A conversation between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bari Weiss on the relationship between blacks and Jews

November 22, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Bari Weiss doesn’t seem to write much on her own Substack site lately, probably because she’s doing podcasts and enlisting a lot of writers to form her own media mini-empire. She does get some good writers, but I do miss her own pieces.

Here’s one conversation she’s recently posted with basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—now a writer, activist, and film-maker.  I haven’t seen his films, but I have read his essays, and they’re good.

The topic of their conversation is something I’ve brought up before: the eroding relationship between African Americans and Jews. As Abdul-Jabbar and Weiss both note, Jews and blacks used to be partners in the civil rights struggle (with blacks taking the lead, of course). Jews, also a disliked minority, found natural affinity with black protestors. Remember that both of the whites killed in the Mississippi murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner—killed by the Klan for registering blacks to vote—were Jewish.  That is not a random sample of whites.

But lately the relationship is eroding, aided by the anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan (and Kanye West!) and a seemingly growing number of attacks on Jews by blacks. Somehow the relationship needs to be repaired from both sides, but I, for one, don’t know how. Here Abdul-Jabbar espouses the comity that used to exist and urges both sides to fight for equality.

Click to read (it’s free, but subscribe if you read often).

I’ll give just three quotes. In the first exchange, Weiss (“BW”) gives a fact that surprised me, one she got from Abdul-Jabbar (“KAJ”):

BW: I want to end by focusing on the relationship more broadly between blacks and Jews in America. In July of 2020, you published a powerful condemnation of antisemitism titled “Where Is the Outrage Over Anti-Semitism in Sports and Hollywood?” Here’s a passage that struck me:

One of the most powerful songs in the struggle against racism is Billie Holiday’s melancholic “Strange Fruit,” which was first recorded in 1939. The song met strong resistance from radio stations afraid of its graphic lyrics about lynching:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Despite those who wanted to suppress the song, it went on to sell a million copies that year and became Holiday’s best-selling record ever. The song was written by a white, Jewish high school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who performed it with his wife around New York before it was given to Holiday.

The American Jewish community I grew up in was one that prided itself on its history of joining black Americans in their fight for civil rights. We knew the names Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish civil rights activists murdered in Mississippi in in 1964 alongside James Chaney. We studied the picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Has that relationship unraveled?

KAJ: I don’t think it has unraveled. The only difference is that those Jews and blacks who never understood how our fates are intertwined now have an instant platform to express their irrational thinking. The majority of Jews have been steadfast in their support of civil rights when other groups have wavered. They have done it on the ground by joining marches, and they have done it in the arts by writing books and movies promoting civil rights. African Americans need to recognize that commitment and do the same for them.

BW: What does healing the bond between our communities look like?

KAJ: The bond doesn’t need healing, because it’s already there. People like Kyrie Irving and Kanye West give the impression that it’s not, but only because we are all surprised by someone from one marginalized group using the same bad, racist arguments against another marginalized group. Even wrong perceptions can become self-fulfilling prophecies if we don’t address them every time they appear.

We don’t have to heal the bond, we have to strengthen it even more by joining together to condemn every act of prejudice against every marginalized group. We must do it swiftly and emphatically.

A discussion of the odious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam:

BW: I want to focus on Farrakhan’s influence. He believes that Jews are parasitic, that Jews are behind a plot to exploit black Americans, and that blacks are the real Jews from the Bible. We’re hearing these ideas come out of the mouths of musicians like Kanye West (“Jewish people have owned the black voice”) and athletes like Kyrie Irving (“I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from”). For many Jews, hearing this kind of rhetoric is shocking, but many black Americans have noted that these views are more commonplace than we’d like to admit. So what I think a lot of people are afraid to ask is: How mainstream are these beliefs among black Americans? Are Kanye and Kyrie unique? Or has the influence of people like Farrakhan made this strain of antisemitism somehow more normal than many want to believe?

KAJ: Certain black leaders do exactly what certain white leaders do who want to gather followers, money, and power: They find a scapegoat they can blame. They can’t blame others who are marginalized because of the color of their skin, like Latinx or Asian-Americans, so they go for the default villain of fascists and racists: Jews.

What astounds me is not just the irrationality of it, but how self-destructive it is. Black people have to know that when they mouth antisemitism, they are using the exact same kind of reasoning that white supremacists use against blacks. They are enabling racism. Now they’ve aligned themselves with the very people who would choke out black people, drag them behind a truck, keep them from voting, and maintain systemic racism for another hundred years. They are literally making not only their lives worse, but their children’s lives. The fact that they can’t see that means the racists have won.

Those who condemn Weiss as an alt-righter, racist, and “dark web” adherent should ask themselves, “Would such a person be able to secure an interview with Abdul-Jabbar, much less have a civil and respectful discussion?”

Finally, Abdul-Jabbar’s conclusion:

BW: If you were putting out a statement, what would you say to Jews? To Black Americans?

KAJ: In the words of Marvin Gaye in What’s Going On: “You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some understanding here today.”

Wouldn’t it be great if a great quote were enough? Marvin may inspire me, but in practical terms I’d say that we have to be mindful of our common goal to live in a country that values us and in which our children will never be called names, humiliated, can walk without fear, can pursue love with anyone they choose, have a fair shot at any profession they choose. That doesn’t just happen. We have to work together to achieve that. And anyone who doesn’t share that goal must be shoved aside.

As Jake tells Bret in the last line of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

It’s a long interview but well worth reading. An as your reward, here are the two songs mentioned in the piece.

Strange Fruit” sung by BIllie Holiday (1959):

Marvin Gaye live, singing “What’s Going On” (he wrote the song) in 1972:

12 thoughts on “A conversation between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bari Weiss on the relationship between blacks and Jews

  1. I’m not fully convinced by KAJ’s argument, maybe it’s just that I don’t really know or have any data on the subject, but I’d like to see more proof that the gen x and younger crowd feel the way he does. I’m just not sure, but I can’t quite put my finger on what or why.

    But, I am sure that ol’ tRump isn’t very happy with the Supreme Court after today’s news…

  2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar comes across as a thoughtful and sensible guy. (Confession: as a Brit, I only know him from the film Airplane!)

  3. Reminds me of Chris Rock’s bit on antisemitism. Paraphrased: I always get nervous when people start talking trash about the Jews. Because you know who’s next!

    Absolutely, and it works both ways — and many other ways besides. It’s hard to believe that isn’t obvious to everyone.

  4. The song [“Strange Fruit”] was written by a white, Jewish high school teacher, Abel Meeropol, who performed it with his wife around New York before it was given to Holiday.

    Mr. & Mrs. Meeropol also adopted the Rosenberg orphans, brothers Michael and Robert, ages 10 and 6, respectively, at the time of their natural parents’ 1953 execution by electrocution.

  5. Bari Weiss doesn’t seem to write much on her own Substack site lately, probably because she’s doing podcasts …

    What a waste — similar to the way I feel about Nora Ephron, one of her generation’s premier prose stylists, having diverted so much of her time to making middling Hollywood comedies.

    Good for Kareem for speaking out.

    1. Good for him speaking out, sure, but I was really caught up by his claim that he became a Muslim to feel connected to Africa. Is he really unaware of the role Muslims played in the slave trade? Is he unaware that Christianity has had much longer and deeper ties to Africa than Islam? Even if he ignores Egypt as being part of Africa (as many do, bizarrely, but that might just be an ignorant American thing) where Christianity was at least practiced by a handful in the very early days of the religion, Ethiopia has been Christian since at least the 4th century, possibly earlier but those stories are probably apocryphal. I can understand changing his name, for reasons he suggested, following Malcolm who gave us and the wokees that odious use of X, that is, if the name actually was a slave owner of his ancestors. But his other arguments are weak tea. I guess I don’t find him nearly as thoughtful as others do. Perhaps I’m missing something.

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