From the new memoir Letter To Jimmy (Soft Skull Press), translated from the French by Sara Meli Ansari.
In Harlem, black anti-Semitism is a reality. You decide to talk about it. The exercise is all the more delicate since by simply bringing up the topic you risk it flying back in your face like a boomerang. In his time, Karl Marx had been accused of anti-Semitism by his former teacher, Bruno Bauer, who had already drawn fire from all sides for having responded to the Jewish Question. Marx took up Bauer’s argument and asked whether they should be freed as a group before the general population. Although Bauer asserts with good reason that “we must free ourselves before freeing others,” Marx wonders to what extent freedom is possible in states that recognize the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but protect the idea of private ownership that allows owners to take advantage of their possessions in the most absolute way and, through such a power, to institute a system of exploitation to the detriment of society’s most destitute.
This is, with few exceptions, the subject of a controversial article you publish in the New York Times in 1967: “Negroes are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.”
Is this article a re-writing of The Jewish Question by Bauer, adapted to the American context? In any case, you start with an observation: in Harlem, it is an understatement to say that you hate your landlords. Anti-Semitism might be motivated more by the miserable conditions in which black Americans live than by blind hatred toward a part of the population who may or may not control everything. In this ambivalent relationship between Jews and people of color, there is something of a game of mirrors that dates back to the time of black slavery. The suffering and persecution of Jesus is systematically compared to that of the slave at the hands of his master. But, in other respects, a black man borrows from Jewish history, takes it as his own almost to the last detail, and, because of this, “…identifies himself almost wholly with the Jew. The more devout Negro considers that he is a Jew, in bondage to a hard taskmaster and waiting for a Moses to lead him out of Egypt.”
From where does this feeling of shared identity come? From the Bible, you assure us, since these “beliefs” from the Old Testament are of Jewish origin. In a reversal of roles, the term “Jew” would be used by blacks in Harlem to label “all infidels of white skin who have failed to accept the Savior” and who are responsible for the death of Christ.
This anti-Semitism is driven by more serious and subtle motives: the black man blames the Jewish man for “having become an American white man” who profits from this status that pulls him out of the “house of bondage” from which colored Americans struggle to escape, despite the fact that they “were there before, and for four hundred years…” Jews want the black community to understand the suffering they have known, the acts perpetrated against them throughout history, and even in their daily lives. In the absolute, Jews and blacks share a common experience of suffering and rejection, the tradition of wandering, and the search for a homeland. But therein lies, in your opinion, the great misunderstanding between them: “The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage. For it is not here and not now, that the Jew is being slaughtered, and he is never despised here as the Negro is, because he is an American. The Jewish travail occurred across the sea and America rescued him from the house of bondage. But America is the house of bondage for the Negro, and no country can rescue him. What happens to the Negro here happens to him because he is an American.”
The example you draw on to support this argument is that of an African living in the United States. If the latter were a victim of some injustice, or of police brutality, he at least has recourse to the embassy of his native country, which will ensure his protection. An African has a country; he has a nation behind him. On the other hand, a black American who is wrongly imprisoned will find himself at a loss, will “find it nearly impossible to bring his case to court. And this means that because he is a native of this country…he has no recourse and no place to go, either within the country or without. He is a pariah in his own country and a stranger in the world.”
Jewish people, you think, are not only considered Americans; they can rely on allies throughout the world. You deduce that it would not occur to anyone to suggest to Jewish people to be “nonviolent.” When they fought for Israel, this act was saluted as heroic: “How can the Negro fail to suspect that the Jew is really saying that the Negro deserves his situation because he has not been heroic enough?”
You had been trained to despise Jewish people. The exasperation builds when you think of your neighborhood transformed into a slum: neglected apartment buildings, broken windows, peeling paint, sagging stairwells, faulty heating and cooling, and, needless to say, an unending stream of roaches and rats in the apartments. “When we were growing up in Harlem, our demoralizing series of landlords were Jewish, and we hated them. We hated them because they were terrible landlords, and did not take care of the building… We knew that the landlord treated us this way because we were colored, and he knew that we could not move out. […] Not all…were cruel…but all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them.”
Such allegations suggest that you generalize black anti-Semitism in Harlem—some are quick to accuse you of this—despite the irony your article employs to expose the roots of a hatred based on several misunderstandings. You point out that those facing you are Americans first and foremost, regardless of being Jewish. But can the latter be dishonest businessmen? “Jews in Harlem are small tradesmen, rent collectors, real estate agents, and pawnbrokers; they operate in accordance with the American business tradition of exploiting Negroes, and they are therefore identified with oppression and are hated for it.”
A latent animosity defines the power dynamic between the two communities. Black hatred toward Jewish people does not prevent them from playing a role, or from being hypocritical, because they require the services offered by those they loathe: “I remember meeting no Negro in the years of my growing up, in my family or out of it, who would really ever trust a Jew, and few who did not, indeed, exhibit for the them the blackest contempt. On the other hand, this did not prevent their working for Jews…”
When it came time to discuss the thorny issue of the arrival of Jews and blacks on American soil, your arguments were far from convincing to your audience. For example, during a discussion with Budd Schulberg, who is Jewish, you make assertions that appall him: “I would like to insert a parenthesis on this point…a dangerous parenthesis, but it will serve to clarify in some way the bitterness of the black American. Here it is: I was here before you. I mean to say, historically speaking. […] Historically speaking, I have been here for four hundred years. Let’s say that you stepped off the boat last Friday, and you didn’t yet speak English; on Tuesday I will be working for you.”
Schulberg’s shock is tremendous, and his scathing reply throws you somewhat: “What you just said, ‘I was here before you,’ is a stupid Muslim argument.”
Schulberg in this way alludes to the theories of Black Muslims that are popular at the time with Elijah Muhammad (one of the founders of the Nation of Islam) and Malcolm X, who proclaim the supremacy of the black race, and who advocate fighting—by any means necessary—in the name of the Nation of Islam, which today is led by Louis Farrakhan. The target of the fight is anyone known as the “white devil,” and, because of this, their theories are accused of being racist. Schulberg persuades you that such assertions are the crutches of fanatics and those who would believe in the supremacy of one group over an other, and that the “Aryans, too, believed the same thing.”
Pulling yourself together, you clear your thoughts and repeat that the theory of the “white devil” never interested you: “I don’t have the feeling of ever having been even vaguely attracted to the theory of the white devil. It is certainly not I who will propagate the idea, or who will allow someone to spread the teachings to any of my children, nor to anyone who is dear to me. But it’s something else that I’m trying to get at…”
You are trying to dissect the notion that Jewish suffering is considered a part of the world’s moral history. As whites, Jewish people can achieve hero status through the suffering they endured and their recollection of them—America is dedicated to a boundless admiration for the white hero—while blacks who would do the same thing would be accused of “native savagery.” In short, America’s love of the white hero would lead it to a categorical rejection of “bad niggers.” This is the distinction that you believe sparked black anti-Semitism in Harlem at the time. Currently, it is a distinction that still affects relations between various demographics in France, where the question of “competing for historical recognition” is being hotly debated.
You protest the silence of the Western press, for example, on the atrocities committed by Belgium during its colonization of Congo. Would we have needed to rebuke this silence had the tragedy occurred in the white world? Herein lies the responsibility that you place on the shoulders of the Christian world, since the acts of violence committed during the colonial period were accompanied by conversion of the conquered peoples: “And since the world at large knew virtually nothing concerning the suffering of this native, when he rose he was not hailed as a hero fighting for his land, but condemned as a savage, hungry for white flesh. The Christian world considered Belgium to be a civilized country; but there was not only no reason for the Congolese to feel that way about Belgium; there was no way that they could.”
• • •
Is there a disproportionate amount of outrage sparked by an event, a disproportion linked to a kind of hierarchy of communities? Let us examine a case that took place in France, in our adopted land: the death of young Ilan Halimi in the Paris suburbs. The facts come together like the plot of a horror film. For several weeks, twenty-three-year-old Ilan Halimi is held captive by a gang from Bagneux, who torture him to death. Because he is Jewish. The French daily Le Parisien even reveals on the front page that inhabitants of this suburb were aware of the young man’s confinement, but chose not to inform the authorities. The opening pages of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold come to mind…
The political reaction is strong and unanimous in the face of this crime clearly motivated by anti-Semitism. The story shocks the entire country, especially as other incidents of anti-Semitic crimes had been reported several months earlier. Can we see evidence in this of two different degrees of outrage? To be clear—and let’s not beat around the bush about it—would the murder of a black man in France, under the same conditions, have generated the same widespread outrage?
Blacks in France undoubtedly remain unaware as yet of the “weapon” of outrage, an extension of Gandhi’s position, a new form of nonviolent action. Outrage as I am using it, Jimmy, does not mean externalizing hatred, much less the zealotry deployed with the aim of quickly repairing an injustice “by any means necessary,” but means rather exposing the incident through coherent and objective analysis. As a consequence, one community’s ability to react to it will condition another community’s interpretation of a tragedy. The greater the outrage of a community, the greater the repercussions will be on society as a whole, and, by extension, on political authorities.
However, it appears that black people in France, faced with an act of violence, first measure the extent of the outrage that a similar event perpetrated against another “community,” that they believe to be protected and more supported by political authorities, would generate. From that perspective, they begin to draw conclusions, particularly that Jewish people control the system. It is clear that the death of Ilan Halimi feeds the anger of anyone who respects human life—in the same way that the death of Emmett Till in Mississippi does—because first and foremost we are talking about the obliteration of a man’s life. The anti-Semitic motive—one could say mutatis mutandis, skin color, political convictions, etc.—adds to the exasperation, incomprehension, and the bewilderment. Ilan Halimi died because he was Jewish. He could also have died for being black, Muslim, or because he was a political opponent.
Still, in France, on March 25, 2006, several prominent French public figures, including Alain Finkielkraut, Jacques Julliard and Bernard Kouchner, added their names to an open letter against “anti-white hate crimes,” a letter initiated by the Hachomer Hatzaïr Zionist movement and Radio Shalom, following high-school student demonstrations that had occurred in the country two weeks before: “Two years ago, almost to the day, on March 26th, 2003, several of us sounded the alarm. Four young people belonging to the Hachomer Hatzaïr movement had just been attacked, outside of a protest against the war in Iraq, because they were Jewish. An attempted lynching in the heart of Paris is a scandal. The efforts of the media, political figures and humble citizens were tremendous. But today high-school student demonstrations have become, for some, an opportunity for what might be called ‘anti-white hate crimes.’ High-school students, often alone, are thrown to the ground, beaten, robbed and assured by their attackers, with smiles on their faces, that it is because they are French. Let this serve as a renewed appeal because we will not accept this, and because for us, David, Kader and Sébastien have the same right to dignity as anyone else. Writing this type of letter is difficult because the victims have been appropriated by the far right. But that which goes without saying is, in fact, better said aloud: no group should be targeted, period. For us, it is a question of fairness. We have talked about David, and Kader, but who is talking about Sébastien?”
Parallels between the United States are quickly drawn: during a press conference, one of the signatories of the letter, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, warns: “We are facing a Farrakhan-style battle.”
Could the black American leader of the Nation of Islam, Louis Farrakhan, influence people in France? I do not believe so, for the simple reason that the idea of a black community in France is a superficial one, and that the history of black Americans has roots which cannot be compared to the black presence in France. To make this comparison is to see every black person as a potential member of the Nation of Islam, in the way that black American Muslims understand it.
Long ago, blacks in France believed—and perhaps still believe—that having the same skin color meant speaking the same language, and facing the same direction. However, Africa is disparate, and divided. The culture of one African country is not necessarily that of another. Moreover, the displacement experienced by these countries, in addition to the displacements created by French colonial policies—including drawing colonial subjects into European wars—create personal histories deeper than any collective history of meeting in the “land of refuge.” Education, political asylum, financial reasons and civil war on the black continent cannot give rise to a common history. These issues are neither specific to nor define the black race.
In some respects, I would say that the black community in France is an illusion, that it does not exist, for the plain and simple reason that the existence of a community is an intellectual and historical construct. The existence of a so-called black community in France would presuppose a collective awareness of it, and I am referring to an awareness based on reasons beyond skin color, or belonging to the same continent, or to the more broadly defined black diaspora, which, more and more, proclaims its singularity, its “rhizomic identity,” as Édouard Glissant would say.
It is through the present, through encounters, that this common identity is woven; sometimes we can even find ourselves surprised by how much it conflicts with the idea of a “primary root” that would lead us all back to a single past. This other awareness—that black Americans have been able to develop throughout their long and troubled history—this other awareness, as I was saying, should take into account the experience lived out on French soil. The effect outrage has as a response to an injustice depends on a collective cause, which is given greater value than the individual in an abstract sense, and is related to our humanity. In this way, when we are witness to an act of racism, when we witness an act of anti-Semitism, it is our sense of humanity that sustains injury.
• • •
Jimmy, citizens of black Africa are convinced that African-Americans today have succeeded in creating a community whose influence is so far-reaching that it affects the destiny of the entire United States. And so, when confronted with an attitude that is unjust, with an act of racism or discrimination, black Africans automatically ask themselves, “So what would our black American brothers have done in this exact situation?” Is it surprising then that certain observers are alarmed to see “racist,” Black Muslim ideas imported into France?
Whatever the case may be, the comparison with the black American community is further corrupted by the fact that blacks in France do not have the same experience of migration, and that they do not have the same “score” to settle with France as black Americans do. On the other side of the Atlantic, racial segregation was institutionalized—France, on the other hand, played a significant role in “the elaboration of the ‘African experience’ in the formulation and reformulation of a global blackness,” thanks to the diversity of the black migrations that it experienced and still continues to experience today.
Blacks in France can certainly draw inspiration from their American black brothers, and envy the rights they have achieved in the United States—however, let us be reminded, with the help of Fanon, that every right was wrested from fierce struggle that ended with the United States painted into a corner. From these struggles great leaders were born and immortalized in contemporary American history. What these black leaders shared in common was that they refused to have their humanity called into question.It is Fanon who emphatically highlights: “No, I do not have the right to come scream my hatred at the White man. I do not have a duty to murmur my gratitude to the White man…if the White man questions my humanity, I will show him, weighing down on his life with all my force as a man, that I am not the ‘Y’a bon Banania’ that he insists on imagining…”