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Kanye, Kyrie, and the continuum of antisemitic violence

Jonah ben Avraham addresses the antisemitic social media outbursts by Kanye West and Kyrie Irving and places them in the context and continuum of the wider growth of antisemitism, cultivated within ruling class and right-wing media and politics.

Over the last several weeks, activists have debated whether deplatforming Kanye West (aka Ye) over his multiple and ongoing antisemitic rants would prevent or stoke the wave of antisemitism that Jewish activists feared would follow his comments. We have now been overtaken by the facts on the ground. Kanye West, and more recently the prominent basketball player Kyrie Irving, should be sharply criticized and deplatformed as part of a broader struggle against the far right and ruling-class individuals and institutions which systematically perpetuate racism and antisemitism.

West, Irving, and their supporters in the conservative political and media establishments have already produced irreversible changes in the political dynamics facing Jews in the United States and the collective struggle for liberation. Tens of thousands have tweeted out the hashtag “#IStandWithKyrie,” and the antisemitic film Irving recommended on social media has become an Amazon bestseller. As of Friday, phrases like “the Jews” and “Zionists” were being mentioned in 5,000 tweets per hour, and Kanye continues to post photos of Jewish people who he feels have harmed him, each garnering tens of thousands of sympathetic responses. While many of these engagements carry on the theme present in both West’s and Irving’s comments that they “can’t be antisemitic,” it is overwhelmingly clear that this is a semantic argument structured to sanction anti-Jewish prejudice, oppression, and violence on the grounds that anti-Jewish oppression is fine and justified, and unrelated to the mystified nonentity called “antisemitism.” Takes like the following abound: “calling White Jews out on…how they control EVERYTHING is not Anti-Semitic.”

Members of the white supremacist Goyim Defense League drop banners over a highway in Los Angeles— proclaiming, among other things, “Honk if you know…Kanye is right about the Jews”—while waving a U.S. flag and making fascist one-armed salutes
White supremacist, Goyim Defense League banner drop in support of Kanye’s antisemitism. Photo via twitter.

This claim (“Jews control everything”) is a rather concise, clear restatement of precisely the entire ideology of antisemitism. Without agreement on this fundamental point, it is clear that West’s and Irving’s apologists seek not only a redefinition of antisemitism, but its abandonment as a meaningful category altogether. No amount of anti-Jewish prejudice or belief in antisemitic myth can transgress the imagined boundary between fact-based critique of a monolithic “the Jews” and antisemitism proper. Granted, the argument which effectively claims “I’m not an antisemite, I just hate Jewish people” is not quite as bold as the antisemitism common in the first decades of the twentieth century. But in comparison to the Overton window on Jewish politics prior to 2016 (that is, the positions considered to be within the mainstream, or at least tolerable), this kind of rhetoric marks a serious escalation.

Over the past several years, the far right has re-embraced the politics of antisemitism under a thin veil of dog whistles, allusions, and plausible deniability. They have ushered in the return of political conspiracism, the great replacement theory, the nationalist/cosmopolitan dichotomy, fear of the outside agitator, and resentment of cultural degeneracy—in short, every one of antisemitism’s political, social, and philosophical contributions without genocidal or otherwise explicitly prejudiced rhetoric. One of the more frightening dynamics that has emerged over the rapid succession of incidents of antisemitism in recent weeks is that they have explicitly challenged even these limited restrictions on the open expression of antisemitism. They take aim not at “globalists” or “George Soros,” but at “Jews,” per se. They balk at “antisemitism,” but endorse anti-Jewish prejudice explicitly, claiming that their anti-Jewish attitudes are simply based on fact or experience. And already, we are seeing these challenges bear fruit in the political sphere.

First, a bevy of right-wing politicians came out in support of Kanye, explicitly making connections between the everyday antisemitism of the Republican Party and Kanye’s more explicit antisemitism. Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita tweeted that Kanye’s antisemitic screed on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was “fair and accurate,” before clarifying that he was not critical of all Jews—only “the media and Hollywood elites.” Two days later, Tulsi Gabbard left the Democratic Party, saying that the party “is now under the complete control of an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness.” Trump posted that “people of the Jewish faith” needed to be more “appreciative” of the far right, “Before it is too late!” Elon Musk has repeatedly dabbled in tongue-in-cheek antisemitism since Kanye’s initial outburst. After West was banned from Instagram, Musk welcomed him back to Twitter without comment on the antisemitism that brought him there. Musk later tweeted a cryptic meme of a Nazi soldier, before encouraging his audience to vote Republican in the midterm elections. The GOP’s House Judiciary account tweeted “Kanye. Elon. Trump.”

In the weeks since the first round of support for Kanye, the GOP’s far-right has pushed the limits further. Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake named Mel Gibson as “one of [her] favorite actors” specifically because he had “been canceled” and made movies that hadn’t “gone so woke.” Mel Gibson, of course, was “canceled” for calling Jewish actress Winona Ryder an “oven dodger” and telling police that “the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” Newsmax ran an interview with former CBS correspondent Lara Logan where she advocated a “spiritual battle” against Satan’s “stooges,” naming Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari and “the World Economic Forum,” calling them “the ones who want us eating insects, cockroaches, and that while they dine on the blood of children.” After the Anti-Defamation League criticized Elon Musk for supporting Kanye and promising to lessen Twitter’s restrictions on hate speech, Ted Cruz tweeted, “It’s sad. @adl used to combat anti-Semitism. Now they are just a wholly-owned subsidiary of the DNC.”

In Pennsylvania, far-right gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano repeatedly fielded antisemitism accusations over his campaign’s cooperation with far-right social media website Gab, his general Christian nationalist politics, and his attacks on Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro for sending his children to a Jewish day school. In response, Republicans have suggested that Shapiro, as a “secular Jew,” isn’t Jewish enough to charge antisemitism. This argument caught on: mirroring Kanye’s sanctioning of antisemitism on the basis that Jewish people aren’t “the real Jews” and therefore cannot claim to be victimized by antisemitism, a number of right-wing figures including former Breitbart Editor-in-Chief Raheem Kassam and former Trump counsel Jenna Ellis suggested that the 91 percent of Jews who are not Orthodox are not real Jews, and that we need not examine attacks on them as cases of antisemitism.

These rhetorical moves at the top of the right-wing political infrastructure have of course been matched by street-level attacks from the far right. So far, the Goyim Defense League has done a mass flyering and banner drop in support of Kanye and of explicit antisemitism in Los Angeles, a fascist has set fire to a pride flag on someone’s house and given a Nazi salute to their security camera, a QAnon adherent has attempted to assassinate the Speaker of the House, the slogan “Kanye is right about the Jews” has been projected at a major college football game, and social media threats have forced the FBI’s Newark field office to issue a warning of a “credible threat” to synagogues in New Jersey.

For decades, Jews have been “the last group that Republicans could use to claim they aren’t a group fully devoted to bigotry.” As the Republican Party has evolved into a full participant in the ascendent neo-fascist international, they—like their post-Nazi comrades from Hungary, to France, to Italy—have cynically used their support for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine to retain their liberal-democratic credentials in a post-civil rights United States, which claims to care about that sort of thing. The discrepancy between their rhetorical treatment of Jews from that of Muslims, for example, has led many on the Left to accept the right’s plausible deniability at face value. “Jewish grievance in particular must continually overlook the support coming from the state—here and in Israel—in order to justify its cries of neglect, while for many other groups, the state is the source of harm.” In what sense is the state not the source of harm when antisemitic mobs are being ginned up by agents of the state throughout the three branches of every level of government?

Because of this perspective, much of the Left has missed the mark. Max Blumenthal wrote, “Kyrie and Kanye do not threaten American Jews in any concrete way.” This is clearly false. We are living through one of the deadliest periods of Jewish history in the United States as far as antisemitic violence is concerned. The conspiracy theories espoused by Irving and West have already been cited as an inspiration for multiple deadly attacks. It is true that even when it finds political expression as Black nationalism, antisemitism is rooted, in the final instance, in the white supremacist and Christian hegemonic organization of US-American social, political, and economic life. But this does not mean, as many on the Left have suggested, that the real injustice of this whole episode is the disproportionate response to the antisemitism of Black celebrities when compared to the response to white political figures. No doubt, racism has mediated the general cultural response to Kanye. But the tragedy is not the so-called cancellation of Kanye or Kyrie; it is our failure to respond as forcefully to the antisemitism of all the other antisemites named in this article.

Kanye and Kyrie’s defenders have charged that critics of the pair are not actually interested in combating antisemitism, but shoring up their own social position at the expense of Black people, as evidenced by the lack of meaningful consequences for Tucker Carlson, who knowingly platformed and curated Kanye’s antisemitism, or for Jeff Bezos, who profits directly from sales of the documentary that Kyrie recommended. In a sense they are right: neither the Jewish defense agencies, nor the Democratic Party, nor the media have shown an appetite for applying the kind of overwhelming pressure against antisemites in power as they have against antisemites proximate to power. In the context of the specific claims made by Kanye, however—that Jews are using their imagined racial power to silence him as a truth-teller—we must be wary that an acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of the most powerful, wealthy critics of antisemitism does not become a detour away from confronting antisemitism, or even worse, become a tacit endorsement of West and Irving’s views. Many commentators attempting a nuanced discussion of endorsements of Nazi propaganda have shown no such care.

Things are getting markedly worse for Jews in the United States. The taboo of antisemitism, particularly in the political sphere, is crumbling. 45 percent of US-Americans, including 81 percent of white Evangelicals, think that the United States “should be a Christian nation.” Tucker Carlson preaches the antisemitic “great replacement” to a TV audience of millions, and Republican candidates accuse Jews of “buying Congress” and run attack ads showing Jews clutching at money, emphasizing their more Jewish-sounding names, and elongating their noses. Mike Lindell, Eric Trump, and Roger Stone are all currently touring with a convention at which vendors are handing out recommended reading lists including The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.

The ruling-class Jewish defense agencies, chief among them the Anti-Defamation League, have been useless to stop this. They have chosen to embrace the antisemites, passing their own political power off as communal safety; thus when Trump told a room full of Jews that they were “negotiators” and “brutal killers. Not nice people at all,” the Anti-Defamation League defended him. Despite Elon Musk’s clear antisemitic sympathies, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called him favorably “the Henry Ford of our time”–a truly remarkable compliment from Greenblatt given that Ford was perhaps the most influential antisemite in this country’s history. At the same time, much of the Left, including the Jewish Left, has remained in denial of these developments: “Jews are implicated symbolically” in right-wing politics, “but not materially,” wrote Jewish activists Donna Nevel and Mark Tseng-Putterman in 2019. The combination of these two responses is precisely what has allowed the current wave of commonsense antisemitism to take hold. Whether because we have to strategically overlook Republican antisemitism, or because we are in denial about the significance of the right-wing embrace of thinly veiled antisemitism, the only people who end up being held accountable for anti-Jewish statements and behavior are those outside of the power structures most directly enabling and supporting anti-Jewish politics and violence. While these leftists would prefer that even these instances of accountability not take place, their punting of responsibility for the fight against hegemonic, ruling-class antisemitism has in part produced the recurrent spectacles of condemning Black celebrities for antisemitic statements.

Antisemitism’s roots are not among the exploited and oppressed: This point is obvious to Kanye’s and Kyrie’s supporters, as it has been for Black radicals since Baldwin. But the struggle against antisemitism often ends up being a struggle brought to bear only against its manifestations among those subaltern groups. Because the hegemonic critique of antisemitism is just that—a hegemonic force— challenges to this critique, even antisemitic challenges, can appear counter-hegemonic when the struggle against antisemitism is not, in the first instance, directed at its actual roots in ruling class ideology. This is why so many supporters of West and Irving, including those on the right, voice their support as being in favor of speaking truth to power. The fact that Kanye’s interlocutors are “power” makes the “truth” of his arguments superfluous—and indeed, allows would-be anti-racists to find common ground with ludicrous Nazi propaganda.

While some on the Left have expressed concern at the prospect of “martyring” Kanye and Kyrie, it is ultimately a good thing if, in the future, celebrities feel less comfortable sharing their antisemitism in public. No amount of discretion shown in responding to antisemitism will convince the antisemites that their Jewish overlords are actually swell guys after all; and the prominence of this position among the more nationalist and class reductionist elements of the Left should be met with suspicion. Granted, the political theater of imposed Holocaust Museum visits and shakedowns from JewBelong do nothing but reaffirm the legitimacy of white supremacist, ruling-class Jewish institutions; but socialists should support Kyrie Irving’s suspension, as well as any and all efforts to deplatform Kanye West, particularly given that both have positioned themselves over several years to become far-right influencers. While antisemitism by name may remain taboo for a while longer, anti-Jewish resentment has thoroughly reasserted itself as an acceptable, if brash, part of US-American political culture. The Left cannot confront this dynamic so long as we remain apologetic about our militant struggle against this plank of white supremacy.

Featured Image credit: Photo from Wikimedia Commons; modified by Tempest.

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Jonah ben Avraham View All

Jonah ben Avraham is a Midwest-based socialist and anti-fascist activist. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.