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He's a Jew. That was qualification enough, it seems, for Jack Nusan Porter to speak at the "Conversation on Black-Jewish Unity," sponsored by the Black Students Association (BSA) last Wednesday.
BSA needed a Jew, after all, to share a stage with Minister Don Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader in Boston, and to give a Jewish perspective on the issue. BSA could have asked Hillel to recommend one. Instead, they picked Porter on their own.
He must have seemed to fit the bill perfectly. Now in real estate, Porter is a former academic who once held positions at Boston University and Harvard. He's a self-described "historian f Jewish history" and "expert on Black-Jewish relations". And he's the child of Holocaust survivors.
But unlike Muhammad, who represents the Nation of Islam, Porter has no standing and no constituency in Boston's Jewish community. Porter doesn't speak for Jews. It was no surprise, therefore, that Hillel declined to co-sponsor the event.
That the BSA chose Porter, however, reflects a belief that an individual's racial or ethnic affiliation qualifies him or her to speak as an expert on matters pertaining to the group. It is this belief that increasingly dominates discussions of race and ethnicity at Harvard. And it is this belief that explains why the "Conversation on Black-Jewish Unity" was a farce.
Porter talked mostly about himself and very little about the real issues--affirmative action, the conflict in the Middle East and the two groups' divergent economic fortunes, among others--that have driven a wedge between the Jewish and Black communities in the last 20 years.
He spoke about the many Black friends he had while growing up in the Milwaukee ghetto after World War II and the close Black-Jewish cooperation that existed during the civil rights movement.
Porter blamed Jews for the deterioration in Black-Jewish relations. He said Jews tend to be "dominating and arrogant" in their relationships with other people and groups--and they should stop it. More than anyone else, Jews are "so afraid of peace...and friendship". That's why Porter fears Jews more than the Nation of Islam, he said.
Only in the question-and-answer session did Porter address The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, Vol. 1, a Nation of Islam book that argues that Jews--more than any other group--played a disproportionate role in the slave trade.
In a page-long op-ed piece in The New York Times last July, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department, called the book the "bible" of a new Black anti-Semitism. Gates wrote that the book is "one of the most sophisticated instances of hate literature yet compiled" and an example off "demagoguery and pseudo-scholarship". The Secret Relationship has also been criticized by Jewish groups.
Muhammad has responded by publicly attacking Gates and trying to refute charges of anti-Semitism. "There are people who would call someone anti-Semitic for dropping a kosher sandwich on the floor," Muhammad told The Boston Globe.
At the "Conversation," Porter did say--extremely politely--that the book is anti-Semitic. Not that it really matters, though. He asked Muhammad to "be more sensitive" to Jews and--no joke--to "do a better job" with the second volume. "I hope [saying] this doesn't harm our relationship too much," Porter said to Muhammad.
In any case, Porter said, "I'm not going to let a book destroy [our] relationship. No way, because I remember a time when Jews and Blacks loved each other, and I still love Black people, and I want more Jews to say that. And I want Blacks to listen to Jews...and to say I love you too as a brother".
The solution, Porter said, is simply to "be a human being and treat everyone equally". He proposed singing Jewish and civil rights songs following the discussion.
For Muhammad, there are two kinds of Jews. The first kind are to blame for the downturn in Black-Jewish relations. "The problem," Muhammad said, "seems to be a segment of Jewish people who have a lot of influence and power," like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of B'nai Brith.
The ADL has opposed awarding contracts by municipalities to a security firm formerly owned by the Nation of Islam. Why? Muhammad said Jews want to stifle Black economic empowerment. He did not mention that the firm disseminates anti-Semitic material--leaflets charging that the State of Israel has enslaved Ethiopian Jews, for example--in the housing projects it guards. (Porter had not heard of the issue but immediately condemned the ADL anyway.)
The second kind of Jews, in Muhammad's view, are those who have endorsed the book. That's because Muhammad subscribes to the canard that Jews are automatically experts on Jewish history.
"Some of [Gate's] colleagues... and at least one white Jewish scholar," Muhammad said, "...have inferred that he could not have even read [The Secret Relationship]".
Muhammad quoted a Black scholar who supported the book's scholarship and then a "white person--Jewish, no less." And then: "Whether you know it or not, a Jewish person from New York who was asked to critique this book" endorsed it.
"There is nothing in this book that did not come from the pen of Jewish person," Muhammad said. "We only compiled it. Now let me tell you what a Jewish person said against a person who criticized our book. This is a Jew talking now..."
As for Porter, Muhammad cited him as an example of a "Jewish person who doesn't buy into that foolishness," even though Porter, politely as ever, suggested that the Jewish sources Muhammad was naming were not considered first-rate scholars.
Muhammad's logic is akin to claiming that because you have Jewish friends, you couldn't possibly be anti-Semitic. And that's a crock.
It's no secret that relations between Blacks and Jews at Harvard have been strained recently. BSA, of course, has the right to invite any and all speakers they so desire to Harvard. And Blacks and Jews should get together to talk. But for a productive encounter, each side should be able to choose their respective spokespersons.
This time, unfortunately, BSA appropriated that choice for both sides. That decision did nothing to improve race relations at Harvard.
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