Do the Right Thing

In the tense age of Farrakhan, Laurence Thomas is a black Jew who’s taken on the tricky task of comparing the Holocaust and Slavery

Laurence Thomas tells a story. Two decades ago, as a graduate student in Pittsburgh, he was preparing to leave town for the summer and wanted to sublet his apartment. One potential renter spoke on the phone in a manner that made it possible to identify him as black. Thomas does not have such an accent. The caller told him the date that he would need to move in, which happened to be a few days before Thomas himself was leaving. “No, you can’t move in on that date,” the young philosopher told him. The caller’s voice, Thomas recalls today, took on a sudden tone of desperation. “Please, don’t discriminate against me,’ he said. I told him I wasn’t discriminating against him, that I just wasn’t going to be out by then. Anyway, I was black too.”

Today, American blacks are arguably even more sensitive about their status. With Jews their relations are particularly tense. It might be violent friction between Hasidim in Crown Heights and their black neighbors or repeated allegations by the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan and his aides that Jews had controlled the slave trade and are bloodsuckers of the black nation” or, as Farrakhan told a TV interviewer recently, that the holocaust to black people” was 100 times worse than the a Holocaust of the Jews.” Not the propitious time to be, as is Laurence Thomas, black and Jewish.

“You’ll know me because I look like Bill Cosby,” he said when we arranged to meet for the first time (he was in Israel last summer). Thomas, 44, a professor of philosophy, political science and Jewish studies at Syracuse University, is friendly and loquacious, if not a little weird. He’s the type of person who, calling from America, gets your machine and leaves a message that ends with words “Do the right thing the right way with the right people. Flourish.” Then on the tail of that advice comes an endearing second message, explaining that it was just a quote from Aristotle, and not intended as any kind of personal admonishment. Talking recently by telephone from Paris, where Thomas visits frequently, he explained his reluctance to be fit into any mold.

“If you said, name five American blacks who have an international reputation in the social science or humanities, all of those named would be working in the ‘black experience.” I don’t want to do only the black thing.”

But in his latest work, Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust (Temple University Press; 211pp,; $44.95, cloth; $18.95, paper), Thomas has not only written about the black experience, he has taken on, indirectly, the very delicate subject of black-Jewish relations.

He says his purpose is not to make “invidious comparisons,” to determine which of the two acts of oppression caused more suffering. Rather, he writes, “Our understanding of evil itself is deepened by looking at both without surreptitiously attempting to show that one was worse than the other.”

First, Thomas looks at the nature of evil, attempting to make sense of it without recourse
to the view that human beings are naturally evil.” Next, he differentiates between the two “institutions,” beginning with the different ways in which slaveholders and the Nazis regarded their victims. Boiled down, white slaveholders saw blacks as “moral simpletons,” whereas the Germans saw Jews as “irredeemably evil.” Moral simpletons may not be completely human, but they’re not evil and they don’t need to be eradicated. The goal of the Holocaust was to efface all Jews from the earth.

The Holocaust was carried out in secret. The whole state apparatus may have been a party to the ongoing genocide, but it was forbidden to openly discuss it. Slavery was anything but a secret. No one was required to hold slaves, whereas anyone living under the Nazi yoke risked death if he or she refused to carry out a state order to participate in the destruction of the Jews.

Lastly, Thomas looks at the effects of the two experiences on their victims, trying to understand why Jews having closely escaped annihilation have thrived in the U.S. and elsewhere, whereas blacks are, collectively, so frustrated. This is the section of his book that is most likely to ruffle feathers.

Slavery, he argues, caused “natal alienation” among blacks, severing them from their “historical-cultural traditions.” In fact, he writes, most blacks “adopted the God of their oppressor,” that is, became Christians. Unlike blacks, Jews were able to retain their “narrative,” which “fixes points of historical significance” and ennobling rituals.” Jewish tradition was left intact, even as one-third of the Jews were annihilated.

Once, common histories of suffering served to bind Jews and blacks in America. Today, there is largely bitterness and recrimination. Asked what went wrong. Thomas refers to the “dysfunctionality” of black Americans today. The reaction of the apartment-hunter, who automatically assumed he was being turned down because of his color, is an example of this.

“I assume that it was very adaptive for blacks to rely on their emotions during slavery and the Jim Crow period. But around the time of Brown Vs. Board of Education this became maladaptive. And with the wide blanket of racism in America, this tendency has been transmitted through the generations.”

Thomas elaborates: “Look at the case of the so called welfare mother. People say ‘role model, role model, she’s lacking a role model.” But, if I give you $110 and you spend $109 on alcohol, you don’t have to be an Einstein to know that you won’t have money left for food. You don’t need a role model to teach you this. The case is that people in the black community are behaving in a manifestly irrational manner.”

But why are blacks so enraged at Jews?

“Well, there’s the growing economic disparity. And the tension caused by opposition of many Jews to Affirmative action. And we often attack the people closest to us. Think of the Jews as having replaced the slave owners for blacks in terms of dependence, whether it was as employers, landlords, teachers. It was a Freudian type of displacement.” Later, Thomas has a moment of insight: This displacement could explain Farrakhan’s absurd claim that Jews made up three-quarters of all slave owners.” Laurence Thomas was born in 1949 in Baltimore. His father, an auto mechanic died when Laurence was 14: his mother was dead of cancer two years later. Thereafter he was on his own.

Thomas is vague in discussing his religious heritage. His middle-class family had strong connections to Judaism; they certainly didn’t see themselves as Christians. “We all used to gather once a week to discuss the Old Testament. And my parents sent me to predominantly Jewish schools.” His many stories point to someone in whom a Jewish seed was planted early, and took root. “I’m a Jew who happens to be black and I’ve got a complicated story. That probably doesn’t distinguish me from about 50 percent of the Jews I’ve been lucky enough,” he says “to rise above the complexity of my life and claim who I am.”

Today, Thomas, who is unmarried, is in every way a Jew. In Syracuse, he regularly attends an Orthodox synagogue, where he’s been known to offer a Tisha Be’av talk more than once. And is he accepted?

“These days, any black who’s dumb enough to say he’s Jewish, you ought to take seriously.”

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