Kanye West
Kanye West. Image from Reuters video

On Dec. 8, the Anti-Defamation League of San Diego organized a town hall meeting at the Temple Emanu-El synagogue in San Diego featuring an all-star lineup: Mayor Todd Gloria, San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Randy Grossman, Jewish community leader and activist Sheri J. Sachs, Hillel of San Diego’s Executive Director Karen Parry, and San Diego Pride Executive Director Fernando López. 

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In addition, the Jewish Federation of San Diego’s president, Heidi Gantwerk, and the Temple’s rabbi, Devorah Marcus, also spoke. Representatives from various Congressional offices attended along with other luminaries.

The political firepower of the speakers on the dais testified to how seriously everyone takes the alarming rise of antisemitism in the United States, and everyone spoke passionately against antisemitism and the necessity of combatting antisemitism whenever we see it. Several talked about their emotional devastation following the Poway shooting, and how alarmed they were at such an event happening in our backyard. Grossman recalled how the world changed for him when he attended an outdoor Yom Kippur service and saw armed guards on the synagogue’s roof.

All the speakers agreed that white supremacy and Christian nationalism was a cancer that needed to be removed from the body politic. Everyone felt very virtuous at how we were all fighting the good fight.

Then somebody asked a question about Jews and the Black community, and there was silence. You could have heard a pin drop. Nobody wanted to talk about the San Diego Community College inviting Alice Walker, who wrote a poisonous “poem” about Judaism to speak at the chancellor’s investiture. Or Kanye West’s ongoing tirades against Jews. Or Kyrie Irving’s promoting an antisemitic film. Nobody wanted to confront Lewis Farrakhan’s blaming Jews for slavery, or the Black Hebrew march in early November, 2022, and their chant, “We are the real Jews.” Or Dave Chappelle’s antisemitic Saturday Night Live monologue.

It’s easy to denounce white supremacy and xenophobia. The notion that white people are superior and threatened with extinction by Jews and foreigners with darker skin has led to numerous atrocities and mass murders. But while lethal, it’s hardly mainstream.

But calling out antisemitism among your historical allies, that’s much harder. It’s certainly very strange to see some members of the Black community making common cause with white supremacists, people who, to put it mildly, have no particular love for Black people. Nick Fuentes, for example, said that Jim Crow segregation was a good thing, “And even if it was bad, who cares?…it was better for them, it’s better for us.” 

So to see Kanye West and Fuentes breaking bread together, or a group of neo-Nazis hanging a banner over a Los Angeles Freeway proclaiming “Kanye Was Right,” well, the head spins. Until you realize that the two are united in the hatred of Jews.

If we are to confront antisemitism in all its guises, we have to confront the fact that antisemitism has a significant presence in the Black community.  A 2005 study found that “36% of African Americans held ‘strong antisemitic beliefs’ — four times the percentage of Whites.” A more recent study found “significantly higher rates of antisemitic attitudes among racial minorities relative to whites across the ideological spectrum.”

It’s gotten to the point where Saturday Night Live can ask, during the Dec. 11, 2022, cold open, “when did Hitler come back?” and Kenan Thompson adds, “And why are his new fans Black?” These are not facts the ADL, politicians, and community leaders can ignore. We cannot gloss over what is uncomfortable but true for the sake of scoring progressive points.

One could say that White supremacy is the more dangerous of the two because it’s responsible for such atrocities as Pittsburgh, Poway, and El Paso. But the antisemitic views expressed by a comedian, a popular rapper and a basketball star cannot be sidelined because these people all have tremendously large audiences and therefore, tremendously large influence. What they say matters, and they are collectively making antisemitism normal and acceptable.

Kanye West (or “Ye,” as he now calls himself) may have been tossed off Twitter because he posted an image of a Star of David containing a swastika, yet he still has millions of followers worldwide, and what he says, as David Baddiel, author of Jews Don’t Count, puts it, “gets taken very seriously.” In other words, it’s not just the nuts who think “Kanye was right.” Doubtless some of his many fans now agree with Kanye’s praising Hitler in an interview with Alex Jones.

Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue is a perfect example of both Black antisemitism and how Jew hatred infects popular culture. When Chappelle begins by reading “a brief, prepared statement: ‘I denounce antisemitism in all its forms, and I stand with my friends in the Jewish community,” with the punchline: “And that, Kanye, is how you buy yourself some time,” he implies that Kanye’s antisemitism (which has only gotten worse) is nothing serious, that he should deliver a sop to his critics to “buy yourself some time” while the controversy blows over.

The blame, in other words, shifts to those who want accountability, and away from Kanye, who is now the aggrieved party. The audience, made up primarily, it seems, of white people, laughed and applauded.

Similarly, Chappelle’s riff about Jews running the entertainment industry: “I’ve been to Hollywood, and it’s a lot of Jews. [Pause while the statement sinks in]. Like, a lot. But that don’t mean anything. I mean, there’s a lot of Black people in Ferguson, Missouri, it don’t mean they run the place. . . . You might go out to Hollywood and you might start connecting some kind of lines, and you might adopt the delusion that the Jews run show business. Not a crazy thing to think. But it’s a crazy thing to say out loud, at a time like this.”

 Chappelle, as many pointed out (see here, here, and here) was repeating the conspiracy theory that Jews run Hollywood for their own nefarious interests, a theory that Chappelle first doubts (“delusion”) and then confirms (“connecting the lines”). The audience, again, loves it, and an antisemitic trope with a long history gets amplified and endlessly repeated on Youtube and elsewhere. If someone as popular as Dave Chappelle can make jokes about Jews running the entertainment industry, then maybe there’s some truth to it.

This is how an antisemitic trope moves from the province of conspiracy theorists and neo-Nazis into broad acceptance in popular culture.  It’s now okay to say out loud on network television that Jews run Hollywood, okay to say out loud Kanye’s antisemitism is no big deal. It’s okay to be antisemitic.

If we are to truly combat antisemitism, we have to confront Jew hatred in all its forms, whenever Jew hatred shows up. We cannot pick and choose who we are going to call out, and who we don’t. We must denounce antisemitism wherever it appears, because once antisemitism becomes normal, something very bad will likely follow.

Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).