How to talk about Kanye West’s antisemitism without amplifying it

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How do we talk about Kanye West’s antisemitism without amplifying it?

Did you see what Kanye West said? No, not that. The other thing.

It’s easy to lose track. The celebrity rapper, who legally changed his name to Ye, has made a string of antisemitic remarks and rants since early October. On Thursday, he appeared on Alex Jones’ show “Infowars” alongside noted white supremacist Nick Fuentes. On the show, West shared, among other things, that he loves Nazis and also Adolf Hitler.

Clips were excitedly shared on social media. Some noted that even Jones seemed uncomfortable with what West was saying. That West and Fuentes had recently dined with former president Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago only heightened how absurd — and frightening — the whole scene was.

But it was only the latest in a series of such scenes. Since the rapper will almost certainly say or do something outrageously offensive again in the not-too-distant future, it is perhaps worth considering how we talk about West and his antisemitic rants.

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There are those who say that the right thing to do is ignore West entirely. I am not one of those people (if I were, I would not be writing this piece). West is too famous to pretend that this isn’t happening. And this piece isn’t meant to be authoritative or definitive. Celebrity antisemitism isn’t new, but this exact phenomenon — one of the world’s most famous artists regularly rants about Jewish people and also has a direct line to a once and possibly future president — hasn’t been navigated before. It is instead an invitation to think about how we navigate this.

Here are a few questions to consider:

Does your audience need to see this from you?

The problem with sharing a series of antisemitic clips on social media, even to condemn them, is that you’re still engaging with the content, telling the social media machine that this is good and should be promoted to more users. (I also, personally, wondered how many times I was going to see the image of West, head masked, talking to Jones.) It’s not as if posting clips of the latest interview is necessary to understanding whether the people involved are antisemitic.

There’s also a tendency to treat West and the interviewer — in this case, Jones — as if they are somehow engaged in wholly distinct enterprises. But I wonder what would happen if we stopped treating those who engaged with and then acted shocked by West two months into this as if they were somehow morally or intellectually superior to him. At this point, if he gives an interview, he is almost certainly going to say something bad about Jewish people. What does that say about those still asking the questions?

Are you asking random Black people to condemn West? Stop doing that.

Some of what West has said — namely, that Black people are the real Jews and Jews are corrupt pretenders — has been said before by Black Hebrew Israelites. But there is a degree to which West has been held up as a sign of some sort of breakdown in Black and Jewish relations that is both inappropriate and inaccurate.

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It should first be said that Black Jews exist and are often erased or overlooked in these conversations. And it should be acknowledged that Black and Jewish relations (to the extent to which one can even talk about such a thing between two groups who are not monoliths) have had moments of tension or complication, though there have also been moments of solidarity.

But it is also true that West is not a representative of Black Americans. This whole saga kicked off after his fashion show featured shirts that read, “White Lives Matter.” He has said slavery was a choice. Beyond that, he’s a celebrity who speaks only for himself, not for tens of millions of Black Americans.

Are you also posting and talking about other people who deliver antisemitic comments with softer language?

At the same time, it’s important not to pretend that the past couple of months only involve West. Tucker Carlson had him on his show and edited out the parts of the interview where West explicitly attacked Jewish people; the show, nevertheless, aired the interview. And again, Jones may have pushed back on West’s praise of Hitler, but he had him on “Infowars,” knowing everything that West had said for the past two months.

Then there are those echoing West or at least parts of his argument. On Thursday, Steven Crowder, a right-wing commentator, said, “He’s not wrong about everything. Look, is there a conversation to be had about people with Jewish last names exploiting people in the performance arts?”

Leaving aside that, the distinction between “Jewish people” and “people with Jewish last names” is a transparent attempt to strip secular or less observant Jews of their Jewishness and thus render antisemitic attacks against them as somehow acceptable: Crowder is a mainstream right-wing American figure. There is a segment of American politics today that is growing increasingly comfortable with naked antisemitism, so long as it stops short of “I love Hitler” (for now).

If we are going to talk about West and antisemitism, then it is my hope that this moment leads us to confront some uncomfortable truths. Most people apparently still understand that it is bad to say, “I like Hitler.” But antisemitism doesn’t just consist of praising the leader of the Nazis. It is, among other things, a conspiracy theory in which Jews are all powerful, controlling and degrading the nations within which we have nestled ourselves. And stopping just short of the — and I can’t believe I’m typing this — “I love Hitler” line doesn’t mean a person isn’t pushing antisemitism. It sometimes seems like antisemites are becoming more comfortable saying what they actually mean, going from “globalists” and “elitist cabals” to “people who aren’t even really Jewish” or “people with Jewish names” to whatever West is doing.

But all of those constitute antisemitism. All of those create conditions for a more conspiratorial, hateful, paranoid society.

There have been antisemitic celebrities before West, and I do not have any reason to believe that there will not be antisemitic celebrities long after he’s stopped whatever it is he thinks he’s doing. But when we’ve moved on from whatever the latest thing West said was, I hope we remember that we did not begin with West dining with Trump and praising Hitler. That we consider the conditions — and politicians, and rhetoric — leading up to this and try not to repeat them.

Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.

  • Emily Tamkin
    Emily Tamkin

    Freelance Reporter

    Emily Tamkin is a journalist and the author of The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society and Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities.