Kanye, Kyrie and the root of antisemitism in the Black community, explained

OPINION: Antisemitism in the Black community is as much of a problem as anti-Blackness in the Jewish community. However, fighting the white supremacy of anti-Blackness with the white supremacy of antisemitism is morally untenable. 

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“[The Jew] has absolutely no relevance in this context as a Jew. His only relevance is that he is white and values his color and uses it. He is singled out by Negroes not because he acts differently from other white men, but because he doesn’t.” 

This James Baldwin quote — from his 1967 New York Times article “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White” — presents not only a scathing rebuke, but also a succinct summary of the operating mechanism behind “Black” antisemitism (a term just as fictional and problematic as “Black-on-Black crime”): the American Jewish community’s propensity for erasing and invalidating Jews of color has led to the perception of Jews being just another subset of white people. As racism equals prejudice plus power, Black Americans — who do not hold the power to carry out systemic discrimination — can be prejudiced, but can’t be racist in America. And since Jewishness is largely perceived to be a white identity, the fallacious conclusion is often reached that Black Americans likewise cannot be antisemitic.

However, multiple things can be true at the same time, multiple things can be wrong at the same time and explaining a mechanism does not mean absolving accountability.

The first hurdle is the word itself.

Aiding the misconception that Black people are incapable of perpetuating antisemitism is the fact that the root word of “Semite” gives the false impression that antisemitism is directed against all Semitic people, such as Arabs, Assyrians and Arameans. Additionally confusing is that in modern usage “Semitic” refers to a language group, not a race, and thus “antisemitism” could theoretically be argued as a prejudice against people who speak Semitic languages. Therefore, semantically speaking, one could argue that one is not antisemitic as they have nothing against all Semitic people or Semitic language speakers.

Much like “inner city” or “urban” are obvious but plausibly deniable ways to refer to communities of color, the obfuscation around “antisemitism” is intentional, as it was a term adopted to give a more scientific air to the earlier and more accurate term of Judenhass, or “Jew hatred.” And that is something that Black people are very capable of perpetuating.

“Judenhass” in the Black community is as much of a problem as anti-Blackness in the Jewish community, and those of us who live in the intersection often find ourselves relegated to the role of apologist for either side. However, fighting the white supremacy of anti-Blackness with the white supremacy of antisemitism is morally untenable. 

Is there legitimate commentary to be made about the often disproportionate and racialized vitriol in response to antisemitism from Black Americans in a society that relishes in Black pain and punishment? Most definitely.

However, Kanye West’s rallying cry of “going Death Con 3 on the Jews” has had a very real impact, as evidenced by the banner hung over the Los Angeles freeway declaring “Kanye Is Right About The Jews” — apparently organized by the Goyim Defense League and Goyim TV, a YouTube clone dedicated to antisemitic, white supremacist and neo-Nazi video content. It was evidenced by the actions of Omar Alkattoul, arrested for disseminating an antisemitic manifesto across social media and issuing broad threats against synagogues in the North and Central Jersey Jewish communities. It was evidenced just this past weekend as Christopher Brown and Matthew Mahrer were arrested at Penn Station with various weapons, intending to attack a Manhattan synagogue. 

As a rabbi who had to shepherd their congregation through the tense times and increased police presence in the wake of the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, not only am I very aware of what actions and reactions the words rapper Kanye shared can spur, I’m even less appreciative of Dave Chappelle’s recent “Saturday Night Live” monologue that normalized at least thinking them, if not saying them aloud.

If the general antisemitism spouted by Kanye weren’t enough, Kyrie Irving’s posting of the movie “From Hebrews to Negroes” poured even more gasoline on this fire, as the movie pulled out all the greatest hits of classic “Black antisemitic” tropes.

Are there often fraught relations between the “Black” and “Jewish” communities? Sure. But Holocaust denialism is still insidious.

Were there Jewish slave owners and traders? Observably true. But to take a kernel of truth — such as one-quarter of the American Jewish South being slave owners by 1860 — and spinning it into Jews being the face of slavery or disproportionately involved is intellectually dishonest.

“Black people are the true original Hebrews.”

What do you mean by “Black”? One can find Indians, Australian aborigines, native tribes and Black Americans that are phenotypically the exact same shade as one another. But if you mean “Black” as in African, then no, the ancient Hebrews were not. It’s right there in the name. 

The word “Hebrew” is the Hellenization of the Hebrew word “Ivri,” which means “from the other side” because Abraham — born in Ur in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) — was from the other side of the Euphrates River in relation to where he and his descendants ended up settling, i.e., Israel/Canaan/Palestine.

Are white/Ashkenazi Jews Khazars who have usurped an identity not their own? No, because that contention is just a Black nationalist manifestation of white nationalist replacement theory. Ashkenazi Jews have existed in Europe since the 8th century. Khazars didn’t convert until the middle/end of the 9th century. And even then only the nobility converted. And even that’s moot because the Khazars ceased to exist by 1226.

Even Louis Farrakhan recently emerged from the woodwork to defend Kanye, declaring that the rapper did and said nothing wrong. To me, it recalled Tamika Mallory’s words in her defense of associating with Louis Farrakhan concerning the 2019 Women’s March, replying “I go wherever my people are.” Well, some of your people aren’t just in church or mosque, but in synagogue, in shul and in temple, too.

We live in increasingly polarizing times. And it is only through solidarity not only among our own communities, but in partnership with other communities, that we can survive the insidious forces of white nationalism, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, transphobia and misogyny that are feeling emboldened to rise up against us at this time. However, if we are to attempt to reconnect — or in some cases, create — solidarity between the Black and Jewish communities, it needs to be with fidelity to the truth of what that means today, and what it has meant before, not with a shallow understanding of the present or a lukewarm acceptance of a past that may or may not be true.

However, the first step is acknowledging that too often, the notion of Black/Jewish solidarity or Black/Jewish community relations carries with it two invisible parentheticals. It is speaking of solidarity and community between (white) Jews and non-Jewish Blacks. It excises from the conversation white Jewish/Black Jewish relations. It excises Jewish Black/non-Jewish Black relations from the conversation. And with these two huge puzzle pieces missing, there will never be a full understanding of the picture at all, just, again, a shallow understanding.

Black American Jews hold a unique position as bridge between two communities perceived to be monolithically exclusive, yet more often than not, we’re a convenient mutual punchline of incredulity. A joke that garners from each side a perception of inauthenticity or “confused” identity. Very few Jewish organizations have African-American Jews in their upper ranks, and even fewer — if any — Black organizations have or intentionally seek out Black Jewish voices to join their table. 

We all need to work together to eradicate the hatred, violence and fear through which white supremacy seeks to destroy us all.

MaNishtana is the pen name of Shais Rishon, an African-American Orthodox rabbi, activist, speaker and writer. He has written for Tablet, Kveller, The Forward, Jewcy and Hevria. His current project is “B’Esh Sh’chorah/In Black Fire: A Commentary and Anthology on the Torah” due out in 2022.