One of the most unfortunate elements of the Breitbart organization’s attempt to smear President Obama on the basis of his support, as a law student, for professor Derrick Bell has been the claim that Bell was somehow antisemitic. The claim rests on “Space Traders,” a 1993 short story Bell wrote, a sci-fi parable that sketches an encounter between the United States and mysterious space aliens who offer the country unimaginable wealth in exchange for the abduction of the nation’s black population.
The Breitbart folks quote from a review of a book critical of Bell which includes a gloss on the Space Traders story. Here’s the relevant portion:
“Jews condemn the trade as genocidal and organize the Anne Frank Committee to try to stop it. Empathy from another group that has suffered oppression? Not according to Bell. Instead, Jews worry that ‘in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats.’ … The story is … a poke in the eye of American Jews, particularly those who risked life and limb by actively participating in the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. Bell clearly implies that this was done out of tawdry self-interest. Perhaps most galling is Bell’s insensitivity in making the symbol of Jewish hypocrisy the little girl who perished in the Holocaust — as close to a saint as Jews have. A Jewish professor who invoked the name of Rosa Parks so derisively would be bitterly condemned — and rightly so.”
This passage is the source of numerous criticisms of Bell, including a viral claim on Twitter that he “publicly mocked Anne Frank.” But it’s grounded in a fundamental misreading of Bell’s story.
In Space Traders, American Jews are among the leading opponents to the plan to trade away the country’s black population. Bell quotes a fictional rabbi as saying that people of faith
“Simply cannot stand by and allow America’s version of the Final Solution to its race problem to be carried out without our strong protest and committed opposition. Already … a secret Anne Frank Committee has formed, and its hundreds of members have begun to locate hiding places in out of the way sites across this great country. Blacks by the thousands can be hidden for years if necessary until the nation returns to its senses. We vow this action because we recognize the fateful parallel between the plight of the blacks in this country and the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany. Holocaust scholars agree that the Final Solution in Germany would not have been possible without the pervasive presence and the uninterrupted tradition of anti-Semitism in Germany. We must not let the space Traders be the final solution for blacks in America.”
Bell never suggests that this speech is dishonest or maliciously motivated. He portrays American Jews as flocking to the rabbi’s call, and as suffering legal persecution, economic retaliation, and antisemitic abuse as a result.
But what of Kosinski’s quote, which he says demonstrates that Bell “derisively” regards all of the above as “hypocrisy” and craven self-interest? Well, you can read the relevant passage for yourself:
“A concern of many Jews not contained in their official condemnations of the Trade offer was that, in the absence of blacks, Jews could become the scapegoats for a system so reliant on an identifiable group on whose heads less-well-off whites can discharge their hate and frustrations for societal disabilities about which they are unwilling to confront their leaders. Given the German experience, few Jews argued that ‘it couldn’t happen here.'”
Bell doesn’t describe Jewish concern for blacks as a sham, nor does he characterize their concern about antisemitism as “tawdry self-interest.” He depicts Jewish opponents of the trade as motivated both by sincere empathy for blacks and by legitimate worries about antisemitism.
Derrick Bell was a pessimist. He believed that those who thought the country’s racial woes were in its past were dangerously deluded, and Space Traders was an expression of that perspective. A fair reading of the text makes it absolutely clear that he saw American Jews, like American blacks, as victims of the country’s white supremacist ideology, and that he viewed their fear of becoming targets of bigotry as entirely reasonable. The story is a slavery allegory, but it is a Holocaust allegory as well.
There’s nothing antisemitic in the piece. Nothing at all.
Update | Lots of folks seem to be under the mistaken impression that Bell himself called Anne Frank “the symbol of Jewish hypocrisy.” As the quotes above make clear, Bell never used that phrase in any context. The term comes from Alex Kosinski’s review, in which it appears as Kozinski’s gloss on Bell’s writing.
Second Update | Now it’s being argued in multiple places that Bell wrote that “Jews would sell blacks as slaves.” This is, of course, pretty much the opposite of Bell’s position, even in the most uncharitable reading of his work.