- Recent comments by Kanye West, now known as Ye, echo ancient antisemitic tropes, writes Tal Lavin.
- The comments have attracted criticism — and led to more interviews.
- Lavin is the author of Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacy.
On Sunday, when I logged onto Twitter, the first thing I saw was someone calling me a lampshade made of human skin. Then, a comment saying I’ll be first in line when they get the ovens up and running again. Over on Instagram, where I’d posted a picture of me cuddling a goat, someone commented: “Kanye West was right about you people.”
Over on the opposite coast, I saw that the neo-Nazi group the Goyim Defense League had dropped a banner over the 405 highway in Los Angeles: “Honk if you know Kanye is right about the Jews.” Beside it was a citation of Revelations 3:9. (“Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie.”)
For weeks, Kanye West’s media tour has drawn on a plethora of very old and very lethal antisemitic stereotypes, the kind that sometimes lead to synagogue massacres: It’s the Jewish media, the Jewish record execs, and “certain businessmen” he can’t trust that have malformed his life. All of this has had some predictable consequences — suspension from Twitter and Instagram, stern condemnations from the Anti-Defamation League, canceled collaborations. It’s also led to yet more invitations from media has-beens for West, who now goes by Ye, to continue explaining himself, followed by more coverage of every new antisemitic utterance.
It may be tempting to dismiss Ye’s comments as the blather of a blowhard. Were this the extent of American animus against its tiny Jewish minority, those shrugging their shoulders might be right. But these sentiments are just the tip of a much longer spear. Ye’s comments come at a time of escalating right-wing violence, a delicate tipping point that takes little to tilt into chaos.
When someone with a big platform says the things that have led to mass slaughter of a people within living memory, it gives permission, it turns up the heat on the perpetual simmer of prejudice, and it builds hate’s strength.
The squeal of open hatred
As a Jew in America, I’ve long been aware of a level of weirdness to expect in my interactions with non-Jews. Millions of Americans have never met a Jew – we comprise all of 2% of the population, and tend to congregate in urban centers – and all kinds of muddled odds and ends of a reputation, not to mention outright prejudice and myth, precede us.
I’ve learned to expect that anytime I meet a non-Jew outside the New York metro area, there’s a substantial chance the conversation will enter the boggy ground of things getting weird. “Your people are so good at movies,” said a dinner companion in South Jersey recently; the sources I’ve interviewed who’ve said they’ll pray for my soul.
There have been other encounters less ambiguous. In a grocery store with my boyfriend, who wears a yarmulke, a stranger took offense to an anti-cop slogan on his T-shirt and called him a kike. I hefted a bag of onions in my hand and considered taking a swing, but we made a tactical retreat from the produce section instead.
There’s always a difference, though, between the buzzing thrum of background prejudice and the airhorn squeal of openly expressed hatred, between the dim commentary of strangers and the palpable anger in Ye’s voice as he asserts the Jews are the reason for his myriad dissatisfactions.
If it’s possible to have some innate sense of historical dread, as a trans Jew in America, an invisible tangle of bells are going off in my chest; when things are souring quickly, going wrong and wronger, when internecine acid is filling the air with its sting, it’s a bad time to be a member of the group that’s a convenient eminence grise behind all social ailments.
There’s a high-wire feeling to being a Jew in America, a certain sense of precarity, a sense of existing on borrowed time; I’m a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, and, for the past few years, an avid chronicler of the rabidly antisemitic far right. There’s a sense of teetering that arises – a cliff-edge looming, as an unstable country whose democracy is dwindling and whose economy has hit a patch of doldrums seeks for someone to blame.
If whatever grim alarm going off inside me feels like it matches a certain historic rhythm, that’s because the nature of antisemitism rarely changes, even if its delivery is novel. Ye may have ranted about the Jews on a podcast called “Drink Champs,” but functionally, the essence of their comments differs little from the bile of centuries past.
A grim alarm with a historic rhythm
Antisemitism is one of the oldest features of Western culture – there are documents of pogroms dating back to the year 1095 – and it has abided through shifts in eras and monumental changes in technology by adapting itself to the zeitgeist of any given time.
To the Crusaders of the eleventh century, Jews were the descendants of those who had schemed to slaughter Christ, to be slaughtered in turn in their thousands. To the Bavarian peasants suffering the ravages of bubonic plague three hundred years later, they were well-poisoning plotters whose wroth at good Christians led them to avenge themselves by creating a monstrous disease.
In more modern, secular societies, Jews no longer schemed to poison wells – instead, as faked documents like the tsarist forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion would have it, they schemed to poison the whole world. As industrialized societies became more densely interconnected, it became more plausible, and more convenient, to summon the specter of a pan-global Jewish conspiracy setting in motion all the cruelties of modern life; because Jews were and still are a small and relatively insular people, blaming us for inequity and disease and injustice is an easy sop for the sick at heart, and painless to the powerful.
It’s when these ideas emerge from the shadows into the bright spotlight of mass scrutiny that the high-wire sways, the danger rises.
Ye’s comments in particular echo a very long history of antisemitic tropes — tropes that have left a trail of blood in their wake. The idea of Jewish cabals engineering control of industries — entertainment and music among them — has at least a century’s worth of dust on them, although the notion that these cabals were arranged specifically in order to make Kanye West look bad, a feat he accomplishes readily on his own, is newer.
On “Drink Champs” Ye spit into the mic about the evils of the “Jewish media.” Just over one hundred years ago, Henry Ford published a column in the Dearborn Independent about Jews’ control of the media, asserting that Jews are “out to get” their critics in the media they control. The tight parallel between two American celebrities’ anti-Jewish rants is an example of the static nature of antisemitism – and its ability to sway the masses to violence: Ford’s article was part of a series which became a four-volume antisemitic screed called “The International Jew.” It would go on to inspire Nazi propaganda, and anchor American antisemitism, among the Klan and their legion of modern heirs.
Over the past few years, the social fracturing created by the pandemic has left tens of millions of Americans far more open to the sort of conspiratorial thinking that fuels antisemitism. Indeed, secret plots and scheming cabals have become mainstream rhetoric, a whisker’s width away from openly, as a popular neo-Nazi phrase puts it, “naming the Jew.”
You don’t have to be a genius or a paranoiac to gather that at this moment an increase in public antisemitism doesn’t bode well.
In a time of strife and internecine hostility, the Jew is an enemy ex machina – because we are such a small group, it is easy to project any and every evil onto us, so that we are Satan’s instruments to the devout, and the agents of white demographic decline to the secular.
But what we are most of all is flesh-and-blood people, with the sting of the wind in our faces as we teeter on the high wire, trying to edge forward in our lives in this country, to reach a safety that never quite comes.