Like the Unsinkable Molly Brown, Angela Davis — the hyper-controversial icon of the extreme left of the late 1960s and early 1970s — periodically resurfaces at the center of 21st century African-American and Jewish political disputes.
Today, the controversy centers around the decision of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to withdraw a civil rights award that was scheduled to be given to Davis. History is repeating itself in Birmingham, where the same sort of controversy about honoring Davis erupted in 2015.
In an op-ed in The Forward, Rabbi Mike Rothman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Massachusetts, transfigures Davis into a martyr-saint who almost overshadows Rosa Parks. According to Rabbi Rothman, Davis is the victim of a “Jewish Power” conspiracy, somehow headed by “mainstream Jewish civil rights organizations” opposed to the BDS movement.
Angela Davis — born in 1944 in Alabama like Rosa Parks — grew up under the dark shadow of Jim Crow. She escaped to the North as a teenager, was educated at New York’s Little Red School House, and then at Brandeis with a scholarship. She traveled to Europe, where she came under the influence of celebrated Frankfurt School Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse, and returned to the US, where she was closely associated with the communist historian Herbert Aptheker (whose polemical scholarship on the history of African-American and Jewish relations I still much admire) and his daughter, Bettina Aptheker.
Davis exploded into prominence in the early 1970s when, as a UCLA professor, her support for the violent Black Panther Movement and the imprisoned Soledad Brothers, including Jonathan Jackson, turned tragic. A courtroom escape attempt resulted in the kidnapping and death of a judge. Davis ended up on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List and, after a period in hiding, turned herself in for pre-trial imprisonment; she was eventually acquitted by an all-white jury for alleged involvement in the courtroom bloodbath.
But Davis has never rethought her support of the Black Panthers’ violent gospel, or her endorsement of hard-line communist regimes from Cuba to East Germany and North Vietnam. She enthusiastically embraced the UN’s 2001 Durban “Anti-Racism Conference” that turned into an anti-Israel and anti-US hate fest, and today is a fan of Palestinian terrorists Marwan Barghouti and Rasmea Odeh.
As a UC Santa Cruz professor, she developed a lecture, entitled “From Ferguson To Palestine,” that encapsulates her anti-Israel take on the Black Lives Matter Movement. Though Angela Davis has lived long enough to have been a contemporary of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., she chose to walk instead with the Black Panthers.
I do not believe that Angela Davis ever was, or is today, an antisemite, at least in her own mind. She is an ideologue, blinded by her dogmatic faith in the hateful and anti-Israel Black Power Movement.
I am appalled by the seeming amnesia of The Forward to the warning published in its own pages a few years ago by distinguished civil liberties and civil rights scholar Jerold S. Auerbach to the dangers posed by the embrace of Davis’ delusional radical thought.
Angela Davis is part of 20th century history. She should be studied, but not resurrected as a political heroine and guru for today’s young.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Africans, African Americans, and Jews (Africa World Press. 2015).
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