Funerals are meant to be dignified occasions to honor the dead and to remember their deeds. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, led a life that certainly deserved honor and memory. The first female performer to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she was also inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, and received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It was therefore distressing – in fact, disgusting – to see the occasion stained by the presence of Louis Farrakhan. Not just present, but in the front row, next to former President Clinton, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton.
We live in age in which terms like racist, sexist, and anti-Semite are bandied about so freely, that they have almost lost their meaning. Watch cable news. Listen to talk radio. Nearly anyone with whom one disagrees is labelled a “hater” in today’s over-heated climate. If one wants to witness true, sincere hatred – not the ersatz version paraded in the media – one need only read the words of Minister Farrakhan.
The primary, but by no means only, object of his vitriol are the Jewish people. Here is a representative sampling of statements (most collected by the Anti-Defamation League).
“Satanic Jews have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.” (May 27, 2018)
“The Jews have control over [the] agencies of government. When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door.” (February 25, 2018)
“Jews were responsible for all of this filth and degenerate behavior that Hollywood is putting out, turning men into women, and women into men.” (February 25, 2018)
“It is now becoming apparent that there were many Israelis and Zionist Jews in key roles in the 9/11 attacks. Israelis had foreknowledge of the attacks …. We know that many Jews received a text message not to come to work on September 11.”(February 25, 2018)
“I believe that for the small numbers of Jewish people in the United States, they exercise a tremendous amount of influence on the affairs of government …. Yes, they exercise extraordinary control, and Black people will never be free in this country until they are free of that kind of control.” (April 14, 1997)
“And you do with me as is written, but remember that I have warned you that Allah will punish you. You are wicked deceivers of the American people. You have sucked their blood…. You are the synagogue of Satan, and you have wrapped your tentacles around the U.S. government, and are sending this nation to hell. But I warn you in the name of Allah, you would be wise to leave me alone. But if you choose to crucify me, know that Allah will crucify you.” (February 25, 1996)
“White people running Mexico are Mexican-Jews.” (February 25, 2018)
Farrakhan sat a few seats away from President Clinton at the funeral. During his administration, Farrakhan believed that Clinton was under Jewish control: “Don’t be afraid of the Zionists,” he said in a speech at Howard University in October 1998.” Don’t be afraid of their power, Mr. Clinton. Stop bowing down.” He called President Obama “the first Jewish President” because of his support for military intervention in Libya in 2011.
Now when it comes to relations between the Black and Jewish communities, neither Jesse Jackson nor Al Sharpton, seated next to Farrakhan, has been a model. Both have tawdry events in their pasts. Jackson famously referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown” during his 1984 presidential campaign. Sharpton exacerbated tensions between the two groups during the bloody Crown Heights riots of 1991. But both men have expressed regret for their past actions. Whatever one may think of their sincerity, at least they have demonstrated a healthy aversion to being charged with anti-Semitism.
Not Farrakhan. He wears the charge like a badge of honor. “The Jews don’t like Farrakhan, so they call me Hitler,” he stated in 1984. “Well, that’s a good name. Hitler was a very great man.”
Of course, Jews are not the only object of his hatred. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that his comments have been “been rabidly anti-LGBT,” and cites this quote from a 1996 Kansas City speech: “God don’t like men coming to men with lust in their hearts like you should go to a female. If you think that the kingdom of God is going to be filled up with that kind of degenerate crap, you’re out of your damn mind.”
Inviting Farrakhan to sit as an honored guest at Aretha Franklin’s funeral was an insult to the memory of a performer who spent a career respecting and collaborating with Jewish artists. Her signature anthem, “RESPECT,” was originally written by Otis Redding to be performed as a man’s song. Jewish producer Jerry Wexler worked with Franklin to transform it into a powerful feminist hymn. Franklin and Wexler went on to record three more albums together, including seven top 10 hits. Through Wexler, Franklin met and created hits with a number of other Jewish songwriters, including Burt Bacharach (“I Say a Little Prayer”), Carole King and Gerry Goffin (“Natural Woman”), and the trio of Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller and Phil Spector (“Spanish Harlem”).
Racism and anti-Semitism were foreign concepts to the Queen of Soul. She told Jet Magazine early in her career: “It’s not cool to be Jewish, or Negro, or Italian. It’s just cool to be alive, to be around.”
We may never know what machinations led to Farrakhan’s place of prominence at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Worse, with the rise of identity politics in the United States, criticism of his presence at the event may lead many African-Americans to rally around him, thereby boosting his popularity. We’ve seen the same phenomenon with President Trump, whose base seems to grow ever more tightly bound and loyal to him, the more criticism he faces.
Speaking of the President, at the same time Aretha Franklin’s funeral was occurring, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama were speaking at the funeral of their erstwhile rival Senator John McCain. President Trump did not attend because the family had made it clear that he was not welcome.
Sadly, no one involved with Aretha Franklin’s funeral saw fit to send the same message to Louis Farrakhan.