One of the artefacts resulting from the rise of the smartphone and social media is the phenomenon of abusive racists caught on camera. One such episode took place recently on the London Underground. A man stood over a seated Jewish family with children, ranting at them for about twenty minutes, ignoring the father’s repeated requests to leave them alone. Another man tried to intervene and was threatened with violence. Reportedly, at least three people filmed the episode, and a clip from one of these videos went viral on Twitter and then appeared in the media. The abuser was later identified and arrested. The unpleasant story had a feel good ending, when a hijab-wearing Muslim woman intervened on the Jewish family’s behalf. She was later identified as Asma Shuweikh, and the father met her to personally thank her for her support. What began as a tirade of hatred ended as a story of cross-faith solidarity.
What made many commentators surprised and uncomfortable was that the attacker was a black man. His ideas seemed outlandish, especially the remark that, “These people are impostors, trying to claim my heritage and they’re trying to tell me that’s cool.” He also mentioned the slave trade. He was clearly angry, not just in general but towards the Jewish family in particular. Many Twitter commentators concluded that he must simply be mentally ill—which is possible. However, the strange ideas he mentioned were not simply his own warped inventions, but myths with deep roots in American black nationalist ideology. As a Jewish Londoner with a broad, racially mixed social circle, I have encountered these ideas frequently. I have watched them evolve and become popularised over the past few decades, and, in recent years, fuelled by social media and WhatsApp, they have reached a far broader audience.
The Tube attack may have been seen as an outlier, but, two days later, black men boarded a bus in East London and assaulted a group of Jewish schoolchildren. And a few days after that, two black men beat up a rabbi, while shouting “Kill the Jews,” again in East London. Something was stirring, but this something was not new.
Anti-Semitism does not have a long history in black populations because there have been few deep historic ties between black and Jewish people. Ethiopia has an ancient Jewish population, but Ethiopia is an exception. In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa and the mostly West African diaspora in the Americas and Europe, there have been few sustained contacts between black and Jewish communities.
The Nation of Islam
But anti-Semitism did appear on the fringes of black American politics, particularly within a hateful cult called the Nation of Islam, which was founded in 1930. While claiming to be Islamic, the Nation of Islam was in reality a black supremacist organisation, deeply hateful of whites and Jews, incorporating a bizarre set of beliefs, including the claim that white people were the creation of a black scientist named Yakub, who lived 6,600 years ago. Perhaps the NoI would never have become the large, wealthy organisation it is today if it had not recruited Malcolm Little (later Malcolm X and then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) while he was in prison. Malcolm’s rhetorical skill, charismatic good looks and genius-level intellect helped drive the NoI to mass recognition. His intellect was also his downfall. As he began to travel widely outside the United States, he began to doubt the race hate of the NoI, and questioned whether its faith was genuinely Islamic. He left the Nation and openly challenged the views and corruption of its leader, Elijah Muhammed. For this, the NoI had him shot dead in 1965. Malcolm was possibly the great liberal leader America never had, though, sadly, he is best remembered for violent and bigoted views that he renounced in the last part of his life. The iconic picture of him holding a rifle while peeking through curtains is often presented as a black nationalist call to arms; but he was, in fact, watching out for NoI assassins.
Jews and the Civil Rights Movement
However, until the post-civil rights era, the NoI’s racist attitudes remained on the very fringes of American politics. Jews were especially active in the civil rights movement, which was hardly surprising given their own experience of white supremacism in Europe in the 1940s, under which the majority of European Jews were slaughtered (over 100 of my own paternal relatives died in concentration camps). American Jews had also been targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, which attacked synagogues and black churches alike. Black and Jewish Americans therefore had some common experience of historic injustice and some commonality of purpose.
Once the civil rights cause had been won, however, the civil rights and anti-racist organisations began to be hijacked by more militant black nationalists, and Jews were side-lined. By 1978, this article claims, “Louis Harris found that while anti-Semitism was declining slightly in America ‘blacks tend to be more anti-Jewish than any other group.’”
But the racism of black American communities continued to be largely ignored, both by blacks and by liberal white Americans (who often avoided contact with black people, even while declaring their opposition to racism). By the 1980s, the civil rights movement had morphed into a grievance industry, in which every incident involving black people was labelled racist and provided an opportunity to make money. The new, post-Martin Luther King black leaders, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, were glory chasers, taking advantage of every alleged racist incident to appear in front of the TV cameras, berating white supremacy and stuffing their wallets with the dollars of black anger and white guilt. This new profit-from-racism industry is parodied in the 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, in which Reverend Bacon (an Al Sharpton-like figure) turns the accidental death of a black boy into an opportunity for a media circus.
In a case of life copying art, in 1991 a black child was run over and killed in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, by a Jewish leader. The resulting race riot offered perhaps the first real window into the extent of black anti-Semitism. A number of Jews were attacked and one killed (as was a non-Jew, who may have been mistaken for Jewish).
The accusation (hinted at during the Tube attack) that Jewish people were heavily involved in the slave trade appears to be an invention of the Nation of Islam, and appears in a 1991 book published by them, called The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews: Volume One (reviewed and challenged in the Atlantic in 1995). This idea lurked in the shadows for many years, until the rise of social media and dumbed-down meme politics. In recent years, I have seen it shared repeatedly and unquestioningly by black friends on Facebook and WhatsApp. This is potent stuff, linking the greatest trauma of black westerners with Europe’s oldest hatred.
Did Whites Steal the Middle East from Blacks?
The idea that Caucasians, and especially Jews, have stolen the culture and history of black people is older and more potent still, dating back to the Afrocentric and pan-Africanist movements that surfaced in America a century or so ago. At that time, black people were accustomed to being presented as culturally (and even biologically) inferior. In order to increase black pride and consciousness, the Afrocentrics created a fictionalised Africa: a wealthy, highly developed place of mighty kingdoms and great cities (one hears the echo of this thinking in Wakanda). Given the extremes of racism suffered by black Americans at that time, the creation of such stories was understandable, and even useful.
But this mythology had a flaw: beyond Ethiopia, there is little evidence of this legacy in sub-Saharan Africa. So the Afrocentrics stretched the truth a little, and pointed out that Egypt (undoubtedly African, at least in geological terms) possessed an ancient and world leading civilisation dating back thousands of years. While this was certainly true, it has long been known that the Egyptians (and other north Africans) were Caucasians who migrated to Africa from the Middle East thousands of years earlier, following the invention of farming in Syria/Iraq around 11,000 years ago. Egypt’s early development had been triggered by its proximity to the Middle East. The people usually referred to as black had different origins: a separate farming revolution in West Africa, around 2,500 years ago, which led to a migration of black people across Africa from west to east. These ideas are backed by archaeological evidence, and supported by DNA taken from Egyptian mummies and other ancient sources.
So the Afrocentrics had, in effect, appropriated North African history and woven it into the culture of black America. As it was retold, this story became ever more elaborate and fantastical. If ancient Egyptians could be black, why not stretch the narrative a few hundred miles further to the north-east and make all of the Middle East black? Now the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam was, in fact, black. The Hebrews were black. The Bible was therefore written by black men. Jesus was black. And, if the land of Judea was black, why not throw in Persia and Babylon as well? The internet is littered with such claims, none of which are backed by the tiniest shred of solid evidence.
From the mid-70s to the early-80s, I attended a school that was mostly black, and heard these Afrocentric claims repeated often. I clearly remember one teacher’s discomfort, faced with a student’s claim that black people had built the pyramids. Although I didn’t have any grounding in Egyptian history, I could see that the teacher was in possession of facts that he did not want to say out loud in front of thirty black teenagers, many of whom had grown up with Afrocentric and Rastafarian ideas of black supremacy.
But if the ancient Egyptians (Hebrews, Persians, etc.) were black, this poses another problem. Where have all the black people gone? Anyone visiting Egypt, Israel or Morocco can see for themselves that the locals have Caucasian features (even if they are a little darker skinned than Europeans). Before the internet, global news coverage and cheap package holidays, this did not pose a problem for the black supremacist narrative, but now it does. I witnessed this question unfold on a Facebook thread in 2011 when a black friend, having watched TV coverage of the uprising in Tahrir Square, asked in confusion: “But where are the real black Egyptians?” Nobody on the thread offered the obvious explanation (“Those are the original Egyptians”), so instead a long discussion ensued about how, and when, all the original black Egyptians had been cleansed from the region. One man told me vaguely that they had been replaced by Greeks, Arabs and Turks. But when? Surely this great event would have been documented? Another theory (PDF document) suggests that the Yoruba of West Africa originated in ancient Egypt, but abandoned their homeland and migrated thousands of miles to the south-west, for reasons unknown.
This was the inevitable end logic of Afrocentrism: if one is certain that the ancient Egyptians were black, and can see that modern Egyptians are not black, then the modern Egyptians must be the descendants of imposters, who not only stole the land of black Egyptians, but their languages, religions and symbols, too. This also applies to other Middle Eastern groups, including the Jews who wrote the Old Testament.
The Rise of Wokeness
These myths are too deeply rooted to easily refute. There are countless examples of the appropriation of Egyptian symbolism by woke black Americans: for example, the use of the Egyptian ankh by the soul singer Erykah Badu. Refutation of the myth is dismissed as racism. If white people deny that the Egyptians were once black, this is merely more proof of the depth of white hatred towards blacks. Yet, if this appropriation is merely puzzling or annoying to Egyptians, it is a hundred times more dangerous when turned against Jews. This is why a black man on the Tube felt entitled to shout in the faces of a Jewish family. He truly believed that they had stolen his culture. The fact that they dared to sit there on the train, the Jewish father openly wearing a kippah, was just rubbing the black man’s face in the loss of his (imaginary) history. No wonder he was angry. Anyone would be angry if they believed their entire culture had been stolen by another race of people.
Looking back to the 70s and 80s, I recall a certain level of racism, but never serious anti-Semitism among my black friends. The black British experience was very different from the black American one, and black British consciousness was also different, with a greater sense of racial solidarity and less anti-white feeling than in America. Black and white cultures blended freely in ways that were unknown in the United States.
When first I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, I began to see how differently race was treated in America. And then, in the late 80s, I began visiting the US, where I saw it for myself. In Harlem, I learned what it was to be invisible. In Brooklyn, I made eye contact with, and then nodded at a black man on the subway, who screamed at me “Who the fuck you looking at, you white bastard?” (the other people on the train just looked at their feet). In Boston, I strolled into a black street party, and again was invisible. In San Diego, I tried to talk to the bass player of a reggae band, who glared at me and turned his back. I was glad I lived in London, but I began to fear this form of hatred could spill over into black British society, and change my own city and life.
American Black Nationalism Comes to Britain
The Nation of Islam arrived in the UK in the wake of the 1993 murder of a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, in order to use the incident to stir up racial tension and recruit British members. By 1998, they had recruited some local members, and announced a 10,000 Man March (a reference to a Million Man March that the NoI organised in Washington DC in 1995). I began to encounter people selling the Final Call, the NoI’s paper. The first time, in Brixton, I tried to buy a copy out of interest, but the vendor pretended I didn’t exist, so I came away empty-handed. A couple of other times in the 90s, I passed Final Call vendors with my then girlfriend (who was black). They would acknowledge her existence, though not mine, hissing “Yo sista,” hatred in their eyes.
Around the same time, I was shocked to see a Nation of Islam float taking part in the Notting Hill Carnival, a West London celebration of racial unity. Here was an openly anti-Semitic group being allowed to take part in a multicultural festival. No white nationalist would have been allowed anywhere near the celebrations —an illustration that, among the politically correct worthies of London politics, black racists were not regarded in the same way as white racists. They were either deemed harmless, or their racism was regarded as having some merit. I have never heard a coherent explanation of how this was allowed to happen
This is how anti-Semitism has become so deeply embedded in black politics. Nobody—neither black leaders nor left-wing anti-racists—deems it their business to challenge it. While we on the left once fought the ideas of racist groups like the National Front and the British National Party, nobody openly challenges black nationalism. A few black Facebook friends tried to challenge racist attitudes around 2011–12, but they were attacked as race traitors and Uncle Toms, and eventually stopped trying. In the back-to-front world of intersectional identity politics, privileged white people are told to shut up and listen to black people, even if the black people happen to be promoting racist or fascist ideologies.
The Black Hebrew Israelites
While the Nation of Islam merely attacks Jewish people (Farrakhan has recently suggested on Twitter that Jews are termites, which hints at a need for eradication), even more hateful groups have been growing in popularity. The Black Hebrew Israelites emerged in America in the late nineteenth century, evangelising the belief that black people are directly descended from the Hebrews of the Bible. These groups have grown rapidly, and have now hopped the Atlantic. I first saw them outside a hip-hop concert in London a couple of years ago, where I was surprised by the sight of some West African-looking men wearing Jewish tallits (prayer shawls). The sister of a Ghanaian friend joined a church linked to the Hebrew Israelites (as did her children). This old friend is now learning to hate the very idea of my existence, and teaching her children the same thing. Black nationalism is tearing apart social links forged over decades.
I have little doubt that the Tube incident, and the recent attacks in East London, are linked to the Black Hebrew Israelites. Earlier this year, Hebrew Israelites were reported to be conducting aggressive street preaching exercises in Stamford Hill, an Orthodox Jewish area in London. And yet there has been no notable outcry, beyond the pages of the Jewish press. There have been no counter-protests. Antifa has not shown up to defend the Jewish people. There has been no broader response from the left. The Jews of Stamford Hill feel alone and isolated.
The shooting of three people in a kosher supermarket in New Jersey on 10th December was also reportedly carried out by a supporter of the Black Hebrew Israelites. In the past couple of years, there have been repeated reports of attacks on synagogues in Brooklyn by black people, suggesting that the racism exposed in the Crown Heights riots almost 30 years ago is still as strong as ever.
Anti-Semitism and Intersectionality
All this comes at a time when anti-Semitism is rising steeply among the British left. The British progressive anti-racist coalition, which stood up for Jewish people in the 1930s and 40s, black people in the 50s and 60s, Asians in the 70s and 80s and Muslims after 9/11, no longer exists. In its place is the new, intersectional identity politics, a toxic and divisive movement of the middle classes, which is tugging at the threads of multiracial British society—threads that generations of British natives and immigrants, working together, stitched so carefully. Intersectionality creates racism, by rejecting equality and trying to replace it with something it calls equity, which really means treating people differently based on race or gender. Intersectionality is a segregationist movement.
The solutions to this are simple, in theory. First, we need a rejection of identity politics, and a return to the liberal I Have a Dream and One Love ideals that were prevalent half a century ago. Second, black communities need to step up. It would look awful if all-white anti-racists were to protest against black racists in the streets of Jewish areas. Black people need to acknowledge the racist and nationalist ideas in their communities, and start working to dismantle them, just as white people mobilised in their hundreds of thousands to smash the British Union of Fascists, the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League. Black people need to stop ignoring black racism, and work against it in the same way as white people have against white racism. We should remember that, like Jews, black people are a minority (albeit far more numerous than the Jewish minority). We should remember Martin Niemöller’s famous words:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.