Farrakhans Jewish biographer defends his approach

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Arthur Magida is taking a lot of heat these days.

Some have called him an apologist for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is the subject of Magida's new biography, "Prophet of Rage: A Life of Louis Farrakhan and His Nation."

Others have wondered whether Magida was seduced by Farrakhan's charm.

The national Jewish newspaper Forward ran a front-page story criticizing the book for not sufficiently representing the Jewish perspective. The reporter charged that Magida tried to downplay his Jewish identity while writing the book.

Magida is not surprised by such suggestions. But he does take umbrage at them.

"I wanted to write this book as a historian, as a biographer, as a journalist and not as a Jew," he says in an interview at the Jewish Bulletin. "The intention of the book was never to portray Farrakhan through a Jewish prism. It was always to give a sober, balanced, hopefully objective account of who Louis Farrakhan is."

Who Louis Farrakhan is depends on whom you ask. Many African Americans view him as a charismatic and inspiring leader. Many Jews call him a vicious anti-Semite. Most agree he is among the most controversial religious figures in America today.

Magida, formerly senior editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times and now editorial director of Jewish Lights Publishing, found Farrakhan to be an "immensely charming and passionate" man, one who can weave words with the dual skills of a preacher and a poet.

While Magida admires the minister's talents, he doesn't withhold criticism. But he says he wrote this book on the premise that the last thing America wants or needs is another Jewish-backed attack on the Nation of Islam leader.

"What could be more predictable, quite frankly, than a Jew issuing yet another spree against Louis Farrakhan?" he asks. "Dog bites man — big deal."

That's not to say Magida's book ignores Farrakhan's contentious relationship with the Jewish community. While exploring various aspects of Farrakhan's life and history, Magida traces his subject's anti-Semitic roots far back in American history, pointing to slaves who, he believes, absorbed their Christian owners' attitudes toward Jews.

Born in Boston in 1933, Farrakhan was named Louis Eugene Walcott. Magida believes the minister's Depression-era childhood and his mother's employment in the service of Jewish families may have sparked his early gripes against Jews. But in the 1980s and 1990s, these complaints went beyond economics to the level of theology — a move that gave the minister a wider audience and alienated him from both blacks and whites.

"Prophet of Rage" grew out of an interview conducted with Farrakhan in 1993, while Magida was with the Baltimore Jewish Times. Following this and subsequent interviews — with Farrakhan, with present and former Nation of Islam members, with Farrakhan's childhood friends and with other black and Jewish leaders — Magida believes the minister fully subscribes to his own brand of theology.

Farrakhan "does truly believe there is a Jewish conspiracy, that Jews have exploited blacks and continue to exploit blacks, that Jews were involved in the civil rights movement purely for their own benefit," says Magida, who stresses that the minister always treated him with respect.

Farrakhan has been challenged on those points by such media figures as Barbara Walters of "20/20" and Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes." Magida raises those challenges as well, devoting space in his book to probing Farrakhan's claims of Jewish involvement in the slave trade.

Magida cites "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," a 334-page document comprising writings by Jewish scholars that was published by the Nation of Islam. It concludes that Jews "used kidnapped black Africans disproportionately more than any other ethnic or religious group in New World history."

Magida's own scholarly research shows that Jews' role in slavery was minuscule. Still, the author acknowledges that Jews, like other Americans of their day, did own slaves. Farrakhan, by opening Jews' eyes to a part of our history that has been overlooked, has actually done the Jewish community a "perverse favor," Magida says.

"The true perversity of that favor is that he did it through a total manipulation [of the actual data]," Magida says.

Not surprisingly, Magida found it easier to contradict Farrakhan the historian than Farrakhan the minister. "When he starts issuing divine truths," Magida says, "there's no arguing at all. There we're dealing with faith."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.