Everyone has a theory of contemporary anti-Semitism. Progressives tend to see the threats to American Jews emanating from the conspiracy-driven Right, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis taking their cues from dog-whistling Republicans. Conservatives observe that Jews frequently endure harassment, denigration, and violence from the anti-Zionist Left, which wields progressive academic theories to demonize them as complicit in white supremacy, if not perpetrators themselves.
These theories—admittedly simplified, but then again, the simplified arguments are the ones most frequently made—have some things in common. They are both elite-driven, seeing politicians and academics as the prime movers in a chain reaction leading to Jewish suffering. And they are, not coincidentally, convenient. Each side has a neat story to tell about who is responsible for the uptick in anti-Jewish violence in recent years: it’s our cultural opponents. And that seems suspiciously convenient.
That is not to say that neither side has a point. Clearly some anti-Jewish violence can be traced to malicious elites and their bad ideas or rhetoric. But most just doesn’t quite fit, as the experience of visibly Orthodox Jews here in New York suggests. Hasidim and other ultra-Orthodox Jews have borne the brunt of the assaults, harassment, and arson attacks, in neighborhoods with few Republicans (let alone white supremacists), at the hands of perpetrators who don’t seem steeped in postcolonial theory, to put it mildly.
Modern Orthodox Jews like me, who do not wear distinctive clothes except for perhaps the yarmulkes on our heads, have felt it, too. Growing up in the New York area, I can recall being harassed twice in 20-odd years. In the past two years living in Manhattan, though, I have been yelled at and menaced numerous times, and on one occasion assaulted (and then followed through a subway station). Something has changed, and blaming elite opponents just doesn’t get at the heart of the issue. I have observed the people trying to make my life miserable; they are neither MAGA types nor campus progressives.
They are, in all likelihood, tuned into mass popular culture, however. Which is why the scandal of hip-hop and fashion mega-star Kanye West, who recently made a series of bizarre and flagrantly anti-Semitic public comments, deserves some attention. For better or worse, West is better known than, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene or Edward Said. He made his comments on radio shows and podcasts that enjoy big followings but evade outgroup attention, much less analysis. Perhaps his brand of vulgar anti-Semitism can tell us something about what is motivating similarly vulgar—in the sense of being both ugly and common—violence.
First, it’s notable that West’s anti-Semitism comes in the midst of what appears to be a mental breakdown. This suggests that we should not read too far into the motivations or culpability of West as an individual. But it also reminds us that anti-Semitism thrives within delusion and conspiracy theories. Indeed, those who attack Jews on New York streets are far more likely to parrot such conspiracies than campus buzzwords or white-supremacist slogans. Controlling such violence is a function of effective treatment—or at least incapacitation—of mentally ill individuals, whose rantings can quickly turn to something worse.
What’s more, West’s conspiracy theories were fraught with a dangerous sense of shared grievance. His message was that moneyed, powerful Jews in management roles have historically taken advantage of non-Jewish, especially black, creators, laborers, and talent, and that they still do so today. While this plays on vulgar Marxism and even smacks of critical race theory, one does not have to be a Marxist or race theorist to get riled up by shared cultural grievance. Group solidarity ratcheted up to the point that one’s shared identity is defined by grievance frequently leads to anti-Semitism, as desperate individuals become convinced that Jews have achieved power and prosperity at other groups’ expense.
Another lesson concerns the responses of West’s interlocutors. Sadly, those interviewing him during his outburst tended to nod along, rather than question him, and they certainly did not try to signal to the public that West was trafficking in anti-Semitic lunacy. CNN eventually ran a story on West’s “disturbing history of admiring Hitler.” The article alleged that even Hollywood tabloids, keen to run any juicy story, would cut from interviews West’s expressions of Nazi sympathies. Those who knew West failed to stop, correct, or expose his rantings, choosing instead to hide them out of fear that someone they admired would face consequences.
This, too, maps on to the way many discuss violence against Jews. Our media and other ostensible watchdogs often downplay or whitewash the nature of vulgar anti-Semitism if they believe the wrong kind of person will get blamed, or the wrong social outcome will result.
Finally, it’s impossible to miss the striking similarity between West’s rantings and those we are long accustomed to hearing from Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam, and Black Hebrew Israelites. Watchdog groups offer various estimates, but West’s pitch-perfect imitation of Farrakhan suggests that they may be undercounting how many are influenced by the Nation of Islam leader, who regularly suggests that Jews are demons and exploiters. (Basketball star Kyrie Irving, it’s worth noting, recently promoted a 2018 film redolent of Black Hebrew Israelite themes, including the accusation that Jews controlled the slave trade and worship the devil.) We know that Farrakhan is an icon in some black communities—his image appears on everything from Black Lives Matter murals to Democratic National Convention photographs, smiling next to Barack Obama—but this brand of thinking might be far more influential among regular Americans than previously known.
Anti-Semitism is complex, persistent, and resilient. As long as Jews exist, and certainly as long as they achieve economic success, mass cultural phenomena will find ways to raise suspicion of them. Such Jew-hatred is worth resisting regardless of whether it proves to be a useful cudgel in the culture wars.
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