Sunday, December 18, 2005

Louis Farrakhan, the Jews & "Middlesex"

Unrepentant bigot


In his brilliant epic Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides tells the story of a white swindler, Jimmy Zizmo, who poses as the light-skinned black 'prophet' Fard Muhammad. It is during the Depression, and Zizmo has established a cult among Detroit's downtrodden Negroes. But after he dupes some of them into conducting a human sacrifice, and with the FBI on his tail, Fard/Zizmo mysteriously disappears, leaving Calliope, the novel's central character, to declare: 'My maternal grandfather returned to the nowhere from which he'd come.'

The nonfiction account of the Nation of Islam's founding is even wackier. It is the spring of 1931 and Elijah Poole is recovering from yet another drunken stupor. His long-suffering wife, Clara, brings home the 'real' Jimmy Zizmo, an inspirational 'Muslim' preacher who calls himself Master Wallace D. Fard. 'I know you think I'm white,' Fard tells Poole, 'but I'm not. I have come to save [black America].'

Fard explains that he's assumed the appearance of a Caucasian to spy on the white man, and instructs Poole on the fundamentals of NOI theology: Caucasians are 'human devils,' inferior to blacks. The white race is the result of a gene-manipulation experiment gone awry, conducted by a black scientist named Yakub 6,000 years ago. Everything the white man does is rooted in 'trickology' - deception.

In 1933, before the 'real' Fard disappears, he urges Poole to study Henry Ford's anti-Semitic diatribes and the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, as well as the Bible and Koran. Armed with this knowledge Poole, now known as Elijah Muhammad, reinvigorates the cult. He eventually converts Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), Malcolm Little (Malcolm X) and the charismatic calypso balladeer, Louis 'the Charmer' Walcott.

When Muhammad died in 1975, Walcott - now known as Minister Louis Farrakhan - took charge of the cult. And over the past 30 years this talented demagogue has become black America's paramount leader.

No one but Farrakhan can bring a million African-Americans into the streets; no one but Farrakhan commands instant respect among the black masses; and no one but Farrakhan is held in such esteem that neither the inanity of his theology nor his long trail of xenophobic vitriol can scare away mainstream black politicians and pastors - or even, for that matter, Bill Clinton.

Forget the negatives, his defenders say; focus on Farrakhan's positive messages of black self-help. Indeed, a dysfunctional black America needs all the help it can get. As The New York Times's Brent Staples wrote last week: 'African-American teenagers are beset... by dangerous myths about race. The most poisonous one defines middle-class normalcy and achievement as 'white,' while embracing violence, illiteracy and drug dealing as 'authentically black.'

It is within this toxic environment that Farrakhan has been tirelessly preaching abstinence, family values and responsibility. Precisely, I think, because he laces these messages with chauvinism, racial supremacy and Jew-hatred, his movement has achieved an unheard-of level of legitimacy in black America - where 30 percent of the population is contaminated by classical anti-Semitism.

On May 2 Farrakhan was back in the limelight - he'd been sidelined by cancer and acute back pain - holding a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington to announce a 'Millions More Movement,' a march on Washington set for October 14-16 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first Million Man March.

Farrakhan grows increasingly savvy with age. But even with a cleaned-up act his attitude toward Jews comes across. He told a February gathering: 'Listen, Jewish people don't have no hands that are free of the blood of us. They owned slave ships, they bought and sold us. They raped and robbed us. If you can't face that, why you gonna condemn me for showing you your past, how then can you atone and repent if somebody don't open the book with courage - you don't have that - but I'll be damned, I got it.'

AMERICAN JEWRY faces a dilemma: Should Jewish organizations urge mainstream African-American leaders to dissociate themselves from the October march on the grounds that it is spearheaded by an unrepentant bigot, or should they keep shtum since black leaders won't be deterred anyway and Farrakhan will only feed off Jewish opposition?

Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page, a man whose thinking I respect, cautioned me not to get too worked up about Farrakhan - 'I detect a certain been-there-done-that flavor to this new event' he wrote in an email exchange. Page also challenged my assessment that Farrakhan is the paramount black leader: 'Black Americans are getting past their 'Black Moses syndrome,' in which we long for another Martin Luther King.' Farrakhan 'still has rap-star charisma among young black males,' Page says, but 'anti-Semitism has never been Farrakhan's major draw' and attacking him only wins him sympathy.

Among the black leaders who turned out for the Farrakhan news conference were: Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams and Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women. Not present, but reportedly backing the event, were Eleanor Holmes Norton, DC's delegate in Congress and NAACP chairman Julian Bond, as well as Coretta Scott King, widow of Rev. Martin Luther King.

Referring obliquely to the Jewish community, Farrakhan told the gathering: 'There are those who... are threatened that we are all here together. And so, one by one, they will come to pick us off.'

But the presence of Farrakhan's co-organizer and, some suggest, heir-apparent, Malik Zulu Shabazz, sent an even more sinister message. At a July 2003 news conference, Shabazz declared: 'If 3,000 people perished in the World Trade Center attacks and the Jewish population is 10 percent, you show me records of 300 Jewish people dying in the World Trade Center... We're daring anyone to dispute this truth. They got their people out.'

In advance of the press club announcement, the ADL's Abe Foxman sent letters to black leaders, imploring: 'When will someone in the African-American community stand up and say the Million Man March has a positive message but the pied piper is a racist and anti-Semite?' Merely asking that question strikes rap impresario and black power broker Russell Simmons, who dialogues with liberal rabbis and does big business with Jewish and Israeli Hollywood, as 'disrespectful' and likely to 'spread anti-Semitism.'

'A few days ago,' Simmons announced, 'I personally witnessed [Farrakhan] affirm, 'A Muslim cannot hate a Jew. We are all members of the family of Abraham and all of us should maintain dialogue and mutual respect.''

It's not easy to find a Jewish macher willing to publicly address the Farrakhan dilemma - or criticize Foxman for his confrontational approach. But Rabbi David Saperstein, of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center - who seems to reflect the dominant Jewish line - did tell me that public criticism of Farrakhan is counterproductive.

His is not a position easily dismissed. Let's face it: Protesting is unlikely to change any minds, and is certain to antagonize. So I went to see Foxman, who happened to be in Jerusalem last week. He has been in his current job for 18 years and with ADL since 1965. Foxman, who survived Hitler's war against the Jews, sheltered by a Polish Christian nursemaid, is not a man riddled with self-doubt.

He has zero tolerance for racism, calling it 'a sad, sad commentary that the only pied piper African-Americans have is somebody so infected with Jew-hatred.' And it is the Jews' decade-long failure to get this message across to the black leadership that has allowed anti-Semitism to fester.

Tactically, he realizes that speaking up gives Farrakhan more prominence, but for Foxman that's beside the point. He isn't telling blacks not to march or calling for a Jewish counter-demonstration, but he won't airbrush out Louis Farrakhan's racism.

It's a tough call. Our challenge is to decide whether Jews' experience with a fruitcake Austrian painter has anything to teach us about the rantings of a black American calypso performer.

–From a May 16 column in The Jerusalem Post

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