Less than a week after the B’nai Israel congregation in St. Petersburg, Florida was forced to evacuate due to a fake bomb threat, members of the local city council adopted a resolution endorsing a working definition of antisemitism and vowing to fight it.
One notable absentee from the vote was John Muhammad, a controversial member of the antisemitic Nation of Islam group, headed by Louis Farrakhan.
Jewish members of the council had objected to the councilman’s presence on the city’s elected body, and had hoped that once elected, they would be able to educate him on the perils of antisemitism.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency quoted the head of Florida’s Holocaust Museum, Michael Igel, as saying that Muhammad’s presence on the council presented an opportunity to, “work with (him) and educate him on the topic of antisemitism.”
During the session, Muhammad asked how Jews are defined as a group, argued against the inclusion of anti-Israel sentiment in the definition, and questioned past accusations of antisemitism against himself and other members of the African-American community – notably former leader of the Nation of Islam Malcolm X, who espoused antisemitic views throughout his life.
“I think you can have a bold working definition of antisemitism while not coddling a Middle Eastern government that has policies of separation and absolute brutality on the Palestinian people,” he told the council.
Muhammad said he believed the definition was “too loose” and that its “subjective nature determining what constitutes hatred towards Jews” could lead to the “suppression of free speech.”
Muhammad also questioned the definition of Jewishness.
“Is it a religion? Is is a culture? Is it a race?” he asked, further questioning whether members of the Black Hebrew movement or Messianic Jews could be considered Jewish.
The Black Hebrews, who have recently received the backing of African-American celebrities including famous rapper Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving, have been known for their antisemitic conspiracy theories and outright antisemitism, while Messianic Jews make a practice of proselytizing Jews – especially ones without a strong connection to their religious and national heritage.
When asked to end the debate on the subject, Muhammad thanked the room and left before taking part in the vote. “During the proceedings I had several questions that were not able to be sufficiently answered by those who were present. Unfortunately my comments went over the time allowed and the question was called before I could conclude. Without having the answers to my questions, or sufficient response to my inquiries, I chose to leave the proceedings and abstain,” he told the JTA in an email statement.
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