OpinionColumn

Obama’s non-responses to black antisemitism

The former president evaded the Nation of Islam leader’s core antisemitic ideology.

Then-President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from the Oval Office, on June 8, 2009. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Then-President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from the Oval Office, on June 8, 2009. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza via Wikimedia Commons.
Eunice G. Pollack
Eunice G. Pollack
Eunice G. Pollack, Ph.D., is the author of Black Antisemitism in America: Past and Present and Racializing Antisemitism: Black Militants, Jews and Israel, 1950‒Present.

In his 2017 book Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama and a Tablet interview this month, historian David Garrow revealed that Obama refused to take a stand against black antisemitism in the late 1980s when, as a Loyola University professor put it at the time, “virulent antisemitism has gripped Chicago’s black community.” Andrew Greeley, a Chicago priest and author, warned, “If I were Jewish, I would be terrified.”

In 1988, the press reported that Steve Cokely, a “favorite aide” of the acting mayor Eugene Sawyer, had given a series of talks to followers of the Nation of Islam (NOI) in which he alleged that Jewish doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS, which Jews had invented. After Sawyer fired him, black student organizations hosted Cokely, who inverted the Holocaust, claiming that Jews were “building gas chambers to kill blacks.”

Louis Farrakhan, head of the NOI since 1977, allowed, “I do not know whether [Cokely’s claim about AIDS] was true,” but AIDS “could well be … a manufactured virus.” Nonetheless, Farrakhan insisted that Jewish leaders were upset “because the truth hurts.”

Farrakhan had recently informed reporters that as soon as he “became the voice of the poor” and “nearly 50,000” turned out to hear him, the Jews had unleashed crack cocaine—another weapon of mass destruction—on the black community. This was his racialized update of the 14th century libel that Jews had poisoned the wells of Europe.

In Chicago, Obama refused to repudiate or challenge Cokely’s charges, even though this caused a “big fight” with the woman with whom he was living, whose paternal grandparents had been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations.

In 1995, Obama attended and supported the NOI’s Million Man March, at which Farrakhan, by then the country’s leading antisemite, delivered his two-hour “coronation address.” It was aptly described by historian Sean Wilentz as “racialized mishmash, delivered in world-class demagogic style.” The March enhanced Farrakhan’s stature “significantly.”

Notably, the March was held not long after the NOI published—and distributed to students—the anonymous 1991 screed The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews. The book attributed “monumental culpability” for the Atlantic slave trade to Jews—a monumental lie. As the eminent historian David Brion Davis concluded, Jews had only a “very marginal place” in the slave trade. Again, Obama was silent.

In 2005, Farrakhan’s status was further elevated when the Congressional Black Caucus invited him to its legislative weekend, called “the Super Bowl of black politics and activism.” There, then-Senator Obama “met privately” with Farrakhan. A journalist snapped a picture of the pair together, smiling broadly. The photo was suppressed at the “immediate” request of a Caucus member. It was released only in 2018 after Obama left office.

Notably, a 2005 poll found that 36% of African Americans held “strong antisemitic beliefs”—four times the percentage of whites.

In 2007-2008, during Obama’s successful run for the Democratic presidential nomination, he was asked for his views on Farrakhan. He responded, after a fashion. For over 20 years Obama had been a member of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, whose minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, had a long and strong relationship with the NOI leader. Wright had even gone with Farrakhan to Tripoli to meet Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, who later pledged $1 billion to Farrakhan. Obama acknowledged that he considered Wright his “moral compass” and had “prayed privately” with him before announcing his candidacy.

In December 2007, Trumpet Magazine, owned by Wright’s church, gave its Trumpeter Award to Farrakhan, who, it gushed, “truly epitomized greatness.” Wright then praised Farrakhan for his “integrity and honesty” and “astounding and eye-opening … depth of analysis” of “the racial life of this nation.”

When asked to comment, Obama dodged. “I assume the … decision to honor Farrakhan was based on his effort to rehabilitate ex-offenders,” he said, which had not been mentioned at all.  

Indeed, Farrakhan rehabilitated offenders by indoctrinating them in hatred of Jews: “Liars and thieves, you! Murderers and gamblers and … freaks. … Coke-usin’, reefer-smokin’, pill-poppin’, heroin-shootin’ self. … Because you under the rule and order of maker—made by Jews into devils. Tha’s why they don’t want me to talk.”

Yet no one challenged Obama’s spin.

In February 2008, during a debate with Hillary Clinton, Obama once again sidestepped the issue. When moderator Tim Russert asked for Obama’s reaction to Farrakhan’s recent endorsement of his candidacy, Obama responded, “I did not solicit his support. … I can’t say to somebody that he can’t say that he thinks I’m a good guy.” He added that he planned to make restoring ties between blacks and Jews a priority. “I have some of the strongest support from the Jewish community in my hometown of Chicago and in this campaign,” he asserted.

Left unmentioned was Farrakhan’s notorious query to a gathering of blacks: “What should be done with black leaders who seek Jewish support?” The response was “Kill them!” Farrakhan agreed: “I didn’t say it. I just seconded the motion!”

Even when Clinton retorted that Obama’s response to Farrakhan was not as strong as her own, Obama’s response was narrowly focused, though it elicited widespread praise in the press. He said, “I have been very clear in my denunciation of Minister Farrakhan’s antisemitic comments. I think that they are unacceptable and reprehensible.” Clinton countered, “There’s a difference between denouncing and rejecting.” Obama rejoined, “I’m happy to concede the point and I would reject and denounce.” There the colloquy ended.

The issue, however, was not just “Minister Farrakhan’s antisemitic comments.” It was the NOI’s antisemitic belief system—its foundation stone—that Farrakhan, “the Messenger of God,” preached. This ideology evoked the devotion of massive numbers of blacks, far beyond the NOI membership. When Farrakhan spoke to overflow crowds at black colleges and universities, students responded with standing ovations and expressions of awe. They characterized his address as transformative, “empowering”—he “awakened their soul.”

Obama did not mention this antisemitic ideology. He did not acknowledge that the core of NOI theology—and of Farrakhan’s sermons—is the delegitimization of Judaism. It is always characterized as a “dirty religion” and Jews are always denigrated as “Imposter Jews” and “Enemies of God.” The NOI taught and Farrakhan “revealed” that “from the first day” the Jews “received the Divine Scriptures” 4,000 years ago, “they started tampering with its truth,” crafting a counterfeit text. They fashioned a new deity who blessed their Satanic mission, which was, above all, “to master” the Black nation and, ultimately, “their own white brethren as well.”

In “altering the Word,” the “so-called Jews” even usurped the status of “the Chosen of God,” which belonged to “the Black Man.” The blacks of America “are the lost sheep of the Bible … not Israel.” The NOI teaches that, although hidden by the Jews, “the Book of Deuteronomy … it’s all about you!”

“Here’s a people that stole your birthright and are running around like they are the Chosen of God, and the choice of God is sittin’ under their foot,” Farrakhan railed.

Less than two years into Obama’s presidency, Farrakhan announced to wildly cheering crowds that he had “deciphered the meaning” of the Star of David, with its “six sides … six angles … each angle 60 degrees. Well, you have six, six and six,” which “the Bible says [is] the number of the Beast.” With no one who might have made a difference challenging him, Farrakhan had clinched his case: The Jews adopted the symbol of Satan once they became his agents.

Fortunately, however, as Farrakhan now proclaimed, “The time of their end has come! … The masquerade is over!” The massive audience responded with a “thunderous standing ovation.”

Obama was, once again, silent.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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