Blacks and Jews, Again
“What effective measures will the collective Negro community take against the vicious antisemitism?” Rabbi Everett Gendler shared this question with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, 10 days before King was murdered.
Nearly 55 years later, the actions of two iconic Black figures demand that we ask a version of this question again. Ye, the hip-hop artist and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West, has unleashed a rash of antisemitic tirades, while the Brooklyn Nets basketball superstar Kyrie Irving posted on social media a link to a documentary laden with antisemitic views.
The actions of Ye and Irving bring spent tropes of Jewish control to the surface. Their provocations also compel us to grapple with sometimes conflicting Jewish and Black views of race and privilege and how the suffering of each community shapes their identities and fuels their fight against bigotry. It is painful and a bit embarrassing to admit that African Americans and Jews have, for one reason or another, competed, quarreled, and jostled with each other to gain attention and empathy for our struggles and the injustices we confront.
None of that can blunt an abiding truth: We are, after all, old friends and lovers, sometimes rivals, with all the affection and bitterness such a relationship evokes. Black antisemitism is real; so is Jewish racism, from the horrendous bigotry of white Jews against Black Jews to the profoundly anti-Black statements of David Horowitz, who called Barack Obama “an evil man” and “an anti-American radical.”
But here we are, together, in the same boat, as fierce waves of hate threaten to sink our vessels in the ocean of American opportunity. To shift metaphors, we should remember the ways that our communities have historically passed the baton to one another in the long relay for justice. Until we see antisemitism as a toxic species of the white supremacy that threatens Black security and democracy’s future, none of us are truly safe.
Ye’s vitriol spilled onto social media when he posted a screenshot of texts exchanged with the rap mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs, accusing Diddy of being controlled by Jews. Ye threatened to use Combs “as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” Ye then also posted that when he awakened he was “going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”
Ye’s statements may seem to have come out of nowhere, but they draw from a deeper vein of private belief and barely suppressed sentiment. Ye’s fame and enormous platform connect his newly surfaced prejudice to nameless figures who bow daily at the altar of hatred of the other.
Other anti-Semites see in Ye’s expression a cynical validation of their hateful conspiracies. A few days after one of Ye’s inglorious outbursts, a hate group hung a banner over a Los Angeles overpass that said, “Kanye is right about the Jews.” Ye’s despicable comments offered well-established bigots fresh currency as they poured old racism into West’s new rhetorical wineskins.
Although Irving didn’t directly utter antisemitic sentiments, he endorsed a film that did. The player shared without comment a link to “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” a film rife with antisemitic conspiracy theories, among them that many famous Jews were Satan worshipers and that the Holocaust was a hoax.
When he was confronted with the film’s ugly untruths, Irving claimed he was no bigot and that he sought “to learn from all walks of life and religions.” After Irving was challenged by a reporter, he said he wasn’t promoting the film, but he concluded, “I can post whatever I want.”
Irving’s stubborn refusal to apologize led to an indefinite suspension by the Brooklyn Nets, a belated apology and a meeting with Adam Silver, the commissioner of the N.B.A. After their conversation, Silver said that in over a decade of association with Irving, “I’ve never heard an antisemitic word from him or, frankly, hate directed at any group.” Yet Silver underscored an essential point, “Whether or not he is antisemitic is not relevant to the damage caused by the posting of hateful content.” Part of the damage, which is not discussed enough, is that both men have encouraged those who harbor deep animosity to Jews, glimpsed as Ye cheered Irving on in an Instagram post, “There’s some real ones still here.”
The film Irving posted about referred in part to a Black religious body called the Black Hebrew Israelites, a movement that traces back to the late 1800s and that preaches that Black folk are descended from the ancient Israelites. When Irving in a news conference declared, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from,” suggesting that he agrees with Black people who view themselves as authentic Jews, he ignored how, just as Black people can be anti-Black, Jews can be antisemitic.
King said in response to Rabbi Gendler that Black antisemitism was largely a Northern ghetto experience, driven by the harsh contrast between Jews as the “most consistent and trusted ally in the struggle for justice” and Jews as “the owner of the store around the corner where he pays more for what he gets” and landlords who charge “a color tax.” Still, King condemned “the irrational statements” that grow from such encounters and concluded that “the only answer to this is for all people to condemn injustice wherever it exists.”
No one who has heard the Black Hebrew Israelites on big-city street corners with megaphones in hand can deny the racial trauma they cantankerously amplify nor ignore the Black suffering, from slavery to the present day, from which they desperately seek relief. Neither can we overlook the hateful sentiments and relentless stream of antisemitic rhetoric that fall obscenely from their lips.
Sitting right alongside varieties of Black antisemitism is a redemptive variety of Philo-Semitism that can only be called Jew envy. I have heard such envy in barbershops, pool halls, churches, and clubs across the nation. Black folk often praise Jews — for their unity and, above all, for their ability as a people who comprise less than 2.5 percent of the population to successfully make their way in the world with perceived entrepreneurial success and cerebral accomplishments that many Black folk admire and covet.
Jewish unity is likely more myth than fact; Jews, after all, have competing factions, just as African Americans do. Some are conservative, some liberal, some orthodox, some traditional, some postmodern. Whatever wealth, privilege and influence Jews have built, there is also a history of persecution and the generational trauma carried by the families of Holocaust victims and survivors. And relentless antisemitic attacks have had an impact on all Jews, up to the present day. All Jews, regardless of wealth, are threatened by the vicious antisemitism that has been spread in dangerous networks of white supremacy.
The relation of African Americans to Jews cannot be divorced from the pervasive glow and allure and privilege of whiteness. The fact that most Jews are white-eligible, and African Americans are white-excluded, creates tensions between African Americans and many Jews that have less to do with the cultural conflicts between the groups than with the meaning of Blackness and whiteness in America.
Many Black folks claimed that Ye went unscathed when he made anti-Black statements — stating that slavery was a choice, sporting a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt — but the moment he let loose a flurry of antisemitic screeds, he got the hook and paid a huge economic price.
Those who make such clumsy comparisons are drawing faulty parallels. They are missing a rule of thumb that applies to Latinos, Asians, Indigenous people, Jews and most other groups: If you are inside the community, you can take far more liberties than outsiders can. Black folk can say the N-word, folk who are not Black cannot. Black folk can say things about each other, our culture, our habits and dispositions, our values and visions, our virtues and vices — but those outside of our communities dare not say them.
Saying harsh things about another culture is a dicey undertaking. In fact, white folk and other non-Black people who might have weighed in on Ye’s noxious anti-Blackness may have been discouraged from doing so by the very Black folk who found Ye’s views offensive. There is a dictum we all operate under: I can talk bad about my mother or brother, but you had better not. By that standard, Ye’s anti-Blackness should have been vigorously challenged by Black folk. To be sure, few Black folk are in a position to hold him to account, other than through critical public commentary or the highly problematic channels of “cancel culture.”
When Ye flicked verbal jabs at Jews, though, he was using his considerable visibility to pummel another population that has also endured considerable oppression. He was guilty of the very influence peddling and abuse of power he claimed he had suffered at the hands of Jews.
Ye’s Blackness could not rescue him, especially when he made the specious claim that, after all, he was punching up at the all-powerful and controlling Jews who were attempting to make his life hell. Ye met his match on the battlefield of symbolic politics and racial dispute: The people he attacked had just as much cultural cachet as Black folk do, because they too survived trouble, terror and trauma. His Blackness offered no shield from the undoing he faced for recklessly assaulting another group of people whose suffering had inspired the sorrow songs of his own people more than a century earlier.
Ye, Irving and the rest of us would do well to remember that African Americans and Jews are passengers on the same ship facing the ferocious headwinds of bigotry and hatred. The author and psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon said he learned to be “responsible in my body and soul for the fate reserved for my brother,” understanding that “the antisemite is inevitably a Negrophobe.” That is a lesson we should all learn.
Michael Eric Dyson (@MichaelEDyson) is a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “Entertaining Race: Performing Blackness in America.”
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