Civic leaders and politicians, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Sen. Anthony Williams, have joined Jewish groups in calling for the resignation of the head of the local NAACP, Rodney Muhammad, who posted an anti-Semitic meme on his public Facebook page on July 23.
The meme included a caricature frequently used by white supremacists called “the Happy Merchant,” depicting a hook-nosed man in a yarmulke rubbing his hands together. The offensive caricature was posted alongside photos of Ice Cube, the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeSean Jackson and Nick Cannon, all of whom recently posted anti-Semitic comments on social media (Jackson and Cannon have since apologized).
Beneath their photos, there was a quote — “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize” — attributed to French philosopher Voltaire though it actually originated with Kevin Strom, an American neo-Nazi, along with a drawing of a large hand pressing down on huddled bodies.
The meme on Muhammad’s Facebook page was first noticed and written about by local news outlet Billy Penn.
Muhammad, 68, is a civil rights figure and local Nation of Islam leader who often praises Louis Farrakhan. He had previously posted criticism of the backlash that Cannon, Jackson and others have faced after posting anti-Semitic content on social media.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in a statement calling on the NAACP to remove Muhammad from his position “immediately,” said that Muhammad “intentionally initiated the spread of anti-Semitism on his Facebook page. This vile behavior from a civic leader is incredibly dangerous for Jewish communities across the world.”
“It is inconceivable that a person who theoretically works to uphold civil rights would engage in such blatant hate. To defend the anti-Semitic rhetoric of others is bad enough, but to post virulently anti-Jewish symbols and conspiracy theories is simply unacceptable,” Shira Goodman, ADL Philadelphia regional director, said in a statement that noted the ADL’s longstanding collaboration with the NAACP.
Muhammad’s post was taken down amid the backlash, and he said in a statement that he had not known the image before sharing it.
“I was not familiar with the image at the bottom of the post,” he said in his statement, which the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. “I was responding to the individuals not able to speak out. I have worked with many in the city over the years. I would be happy to have a discussion with other leaders to better understand our history.”
But that did not dampen the uproar. Other groups quickly released statements expressing disappointment.
“We are truly saddened,” the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition said in a statement, “by such a prominent leader’s rejection of this alliance and inexcusable failure to recognize his own role in perpetuating racist stereotypes.”
The Philadelphia Muslim Jewish Circle of Friends, convened by the American Jewish Committee, asserted that Muhammad’s actions were “in direct violation of the very principles upon which the NAACP was founded.”
City officials weighed in, too.
“We cannot move forward as a city if we continue down a path of ignorance and hate,” Philadelphia City Councilman Allan Domb said in a statement. Councilmembers Jaime Gauthier and Isaiah Thomas released statements condemning Muhammad’s actions, and a spokesman for Thomas, Max Weisman, tweeted, “As the Jewish spokesperson for a Black Councilman, we have ongoing conversations about allyship. Black and Jewish people have a history of standing steadfastly together against oppression and hate. Just as I have proudly spoken out against institutional racism, [Councilman Thomas] condemns anti-Semitism. Hate is hate — it’s wrong in all forms.”
The Pennsylvania NAACP condemned Muhammad’s post. But in an interview with WHYY, Kenneth L. Huston, the state conference president, explained that the organizational structure of the NAACP prevented the state chapter from taking action.
If any action does come, it will be from the national office.
On July 27, Muhammad released an official statement that was posted on the national NAACP website.
“Earlier this week, I shared a post on social media in an attempt to start a dialogue around criticism and understanding.
“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.
“The NAACP strongly condemns any offensive language or imagery and stands against all forms of hate speech and anti-Semitism.
“I stand with all members of the Jewish faith in the fight for social justice, and I intend to use this opportunity for thoughtful conversations with both the Black and Jewish communities.”
On July 28, U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia Chief Operating Officer Steve Rosenberg and other leaders from Philadelphia’s Black and Jewish communities hosted a meeting to discuss anti-Semitism and bigotry.
“We must continue to push forward, together,” Rosenberg said. “We must stand side-by-side and fight the hatred that rears its ugly head towards both the Black and Jewish communities. We have so much to gain by working together.”
It was a moment of unity in the wake of difficult weeks for both communities, which were still reeling from the controversy over DeSean Jackson’s tweets when Muhammad posted his meme.
The controversy demonstrates the enduring appeal of Louis Farrakhan, despite a documented history of anti-Semitism and recent anti-Semitic remarks during his Fourth of July address.
Wallace D. Best, a professor in the departments of religion and African American studies at Princeton University, said that though the anti-Semitism and demonization of white people appeal to some of Farrakhan’s listeners, most are drawn to his message of Black empowerment — particularly since it’s delivered in a culturally familiar way.
“The message would be different, the content would be different, but the performance is very, very similar,” Best said, likening Farrakhan’s performance style to Black Baptist preachers. “In some ways, it’s the same. And that’s why he endures.”
In addition, Best said, Farrakhan has spent decades forging ecumenically minded ties in the Black communities of America.
Wilbur Bryant II, who is Black and Jewish, said that part of the reason that the Nation of Islam and its leader hold such sway is that they show genuine concern for Black people, filling a void.
When the message veers sharply into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, however, Bryant feels “extraordinarily uncomfortable.”
Jared Jackson, the founder and executive director of Jews in ALL Hues, said that Muhammad’s comments put him and the rest of Greater Philadelphia’s Black Jews — who number over 15,000, according to the Jewish Federation’s recent population study — in the unenviable position of feeling like they are being asked to pick a side.
“It’s frustrating to see my communities fight like this all the time,” he said.
This post was updated on July 29, 2020