Kanye West is not from the hood. The son of an English professor at Chicago State University, he struggled to be taken seriously as a rapper until he realized that his middle-class background was an asset, not a liability. The gangster rap of the 1980s and ’90s, much of it play-acted by middle-class blacks anyway, had a comparatively limited appeal. West, who now goes by the name Ye, took hip-hop to new heights by offering “luxury rap, the Hermès of verses,” as he put it in a 2011 number, “sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.” It turned out to be a recipe for 21st-century superstardom. The occasional emotional outburst didn’t hurt either. Since his emergence in 2004, Kanye has won 21 Grammy Awards and become a billionaire, one of the wealthiest black people in America.
West also spent all October and early November waging a war of words against the Jews. The unusual thing about his meltdown isn’t that a major black public figure decided to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” as he tweeted. Nor is it that a black anti-Semite was raised middle-class and is now rich, rather than poor. What’s unusual is that black leaders, intellectuals, and masses haven’t rallied to his defense with excuses and recriminations.
The naive view is that the refusal to defend West marks a sea shift in black attitudes toward Jews, transcending the impulse to defend the indefensible just because it was done by a fellow African American. The cynical view is that if West hadn’t first angered black people with his comment that slavery was “a choice,” and betrayed black leaders with his decision to put on the MAGA cap, the reaction would have been entirely different.
West’s accusations are as follows. Record labels managed by Jews have screwed him. “Jewish people have owned the black voice.” George Soros controls the world silently. “If Rahm is sitting next to Obama, or Jared is sitting next to Trump, there is a Jewish person right there controlling the country.” Abortion is a holocaust against black people, and blacks are “programmed” to get abortions by the Jewish media. Jews first came into money as divorce lawyers, and they broke up his family. They took his kids away. The “Jewish Zionists” told his Christian ex-wife Kim Kardashian to start behaving immorally. He compared himself to a 14-year-old girl who has been raped for years and then says, as a result, that she hates all men. He said he can’t be an anti-Semite because blacks are Jews. He admires Louis Farrakhan. A Jewish doctor lied by diagnosing him with bipolar disorder. He has been off medication for two years.
In other words, Kanye West has lost his mind. But that doesn’t explain enough. If West had blamed the Iroquois for his woes, that would be unhinged. But he didn’t. He blamed the Jews, and that’s no accident of mental illness. West found a powerful political explanation for his experience, one that already has a pedigree in the black community—anti-Semitism.
Look at his accusations again:
Reference to Jewish exploitation is de rigueur in writings about blacks and Jews. Kanye blames record labels; historically, the Jewish villain was a local landlord or shopkeeper. “It is Jews who control the economy of Harlem and use it for themselves and for the benefit of Israel,” said Malcom X. One of the reasons, however, there have been many Jewish-owned buildings and stores in black areas, Nathan Glazer once pointed out, is that these were formerly Jewish areas. Blacks chose to move there in large part because they knew they would be safe in Jewish neighborhoods, whereas other white communities would use deadly violence to drive them out. Landlords and merchants have never been popular, but Jewish ones were the least of blacks’ problems, and they knew it.
That Jews own and distort the black voice, or colonize the black mind, was a complaint of Marcus Garvey, the black nationalist leader, when he stormed out of the NAACP offices in 1917. Harold Cruse’s 1967 book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, declared a modern classic by the New York Review of Books, decries “the great brainwashing of Negro radical intellectuals” via “Jewish-Marxist nationalism.” In each case, Jews were scapegoated for the failure of other blacks to adopt whatever solution the anti-Semite was proposing.
Leaders of the African American Teachers Association warned during New York’s 1968 Ocean Hill–Brownsville schools crisis of a “mental genocide” of black kids by Jewish teachers. Even the mushy investigation officially carried out by the city conceded that anti-Semitism during the conflict was “open, undisguised, nearly physical in its intensity,” yet black leaders dodged. “If a black leader is to be responsive to the needs of his people, he cannot be a Jewish leader,” said Floyd McKissick, leader of the Congress of Racial Equality.
That Jewish advisers or financiers have Gentile political leaders wrapped around their fingers is a classic going back millennia. The mere presence of a Jew in a senior advisory political position is prima facie evidence of deviousness and manipulation. Any misdeeds would only be “signs,” as Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. once put it, in analyzing Nation of Islam propaganda, “of an essential [Jewish] nature that is evil.”
Emphasis on genocide and rape was a mainstay of Black Power rhetoric in the 1960s and ’70s, with wild accusations against teachers’-union leader Albert Shanker, “Zionists,” and sometimes both at the same time. The crimes Jews are said to commit are demonic; note West’s invocation of child rape. In October, the basketball player Kyrie Irving promoted a movie that accuses Jews of Satan-worship. In these cases, Jews are not so much dehumanized as rendered anti-human, an enemy of all.
That West can’t be an anti-Semite because he is a Semite is an adaptation of an old, disingenuous Arab claim. The preachment of many of the sects called the Black Hebrew Israelites is that racist Jews have been suppressing the truth of black Jewishness, or even that blacks are the real Jews, leaving the fake ones as devilish imposters.
Even West’s desperate accusation against his psychiatrist is hardly novel. On February 4, 1961, the Amsterdam News, New York’s major black paper, published an article, headlined “They Let Them Die,” on how Jewish doctors went to Harlem Hospital to “pick out a number of Negro patients whom they carried off to Mt. Sinai for experimentation.” In reality, Harlem Hospital was over capacity and so Mt. Sinai agreed to take on surplus cases. But writers, editors, and many readers were only too ready to receive news of Jewish Mengele-ism.
These people weren’t simply crazy. They may not have been crazy at all. Neither were the black student groups at Harvard, Columbia, and many other colleges who invited Farrakhan representatives to speak in the 1980s and ’90s. Now, as then, anti-Semitism has a function: It translates traditional and retrograde attitudes into a political interpretation with potential for radical social action.
So it was in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where local preachers laid the groundwork and served as apologists for the deadly 1991 riots. For three days, black rioters proclaiming themselves the second coming of Hitler beat up any Jew they could find. In this magazine in November 1979, Dorothy Rabinowitz foresaw the violence, noting that in Crown Heights, “public expression of anti-Semitic sentiment, as a means of conveying political antagonism, seems now to have become normal.” When I spoke to one of the rabble-rousing black reverends in 2021, he still justified his actions with all kinds of grievances, comparing Chabad to the Ku Klux Klan and substantiating his claims with minutiae about political maneuvering and access to government funding. Decades from now, I expect to hear similar figures use the New York Times’ latest distortion—that Hasidic schools steal funds from poor black children—as a justification for some future attack.
Even after a Jew had been murdered in Crown Heights, with dozens beaten and thousands forced into hiding, “civil-rights leaders” such as Al Sharpton continued to fan the flames and suggest that the Lubavitchers had deserved the pogrom they got. Only days before the riot, Sharpton had said, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.” He said it in defense of Leonard Jeffries, then the chairman of black studies at City College, who was under fire for blaming Jews for the slave trade, among other wild theories. The black New York radio station WLIB and the Amsterdam News and City Sun papers also rallied to Jeffries’s defense. Not one black lawmaker in Albany signed the condemnation of Jeffries.
In reporting on the 30th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots last year for the Wall Street Journal, I spoke to Brooklyn’s Laurie Cumbo, then majority leader of the New York City Council. Cumbo called the riots “the Crown Heights Uprising,” because “‘riots’ give the impression of [having] no basis.”
So I hope you’ll forgive my cynicism about the response to Kanye West. If West hadn’t first raised the ire of black leaders with his friendly treatment of Donald Trump, we would hear now that he’s speaking from a place of pain. We’d hear that anti-Semitism “is for some black folks a defense against antiblack racism on the part of Jews,” as bell hooks, the pioneering black feminist scholar, wrote in 1992. Adapting James Baldwin, apologists would explain that when West said “Jew,” he really meant “white.” But, as Earl Raab pointed out in COMMENTARY in January 1969, “that is an exact and acute description of political anti-Semitism. ‘The enemy’ becomes the Jew, ‘the man’ becomes the Jew,… who stands symbolically for generic evil.”
Anti-Semitism from above, in speeches and tracts, has always proceeded in a dialectic with anti-Semitism from below, with rocks and bricks. Kanye West is nuts, and so is the guy who sucker punches a Hasid in Brooklyn. They hear the same noise—and each other.
West has found himself with few elite allies today, but as the writer Hussein Aboubakr Mansour points out, his analysis of American life has become hegemonic in refined circles. Think about it. There’s a structure that controls everything in America but is “mystified and hidden from critique.” The structure, formed by actions over many years by disparate individuals in positions of power, manipulates society, rigging the game. Instead of “Jewish power,” however, the structure is called “white supremacy.” Critical race theorists speak of white universities, white corporations, and white media, with “white” signifying a corrupt essence and hidden hand.
Mansour calls this “a German way of thinking.” West uses it, and his focus on Jews allows him to make black grievances coterminous with white grievances, rather than putting them at odds. “Who you think created cancel culture?” West tweeted, along with “I’m starting to think anti Semitic means n—r.” Anti-Semitism makes for a “wider tent” than critical race theory, Mansour writes, allowing both blacks and whites to claim victimhood.
Dropped by CAA, Gap, Adidas, and Balenciaga in a matter of days, Kanye West, too, can be portrayed as a victim of Jewish aggression. Jesse Jackson tried this during his 1984 presidential campaign; after pointedly refusing to repudiate Farrakhan for praising Hitler, and suffering politically for it, Jackson claimed that the Jews were persecuting him, and then he continued using Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam bodyguards.
It’s the old complaint: This animal is very wicked, just see what happens if you kick it. It is the essence of the distressingly common obfuscation that the “Jewish response” to Kanye West’s anti-Semitism “proves Kanye’s point.” It’s a clever remark, but flat wrong. Adidas running from bad press doesn’t come close to proving a Jewish media conspiracy to destroy black people, let alone run the world. It proves only that crude and crazy-sounding conspiracies about Jews place their promoters out of bounds in American public life.
To say that Jews have proved Kanye West’s point is merely to copy Kanye’s bigoted pattern from a safer remove. It treats the actions of every Jew as a collective expression of all of Jewry, and it ascribes devilish motives where decent ones are far more plausible: Jews tend to take offense at conspiratorial slanders, knowing well where they can lead.
It is remarkable, as Milton Himmelfarb wrote in COMMENTARY in March 1969, that “in the black rhetoric the Negro seems to have only two external enemies in the United States, whites generally and Jews specifically.” There was, however, good reason for black cultural isolationists to fixate on Jews, rather than, say, Italians or Poles. A verbal stab at the Jews, blacks’ best allies by any metric, is sure to accomplish two things. First, it elicits a hurt, furious reaction from a bevy of Jewish organizations, drawing media attention. Second, it places black integrationists in a bind: Either they condemn their fellow black and lose some credibility with the black street, or they defend a black anti-Semite and precipitate a break with their Jewish allies.
As Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it in 1992, “the new anti-Semitism arises not in spite of the black-Jewish alliance, but because of that alliance.” Transracial cooperation, and the political and cultural vistas it opens up, is taken as a threat to racial authenticity and radical resistance. For black isolationists, writes Gates, “the original sin of American Jews was their involvement—truly ‘inordinate,’ truly ‘disproportionate’—not in slavery,” as was typically alleged, “but in the front ranks of the civil rights struggle.” Jewish record producers have been disproportionately guilty not of stifling black music, but of championing and popularizing it, inevitably bringing about some of the same difficult compromises of integration.
Any confrontation with black anti-Semitism incurs risk for Jews, but it is necessary. First, black anti-Semitism places traditional Jews in physical danger every day on the streets of Brooklyn and not only there. Many Jews have moved to neighborhoods where they can usually avoid being mugged by such a reality, but some won’t—or can’t afford to. They are owed practical, moral, and political support, including against progressives whose policies release criminal Jew-haters to the streets, where they can attack again.
Second, black anti-Semitism has a unique ability to strike at the heart of liberalism, the older kind that has often made exile in America seem for Jews like a vacation from history. Jewish success and prominence in America—taken by some as a standing insult—have hinged on liberal principles of merit, equality before the law, pluralism, free expression, and individual rights, as opposed to group privileges. Black anti-Semitism, in denying the legitimacy of Jewish success and prominence, is also an assault on those ruling principles. Its deeper meaning is to call the American system a fraud, a manipulation, and a conspiracy.
Kanye West doesn’t need to be told how hurtful his comments are, or how illiberal. He knows and smirks about it in his interviews. He doesn’t need to be taken to Yad Vashem to learn. He doesn’t want to learn—and he smirks about that, too. He needs to be refuted on the facts of American life, his explanations countered by more convincing explanations, his ideas opposed with better ideas. While Kanye West’s ravings make an implicit bid for a transracial politics of anti-Semitism, a competing politics, one that is pro-pluralist and anti-racialist, is far more persuasive to the great mass of Americans. How better to help America than for Jews to make that case?
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