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.