Kanye West: Delusional or a Voice for the Masses?
Updated: Jan 17
Kanye West's recent antisemitic remarks, as well the support of Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving for an antisemitic documentary, have caused a storm in the media, sparking both condemnation and support | However, antisemitism in the Black community has much deeper roots.
Kanye West (Ye) has dominated the media for over two weeks with blatant antisemitism. It started with controversial Instagram and Twitter posts that got him blocked from the platforms (which has already been lifted). It continued with a series of extended and delusional interviews, in which he performed the all-time hits of antisemitism, including Jews controlling the media and the banks, the Jews cheating us through contracts, Jews controlling the black voice, and more. The latest stunt was when he pulled out an Excel spreadsheet in front of the cameras in which he allegedly mapped all the Jews who control the production companies in Hollywood. The Jews on the list were, of course, marked in red.
Ye's verbal attacks received a central stage in the international media. The public reaction varied from condemnation to minimizing the severity of his words due to his apparent mental illness (which he also blamed on his Jewish doctor who misdiagnosed him and prescribed him drugs that would have made him "end up like Prince or Michael Jackson"). Moreover, Kanye West suffered a severe financial blow. He lost huge contracts with Balenciaga and Adidas, JP Morgan stopped handling his finances, and a documentary film about his life was dropped. According to Forbes, losing the Adidas contract was particularly difficult and reduced its net worth by 1.5 billion dollars.
So apparently, no real reason to worry, right? We are living in 2022. An extraordinarily influential and famous person blatantly targets the Jews, and the world reacts harshly.
But in reality, it is far more complex.
West's vast array of antisemitic statements is being shared countless times all over social networks, especially on TikTok. A simple examination of the comment section shows that many people are not opposed to West's words and even support them. Some express worries about his mental health, but many others express clear support for West's antisemitic statements that seem to resonate with them. His cryptic words make sense to them and make them feel that someone is finally willing to tell the truth, that no one is willing to tell. You can find many comments along the lines of “He is not wrong,” and “Finally, someone is telling the truth.”
So how much hold do West's words have in public, and where do these perceptions come from?
The average American might connect antisemitism with Nazis or the KKK. But antisemitism comes from all communities, and throughout American history, a unique form of antisemitism has also developed among the Black community.
Jews and Black people in the US have a complex history of charged relations, primarily over housing, commerce, and minority rights. This reality created tensions between the communities but also, a shared fate. An ADL report from 1950 showed that prejudice against Jews is less common among Black people than white people since "blacks feel a sense of common victimization of discrimination," according to the report.
However, the breaking point between Jews and Black people was towards the end of the 1960s, as both groups woke up from the "euphoria" of the cooperation around the civil rights movement. Two studies that examined the attitude of the American public towards Jews (in '64 and '81) concluded that the chances of finding negative attitudes towards Jews amongst Black people are significantly greater than in white people, a finding many other studies supported as well.
In 1967, James Baldwin published a seminal article in the New York Times entitled "Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They're Anti-White." The article provoked harsh reactions when it claimed that Black antisemitism was actually rooted in hatred of whites. In the article, he claims that while Jews would have similar prospects to Black people in the past, they have become part of the white ruling class, taking part in the discrimination of Black people and benefiting from it. Baldwin claimed that the Jews want to be treated as a minority while they have adopted the way of the white man. "The Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American White man – for having become, in effect, a Christian." According to Baldwin, Black antisemitism is not motivated by religion or race but stems from economic conditions. It is a hatred of whites that is mistaken for a hatred of Jews.
Another example that illustrates this concept was Benjamin Hooks appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV special that focused on the importance of dialogue between Jews and Black people. Hooks, who led the NAACP from 1972-1992, responded to the claim that Jews also have minority status by saying, "I look at the crowd here, and I don't see a group of Blacks and Jews, but Black people and white people."
Following an increase in antisemitic cases in the US and various clashes between Black people and Jews in the 1990s, the ADL commissioned an extensive survey to examine antisemitism among the American public. According to the findings, the Black community has a mixture of positive and negative attitudes toward Jews. For example, 70% claimed that Jewish business people are as trustworthy just as any other group, but 65% claimed, for instance, that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the USA. The findings show more of an ambivalent attitude than unequivocal antisemitism.
The survey also found different patterns in antisemitic sentiments amongst Black people. While the degree of antisemitism among white people increases as age increases, among Black people, the degree of antisemitism is highest among young men and lowest among middle-aged men. This fact can strengthen the perception that antisemitism in the Black community stems mainly from ignorance and economic hardships.
An extensive study by Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden from 2021 that examined the ideological patterns of antisemitism in the U.S., found that the group with the most antisemitic attitudes is young people on the extreme right. However, they also pointed to strong antisemitic attitudes among the radical left, especially concerning Israel. In addition to young people on the extreme right and left, the study found an increase in antisemitic attitudes among young Hispanics and blacks. For example, 15% of white liberals believed in one of three antisemitic stereotypes, compared to 26% of Hispanic liberals and 42% of black liberals.
A popular claim that tries to explain the increase in antisemitism among blacks is a growing identification with the Palestinians. The most prominent example of this was in the protests against police violence against blacks in Ferguson in 2014, when the signs "From Palestine to Ferguson, end racism now" appeared for the first time. This idea comes from the unity of the struggles between oppressed populations, black and brown, against white oppression. Despite the convincing claim, more historical studies found that while Black people did express increasing empathy for the Palestinians, they still expressed more empathy for Israel. The decline in support for Israel among Black people matches the general decline in support among Democrats and is not unique to the Black community. In addition, in recent years, there have been data indicating that Hispanic and black liberals support Israel more than white liberals.
If identification with the Palestinians does not explain antisemitism among Black community, we remain with the understanding that it stems mainly from economic motives. In a growing reality of personal and group insecurity, the Jews are the group that prevents Black people from moving up the social ladder.
Beyond the economic struggle, there is an argument that the struggle between Blacks and Jews is less economic, and more social and cultural. In a society that gives "points" for the levels of oppression that each group suffers from, a kind of competition develops for the "victim" status of each group. A 2020 study in collaboration with Oxford examined antisemitic attitudes stemming from the Holocaust being given the status of "the historical analogy of choice for any instance of collective suffering.” The study claimed that excessive attention to the collective suffering of different groups may increase the competition for their victim status. In the study, they found that groups that feel that their status as victims or that their collective suffering is not sufficiently recognized, may develop a hostile attitude towards other groups that compete with them for the status of victims. The study claims that the important and just struggle of the Black community in the U.S., for recognition of the collective suffering, due to the trauma of slavery, will always encounter the glass ceiling of the ultimate victim – the Jew, and the ultimate trauma – the Holocaust.
This theory explains Kanye West's statement that he "cannot be antisemitic because he is Jew." This position was further reinforced by Kyrie Irving, an NBA player for the Brooklyn Nets, who recently shared on his Twitter a link to the film "Hebrews to Negroes,” a "documentary" film that tries to expose the "biggest lie in the world," that the Jews stole the identity of Blacks. If your trauma is always "second place,” there is another path. Just claim that they are you. Claim that the Jews are not really Jews and that you, are the real Jew.
So why are antisemitic attitudes, such as those that Blacks are the real Jews, gaining momentum among those celebrities and entertainers? The Black community has been earning economic and political power for the past decades, but relatively speaking, they still lag behind the Jews. In terms of political representation, about 13% of the members of the House of Representatives are Black (57), fairly representing their share of the general population. But this is dwarfed by the overrepresentation of Jews in national politics. 6% of the House of Representatives (27) are Jewish, while they are less than 2% of the population. But culture and entertainment are a different story. That's where the Black community's most powerful and influential icons work and experience significant friction between the Black and Jewish elites. Kanye West rubs shoulders with the Jewish producers in Hollywood, and Kyrie Irving rubs shoulders with the Jewish team owners who make up about a third of all team owners in the NBA.
Kanye West is publicly speaking out against the control of the Jews in the entertainment industry, a subject that many others prefer to say only in private. Of course, there are historical circumstances for a significant representation of minorities in specific industries, just as there is a substantial presence of Americans of Indian origin in the hotel industry. Jews, for example, were central in creating the film industry because other industries, such as theater and journalism, were blocked from them. The large portion of Jewish team owners in the NBA can be explained historically by the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, the more popular baseball league was hostile towards Jews, compared to the basketball leagues that operated in the cities and were more open to immigrants. But you can't confuse Kanye and his friends with historical facts. All he sees before his eyes is the continued deprivation caused by others. Somehow, this is wrapped in the same antisemitic tropes we have experienced for hundreds and even thousands of years.
Since Kanye West made headlines, many "influencers" on social media have been reaching out to the Black community to explain the background and context of Kanye's harsh statements. They claim that, unknowingly, the Black community adopts antisemitic concepts that originate in the radical white right. According to the researcher of antisemitism, Eric Ward, the racism of the white right sees Blacks as inferior and, therefore, not threatening and can be exploited. But antisemitism sees the Jew as "superior"; consequently, they are a threat that must be destroyed.
It is unclear how much the general public, especially the Black community, supports Kanye West's statements and others. It is clear that the picture is much more complex, and it is not a new issue that started two weeks ago, but instead that the friction between Jews and Black people, two very influential minorities in the U.S., goes back at least a century. Although we live in an era where it is clear to everyone that Nazism equals evil, antisemitism is much more elusive. Most Black people who support Kanye do not see themselves as antisemitic. They want to advance in society and recognize Jews as a successful minority, to be admired or criticized. While Black people suffer from negative stereotypes, Jews "enjoy" stereotypes that are “positive," which creates deep frustration.
We should continue to condemn the statements of Kanye West and others. Still, we must not make the mistake of thinking that financially harming Kanye and putting a price tag on such statements is sufficient action. Antisemitism has profound roots that will only be more exposed as the Black community continues its progress up the social ladder, and the friction with other minorities who have already "succeeded" in realizing the American dream, such as the Jews, will only increase. The Jewish community must face this type of antisemitism head-on. This phenomenon must be treated as a complex issue that demands a strategic approach, not one that can be solved with campaigns or boycotts.
Barak Sella is the Deputy CEO of the Reut Group and Manages the Jewish Peoplehood Coalition in Israel.