Call it the anti-Zionist trifecta. On March 14th Norman Finkelstein, DePaul University professor and author of such books as The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History spoke at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. Sponsored by the Pittsburgh Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Mr. Finkelstein was actually the second anti-Israeli speaker the PSC brought onto campus. On February 3, the PSC welcomed Ali Abuminah, founder of the so-called “Electronic Intifada,” a website dedicated to promulgating information on Israel’s “37-year-old occupation” of Palestine. “You have to question what Arab students see in common between someone like Ali Abuminah and Norman Finkelstein,” comments Aaron Weil, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Edward and Rose Berman Hillel Jewish University Center.
But it was the third speaker that caused more than questions to arise from Pittsburgh’s Jewish community. On February 17th Malik Zulu Shabazz, leader of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, came onto the campus ostensibly to talk about “black empowerment in education.” Instead, the firebrand lawyer, rap singer and follower of former Nation of Islam official Khalid Mohammad presented a rambling exegesis on black victimization, the crimes of white America and the perfidy of the Jews.
Declaring his intention to “pin the tail on the racist honkies at Carnegie Mellon University,” Mr. Shabazz—standing before a backdrop of lynching photographs and flanked by several “security guards”--asserted that the city of Pittsburgh was “racist as hell” and that racism at CMU “drips to the core of this university.” Encouraged by shouts from the audience and his entourage, Mr. Shabazz adduced several arguments, among them that Jesus was black, Moses “lifted” the Ten Commandments from the ancient Egyptians, the Anti-Defamation League was established by gangster Meyer Lansky to bring “illegal alcohol, dope and drugs” into America, blacks and not Israeli Jews are true Semites, Israel is a “terrorist” state and Theodore Herzl has “blood on his hands.” Other observations Mr. Shabazz broached were that George Washington raped black women, the word “picnic” originated from “pick a nigger to lynch” and that he himself was not an anti-Semite. He provided no evidence to support his claims.
During the question and answer period, Mr. Shabazz asked Jews in the audience—about a third of which was white—to identify themselves. When several raised their hands, he asked if they believed in Jesus, and when they said no, asked “See, how can we accept you?” According to several eyewitnesses, including Jeffrey Cohan, Director of Communications and Public Affairs for the Pittsburgh branch of United Jewish Federation, the talk took on the attributes of a “hate rally.” Although Mr. Shabazz wore a black suit and fur overcoat, “his guards were dressed in paramilitary jumpsuits with berets and acted like they were carrying out military drills,” Cohan says. “They marched up and down the aisles, chanting and shouting.” A few minutes into the speech, the electricity was cut off, pitching the room into a darkness barely lit by audience members who turned on the lights of their cell phones. As one young CMU faculty member remarked, “It was the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced.”
Listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as one of 40 people on America’s “radical right” to watch, Malik Zulu Shabazz—born Paris Lewis—graduated from Howard University, and went on to work for disgraced Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry. In 1989, the SPLC reports, Mr. Shabazz—then calling himself Zulu King Paris—helped cut a rap album called “Rise, Black Man, Rise.” After joining the Nation of Islam, he was instrumental in organizing that group’s 1995 “Million Man March” in Washington; he then followed his mentor Khalid Abdul Mohammad, who left the Nation of Islam in 1997 to direct the New Black Panther Party, which had formed in 1990. (The NBPP has no affiliations with the original Black Panthers, many of whose surviving members have disavowed the new group.) When Mr. Mohammad died in 2001, Mr. Shabazz became the NBPP’s director. In 2003, he formed another activist group, Black Lawyers for Justice, and even found time to cut another rap album entitled “Amerikkka’s Most Hated.”
Mr. Shabazz came to CMU at the invitation of Spirit, an African-American student organization. Originally, the Black Power leader was to receive $300 for his educational remarks from CMU’s Center for African American Urban Studies, but the center rescinded the offer when they learned more about his identity. The school’s senate also barred Spirit from paying Mr. Shabazz.
If the New Black Panther sought to inspire enthusiasm among African-American students, he seemed to have only limited effect. Several Spirit members approached Jewish students after the event, Mr. Cohan says, to apologize for his comments. Perhaps discomfited by Mr. Shabazz’s controversial arguments, Spirit president Abigail Cyntje did not return several phone calls requesting comment. CMU seemed equally reticent to discuss the issue; inquiries were directed to university spokesman Michael Murphy, who also did not return calls.
Interestingly enough, one person who did wish to speak about this imbroglio was Mr. Shabazz himself. “I am not anti-Jewish. I believe in the revelations of the Torah, and in the teachings of Judaism,” he emphasized in a phone interview. “My battle is against white racism.” As for the NBPP, “We are not a hate group,” Mr. Shabazz stressed. “We are a group that tries to heal and repair black people from hate crimes perpetrated on them.”
The activist lawyer admitted that he had come to speak about the “roles and responsibilities of black students,” but circumstances forced him to deviate somewhat from the topic. “I was walking into a hostile environment,” he explained. “CMU is a white university, and I am a controversial speaker. Even before I showed up I began receiving hostile e-mails. We heard that white students would attempt to pack the room.” He also believes they tried to stop him from speaking by cutting off the lights. Moreover, Mr. Shabazz claims was the promised honorarium was $2,000, not $300. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek,” he said. “When I’m attacked, I fight back.”
Although whites may not have appreciated the insights contained in his speech, “It was received positively through the black community,” Mr. Shabazz claimed. When asked about the Spirit members who later expressed embarrassment over his rhetoric, the New Black Panther scoffed, “There was so much pressure brought against Spirit students, they probably feared that funding for their organization would be cut off it they didn’t apologize. I think I gave a great lecture, one that should be studied by black students in the future.”
“Look,” he concluded, “people call me an anti-Semite and hatemonger, but no one says I’m lying. No one is saying that my comments about Zionism or Theodore Herzl are wrong. If someone thinks I’m teaching the garbage of anti-Semitism, then let themchallenge what I’m saying. And that includes David Horowitz,” he added, referring to the publisher of Frontpage Magazine. “I would like to challenge him to a debate. Let’s discuss these issues face to face, in public.”
While that may or may not happen, one point is clear: Jewish groups like Hillel and the UJF are monitoring the situation carefully. “We’re not talking about a situation like at Columbia or Berkeley and CMU is working with us,” says Mr. Weil. “Still, when three speakers in a matter of weeks come onto campus expressing anti-Israel sentiments, it creates a dangerous situation. We have a moral obligation to stand up against hate.”