A demonstration last month in Washington consisting of two-dozen right-wing extremists set the world on its head. The event on the anniversary of last year’s Charlottesville rally by neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan was a pathetic flop, but it still generated massive coverage from the mainstream media. Many pundits, especially those from the Jewish community, urged us not to be deceived by the proof of their insignificance. After a year-and-a-half of touting the notion that the radical right was gaining influence, nothing could be allowed to distract from the narrative that these extremists posed a genuine threat to the American Jewish community.
But many of the same people barely noticed when one of the country’s leading anti-Semites was on stage at the nationally televised funeral service for music legend Aretha Franklin.
The honoring of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan in this fashion generated virtually no coverage in the mainstream media. The fact that a man who leads an extremist hate group with a mass following—and who has spewed hate against Jews throughout his career—sat on the stage as cameras rolled largely escaped notice on the networks that either broadcast the service/concert or played excerpts later. Nor was there much commentary about why former President Bill Clinton thought there was nothing wrong with sharing the stage and shaking hands with Farrakhan, who was seated alongside Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, two prominent political activists with their own histories of anti-Jewish incitement.
Many loved Franklin, and the event served as a feast for music lovers of a variety of genres. But the fact that few thought it odd or inappropriate for Farrakhan to be there next to music stars and political luminaries was more than just a misjudgment by the organizers and a bizarre faux pas on the part of President Clinton. It illustrates the double standards about anti-Semitism in this country, as well as the foolish complacency about certain kinds of Jew-hatred by those who sound the alarm about far more insignificant threats because their partisan loyalties blinds them to other problems.
The torchlight parade of right-wing extremists in Charlottesville chanting anti-Semitic slogans last year deeply frightened Jews and seemed straight out of our nightmares from the Nazi past. But as deplorable as that event, which led to the death of a counter-demonstrator, wound up being, it was still a mistake to treat the extremists as if they were a mass movement that represented a significant trend in American politics or culture. President Trump erred greatly with his ambivalent reaction when he conflated those who opposed the removal of Confederate statues with Nazis. But the idea that their views had any influence in his administration or that we are living in the moral equivalent of the last days of the Weimar Republic was an absurd and profoundly mistaken analysis of events.
Yet while so many Jews, as well as much of the mainstream media, are straining to connect the dots between Trump and hatemongers that have no real connection, open Jew-hatred from another far more popular and potent source doesn’t seem to bother the same people very much.
Unlike the Nazis and the Klan, Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam is not an isolated or tiny band of nutcases. It has a mass following in the African-American community that, when you count his many sympathizers, may number in the hundreds of thousands.
Moreover, as the Franklin funeral demonstrated, Farrakhan’s fans are not—as is the case with the alt-right—isolated. Their leader is feted and applauded by members of Congress, the leaders of the anti-Trump resistance Women’s March group and other sectors of society, and treated as a celebrity by many in the arts. A documentary about Farrakhan that was made by his son and which celebrated him as an amateur musician included appearances by many prominent musicians, including Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder, both of whom sang at the service for Franklin.
When a man who speaks about the “synagogue of satan” and who routinely spews hate against Jews is treated as not merely a celebrity but one worthy of honor, there is something seriously wrong about American society. Normalizing or excusing hate diminishes everyone. That applies not just to Clinton, who should have known better, but for every artist who consented to appear with him on the same stage.
Farrakhan is no different from former KKK leader David Duke, except for the fact that he has many more followers. Still, you don’t need much of an imagination to know what the reaction would be (and rightly so) from the same media that ignored Farrakhan at the Franklin funeral if Duke were embraced by prominent figures in another music genre or wound up sharing the stage with a former president. The outrage would be immense and immediate, as well as completely justified.
Anti-Semitism of any kind is not to be ignored. But the fact that so many prominent cultural and political figures, including the mainstream media, failed the Farrakhan test while going overboard about marginal figures on the right illustrates a serious problem with our thinking about the issue.
Ours is a time when Farrakhan is treated as a legitimate leader, and anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism and hate for Israel has become an endemic problem on American college campuses. It is also starting to be tolerated by some on the left wing of our political spectrum. Yet mainstream media talking heads and many in the Jewish community still prefer to obsess about a tiny right-wing movement with no influence because they think they can establish a false connection to Trump. We can and should oppose hate whether it comes from the right, the left or a minority community. But inflating one threat while ignoring another far more important one is not merely foolish, it’s a dangerous game whose potential consequences shouldn’t be underestimated.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.