Derrick Bell and Jewish Republican Paranoia

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The hug that tells you everything you need to know about, um, the Harvard Law School affirmative action debate of 1990

Last September, in an item about Benjamin Netanyahu, I tossed off my casual view that Republican Jews I know tend to be paranoid about black anti-Semitism and see it lurking everywhere. An enraged Joel Pollak branded this a smear. "I challenge Chait," he replied, "to name one 'left-of-center black politician' – not many, but just one – who has been treated in like manner by Jewish Republicans, without some basis for the charge."

Okay, ready for my answer? Left-of-center black politician Barack Obama.

Pollak has launched a wild fusillade of attacks centered around his story that Barack Obama praised Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell at a pro-affirmative action rally in 1990. The whole effort has been comically inept and propagandistic. Breitbart.com spent weeks promising it had acquired an explosive tape that would change the course of the election. Then Buzzfeed got the tape and published it. It was decidedly non-explosive. Pollak insisted that his video was vastly more explosive, and appeared on Hannity with his “exclusive,” which turned out to be the exact same video, plus a few seconds after the speech, in which Obama hugged Bell.

Why is Pollak making such absurd charges? Because he is a smear artist immune to any journalistic standards? Well, certainly. But beneath almost any smear artist is a set of genuine concerns, a belief that there is some larger truth he is upholding, which allows him to convince himself that his smears serve a legitimate purpose. That role, I think is filled by Pollak’s belief that Bell is an anti-Semite. Here is Pollak being interviewed by Hannity:

He writes a futuristic science fiction story about race, but it's really telling the story of the civil rights struggle. He thinks that basically white people sold blacks out and then Jews who pretended to be helpful to black people during the civil rights struggle backed away when they saw it was no longer in their self-interest. That's what he believes about the civil rights struggle … Derrick Bell was the Jeremiah Wright of academia and Barack Obama embraced him and endorsed his views.

In reality, this is close to the opposite of what Bell’s story actually said:

 On January 8, there's a "mammoth" rally against the blacks-for-prosperity alien deal at Madison Square Garden, led by a character named Rabbi Abraham Specter.

"We simply cannot stand by and allow America's version of the Final Solution to its race problem to be carried out without our strong protest and committed opposition." Thirty-five thousand Jews signed pledges to disrupt by all possible nonviolent means both the referendum and-if the amendment was ratified-the selection of blacks for 'special service.'

"Already," Rabbi Specter announced, "a secret Anne Frank Committee has formed, and its hundreds of members have begun to locate hiding places in out of the way sites across this great country. Blacks by the thousands can be hidden for years if necessary until the nation returns to its senses.

"We vow this action because we recognize the fateful parallel between the plight of the blacks in this country and the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Holocaust scholars agree that the Final Solution in Germany would not have been possible without the pervasive presence and the uninterrupted tradition of anti-Semitism in Germany. We must not let the space Traders be the final solution for blacks in America."

In Bell’s novel, the Jews themselves are then targeted and forced into hiding, leaving them unable to help. The notion that Bell was imagining Jewish complicity in racism is the inverse of reality. He was imagining Jews as standing at the forefront of the struggle to help blacks.

None of this is to say that Bell was merely an inoffensive academic toiling at his labors until Pollak decided to smear him. He’s a justifiably controversial figure, whose complexity is well captured by this 1993 profile by James Traub. Among other problems, Bell refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan at a time when most black intellectuals did. Bell is not an anti-Semite, but he has tolerated anti-Semitism.

But stop here and consider the charge. Obama, two decades ago, praised a man on who, in other capacities, refused to condemn anti-Semitism. If you are predisposed to imagine blacks as anti-Semitic, that will strike you as a damning charge. You have uncovered – or very, very partially uncovered – an element of his past that surely reveals his essential character.

Yet if you consider this level of association without bringing Pollak’s level of suspicion to the exercise, the preposterousness of it is obvious. If the Obama-Bell connection is scandalous, here is a connection that ought to be utterly disqualifying:

Republican candidates Governor Mitt Romney (MA) shakes hands with U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (TX) before their debate June 13, 2011 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. Photo: Darren McCollester/Getty Images

That's Mitt Romney with his friend and political ally Ron Paul, who spent years publishing racist newsletters and steeped in fringe right neo-Confederate politics and who continues to denounce the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The connection is much, much tighter. Paul directly and repeatedly published racist claims, rather than passively refusing to denounce one, and his friendship with Romney is current, not two decades old and from a youthful point in life.

Now, I do not think Romney ought to be disqualified, or even tainted, by Paul’s beliefs. The disparity in Pollak’s reaction could easily be explained by him being a pure partisan shill. But I think the psychology is a little more complex. I suspect Pollak is being driven here by actual fear, grounded in the assumption that a black left-of-center politician is probably an anti-Semite at heart – a suspicion so powerful that only the faintest wisps of evidence are needed to confirm it.