As the Nation of Islam faced public and private pressure to moderate its rhetoric in the mid-1990s, Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders voted against a congressional measure condemning a series of virulent anti-Semitic statements by a leading member of the group.
In 1994, Sanders was one of a small minority of congressmen who declined to back a resolution condemning the remarks by Khalid Abdul Muhammad, a black nationalist and New Black Panther Party member, who became a lightning rod for criticism in the 1990s due to his repeated public displays of anti-Semitism. The remarks, delivered at New Jersey's Kean College in 1993, drew the condemnation of African-American leader Jesse Jackson, who called them "racist, anti-Semitic, divisive, untrue, and chilling," and ultimately forced Farrakhan to expel Muhammad from the Nation of Islam.
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to censure Muhammad for the speech, in which he referred to Jews as "bloodsuckers" and the pope as a "cracker." Sanders was one of just 31 lawmakers who opposed the measure condemning Muhammad. Sanders, who then represented Vermont's at-large congressional district, argued that the resolution would do little to combat anti-Semitism among black nationalist leaders like Farrakhan and Muhammad and, in fact, might help to feed it.
Anti-Semitism among black leaders like Muhammad is the result of joblessness and homelessness in underprivileged communities, Sanders contended. "I think the most important point that I would make, however, is that if we are concerned, as we must be, as to why that type of movement is gaining a foothold in the United States, we should ask some questions as to why people respond to that type of garbage and what we might do about it," Sanders said. "If we want to defeat the Nation of Islam and bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism, then most important, let us make the U.S. Congress begin to address the real problems facing the people in those communities."
He continued, "My point is that in so many communities of America today, there is such hopelessness. There is such despair that people are responding to the worst kind of nonsense." The Sanders campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
Sanders's refusal to back the measure has come under renewed scrutiny as he runs to become the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nominee. For years, Sanders has opposed measures backed by the pro-Israel community and has come under fire for hiring staffers who have used anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Sanders campaign dismissed an aide in December, for example, following a Washington Free Beacon report detailing tweets that included boasts such as, "I got a black mans body, white mans power, [J]ew man money, and an [A]sian man life span..lol."
Sanders's opposition to the 1994 resolution condemning Muhammad's anti-Semitism is likely to become a flashpoint in the Jewish and pro-Israel communities as Sanders moves closer to obtaining his party's nomination.
At the time of the vote, Muhammad was a leading member of Farrakhan's Nation of Islam movement, which is widely known for promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. His remarks at Kean College sparked nationwide condemnation and forced his expulsion from the Nation of Islam.
"Who are the slumlords in the black community? The so-called Jews," Muhammad said in that speech. "Who is it sucking our blood in the black community? A white imposter Arab and a white imposter Jew."
Muhammad also appeared to defend Adolf Hitler's Nazi-era atrocities.
"You see, everybody always talk about Hitler exterminating 6 million Jews," he said. "But don't nobody ever asked what did they do to Hitler? What did they do to them folks? They went in there, in Germany, the way they do everywhere they go, and they supplanted, they usurped, they turned around and a German, in his own country, would almost have to go to a Jew to get money. They had undermined the very fabric of the society."
Muhammad later defended his anti-Semitic speech.
"I called them [Jews] bloodsuckers. I'm not going to change that. Our lessons talk about the bloodsuckers of the poor in the supreme wisdom of the Nation of Islam," Muhammad said in an interview before the congressional vote. "It's that old no-good Jew, that old imposter Jew, that old hooked-nose, bagel-eating, lox-eating, Johnny-come-lately perpetrating a fraud, just crawled out of the caves and hills of Europe, so-called damn Jew."
Despite this rhetoric, as well as Muhammad's refusal to back down, Sanders worked to oppose the congressional measure condemning the remarks. "This is a very difficult resolution for me," Sanders said in a floor speech at the time. "As it happens, virtually my father's entire family was murdered by Hitler when they were living in Poland. I have very strong feelings about anti-Catholicism or gay bashing or bigotry in general."