August 3, 2020 — New York
This piece originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post.
“Silence is complicity” when fighting for racial equality in the United States and combating assaults on blacks and Jews. Sen. Cory Booker articulated that powerful phrase as he addressed the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in June.
Booker’s poignant words are even more prescient now. The multiple crises besetting America – coronavirus pandemic, severe economic downturn, and resurgence of demands for racial justice – have left some Jews feeling alone in combating the antisemitism that has continued to occur along with each crisis.
While the violent attacks on Jews in Brooklyn and Monsey, New York, last winter, have not recurred, hatred continues to be expressed in a variety of forms. From anonymous graffiti vandalism at synagogues in Sarasota, Florida, to the insertion of antisemitic imagery in a US Senate race in Georgia, to comments by a few popular black Americans in the entertainment and sports industries, the antisemitism plague does not wane.
One of the most outrageous incidents emerged last week in America’s City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. Rodney Muhammad, president of the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] Philadelphia chapter, posted to Facebook what clearly was a blatantly antisemitic image that he used to suggest Jews are trying to silence prominent blacks, who themselves have been criticized for their own antisemitic comments and posts.
The image Muhammad chose to post with photos of rapper Ice Cube, football star DeSean Jackson, and actor Nick Cannon was a caricature of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke on the sleeve of an arm pressing down on a mass of people. It included a quote – “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize,” often misattributed to Voltaire – that has been used by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
Jewish outrage was immediate. But in Philadelphia the reaction also was swift and firm from Mayor Jim Kenney, who is Catholic, City Council President Darrell Clarke, who is black, and many other elected officials.
“We cannot allow attacks on the Jewish community to be met with the sanction of silence,” declared Pennsylvania State Senator Sharif Street. His comments are important because, like Muhammad, Sen. Street is a Black Muslim.
City Councilwoman Jamie Gauthier, who also is black, said Muhammad “has repeatedly displayed his lack of compassion and understanding of the dangers of antisemitism.
“The idea that a civil rights leader would not just share [an] antisemitic message, but then refuse to take ownership of it and apologize, it’s not just disappointing, it’s completely unacceptable,” she said.
Muhammad asserted that he was not aware of the meaning of the image he had selected and posted.
“I later learned that not only was the quote I used misattributed to the philosopher Francois Voltaire, but in fact, the quote and image had been used previously by white supremacists. I immediately removed both the quote and the offensive images. It was never my intention to offend anyone or cause any hurt,” said Muhammad in a statement.
The NAACP Philadelphia president did not apologize in the statement he issued twice over two days in an apparent effort to quell the public condemnations of him and his post. And his original post, widely circulated in the media and in online conversations, cannot be totally removed. It is still there, tied to Muhammad and his organization.
Muhammad’s meek explanation did not mollify the growing calls among Pennsylvania officials, such as Gov. Tom Wolf and Attorney-General Josh Shapiro, and some in Philadelphia’s black and Jewish communities, including my organization, AJC, for Muhammad’s resignation.
While the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference strongly condemned “denigrating statements regarding people of the Jewish faith” and denounced Muhammad’s meme, it did not reprimand him. It passed the buck to NAACP national leadership, which at this writing has yet to utter a word on the matter. Silence is complicity.
In fact, Muhammad’s insensitivity toward, or plain dislike of Jews, has been evident for a long time. The Mosque No. 12 he heads is affiliated with Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Muhammad, originally from Chicago, home to NOI headquarters, is a disciple of Farrakhan.
On his mosque’s Facebook page is a video of Farrakhan speaking to an adoring audience in which he criticizes anyone who apologizes to Jews. “I don’t have anything to apologize for,” says Farrakhan, adding that he told Jesse Jackson not to apologize for calling New York City “hymietown” in 1984. “The Jews are the most unforgiving white people you are ever going to meet,” says Farrakhan.
My colleague Marcia Bronstein, director of AJC Philadelphia, has pointed out that Mosque No. 12 regularly posts offensive, antisemitic material.
“If Minister Muhammad claims to stand with members of the Jewish faith and the fight for social justice, he needs to take responsibility for the items that are posted on his mosque’s website and social media. They are very hurtful,” said Bronstein.
Fortunately, Jews in Philadelphia are not fighting antisemitism alone. The partnership AJC and others established decades ago with the black community, and more recently with the some in the Muslim community, is resilient.
But ultimately the scars of Muhammad’s antisemitism will begin to heal only when the organizations he represents hold him accountable.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.