This past spring, Trayon White Sr., a Washington, DC city councilmember, sparked an outcry by blaming a late season snowfall on the Rothschilds, the famous Jewish banking dynasty, who, he explained, control “the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities.” A few weeks later, at a rally held to support White on the steps of city hall, an even less familiar anti-Semitic trope was spoken into a megaphone. “What is the fake Jew that calls themselves Jews, the ADL, the JDL?” asked Abdul Khadir Muhammad, a representative for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. “Elissa Silverman,” he continued, referring to a DC at-large councilmember who is Jewish, “talking about Brother Farrakhan can’t come into DC no more. That will never happen. You got your nerve to say Farrakhan can’t come back to DC. What nerve are you, you fake Jew?”
“Fake Jews” has a long history within anti-Semitic conspiracy thinking, and it should come as no surprise that the term was uttered by a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI). The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) designates the NOI as a hate group, citing its “theology of innate black superiority over whites and the deeply racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT rhetoric of its leaders.” Yet the group’s legacy is complicated; it also has a long history of service work in poor black communities, and its adherents sometimes turn a blind eye to the bigotry of its leaders, says Dawn-Marie Gibson, an expert on the NOI at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The group’s controversial head, Louis Farrakhan, has used variations of “fake Jew” on several occasions over the years. “You are not real Jews, those of you that are not real Jews,” Farrakhan said in a 1996 speech. “You are the synagogue of Satan, and you have wrapped your tentacles around the U.S. government, and you are deceiving and sending this nation to hell.” The term “synagogue of Satan,” and the notion of people making false claims to Judaism, is drawn from the New Testament, says Aryeh Tuchman, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. In the Book of Revelation, John the Apostle has a prophetic vision in which Jesus speaks to him of those who claim to be righteous: “I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie; behold, I will make them to come and worship before thy feet, and to know that I have loved thee.”
When Farrakhan speaks of “fake Jews,” Tuchman thinks he may be speaking theologically, since he often mentions it alongside the “synagogue of Satan.” More specifically, Gibson believes Farrakhan uses “fake Jews” to describe people “claiming to be Jewish and following the faith, but engaging in actions which are contrary to what they should be doing as religious actors.” Gibson adds that Farrakhan also frequently uses the term “dirty religion” to describe evil people who claim to act in the name of their faith. “He has used ‘dirty religion’ not only to refer to Judaism,” she says, “but to refer to Christianity and Nation of Islam as well.”
But it’s also possible Farrakhan is contrasting “fake Jews” with “true Jews”; according to the SPLC, he has argued “that the ‘true’ Jews were black North Africans.” In 2010, Farrakhan gave a lecture titled “Who Are the Real Children of Israel?” Citing the biblical prophecy that Abraham’s children would be lost in a strange land, Farrakhan suggested that this actually describes black Americans: “Could it be that we are the people of promise?” he asked, according to a newspaper account of the speech. “Could it be that we are the people that should be expecting the visitation of God?” This may be a warped reference to movements such as the Hebrew Israelites, which date back to the end of American slavery. Adherents believe that black Americans are descended from the ancient Israelites, finding parallels between the biblical story and black Americans’ struggle for equality. Importantly, most of these groups are not anti-Semitic.
Throughout history, the idea that Jews are somehow false has popped up in other contexts. One such theory is the Khazar hypothesis, which argues that today’s Jews are not descended from the Jews of antiquity, but from the Khazars, a Central Asian population who may have converted to Judaism in the 8th century. The story of the Khazars’ conversion began as a legitimate line of inquiry, but over time, anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists have latched onto it. “If you have an ideological ax to grind, or you have some sort of agenda,” Tuchman says, “this legend can be incorporated into your system of beliefs.”
Whichever theory, or combination of theories, Farrakhan is heir to, his hatred is unrelated, Tuchman says. “Once he has that ideological approach, he just looks for any ammunition he can find.” And thankfully, he adds, terms such as “fake Jews” and “dirty religion” don’t have much influence beyond extremist circles. Most often, those who are already anti-Semitic use them to confirm their existing biases.
Still, recent use of the term “fake Jews” has not been limited to Washington, DC. In April, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a man attacked a Jewish man walking home from services, while yelling: “You fake Jews, who are you saying hello to? You’re fake Jews and you stole all my money and robbed me, and stole my mortgage and my house. I want to kill you!” In May, in the same neighborhood, a different man was arrested for shouting threats and throwing rocks at Jews walking by. In a video taken as he’s being arrested, the man yells, “You’re not Jewish!”
Around the same time, also in Crown Heights, Laura Adkins, deputy opinion editor of The Forward, and several Jewish friends were confronted with similar slurs on their way back from synagogue. “I wouldn’t have really thought anything of it—except for that mention of the phrase ‘fake Jews,’” she says. She was familiar with the term: After tweeting about Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, she had noticed several Nation of Islam supporters using it in their replies. “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the ‘fake Jews’ comment, but it’s the first time I’ve heard it outside of NOI’s rhetoric,” she tweeted soon after. “I remain unsettled at the evidence, albeit anecdotal, that Farrakhan’s ugly rhetoric is spreading.”—Ellen Wexler