Kanye, Wellesley, and Us

Posted on November 1, 2022

I don’t want to stand up here and talk about antisemitism. I wish that our society had reached a place where it was simply not a thing and therefore not requiring of a response. I wish that the condemnations to incidents of antisemitism would be so loud and widespread that you would not need to hear from me as another voice on the subject. And I wish that our world had evolved in such a way that racism, prejudice, and hate in general were on the decline rather than appearing to be in the ascendancy.

As we approach this subject on this Shabbat it is striking to note that Thursday was the four-year anniversary of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. After 11 Jews were killed, we were united with our brothers and sisters from across all areas of society in condemning this hateful attack. As a synagogue community we opened our doors and held a vigil with Clergy leaders from across the religious spectrum and several hundred participants. In the aftermath of this act of terror, hate, and murder we could take some comfort in the way that society rallied around us and our community.

When Jews are murdered society responds. But when celebrities spread antisemitic tropes, when college newspapers promote antisemitic endeavors, and when every day people experience verbal and physical antisemitic attacks – there is often a deafening silence from too many. Antisemitism appears as an outlier when considered alongside other examples of prejudice, hate, and discrimination. The perception of Jews as rich, powerful, and “white” leads others to imagine that we cannot be the victims, because we don’t fit into their preconceived notions of what a victim should look like. While it is a minority who actually believe in the conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media, finance, and politics – the pervasiveness of their ideas seeps into the societal consciousness in such a way that other people no longer know how to respond to antisemitism.

So before going any further, as a reminder the response to antisemitism should be the same as the response to racism against the black community, Islamophobia directed at Muslims, hate directed at Asian-Americans, and prejudice leveled at people who are LGBTQ+ . They are all examples of bigotry and hate that have no place in society – we need to have a zero-tolerance policy for all of them.

The anniversary of the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue would have been enough of a reason to talk about the subject today. Unfortunately, the issue feels even more topical because on the global stage we have Kanye West and on a local level we have the Wellesley News editorial board – both of them falling into antisemitic tropes and attacks, even as they approach them from wholly different perspectives. This isn’t the same as the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, but make no mistake they are all related, feeding each other and this virulent hate.

The Kanye West controversy began with a now deleted tweet in which he wrote: “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE” as he continued: “You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.”1 This tweet came after his Instagram account was suspended for posting a text exchange with Sean Combs who had criticized him for wearing a “White Lives Matter” t-shirt, which is recognized by the Anti-Defamation League as a “white supremacist phrase”. Further antisemitic tweets followed alongside the leaking of an interview with Tucker Carlson in which Kanye made more antisemitic statements. The details are secondary, what is clear is that Kanye has brought into the white supremacist conspiracy theory that the Jews control … everything and can therefore be attacked as the all-powerful overlords of this planet. And of course, in his world view it’s not racist when you are attacking people of power, namely Jews.

The danger of white supremacist, extreme right-wing conspiracy theories is clear in the way that it spreads and influences others. The terrorist who held four people hostage at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville Texas, believed that Jewish power could influence political leaders to release another terrorist. And on the 110 Freeway in Los Angeles the Goyim Defense League, an antisemitic coalition, hung a banner reading: “Kanye is right about the Jews.” The conspiracy theory has tentacles that reach out from its protagonists and infect other groups and areas of society.

And this is not some problem that is out there, some of you may have heard about the “Mapping Project” here in Boston this past summer. The interactive map “pinpoints the locations of Jewish communal and other community organizations in Massachusetts.”2 The aim is to expose and isolate any and all Jewish groups who have a relationship with Israel because of the perceived impact this must have on the Palestinian people and their national aspirations. It is clearly antisemitic in the way it calls to dismantle and disrupt most of Boston’s Jewish community, and unfortunately, we know from bitter experience what happens when people seek to make lists of Jews and Jewish institutions.

The Goyim Defense League, those with the banner on the 110 Freeway, used the “Mapping Project” in a seminar to demonstrate “the domination of these Jews, and how infested they are all over”.3 Which brings us to the Wellesley News editorial board six miles away from here, who endorsed the “Mapping Project” in an editorial last month and described it as providing a “vital service.”4 Whatever I might think about the tone and one-sided nature of their journalism, the endorsement and promotion of an antisemitic project by student journalists is deeply problematic. And it took a full two weeks and immense pressure for them to print a further statement, not apologizing for promoting the project, but in their words apologizing “for not clarifying the nuanced nature of the Project’s inclusion.”5 They in fact doubled down on the Project as a useful source of information.

I have the lyrics of Steeler’s Wheel, Stuck in the Middle With You running through my head. “Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right, Here I am, Stuck in the middle with you” – although I might use words that are stronger than “clowns” or “jokers” when referring to the antisemites around us.

So what can we do? Is this just another doom and gloom sermon about today’s antisemitism?

No it isn’t. Because, while we must acknowledge the antisemitic incidents that have taken place around us it is also important recognize that there has already been a response. The Gap, JPMorgan Chase, Def Jam, the Celtics Jaylen Brown, Footlocker, the production company MRC, and belatedly Adidas have all severed their relationships with Kanye. Despite the obvious financial costs they will incur, they took a stand. The MRC statement about the shelving of their Documentary is a masterpiece in the condemnation of the antisemitism we are witnessing today. I’ve shared a link to it on my Facebook page so that people can read it.6

And there is Paula Johnson, the President of Wellesley College who issued a statement condemning the Wellesley News editorial. As she wrote: “While it is not my practice to comment on the newspaper’s editorials, I do feel the need to make it clear that Wellesley College rejects the Mapping Project for promoting antisemitism.”7 She made this statement because it was the right thing to do, even though it led to a protest from a number of students and faculty on the Wellesley campus.8

We need to do a better of job of thanking our allies when they stand up and condemn antisemitism. We might hope that it would not be necessary, but in today’s world there can be financial, professional, political, and personal consequences for speaking up and we therefore need to let our allies know how grateful we are for their support. I have written to the authors of the MRC statement and to President Johnson to express my gratitude for the stance that they took and to offer support in their fight against prejudice and discrimination.

And then we need to double down on the relationship building that must take place with other minority groups in society. The white supremacists seek to drive a wedge between the people they attack. This means that we must be allies in calling out and standing up to other acts of hate and prejudice, ensuring that no group ever feels alone. We must never stand idly by, in silence; we must raise our voices when others are targeted as well. We can set an example for others to follow. And we must recognize as our enemies sow the seeds of division and hate, they are doing this particularly aggressively between the Jewish and black communities – we cannot allow them to win. We must double down in building relationships and supporting one another, on a personal and communal level.

And finally, we need to remind ourselves and the world that Judaism is about so much more than what those who hate us have to say. We cannot live on the defensive, constantly telling people what we’re not and challenging the antisemites who promote hate.

Instead, we need to be proud of our Judaism and our Jewish identity. We need to remind people of the richness of the Jewish community today.9 A small but strong community that embraces the ancient and the modern, that sees the potential to bring blessing into the world, and repairs that which broken. A community that is spread out across the globe, encompassing people from a diverse range of economic, social, racial, national, and cultural backgrounds. A community that has contributed so much despite our small numbers and the attacks against us. There is so much to celebrate, to teach, and to share about Judaism – we need to make sure that those stories are told, so that the world learns about who we really are from us. Because we all know that the real Jewish story is a beautiful one that we need to tell, to nurture, and to share.