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Laughing at Kanye Doesn’t Help

Just a couple of weeks after vowing, on Twitter, to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” the musician and designer Kanye West, who now goes by “Ye,” found himself on camera outside what looked like a strip of businesses in Los Angeles — one of those parking-lot nonplaces so typical to TMZ-style videos. A scrum of reporters asked him about the multiplatformed antisemitic hatred he had, lately, been trading in, and the ensuing fallout, which saw him dropped by corporate partners including Adidas and Balenciaga. In response, he produced his phone and read, with increasing vigor, from a website listing which media and entertainment companies have Jewish executives, finally holding up his phone as if to offer visual proof of who, supposedly, controlled everything.

None of this part of the video was shared particularly widely, not even for the purpose of condemning it. After all, Ye had been saying this kind of stuff for weeks. What did end up circulating was the bit, at the video’s end, in which Ye pivots from talking about his MAGA hat to talking about his mental-health treatment, which he now regrets. “The thing about the red hat that drove me to a point of exhaustion,” he says, gesticulating like an old man lecturing from his porch, “which was misdiagnosed by a — I’m not going to say what race, what people — doctor, and what hospital, what media went to — we know I can’t say that.” But then he crosses his arms and, after an exquisitely short pause, clarifies what he isn’t allowed to say, just in case it might have gone over anyone’s head: “It was a Jewish doctor.”

For that, Jewish Twitter went a little wild. The brief punchline of Ye’s long, horrid ramble was shared again and again, not, for the most part, in outrage, not because it espoused the oldest kind of conspiratorial antisemitism, not because it showed no remorse for inspiring an ongoing variety show of full-frontal hatred, but because something about his delivery felt, in the words of one Jewish political staff member who retweeted the clip, so “classically Jewish.” It was unintended, but in terms of comedic timing, it could have passed muster at Grossinger’s in the heyday of the borscht belt. Joan Rivers could not have done better.

Antisemitism in America

Antisemitism is one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice, and those who monitor it say it is now on the rise across the country.

  • Perilous Times: With instances of hate speech on social media and reported incidents on the rise, this fall has become increasingly worrisome for American Jews.
  • Kanye West: The rapper and designer, who now goes by Ye has been widely condemned for recent antisemitic comments. The fallout across industries has been swift.
  • Kyrie Irving: The Nets lifted their suspension of the basketball player, who offered “deep apologies” for posting a link to an antisemitic film. His behavior appalled and frightened many of his Jewish fans.

Far be it from me to tell my people not to laugh at a time like this; since when have we not turned our haters into humor? But something about the stickiness of this clip, in specifically Jewish circles, broke my heart, because it spoke of a group looking for something, anything, to use as a raft or security blanket. Here, coming from a public figure so media-dominating that his actions were impossible to ignore, was undisguised “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”-style hatred, sitting in full spread in the middle of mainstream popular culture. Here were people entering from the fringes, emboldened, hanging a “Kanye is right about the Jews” banner from a Los Angeles overpass. Here was the N.B.A. player Kyrie Irving, in a news conference, standing by his posting of a link to a film that, among other wildly anti-Jewish ideas, denies the Holocaust happened. Here was Donald Trump questioning American Jewish loyalties and posting that “U.S. Jews have to get their act together.” And here was Dave Chappelle, on “S.N.L.,” beginning his monologue by reading the apology Ye might have given to “buy time” and continuing to riff on how there are “two words in the English language that you should never say together in sequence: ‘The’ and ‘Jews.’”

Antisemitism felt like it was trending — moving, with bewildering speed, from something verboten to something floating casually around the culture. To take refuge in a spare moment of unintended comedy, one that made Ye look silly rather than dangerous, was an understandable balm. But the laugh still felt to me like the queasy titter of being backed into a corner, with nowhere else to go.

For years, American Jews have been slow to respond to homegrown antisemitism. The reasons are manifold and labyrinthine. Some left-leaning Jews shy guiltily away from centering any persecuted status, on the logic that other questions (anti-Black racism, issues around Zionism) are more weighty. Some right-leaning Jews don’t want to cut into an allyship with the Christian Right and its support for Israel (even if it contains characters like, say, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who once claimed that wildfires in California may have been started by a space laser connected to the Rothschilds). Bilateral reasons exist as well. We know that to create consequences for the antisemite who says Jews have all the power builds him a soapbox from which to say: “See? I told you so.” There is also the Holocaust, which, in its central enormity, can make almost any threat feel minor in comparison. For younger Jews especially, calling out antisemitism has felt like an outdated habit belonging to that uncle at the Passover table, primed to fear the worst every time a swastika is spray-painted on a random wall. It has been easy to self-soothe by telling ourselves we live in a golden age of ease, because compared to so many other ages, filled as they are with pogroms and expulsions and mass murder, we do.

Early this month, I spoke to some rabbis and experts on antisemitism. Some said antisemitism can be seen as a “bellwether” indication that things are about to get bad for a lot of people — the canary in the coal mine for increased hate and division. Hearing this, I was reminded of the scholar and author Dara Horn, who has called out these exact descriptors as a form of Jewish self-effacement, as if we are saying that the real bad thing about antisemitism is that it might mean hate crimes for others.

But this year, one senses younger Jewish generations beginning to wrestle with all these forces tempering their response. Maybe it’s because the hatred is hitting them where they live — on cultural feeds, playlists, favorite brands, phones. After the 2017 Charlottesville marches, when assorted white supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us” got only faint condemnation from the president, it felt like a political turning point had been reached: It was no longer a given, at the height of politics, that you had to seem appalled by hatred against the Jewish people. Now, seeing uncoded antisemitism emerge in usually anodyne pop-culture settings — places like basketball news conferences and Hollywood interviews — another deep cut emerges. We once had a media ecosystem in which obvious antisemitism could end a career or at least force a celebrity to lay low for a time. (Mel Gibson is back, as is the designer John Galliano.) But today it can be the beginning of a new phase of exposure, the start of a conversation that will contain both denunciation and approval. In the window of discourse, we have people purging their closets of Yeezy kicks, but we also have NBC promoting an “S.N.L.” monologue that plays fast and loose with the idea of insidious Jewish control.

So yes, Ye’s arms-crossed pause, his split-second reversal, is funny to watch. But it is also where America’s Jews now live: right on the dissolving line between a world in which it is not permissible to say hateful things (“We know I can’t say that”) and one in which people just go ahead and say it (“It was a Jewish doctor”). I don’t think many of us Jews know what to do about that — how to fix it, how to make it better and not make it worse. Finding the humor in the hate isn’t, in the end, so much help at all.


Source photograph: Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse, via Getty Images.

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