I know very little about Kanye West. His music doesn’t speak to me. Hip-hop is not a genre that I can easily cozy up to… Over the years, I have certainly come to respect West’s musical acumen and his cultural influence. He has earned tons of money, designed footwear, and fashion, opened a charter school, and many other accomplishments.
Kanye West struggles with mental illness. I’m not sure if an official diagnosis has been shared publicly, but the man has issues. His behavior has been erratic, and his relationships turbulent and often destructive.
The story of Kanye West is a complex portrait of a man with enormous capacity and talent. It is also a story of disturbance and poor impulse control. There are many examples of Kanye’s penchant for making himself the center of attention to the detriment of others. It’s sad and a little outrageous.
Now, on top of all these complications and the wreckage he’s caused, is a new and disturbing development. Kanye West is a loud-mouthed antisemite. He’s bought into the various traditional antisemitic tropes like Jews control Hollywood. Jews control the music industry. Jews are avaricious. Jews have an underground organization that seeks to control the world.
These old calumnies are always shocking. We’ve heard all the antisemitic slurs, all the awful lies about conspiracies and cheap Jews, and how we stain the world. And yet, when these insidious lies are spoken out loud by a public personage, a person who millions of people know and will listen to because of his fame, it’s painful. And frightening.
What motivates West to spew Jew hatred? Of course, no one knows what’s in West’s mind; he may not even know his own mind. But he swims in a culture increasingly plagued by lies. He shares a profoundly distorted take on reality that centers on conspiracies like QAnon, on plots to steal elections, and on charges that Jews are purposefully seeking to increase the number of racial minorities to displace the white American population. Supporters have used the conspiracy theory as a populist (and often racist) canard to advocate for anti-immigration policies and discredit politicians they perceive as left-wing. The theory has generated strong support in many sectors of the Republican Party of the United States and has become a significant issue of political debate.
West’s twisted comments are being fed by the noxious fumes that have spread over America these past six years. Antisemitic statements are more frequent. Hate crimes have soared. It is deeply troubling to see someone like West have no compunctions about talking trash about Jews. It means that people like West, who have quietly harbored animosity towards Jews, now speak it out loud. They think they have permission.
Seeing how the world has responded to West’s spouting off is gratifying. Companies have severed ties with him. He’s been excluded from social media sites. Many people have denounced him. This is all for good. I haven’t noticed an upsurge in antisemitic incidents. If anything, this whole Kanye incident is an awakening, a cultural moment of reckoning.
What are we supposed to do? How do we respond to West’s toxic discharge? I’m not sure we can do a whole lot about people who hate us because we are the Other: the non-Christian, the outsider, the interloper, the thief, the evil one. How do we discredit a two-thousand-year-old playbook about evil Jews?
A man walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, five years ago and killed 11 people. He was infected by the same horrible, virulent lies, the same conspiracy theories that West proclaims. Our response is to live a proud, boldly declared Jewish life. We stand together and claim our own freedom to celebrate our history and our commitment to a progressive, inclusive future. We are not running away. We can never fear responding to hate. We will call it out every time.