Oct 28, 2022

Kanye is right — and so, so very wrong.

Kanye is right — and so, so very wrong.
Foto: Kim Erlandsen

West's hatred toward Jews is anchored by bits of truth. We'd do well to address them.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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The rapper formerly known as Kanye West is a complicated person.

Of course, I don't know the man who now asks to go by Ye, his new legal name. I've never interviewed him and don't know anyone who knows him personally, so I'm stuck with only my love for the music in which he expresses himself, along with his public comments and persona. And, as a Jew here in America and a fan of his, I have to say the last few weeks have been distressing.

On social media, in podcast interviews, in television interviews and on YouTube, Ye has made a few things quite clear: He’s got some gripes with the Jews, who he believes are controlling the media, running the world, and destroying his family. He says he'd like to see their power clipped. He doesn't say exactly how, of course, which leaves the rest up to our imagination. But at first glance, his statements have not been ambiguous. He’s putting Jews on notice.

In case you've been living under a rock, here's a brief rundown of the actions of one of the world’s most popular musicians in the last month:

On October 3rd, West modeled a shirt reading "White Lives Matter" that stirred up a good deal of media attention and controversy. The next day he rode that attention into accusing Bernard Arnault, the CEO of a luxury goods company, of being responsible for the death of designer Virgil Abloh. (Abloh, a friend of West's, died of cancer). Three days after that, West sat for an interview with Tucker Carlson, from which the Fox News host later cut several overtly antisemitic segments that were consequently leaked to the media outlet Vice.

In one of the unaired clips Carlson hid from viewers, West tells the host he wished his kids were taught Hanukkah instead of Kwanzaa, because "at least it will come with some financial engineering." He also references the "12 lost tribes of Judah, the blood of Christ, who the people known as the Black race really are." (There are 12 tribes of Israel and Judah is one of Jacob's 12 sons, two Biblical narratives West seems to be confusing. But the belief that Black people are one of the 12 lost tribes is prominent among Black Hebrew Israelites, who are notoriously antisemitic).

The next day, on October 7th, West posted screenshots of a text conversation he was having with Sean "Diddy" Combs in which he tells Combs he will use their beef “as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” A day later he warned on Twitter that he was going to go “death con 3 on Jewish people" (West later joked about misspelling “DEFCON,” and clarified that this meaning was how he was protecting himself from the Jews by raising his guard — i.e. going DEFCON 3). On October 12, the talk show The Shop refused to air an interview with West, citing hateful comments he made during their sit-down. On October 17, West announced plans to buy Parler, the Twitter alternative that promotes totally unencumbered free speech where — for whatever it's worth — hate speech against Jews is prominent.

That same day, West appeared on Chris Cuomo's new show to denounce the “Jewish underground media mafia” and decried the fact that "Black musicians signed to Jewish record labels and those Jewish record labels take ownership," which he says is “modern day slavery."

Like Noah's great flood, the comments rained from the heavens:

“Jewish people have owned the black voice," he said on one show. "Whether it’s through us wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt, or it’s all of us being signed to a record label, or having a Jewish manager, or being signed to a Jewish basketball team, or doing a movie on a Jewish platform like Disney.”

“You know they [the Jews] came into money through the lawyers, when after Wall Street when all of the, like, the Catholics, they wouldn’t divorce people so the Jewish lawyers came and they were willing to divorce people. That’s when they first came into their money," he said in another.

In one of the more bizarre instances, after Ye’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian revealed publicly that she had sex with her then-boyfriend Pete Davidson in front of a fireplace, Ye finally took responsibility for destroying their marriage and expressed his regret for not being a stable partner.

Just kidding.

He blamed the Jews.

"It’s Jewish Zionists that’s about that life, that’s telling this Christian woman that has four Black children to put that out as a message in the media," he said.

You get the idea.

Now, I should pause here to note that there are a lot of people who have excused West's comments, or at least tried to dismiss them, on account of his mental health issues. West has spoken openly about being bipolar, and plenty of observers believe the last month has been little more than a very public manic episode. That might be true. It’s also true that, at times, Ye has appeared to express admiration for Jews, such as for their “level of connections” to each other as Jewish people.

On the podcast Drink Champs, there seemed to be a breakthrough moment. After consecutive hours of Jew-bashing, one of the hosts tried to put his foot down.

“I want everybody to know, Black people, Jewish people, Kanye loves y’all,” he said.

“No,” West responded quickly. “I’m jealous of y’all.”

Again: I don't know West, and I'm certainly not privy to his mental health records, so I'm not going to opine on them here. Whether his antisemitism and mental illness are linked is, frankly, not very relevant to the larger picture it paints about this current moment. And ultimately it’s his responsibility to manage his condition, as many people with similar diagnoses do every day. Instead of ownership and responsibility, however, Ye has begun claiming that his bipolar diagnosis was actually just another conspiracy orchestrated by “Jewish people” — a Jewish trainer who took him to the hospital, and a Jewish doctor he says gave him the diagnosis and then leaked it to the press.

I don’t know how many of his recent statements I can dismiss to his condition, but what I do know is that he is the wealthiest musician in the world, and a cultural icon. In 2022, his words probably carry more influence than any living American politician not named Biden, Trump or Obama, and he has stepped into the political fray. He's professed support for former President Trump and even visited the White House. The Republican House Judiciary Twitter account recently tweeted "Kanye. Elon. Trump." An apparent endorsement of the group as a three-headed monster of conservative power. He is, in more ways than one, an influential political voice.

Encouragingly, the reaction to Ye’s comments was actually quite swift. Though antisemitism is often ignored or swept under the rug, in this case Ye got what he seemed to be looking for. His talent agency dropped him, his ex-wife denounced him, and The GAP and Adidas severed their relationships with him. He became a topic of articles at just about every news station in America, with the word “antisemitic” tied closely to his name.

However, the reaction itself is part of the struggle to confront this particular brand of antisemitism. Ye spews a narrative where Jews are all-powerful and a threat to Black people, he faces consequences for those comments, and thus his narrative about Jews is confirmed. Don’t you see what the Jews have done to Kanye now?

For those of us Jews with any sense of humor remaining about this sort of thing — which, I must admit, our number is dwindling — the funny thing about Ye's comments is just how preposterous they are. There's an old joke to the effect of "two Jews, three opinions." To put it plainly: Jews are far too busy fighting among themselves to take over the world. American Jews are politically divided, reform Jews and Orthodox Jews are constantly at odds, and the secular Jews in Tel Aviv (Israel's version of Miami) and the religious Jews in Jerusalem (the holy city) couldn't be further apart from each other. Think our politics are chaotic? Take a look at Israel’s. Hell, if you could get your typical elderly Jewish couple to agree on a proper room temperature, you should probably go work for the United Nations.

To us Jews, who are told that G-d dances in heaven when his children defeat him in argument, who are elevated as “adults” at the age of 13, who are encouraged from a young age to be skeptical of the world around us, our lack of power, cohesion and influence is often self-evident. Which makes it easy to laugh at the notion of these secret Jewish mafia meetings none of us are ever invited to, where we chew on latkes and talk about which part of the house we want Kim Kardashian to make love to her new boyfriend in.

But there’s also something a lot less funny about it.

For starters, Ye's feelings about Jews are not unique to him. In many of these media appearances, he's been surrounded by podcast hosts or rapper friends who sit there and nod along, or exhale deeply in contemplative thought, as if the rapper is dishing out profound insights about life and Judaism during his rants. His feelings about Jews have also been echoed by other prominent Black artists with no record of mental health disorders, including Ice Cube, Nick Cannon and Jay Electronica. Actual neo-nazi groups cheered him on, and public displays of antisemitism (like the one below, on a major highway in Los Angeles) quickly followed.

A gathering that occurred over the 405 in Los Angeles. Twitter: Sam Yerbi
A gathering that occurred over the 405 in Los Angeles. Twitter: Sam Yerbi

We've seen this whole dance before. When I wrote recently about Americans Seeing Ghosts, the idea that many of us are on such high alert for threats from the "others" that we often see things that aren't there, I wrote about empathizing with my own mom and grandmother's experiences as Jews in America that were markedly different than my own. For them, this script is familiar. Ye says antisemitic things. Ye faces consequences (like all the businesses now severing ties with him). And those consequences are held up as "proof" he's right.

As the writer Elad Nehorai put it: "We are now at the stage of antisemitic discourse where accountability is used as proof that Jews actually control the media etc. Up next on our regularly scheduled, circular programming: the part where Jews are murdered."

Regretfully, the staff here at Tangle has first-hand experience with this cycle. One of our editors, Ari Weitzman, had a cousin who was one of the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. The four-year anniversary of that shooting was yesterday. The shooter, who killed 11 people and injured six inside a Pittsburgh synagogue, was motivated by his belief that Jews were orchestrating the entry of "invaders" (read: immigrants) into the country to kill "our people" (read: whites). I asked Ari if he wanted to write something about this ongoing controversy. This is what he said:

I’ve become non-religious into my adulthood, but I see how antisemitism pervades those receptive to the idea. It starts with jokes that you can’t take seriously on 8chan or Gab, and then the jokes start to become a bit more… bitter. Directed. Specific. “Jews control the economy” (eye-roll, lol) becomes “you’re unemployed because the Jews are keeping you down.” If you surround yourself with voices repeating the same lines, you eventually start to believe them. After belief comes anger, and with enough anger comes action. It’s sickeningly predictable.

Being non-religious hasn’t made me non-Jewish; antisemitism will always affect me. I was at a friend’s wedding in Vermont when I heard that my cousin was shot in Pittsburgh, by a man who went to the same high school as my mom. I sat in the back row in the church, checking over my back shoulder, feeling like an organ in another body. Wondering if this was the spark that lit the movement that rejected me, and all of us, from the American corpus. Learning what they tried to teach me in Hebrew school when I was a kid. We’re welcome here, but only for so long. Was this it?

A suffusion of little moments kept me grounded, kept me believing the shooter on October 27, 2018, was overwhelmed by the majority. Jews were still welcome here, antisemitism was still a fringe and lunatic belief in America. But this moment is the beginning of the next test, and I don’t have to wonder how it will go. Dismissal, hedging, irony, bitterness, anger… then action.

We can’t take Kanye seriously [dismissal]. Of course, he’d say something crazy, he’s been doing it for years [hedging]. But wouldn’t you know it, once he goes for the Jews… that’s when he gets canceled [irony]. It really just goes to show who has the power [bitterness]. And when you think about how much those people keep getting away with, over and over again, it makes you just want to [anger]…


And how will the country respond this time?

The challenging part about Ye's antisemitism for me is that I actually want to ignore it. I didn’t want to write this piece, or take him too seriously and give him another platform. Ye oscillates belligerently in these interviews between explaining that he himself is a Jew to saying that he is the Blood of Christ to saying that he is a Christian, to that his dad was the original Steve Jobs, to proliferating the idea that we shouldn’t teach history in school (the only worthy topic is engineering, Ye says). And that this is all why he must share the warnings about the Jews. There are long periods of discussion where this artistic genius is totally incoherent — which makes his clearly articulated thoughts on Jews even more jolting.

Worse yet is the actual function of Ye’s words. It’s like someone picking up a dandelion of Jew hatred and blowing its seeds into the yard. When someone like him says “Jews control the media,” millions of people hear it. Tens of thousands might go Google “who owns ABC” and find that Dana Freedman, “born into a Jewish family,” is the Chairman of Disney General Entertainment Content. Hundreds may keep searching, connecting dots, confirming ideas, with their feelings about Jews boiling ever hotter. And, as Ari noted, that’s often how it starts.

Nipping those ideas in the bud is especially difficult because some of what Ye is saying is actually true. Like many stereotypes, the ones about Jews aren’t concocted out of thin air. Here I am, for example, a Jewish journalist quoting my Jewish editor writing in my politics newsletter about a rapper being antisemitic for believing that Jews control the media.

People’s inability to acknowledge this simple stuff — and then explain it — helps Ye’s hatred thrive. There are all sorts of potential reasons for this that are, frankly, not that interesting. I can try to give reasons for what Ye sees and ascribes to conspiracy.

First off, it is true that there are a lot of Jews in the media. At nearly every news organization I’ve worked or freelanced for there have been Jews. Simple Google searches about famous journalists or top media executives will reveal that, yes, lots of sons and daughters of Jewish mothers picked up the hobby of writing. I struggled to find any recent hard data on this. An academic paper from the 1980s noted that Jews were just slightly overrepresented in media ownership and in journalism as a profession. Still, I feel comfortable saying that today, Jews — who make up about 2% of the U.S. population — are probably still overrepresented in the press.

Jews are also overrepresented in Congress. 6.2% of Congress is Jewish, compared to just 2% of the U.S. population. But good luck getting Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Lee Zeldin to agree on anything. There are some big name corporate executives, lawyers, and — I can’t help but cringe — bankers who are Jews, too. All of this is true. And it's okay to admit that these things are true, while also pointing out that none of it makes what Ye is proposing any less ridiculous. In fact, denying this fact — that there are a lot of Jewish journalists or media executives or Hollywood directors or lawyers — will actually instigate more suspicion. Because anyone who takes the time to look will wonder why you are lying to them.

The best way to think of it is probably as some mix of cultural influences and social networking. Many Jewish immigrants got involved in Hollywood or media a century ago. That's really all it took. As with church groups or Muslim communities, Jews tend to know a lot of other Jews, and those Jews lean on each other and are influenced by each other and, when they need a job or career advice, might go to each other. This was especially true a couple of generations ago, when antisemitism in this country was more common and overt. Jews also tend toward careers that require liberal arts and language degrees, i.e. journalism, media, law and academia.

But there is always danger in the monolithic descriptions. Take my own story. I don't know of a single Jewish family member who was a professional writer or in the media. None of my childhood Jewish friends — and there are many — work in my world. I ended up as a journalist because I joined the school newspaper in order to get front row seats to basketball and football games at the University of Pittsburgh (and I switched my major to English when I was failing out of pre-med biology classes). Even the narrative around the financial success of Jews has some large holes. Look no further than the Hasidim in Brooklyn, many of whom live in abject poverty with failing schools. Not all Jews walk the same path.

But Ye’s theory requires all Jews to be in on the same conspiracy. Not only does this require a belief that the notable Jews in the media decide what to cover, how to cover it, and when to cover it, which on its face is silly (newsroom decisions are always collaborative, combative and driven by what people will read). It requires a belief that “they” all want the same thing. That “they” are all the same thing. That “they” are all focused on promoting some similar kind of world order. It's akin to observing the predominantly Black rosters of the NBA and then speaking about all those athletes as if they play the same position or are on the same team or share the same beliefs.

One of the storied tropes of the "Jewish media" is its purported shilling for Israel. On the left, many progressives believe The New York Times, a paper with several prominent Jewish reporters and columnists, is constantly infusing its coverage of the Middle East with pro-Israel bias. Yet many conservatives, Israelis and observant Jews believe the very same paper is overtly anti-Israel.

"Why is Jewish-owned press so consistently anti-Israel in every crisis?" Rupert Murdoch recently asked. Murdoch, of course, owns News Corp, which owns hundreds of local, national and international outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, Fox News, The Sun, and The Times. He is the most influential and powerful media mogul on the planet (and, perhaps for that reason, has been the subject of many rumors about his own Jewish heritage). Yet he feels the need to frame "Jewish-owned press" as the real threat — even though both sides accuse The Times of bias for polar opposite reasons.

Even more ironic is that The Times, once controlled by the Sulzbergers, a prominent Jewish family, is now led by chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger. He is half-Jewish, on his father's side, and was raised as an Episcopalian. To many Jews, Sulzberger's "assimilation" to gentile status is the actual threat. In other words: Antisemites see Arthur Sulzberger as the embodiment of the Jewish media mafia. Jews see Arthur Sulzberger as the embodiment of the dilution of our tradition and influence. All at the same time.

When Jews become the problem, you can see the problem everywhere.

Image via Sam Yerbi / Twitter
Image via Sam Yerbi / Twitter

This issue persists beyond the media. In the flier above, which was recently distributed in Los Angeles, Jews are framed as responsible for the Covid-19 response. The CDC, HHS, Pfizer and Moderna are all cited. Perhaps fliers like this are convincing for some people, but — again — the absurdity of it shouldn't be hard to spot. There are over 10,000 employees at the CDC, 60,000 at HHS, 80,000 at Pfizer, and 1,800 at Moderna. They found 11 who were Jews, and two who were “Shabbos Goy” — a term meaning non-Jew employed by Jews and which, even as a Jew, I had to look up.

Never mind that none of the people most responsible for the initial Covid-19 response — President Donald Trump, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx, and then-CDC Director Robert Redfield — are Jews, the more potent idea is that if you are looking for this kind of thing it isn't hard to find. It’s even easier if you claim any involved non-Jew is just “working for their agenda.”

It’s classic cherry-picking: taking the pieces of evidence that fit your theory, and ignoring the ones that don’t. Like Mark Miller did in 1996, I could point to the old CEOs of GE (NBC), Westinghouse (CBS), or TCI (the largest cable company), who are all non-Jews. Same for the bigwigs at Hearst, Times Mirror, Chicago Tribune, Reader’s Digest, Sony, Dreamworks, and, today, The Washington Post (Jeff Bezos). Ye mentioned that rappers (i.e. himself) wear Ralph Lauren, but notably leaves out Gucci, Versace, Dior, or Tommy Hilfiger (who, notably, has long been accused of antisemitism). The face of TMZ, which reported endlessly on Ye’s mental illness and is well-known for damaging the lives of celebrities, is Harvey Levin. Levin is — you guessed it — a Jew. The editors of Us and People, however, are not, so those pieces of evidence get discarded.

For Ye, it’s obviously personal. He seems to believe that the "Jewish media mafia" is collaborating against him and his family. In his telling, the Jews have, collectively, via their (again, monolithic and combined) power in the media, created a world where he is bipolar and his ex-wife wants to disclose her sexual escapades with other men to the press. West is clearly in pain about losing his family, and about how his public image has been tarnished by reporters. That pain has turned to anger, and that anger needs direction. So he's chosen the Chosen People.

In Ye's case, the idea appears to be that the Jews all want to destroy his family, screw over Black artists and promote progressive ideology. This is the dark twisted fantasy of Ye's worldview.

Ye is looking for reasons to blame the Jews. And now he's calling on millions of his fans to go looking, too.

There's no good ending here. In one outcome Ye is turning the Black and Jewish communities against each other, an upsetting bout of conflict where many Black Jews get stuck in the middle. Yet even the people offended by Ye's comments can't help but feed into the tropes. Some Black influencers expressed frustration that Ye has faced so few consequences for his "anti-Black" rhetoric or his “White Lives Matter” t-shirt, yet the moment he turned his ire to Jews he got "canceled." The explanation to me seems obvious. Adidas — a German company started by former Nazis and run almost entirely by white people — is a lot less likely to cut ties with a Black icon for his commentary about the Black community than they are for overt antisemitism. But once again, the Jews and their power, however subtly, become the problem.

Lex Fridman, the Soviet-born MIT professor, Jewish engineer, and famous YouTube host, took his best swing at an approach I would have taken if given the chance. He sat down with Ye for a two-hour interview about his comments, simultaneously showering his "friend" in love and empathy while also trying to hold him accountable for his broad brushes against the Jewish community. It was a valiant effort. At times, Fridman seemed to convince Ye of the danger of his rhetoric, and even offered the idea that Ye should simply call out the individuals he feels are harming him rather than generalize against the Jewish community as a whole. The advice would momentarily stick before Ye seemingly reverted to the same targeted anger and frustration he had when he first sat down for the interview.

Inoculating against this particular brand of conspiratorial discrimination is hard. If you joke about it to diffuse the tension, you're part of the problem for not taking it seriously enough. If you de-platform or cut ties with Ye, you're proof of the Jewish control center (even if you’re not Jewish). If you sit down with Ye and let him say his piece, you're platforming his conspiracies. If you push back on him and try to force an apology, you're another Jew writing his narrative. If you ignore it altogether, you risk allowing the ideas to flourish unencumbered. The only real way to avoid this is for Ye himself not to go on a months-long rant against Jews in the first place, but that genie is already out of the bottle. So here we are.

My proposition is this: Ye's view of Jews, his interpersonal grievances that are now manifesting as societal observations, are at the core of almost every kind of discrimination this country has. His is a story of a person in pain, a person with a grudge, a person who desperately wants to pin his own faults onto a group or system that he thinks is working against him. And, because those grievances are tied to a certain reality — a deal he was screwed over on, an unfair article written about him, a concocted narrative about his life — they are littered with little bits of truth.

Tacking those bits onto a cork board and connecting them with blue yarn in the pattern of a six-pointed star doesn’t prove a grand conspiracy, only the unquenchable desire to see one. But while the conspiracy is made up, the little bits of truth it’s founded on are not. Denying those truths will not disarm the hatred. Allowing these idiotic conspiracy theories to flourish without any repercussions will spread the madness. Our only option is to try to engage them with frankness and explore their absurdity. It's to make it clear that this society finds his rhetoric unacceptable, and to do our best to show him why.

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