Hakeem Jeffries
Hakeem JeffriesREUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz/File Photo

Jewish Democrats are backing Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Republicans are calling on him to explain himself, following a report that the Democratic House minority leader defended Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and an uncle of his who had made antisemitic comments in the 1990s.

The report belies longstanding claims made by Jeffries, a Brooklyn congressman and ally of the pro-Israel lobby, that as a college student at the time, he was only vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding his uncle’s remarks.

Then the chair of the Black Studies Department at the City University of New York, Jeffries’ uncle Leonard Jeffries came under widespread criticism in 1991 for comments in which he suggested there was a Jewish plot to denigrate black people in movies, as well as the involvement of “rich Jews” in the slave trade.

“Russian Jewry had a particular control over the movies, and their financial partners, the Mafia, put together a financial system of destruction of black people,” Leonard Jeffries said at an arts festival that year. As the controversy snowballed he compared Jews to “dogs” and “skunks” and eventually was forced out of his chairmanship in 1995 after a court battle.

In 2013, when he was first elected to Congress, Hakeem Jeffries told the Wall Street Journal that he had only a “vague recollection” of the controversy and that his parents sought to shield him from it. But a CNN report this week found that Jeffries — who was 21 and in college when the controversy began — defended his uncle in a student newspaper and was a board member of a student group that invited his uncle to give a speech on campus. The opinion piece he wrote also defended Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader with a well-documented history of antisemitic statements, and took aim at black conservatives.

“Dr. Leonard Jeffries and Minister Louis Farrakhan have come under intense fire,” Hakeem Jeffries wrote at the time. “Where do you think their interests lie? Dr. Jeffries has challenged the existing white supremist educational system and long standing distortion of history. His reward has been a media lynching complete with character assassinations and inflammatory erroneous accusations.”

Contemporary coverage of Leonard Jeffries’ subsequent speech to the Black Student Union at his nephew’s campus suggests that he doubled down on his attacks on Jews. “It was the Jewish community that put itself in the center of the controversy,” he said, according to a report in the local newspaper. “It’s ironic that members of the Jewish community felt compelled to take a position that is antidemocratic and … pro-Nazi in its viciousness.”

In the wake of the CNN report, the Republican Jewish Coalition called on Hakeem Jeffries to explain his “lies” about having been unaware of the controversy surrounding his uncle.

“Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries owes the Jewish community an explanation as to why he lied and attempted to cover up his defense of these revolting antisemites,” the group’s CEO, Matt Brooks, and national chairman, former Sen. Norm Coleman, said in a statement on Friday.

In a statement to CNN, Hakeem Jeffries’ spokeswoman, Christiana Stephenson, reiterated his repudiation of his uncle’s views but did not address why he had previously claimed to only be vaguely aware of the controversy.

“Leader Jeffries has consistently been clear that he does not share the controversial views espoused by his uncle over 30 years ago,” she said.

The political action committee affiliated with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee endorsed Jeffries in the most recent cycle, and he was highlighted as an example of AIPAC’s claim that it had close allies in both parties, in the face of complaints from some Democrats that the lobby leans Republican. Jeffries is leading a group of new Democratic representatives later this year on a tour of Israel sponsored by an AIPAC affiliate.

AIPAC declined to comment on the CNN revelations, but Jeffries’ allies are defending him, in part by pointing to his pro-Israel record as a lawmaker.

“Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries has been an unwavering partner of the Jewish American community and ally of Israel in Congress,” the Jewish Democratic Council of America said in a statement. “We are grateful for his leadership defending democracy, fighting antisemitism and right-wing extremism, and standing with Israel. His long record in Congress on these issues is beyond reproach and we condemn any assertions to the contrary. We are proud to call him a friend.”

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who is one of the most prominent Jews in Congress as well as a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, also came to Jeffries’ defense.

“As native NYers, Leader @RepJeffries and I became fast, dear friends. I saw how he embodied the Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and gemilut hassadim (giving love and kindness),” she wrote on Twitter. “While others foment antisemitism, Hakeem Jeffries always leads in the face of hate.”