Black-Jewish Relations in Philadelphia: Then and Now

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By Burt Siegel

The denials of Philadelphia NAACP leader and Nation of Islam Minister Rodney Muhammad of any awareness of the anti-Semitic nature of a caricature of a hooked-nose Jew accompanied by a hateful reference also obviously about Jews — both on a meme he posted on his personal Facebook page last week — are hardly plausible. Given that this scurrilous material is often used by white supremacists, one has to wonder how it wound up in Muhammad’s possession to begin with. Furthermore, he has failed to clarify his motives for distributing this material. Perhaps leaders of the NAACP, many of whom have already condemned Muhammad’s actions, will determine what he had in mind when he decided to share the offensive image with others.

More than a few people have expressed dismay that a leader of such a highly respected civil rights organization as the NAACP would be motivated to distribute hate material. It is likely that Muhammad’s world view is deeply shaped by his role as a major figure in the Nation of Islam and as a follower of Louis Farrakan, who continues to spout his vile anti-Semitic beliefs at every opportunity. If Farrakan’s representative in Philadelphia was not like-minded, it would seem that he would have resigned from his involvement with an organization identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group long ago.


It is unfortunate that this comes just a few weeks after the Philadelphia Eagles’ DeSean Jackson posted an anti-Semitic meme as well. The original source of that meme was, disturbingly, a white racist. Rep. John Lewis, deservedly mourned and beloved by the Jewish community, once told me that when Jews and Blacks attack and hurt each other, we give a gift to the Klan. How can such wisdom ever be refuted?

But before anyone thinks that we live in a place where hostile feelings between Blacks and Jews are commonplace, I’d like to correct that impression.

This is the city where late Congressman William H. Gray founded Operation Understanding, which brought African American and Jewish teenagers together to travel to Africa and Israel as well as to the American South and Northern ghettos to learn one another’s history and learn about the experience of racism and anti-Semitism.

My good friend, the much missed Jerry Mondesire, Muhammad’s predecessor at the NAACP, was often outspoken in his condemnation of anti-Semitism, even when the source was from the African American community. Jerry also often spoke at rallies in support of Israel.

Neither Wilson Goode, Philadelphia’s first Black mayor, or Ed Rendell, the first Jewish mayor of our city, would have been elected without the support of a coalition of Black and Jewish voters.

For many years we had an active organization called the Black Jewish Coalition founded by the leadership of Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity and the Jewish Community Relations Council. Together, we lobbied for civil and voting rights legislation, and picketed the Russian and South African embassies to protest South African apartheid and the denial of the rights of Jews in Russia.

And last but by no means least, we joyfully celebrated holidays together.

Recently, a number of Black elected officials met online with representatives of the Jewish community to express their profound unhappiness with Minister Muhammad’s actions. Several have called into question his suitability for leading the NAACP, and numerous African American ministers issued condemnations of the Muslim leader’s anti-Semitism.

The PAC I co-founded, Democratic Jewish Outreach of Pennsylvania, has been working closely with area Black clergy to encourage the members of our two communities to register to vote by mail and cast their ballots in a timely fashion in this most crucial of national elections.

In speaking of politics, I must make one more observation: Understandably, many of us in the Jewish community were and remain outraged and deeply disappointed by the expressions of anti-Semitism we have seen. At the same time, we are so very heartened by the support from so many African American leaders as well as from our personal friends. But I remain astonished by the tepid response from far too many to President Donald Trump’s comments that Jews like to “control” politicians, that we are “not nice people” (tough bargainers) and that the only reason that any Jew would vote for him was to avoid “a wealth tax.” There have been numerous reports by people who know Trump well of his frequent anti-Semitic utterances. And who can forget his calling white racists shouting anti-Semitic threats “very fine people”?

There is no doubt in my mind that we have more to fear than a football player, a rapper and even the head of a local chapter of the NAACP.

Burt Siegel is the retired executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He served on the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations for 18 years, including serving as its vice chair.

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