for the group and the civil-rights movement.

While Pesner and the RAC may share the NAACP’s views on a host of issues, the notion that he can coexist inside a group with a Nation of Islam adherent—let alone as a chapter president—is as shocking as it is unacceptable.

There is an argument to be made that Pesner is situated to work from within to persuade the NAACP to take action. But to date, he has failed to achieve that purpose.

It’s one thing to say that it is a political necessity to allow African-Americans to equivocate about Muhammad’s continued presence in the NAACP. It’s quite another for a person who is the head of one of the country’s leading Jewish advocacy organizations to remain as a board member of a group that has so far shown that it is prepared to tolerate an openly anti-Semitic Farrakhan supporter as an important official. In this case, national Jewish leaders need to follow the lead of a local group; the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has rightly declared that it will no longer work with the local NAACP while Muhammad remains in office.

Put simply, the NAACP must cut ties with Muhammad immediately or Pesner must quit his seat on their board. If he does not, then he should be asked to quit his job at the RAC.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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