For those of us who have watched the ongoing ethnic studies debate in California education circles rage over the last several years, the news that Cal State L.A.’s new College of Ethnic Studies has named a longtime ally and supporter of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as the school’s first dean seemed like a cruel joke.
For those of us who believe that some discussion of the Jewish experience (and that of Sikhs, Persians, Armenians, Muslims and other historic targets of discrimination) would add value to an ethnic studies curriculum, Dr. Julianne Malveaux’s long record of praise for Farrakhan and her dismissive comments about Israel would make her a less-than-ideal appointment for such an important position in such a sensitive field of study at a university located within the most diverse community on the planet.
And for those of us who worry that the sole focus of many ethnic studies programs on African American, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Native American communities would not only minimize the importance of Jewish history but also potentially perpetuate some of the animosities that are often directed toward American Jews and Israel, Cal State L.A.’s decision to hire Malveaux could be cause for alarm.
But if Jewish Americans are going to repair our withered relationships with other minority and ethnic groups, then an effort at bridge-building might be a more productive—albeit less instinctive and more challenging—path to pursue. So perhaps Malveaux would be willing to devote some time as she settles into her new job to help us better understand her and her feelings about a man who has aimed such vile language and spread such noxious sentiment toward the Jewish people over his long career.
Perhaps she can explain why we should not be concerned about her praise for Farrakhan over the years, given Farrakhan’s frequent references to “Satanic Jews,” his often-stated belief that Judaism is a “gutter religion” and a “theological error” and his habit of describing Jews as “termites.” Perhaps she can tell us whether she disagrees with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s decision to categorize the Nation of Islam as a hate group and Barack Obama’s denunciation of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic beliefs when Obama rejected Farrakhan’s endorsement of his candidacy in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.
Malveaux wrote a column fewer than three years ago in which she stated, “White people’s hatred for Minister Farrakhan is irrational and, might I say, racist.” A few months earlier, she had said, “Min. Farrakhan has never picked up a gun and shot anybody. These people need to just back off.”
To be fair, Malveaux has occasionally acknowledged her discomfort with some of Farrakhan’s sentiments. In 1995, she wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post in which she said: “Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam offer an array of positives and negatives to black America. On the plus side, there is his focus on economic development and discipline. On the minus side, there is the antisemitic rhetoric and the traditionalism in gender relations.”
Malveaux frequently and correctly cites the large following that Farrakhan enjoys among the black community. So maybe the fact that she is willing to categorize his hatred of Jews as being “on the minus side,” means that there could be some benefit in attempting a conversation. But given the distrust that her comments have created, that would require a sincere initial outreach effort on her part.
Malveaux could request a meeting with the region’s largest Jewish American organizations and our most prominent rabbis. She could visit the Holocaust Museum of Los Angeles and the Museum of Tolerance. Most notably, she could acknowledge that the Jewish people have also been the victims of prejudice, discrimination and hatred, and that our history in confronting those challenges would be of some benefit to those students learning about ethnic studies at CSU-L.A. and elsewhere. And she could set an important example for ethnic studies programs throughout California by including the Jewish experience in her school’s curriculum.
That may be a lot to ask. But if Malveaux would start with the meetings and the museum visits, she might take away some knowledge and understanding that could then help expand her vision of ethnic studies. Those first steps might not repair the breach that has grown between our communities in recent years. But a strong bridge must be built from both sides of the river. If she’s willing to at least make the effort, it might be possible for us to meet somewhere in the middle.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.