Updated at 9:30 p.m.
Philadelphia NAACP president Rodney Muhammad shared a meme that depicted an anti-Semitic cartoon next to photos of Black celebrities who recently came under fire for their own allegedly anti-Semitic comments.
Shared Thursday on Muhammad’s public Facebook page, the meme referenced the backlash against Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson, actor/rapper Ice Cube and comedian/TV host Nick Cannon, who have all attracted attention recently for advancing theories that blame Jewish people for the plight of Black Americans. Cannon and Jackson have since apologized for their recent posts, while Ice Cube doubled down.
The image shared by Muhammad, a prominent civil rights figure and local Nation of Islam leader, suggested that the blowback and apologies were also part of a grand scheme orchestrated by Jews.
After being contacted by a reporter, Muhammad removed the post, initially saying he didn’t remember sharing it. He later acknowledged the meme — but said he didn’t realize the image included was offensive to Jewish people.
“To be real honest with you, I didn’t even pay attention to the picture,” he said.
The post included a caricature of a Jewish man wearing a yarmulke and pressing a large, bejewelled hand down on a faceless mass of people. Similar caricatures trace back to before the Holocaust, and were often used to depict Jews as a force of greed and oppression. Next to the image was a quote falsely attributed to French philosopher Voltaire: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
The real source of the often-misattributed line is Kevin Strom, an American neo-Nazi, Holocaust denier and white supremacist who, in 2008, was convicted on child pornography charges.
Friday evening, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia condemned Muhammad’s post and called for the NAACP to remove him from his leadership position.
“This vile behavior from a civic leader is incredibly dangerous for Jewish communities across the world,” wrote Interim Director Laura Frank.
Philadelphia Rabbi Linda Holtzman said the image makes her nauseated for its clear depiction of an anti-Semitic trope. However, she said the post, whether knowingly anti-Semitic or not, speaks to the need for more dialogue between the Black and Jewish communities.
“What I see in it is a plea for greater conversation and greater understanding,” she said. “It certainly sets things back.”
Muhammad’s history includes standing up for Philly’s Black community and defending Louis Farrakhan
Muhammad, 68, has been outspoken on social media about the backlash Jackson, Cannon and Ice Cube faced for their comments or posts, which sparked a national conversation about the intertwined evils of anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism in Western culture.
Jackson, a wide receiver who was drafted by the Eagles in 2008 and rejoined Philly’s NFL team last year, started the current round of upheaval with his anti-Semitic Instagram post over the Fourth of July weekend. During the same timeframe, Jackson had also apparently been watching and listening to Minister Louis Farrakhan.
Muhammad also often praises the work of Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader, who, in addition to being an outspoken critic of white supremacy and prominent civil rights leader, has made derogatory remarks about Jewish people over the years.
Just before the Million Man March, the 1995 demonstration he organized on the National Mall, Farrakhan called Jews “bloodsuckers” for owning businesses and homes in African American neighborhoods, without giving back to the community. Over a decade later, in a 2012 interview with Loyola University in Chicago, Muhammad criticized the Jewish community for their response to Farrakhan’s remarks.
“This is how much they think of themselves, that we’re supposed to [be] prioritizing their concerns before we deal with ours,” he told the interviewer. “What arrogance, man? That’s arrogance!”
Originally from Chicago, Muhammad, who also goes by “Rodney Carpenter,” was born in 1952. His father was a professional football player who later became a social worker; his mother held a Ph.D. in public administration and worked as a model for Ford.
Muhammad first heard Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan speak in a high school gymnasium during college, he said. Inspired by what he heard, he joined the Nation of Islam in 1982. He relocated to Philadelphia, where he became minister of Muslim Mosque No. 12 in North Philly, and helped organize the Delaware Valley contingent of the Million Man March.
In 1997, after a white mob beat a Black woman and her son in Grays Ferry, Muhammad organized a demonstration in the predominantly white neighborhood in an effort to ease racial tensions and urge nonviolence.
He has remained an outspoken advocate against gun violence and the gentrification of majority-Black neighborhoods, and was elected to head the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP in 2014.
‘Free thinking’ or elevating stereotypes?
Holtzman, the rabbi, said she believes Black people have a right to be frustrated with Jewish people.
“In the Jewish world, we will often rest on our laurels and say ‘Oh, we marched with MLK and we were there in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, therefore we’re somehow exempt from needing to do anything more and it shows we’re not racist,” said Holtzman, who is a leader at Tikkun Olam Chavurah, a group founded on Jewish beliefs that pursues social justice causes.
“I understand somebody being angry at a group of people who says, ‘Oh no, I’m completely with you,’ and then don’t act that way, or are not clear in their support unequivocally. I think the Black community is justly angry at the Jewish community.”
She suggested that if Muhammad genuinely was not conscious of the image’s connotations, this was an opportunity to educate him as to why Jews would find it offensive.
Muhammad did acknowledge a general understanding of the meme’s context.
He said he felt that the Black celebrities were being shut down for what he viewed as expressing free-thinking curiosity. He did not ascribe blame to Jewish community, but to “members of it in agencies with other agendas” who he said use anti-Semitism as a label to condemn people.
“They use it as a trick,” he said. “If you’re in Europe and you criticize any of them like that, or if you’re in America, it’s anti-Semitism.”
Friday evening, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia condemned Muhammad’s post.
“This vile behavior from a civic leader is incredibly dangerous for Jewish communities across the world,” wrote Interim Director Laura Frank in a statement.”The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia deplores Mr. Muhammad’s actions, and calls on the NAACP to remove him from his position immediately.”
Billy Penn and WHYY have reached out to the NAACP’s national office for comment.
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