Cricitizing the Critiques of Bell and his attitudes towards Farrakhan
From the 1998 University of Chicago Law Review, Kathryn Abrams’ critique of the book Beyond All Reason by D. Farber and S. Sherry
Excerpt posted here with her permission. Some formatting has been done to make it more readable, no substance has been changed or altered.
2. Pervasive claims of anti-Semitism.
These explicit arguments, however, are not the only ways in which Farber and Sherry seek to connect multiculturalism with anti-Semitism. They also seek to bring home the ostensibly anti-Semitic implications of multiculturalism by less direct means. In this respect, their arguments assessing the consequences of multiculturalism descend from the unpersuasive to the deeply disturbing.
The authors wage a campaign of guilt-by-association against Derrick Bell, the originator of the critical race narrative and one of the founders of critical race theory. Bell is criticized for authoring a fictional chronicle in which Jewish protagonists demonstrate mixed motives in seeking to prevent Blacks from being removed by a group of aliens.
He is charged with displaying solicitude toward that veritable lightning rod for Black-Jewish tensions, Louis Farrakhan (p 44). With the exception of a brief section in the introduction (p 4), however, Farber and Sherry do not actually mount an argument that Bell holds views that are anti-Semitic. Nor do they argue that Bell—and by inference other multiculturalists—should be regarded as holding views that are anti-Semitic because Bell has written a particular chronicle or displayed solicitude toward Farrakhan. (I would add that I would find either argument unpersuasive, given Bell’s actual writings.) Such associations are simply dropped into paragraphs that are not facially concerned with anti-Semitism.
Nor are Bell’s alleged affiliations the only indirect means the authors use to suggest a connection between multiculturalism and anti-Semitism. Although Farber and Sherry survey a range of social and cultural damages that are alleged to flow from multicultural scholarship, one theme predominates: virtually every harm that is predicted or hypothesized is illustrated by reference to a development or controversy that has victimized Jews. Thus, the tendency toward authoritarianism by those who employ narrative methodology is illustrated by the Dreyfus affair (pp 102-03); the consequence of relativism in the characterization of “truth” in narrative is illustrated by difficulty of challenging Holocaust revisionism (pp 109-10); the tendency of narrative to degrade scholarly discourse is illustrated by an academic battle between two Jews over a Patricia Williams narrative dealing with anti-Semitism (pp 90-94); even Chapter Four, which identifies as a specific drawback of multiculturalism the fostering of arguments that the authors take to be anti-Semitic, ends with a reference to another, implicit connection, a chilling story about the failure to recognize merit in a concentration camp (p 71). The cumulative effect of these connections is to suggest that wherever multiculturalism shows its face, norms or controversies evincing anti-Semitism are not far behind.
Finally, Farber and Sherry make the claim, which operates to ratify the preceding implications, that multiculturalism threatens Jews by challenging the protection conferred upon them by Enlightenment values. The authors cite a series of historical figures, from French counter-revolutionaries to German Romantics to Christian crusaders, who have both challenged Enlightenment premises and displayed variously virulent forms of anti-Semitism. Farber and Sherry then suggest that this connection is not accidental, because Jews have both perpetuated and received protection from Enlightenment values: Jews have been especially committed to Enlightenment beliefs, and thus have been instrumental in secularizing and universalizing American culture… . It is a reciprocal relationship; the Enlightenment focus on intellect and away from pedigree, on achievement rather than biography, on universal rather than local standards of merit, helped to open doors that had previously been closed to Jews (p 71).
Although Farber and Sherry return in the succeeding passage to the particular damage done by the critique of merit, their broader suggestion is that challenges to Enlightenment values threaten to undermine the protection that Jews have received from these values.
I have immediate sympathy with Farber and Sherry’s concern about the scourge of anti-Semitism. The atrocities they cite occurred within many of our lifetimes, and snuffed out the lives of millions as an expression of pure racial hatred. These atrocities should be abhorred and remembered, and their repetition prevented. I also have no difficulty with Farber and Sherry’s more generalized concern for the well-being of the Jewish people. It is inconsistent, as I will argue, with their emphasis on Enlightenment values, but it is a predictable outgrowth of a group-based conception of self with which I, as both a multiculturalist and a Jew, feel perfectly comfortable. (I received my own introduction to identity politics watching my parents decipher the import of any political development by asking, “But what does it mean for the Jews?”). But the claim that Jews are threatened by the multiculturalists’ targeting of Enlightenment norms exceeds this kind of quotidian, group-based concern. Jews have no doubt supported and been supported by the norms of the Enlightenment, though Jews have also been prominent critics of Enlightenment values, particularly as they have been reflected in liberalism and its legal manifestations.
However, to claim a relationship to the Enlightment of sufficient reciprocity or exclusivity that she who attacks the Enlightenment, in effect, attacks me, seems solipsistic and bizarre. Moreover, the relentless drumbeat of anti-Semitic consequences—explicit, implicit, carefully argued, subliminal—reflects more than a generalized concern with the well-being of Jews. It reflects a suggestion that multiculturalism threatens the equality or well-being of Jews.
This latter claim is disturbing for several reasons. First, the authors’ claims of anti-Semitic consequences are among the most attenuated in the book. The problem is not, as Richard Posner argued in an earlier review, that the claim of anti-Semitism is grounded on an effect-based interpretation of discrimination that is more characteristic of the multiculturalists than of Enlightenment scholars.
The problem is that the claim of anti-Semitism is not founded on any concrete effects at all. Sometimes Farber and Sherry argue that multiculturalists make logical or analytic moves (for example, the rejection of Enlightenment norms) that are analogous to moves that have been made in some anti-Semitic arguments. More often, they argue that multiculturalism contributes to the kind of intellectual environment in which certain unattractive kinds of arguments, including some anti-Semitic arguments, become more plausible. Even these speculative claims are weakened, as I argue above, by the fact that their central premises are flawed.
Second, beyond the ungrounded character of the allegations, the manner in which they are made seems likely to inflame an already-volatile set of group relations. The last decade has been an extremely precarious time in Black-Jewish relations, given the erosion of the civil rights coalition over some Jews’ rejection of affirmative action, the use of anti-Semitic discourse by Farrakhan and some other members of the Nation of Islam, the debates over Jesse Jackson’s response to Farrakhan, the Crown Heights incident, and more.
These tensions have affected Jewish relations with other communities of color, in part because many members of these communities experience an affinity with the Palestinians in their struggles with the state of Israel. These tensions are real, and they can be ameliorated, if at all, only through careful, nuanced dialogue about the claims of mistreatment and the bases of disagreement. Broad, speculative arguments such as those made by Farber and Sherry will undoubtedly focus more attention on the debate over multiculturalism, and may perhaps help to consolidate opposition to it. But they will do so at the cost of exacerbating a painful set of divisions, and framing the culture wars as one more site of antagonism between Jews and communities of color. This kind of argument is one that those concerned about the degradation of discourse would do well to reconsider.
And here is footnote 36, which is probably the most relevant to the current discussion:
As for Bell’s alleged solicitude toward Farrakhan, I am unwilling to perpetuate what I regard as a flawed policy among some Jews of calling on virtually every African-American leader of prominence to disclaim Farrakhan in the face of his anti-Semitic remarks. Farrakhan and some other Nation of Islam leaders, such as Khalid Abdul Muhammed, have made anti-Semitic statements that I reject, and that I believe others, of any racial group, who care about group-based equality should reject. These attitudes, in my mind, make Farrakhan a less fit leader than others who reject anti-Semitism in all its manifestations, and a problematic public representative of the Black community. But I do not believe such attitudes require that Blacks deny the benefits Farrakhan has provided to that community. Black leaders are required to disclaim Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, but no similar requirement is imposed on other groups, many of whom have comparable figures in their own midst. Christians are never called upon to disclaim the anti-Semitism of Pat Buchanan; nor are Jews, for that matter, required to disclaim the racism of Meir Kahane. In this context, the demand that Black leaders disclaim Farrakhan suggests, at the very least, that some Jews are more willing to look for anti-Semitism at the margins of society than within power structures where it can do far more to harm them.
Moreover, Derrick Bell’s discussion of Farrakhan (which occurs, ironically, in the context of a discussion of the pressure on Black leaders to disclaim those who make statements deemed “outrageous” by those in power) is complicated. Bell’s description of Farrakhan as offering a form of forthright resistance to the white power structure and a form of empowerment to young Blacks that few other leaders have been able to match is in some respects similar that of Cornel West, who is often viewed as a champion of Black-Jewish relations. Compare Bell, Faces at 11825 (cited in note 35), with Cornel West, Black-Jewish Dialogue: Beyond Rootless Universalism and Ethnic Chauvinism, 4:3 Tikkun 95, 96 (1989) (“The state of siege now raging in Black America, the sense of frustration and hopelessness, pushes people to look toward a leader who speaks in bold and defiant terms. The Black elected officials tend not to speak to these deep needs. Farrakhan tries to fill the vacuum …”).
And while Bell’s discussion contains passages that praise Farrakhan frankly (“Minister Farrakhan, calm, cool, and very much on top of the questions, handles these self-appointed guardians with ease. I love it!”), Bell, Faces at 118 (cited in note 35), he constructs a dialogue that permits the problem of anti-Semitic statements and Black responses to them to be discussed at length, from a number of perspectives, some of which attempt to illustrate how the Jewish anguish over Farrakhan looks to at least some Blacks. This seems to me instructive, particularly if one is willing to acknowledge that this ferment may look different from the perspective of Blacks than from the perspectives of Jews. However, it is not a matter of saying (as Farber and Sherry’s worry about relativism might suggest) that Blacks will inevitably view the controversy one way and Jews another.
Some of Bell’s conclusions seem plausible, even to me, approaching the controversy as (one kind of ) Jew. In one section, for example, Bell states:
Were I a Jew, I would be damned concerned about the latent—and often active—anti-Semitism in this country. But to leap with a vengeance on inflammatory comments by blacks is a misguided effort to vent justified fears on black targets of opportunity who are the society’s least powerful influences and—I might add—the most likely to be made the scapegoats for deeply rooted anti-Semitism that they didn’t create and that will not be cured by their destruction.
While some of Bell’s discussion may be jarring to some Jewish sensibilities (including my own), to suggest that this discussion is anti-Semitic seems incorrect and inflammatory.
I reach similar conclusions about Bell’s chronicle of “The Space Traders.” It is true, as Farber and Sherry state, that Bell describes a plot of resistance (to the removal of all Blacks by the Space Traders) by Jews calling themselves the “Anne Frank Committee.” Though the Committee publicly describes its motives as reflecting “the fateful parallel between the plight of blacks in this country and the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany,” Bell notes that “a concern of many Jews not contained in their official condemnations of the Trade offer, was that, in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats for a system … reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations for societal disabilities …”
This is not a flattering picture of Jews (who may well have enjoyed, as I did, the first part of the passage, which depicted Jews as taking an atypically strong position against the proposed removal of Black citizens), but it is also not the end of the matter. Jews are described as victims, as well as allies with mixed motives, in the succeeding passage. Here Bell relates a plan engineered by the Attorney General, to prevent a small group of Jews from “besmirching the good names of all patriotic … Jews” by blacklisting members of the Anne Frank Committee. Bell states:
Retaliation was quick. Within hours, men and women listed as belonging to the committee lost their jobs; their contracts were canceled; their mortgages foreclosed; and harassment of them, including physical violence, escalated into a nationwide resurgence of anti-Semitic feeling … The Jews who opposed the Trade were intimidated into silence and inaction. The leaders of [the group] were themselves forced into hiding, leaving few able to provide any haven for blacks.
Both the McCarthy-esque strategy, and its consequences, are grotesque, leaving little doubt about the vulnerable status of the Jews. While they are not, of course, the wholly devalued group who become the object of the Space Traders’ exchange, Jews live on a precarious edge, which serves at least to contextualize their earlier, somewhat unappealing concern about their own status. Moreover, Jews are not the only ones who display mixed motives in opposing the Trade (business leaders make a hypocritical protest aimed at saving a portion of their market and their work force), nor are they the only ones who engage in a struggle over the scarce territory at the societal margin (the quote about the motives of the Anne Frank Committee makes clear that other marginal groups engaged in scapegoating). One can question why Jews, via this subplot, were held up for particular criticism at all; and one can ask whether this treatment demonstrates the kind of inappropriate focus on those close to the social margins that Bell himself criticized in the case of the Jewish attacks on Farrakhan. But, in the end, this may be a question that distinguishes (some) Jewish perspective(s) from those of an AfricanAmerican author. This is a chronicle about betrayal of Black Americans by the dominant power structure which systematically devalued them, by the legal system whose equality-based precedents were not strong enough to help them, by a variety of groups whose motives were too mixed or whose positions made them too vulnerable to be of much use. While the picture of Jews it presents is not pretty, Jews do not fare conspicuously less well than any other group in this nightmarish account. It does not, to my mind, provide a basis for charging Bell with anti-Semitism.
I find this a very trenchant analysis that stands the test of time quite well. Bell’s point of view is not without its flaws, but charges of anti-semitism are simplistic and obvious. Professor Abrams demonstrates how easy it is to criticize Bell without attacking him personally, and often uses Bell’s own points to strengthen her own.
Bell’s point, especially, that even if all antisemitism disappeared from the black community ovrenight, that this would make little change in the actual effects of antisemitism on Jews, is an important one.
I also think Abrams makes another excellent point: That white people are not asked to disavow every problematic attitude of every white person, and that Jews are not asked to disavow every problematic attitude of every Jewish person.
I myself used to live four blocks from Farrakhan and would go and hang around his house wearing a Star of David t-shirt, which served as a summons for some young gentlemen (always men, another problematic aspect of Farrakhan) to appear to ask me my business. I’d then do my naive little to improve Jewish-Black relations, discussion some of the more prevelant myths pushed by Farrakhan and making the case for common cause between Blacks and Jews— ironically, often in terms that Bell uses, of naked self-interest.
I was always impressed by these young men, who were disciplined, polite, passionate, and clearly trying to do good things in their community. I always wondered how a man as— to me— obviously corrupt as Farrakhan could have inspired so many good men, but it’s really not that strange in retrospect. Farrakhan really does stress self-reliance, discipline, and self-improvement. There is no excuse for his anti-semitism, for the lies that he tells, his misogyny, or any of his other malevolent attitudes. But that does not mean his a a cartoon villain, spending every waking moment hating on the Jews.
History is full of fundamentally flawed figures who have also done some portions of good in this world, and Bell’s acknowledgement of Farrakhan as such should not be used to tar him as an antisemite.