Jesse Jackson, who by 1984 was widely recognized as “the principal representative of black America,” has just announced his retirement as head of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
President Joe Biden celebrated Jackson as “a man of God and of the people” always “advocating for what is right and just … work[ing] to redeem the soul of our nation.” Biden promised that he and his wife “will continue to cherish the counsel and wisdom that we draw from him.”
Much was omitted in Biden’s laudatory remarks. For example, the portrayal of Jackson by many of the journalists who covered him as “self-obsessed, a ferocious opportunist”—his organization “modestly titled” People United to Save Humanity (PUSH)—is invisible. Above all, Biden’s fulsome praise obscures Jackson’s long antisemitic and anti-Israel record.
In 1982, for example, Jackson endorsed the old canard that Jewish money shapes U.S. policy on the Middle East. Almost four decades before Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) explained Republicans’ support for Israel as, “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby,” Jackson characterized the relationship between Jews and Democrats regarding Israel as “a kind of glorified form of bribery. Financial bankrolling and moral bankruptcy.” Jackson and Omar both deny they are antisemitic.
In Aug. 1979, when U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, the highest-ranking black official in the country, resigned under pressure, Jackson took the lead in rejecting any bond between blacks and Jews, which he sought to replace with an alliance of blacks and Arabs.
Young had held a secret unauthorized meeting with the PLO observer at the U.N. and lied about it to the State Department. Jackson immediately demanded an investigation to determine if “Israeli agents had spied on Ambassador Young” and driven him from office.
At a gathering to discuss the Young affair, 200 black leaders and clergy drew up a document denigrating Jews’ long support for “black causes.” When some protested that their organizations relied on donations from Jews, Jackson assured them that there was no need for concern because “the Arab OPEC nations have … a total of 30% of the world’s money supply.”
When Jackson appeared on CBS’s “60 Minutes” the next month, he mocked the idea that a black-Jewish alliance had ever existed: “With all the talk of the black-Jewish alliance, we don’t own radio stations together, we don’t own TV stations together, we don’t own banks together.”
In Sept. 1979, Jackson left for a 10-day trip to the Middle East. He predicted that he could achieve “a major breakthrough” in the peace process. Upon arriving in Israel, Jackson was stunned to learn that Prime Minister Menachem Begin had refused to meet with him. In response, he held a press conference at which he characterized the rebuff as “a racist decision based on skin color.” He warned the prime minister that blacks “have 15 million eligible voters. We are the difference in presidential elections.”
After touring Yad Vashem, Jackson—who had privately commented that he was “sick and tired of hearing about the Holocaust”—conceded, “The suffering is atrocious,” adding, “but not really unique. … It’s not exclusive.” He then warned, “Genocide should not be allowed to happen to anyone, not even the Palestinians.” In effect, Jackson both denied the uniqueness of the Holocaust and inverted it.
Jackson’s next stop was Beirut, where he and PLO chief Yasser Arafat warmly embraced while a crowd shouted, “Palestine is Arab!” Jackson offered to serve as the PLO’s intermediary with the U.S. government.
Upon returning to the U.S., Jackson dismissed his critics, explaining that they were “all Jewish.” He singled out David Shipler of The New York Times, who was not Jewish.
In 1980, Jackson assured an Arab-American audience that he shared their views of Israel, Zionism and Jews. He proclaimed, “We have the obligation to separate Zionism from Judaism. Judaism is a religion. … Zionism is a poisonous weed that is choking Judaism.” Elaborating on his statements to a reporter, he came close to endorsing a 1975 U.N. resolution that claimed Zionism is racism. “Zionism is rooted in race,” Jackson avowed.
In Nov. 1983, Jackson announced he was running for president. Notably, Louis Farrakhan, the antisemitic head of the Nation of Islam (NOI), often gave the opening address at Jackson’s rallies, warming up the crowd. Before long, The New Republic concluded, “With the candidacy of Jesse Jackson, black antisemitism gained a big-time tribune.”
Then, in a Jan. 1984 interview with two black reporters, Jackson criticized the amount of attention devoted to “discussing four million people”—that is, Israel. He complained, “That’s all Hymie wants to talk about is Israel. Every time you go to Hymietown, that’s all they want to talk about.”
Almost three weeks later, a Washington Post article revealed Jackson’s antisemitic comments. A few days later, an editorial called on Jackson to explain his “degrading and disgusting” words. For almost two weeks, Jackson denied he had said them. He finally acknowledged uttering the slur, but called it simply “an off-color remark.” The Village Voice columnist Jack Newfield identified this as “a minimalist apology” for “an expression of bigotry.”
In fact, a number of reporters had heard Jackson use the slur, but editors had refused to cover the story. A CBS correspondent averred that had a non-black candidate made such a comment, “It would have immediately been front-page news.”
Jackson also did not denounce Farrakhan’s violent antisemitic rhetoric. With his audience on its feet, shouting approval, Farrakhan openly threatened “the Jewish people.” He said, “If you harm this brother [Jackson], I warn you in the name of Allah, this will be the last one you harm.”
He then threatened Milton Coleman, the journalist who disclosed Jackson’s comments: “You are a n****r in the eyes of white people. … One day soon we will punish you with death.” He vowed to subject Coleman’s wife to “the same punishment that’s due that no-good filthy traitor.”
Asked to respond, Jackson shrugged, “It does not fall on my shoulders.”
In June 1984, Farrakhan delivered a radio address in which he claimed, “I’m not anti-Jew. I’m pro-truth.” He characterized Judaism as “a dirty religion” and “the presence of a state called Israel … an outlaw act.” He condemned “America, England and the nations” as “criminals in the sight of Almighty God” because they “aid and abet” the “criminal conspiracy” that is Israel.
When pressed to respond, Jackson was dismissive, “In America, people have freedom [of] speech to say what they want about whom they want.” Only when the Democratic National Committee chair informed Jackson that he would not be permitted to speak at the party’s convention did Jackson say, “Neither antisemitism nor anti-black statements have any place in our party.” Jackson still did not repudiate Farrakhan, however, and 65% of Jackson’s delegates had a favorable view of the NOI leader.
Jackson blamed his failure to win the nomination on “the struggle by Jewish leaders to make me a pariah.” He was also irate that nominee Walter Mondale had not chosen him as his running mate. He claimed, “The threats to Mondale by a significant number of Jewish leaders are very evident.”
Today, many Jewish leaders are reluctant to condemn antisemitic black leaders or Democrats in general. This was not the case back then. Although Jewish leaders never wielded the singular power Jackson attributed to them, Nathan Perlmutter, executive director of the ADL, announced that Jackson’s statements “render the self-portrait of an antisemite.” Henry Siegman, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, warned, “If they [the Democratic Party] do not act promptly to finally repudiate Jesse Jackson, it will be a disaster that will have been well-deserved.”
In 1988, Jackson again ran for the presidency. It was clear that not just Jewish leaders but vast numbers of Jews opposed him. A survey found that 59% of Jewish voters identified Jackson as antisemitic and more than half would “vote against the Democratic presidential candidate” if Jackson were his running-mate.
During the campaign, Andrew Young, then the mayor of Atlanta, wrote to Jackson, “You have my full endorsement as the moral voice of our time.” To Young, the man whom many Jews identified as an antisemite was “the moral voice of our time.” Was it perhaps Andrew Young who penned Biden’s glowing tribute to Jackson?