Antisemitism has been escalating dramatically in the United States in recent years. The main tenet of American Jews – that antisemitic violence only occurs “over there” in Europe and the Middle East – has been put to the test. Daniel Solomon revisits the phenomenon, focusing on how Kanye West synthesizes antisemitic tropes from the right and others from the left in an unprecedented way.
Antisemitism in the United States has been on a vertiginous rise of late. A decade ago, data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation began to show an increase in hate crimes against American Jews. What initially could be dismissed as a statistical blip acquired a gruesome tangibility in 2018, when a gunman murdered 11 worshipers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. The thirteen months after the rampage saw two more lethal attacks on the Jewish community—the massacre of five at a New Jersey kosher grocery store and the killing of a congregant at a shul in California. Another mass casualty event was narrowly averted in 2022, when a terrorist held congregants at a Texas synagogue hostage.
The antisemitic upsurge has also manifested in more quotidian and insidious ways. During the most recent escalation in Israel-Palestine, visible Jews were heckled and beaten on the streets of Manhattan and Washington, DC. In some Brooklyn neighborhoods, Hasidic Jews have become the victims of a grim ‘game’ of skull-smashing, euphemistically called “knock-out. Antisemitism, clad in the new garb of a radical critique of the state of Israel, has become once again clubbable on many American university campuses. Meanwhile, A-List celebrities, including Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, have fanned conspiracies about Jewish domination.
We ought not exaggerate the menace—American Jewish existence has not yet assumed the cloistered nature of European Jewish life. Immigration statistics for Israel have not registered a rush for the exits. Jews in the United States enjoy a prominence in public life nowhere seen in the Diaspora since the heyday of Moorish Spain. The state has not shirked its responsibility as a guarantor of Jewish safety. And polls consistently show that philosemitism is far more common in the U.S. than antisemitism.
American Jews’ central nostrum, however-that antisemitic violence happens only “over there,” in Europe and the Middle East—has been sorely put to the test. American Judaism’s existential challenge from the forties onward was the preservation of communal life in a society that had swung the doors open to our people in the “Protestant, Catholic, Jew” universalism of the postwar era. American Jewry—like America itself—has been (or should be) disabused of the exceptionalist delusion. The mid-century reverie has ended in a rude awakening-now is a time for the hard-headed and clear-eyed.
American Jews have, so far, failed to set out a comprehensive account of our predicament. The left waves the bloody shirt of anti-Trumpism, blaming antisemitism’s rise on the ostensible mainstreaming of white nationalism and conspiracy theories about “globalists.” Organizations like IfNotNow and T’ruah have traded in the dream of felicitous consensus for that of a shared banner for ‘intersectional’ minorities. Antisemitism, in this narrative, is part and parcel with racism; American Jews must lock arms with the wretched of the earth to overthrow the white cisheteropatriarchy. The right, on the other hand, excoriates the left for consorting with anti-Zionists—which in their parlance often means any criticism of the state of Israel. American Jews’ interests are conflated with those of the most reactionary elements in Israel. American Jews, in this account, are exhorted to vote for the right — Israel’s most reliable patron — to hold back antisemites.
These descriptions are both partial—in the dual sense of the term. Left and right—each downplays the resources and personnel it provides contemporary antisemitism. Both also ignore the obstacles to Jews embracing their respective coalitions. The far-left effectively rebuffs most American Jews in its animus for Israel. The far-right’s Christian nationalism is a non-starter for Jews who cherish the secular character of the American state.
American Jewish umbrella organizations have tried to mix and match left and right critiques. Antisemitism is said to be the product of America’s democratic recession, which is reflected and reinforced by the ascent of political extremes. One must denounce in the same breath the feverish conspiracy theories of the alt-right and the rabid hatred of the Jewish state coming from the Third Worldist left. The Anti-Defamation League is one of the groups that has tried to put this into practice. The Jewish organization has rebranded as a civil rights group that combats racism as well as antisemitism. The ADL has redoubled its anti-bias education programs, which it has presented under the modish rubric of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.” By the same token, it has championed the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of antisemitism, which rightly identifies the cross-contamination between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
Such admirable endeavors falter due to perceived sensationalism and generality. ADL’s pronouncements can at times appear presumptuous and lurid—the organization has held a series of conferences with the title “Never is Now.” Maybe it is not enough to say antisemitism sprouts from the democratic decay of extreme politics. Just as important is to understand how this process unfolds. How exactly species of antisemitism interact matters a great deal. Antisemitism, as in the time of Édouard Drumont, assumes a far more ominous character when left and right variants swap genetic information to produce a more virulent strain. Left and right antisemitism have remained largely distinct in the United States, which in part explains antisemitism’s failure heretofore as an organizing principle of politics.
But that appears to be changing—enter Kanye West. The rapper has a trans-partisan political trajectory and a cross-partisan following. He started out his career as a Democrat, and in 2005 memorably accused then-President George W. Bush of racism over the government’s lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina. He has since veered rightward, palling around with former President Trump, condemning abortion rights, and donning a “White Lives Matter” shirt. Before his antisemitic outburst in October, he gave a lengthy interview to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the country’s leading popularizer of far-right politics. He counts more fans on social media than there are Jews on the planet—and this cultural capital means outrageous pronouncements and outlandish antics will ultimately cost him little.
West’s tirade against Jews teaches much us about the future of antisemitism in the United States. West claimed on social media and in podcast interviews that “Jewish people have owned the Black voice” and that “the Jewish community, especially in the music industry…they’ll take us and milk us till we die.” He hit out at “a Jewish underground media mafia,” in addition to alleging that “every celebrity has Jewish people in their contract.” Hanukkah, he informed us, is a holiday that somehow involves learning about “financial engineering.” Jews, he said, have “an agenda,” and try to destroy those who obstruct it. He cited Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam and the Black Hebrew Israelites as two sources of inspiration for this disquisition.
West commingled in these comments tropes of the antisemitic left and right. He expressed the view that Jews hold down African-Americans, drowning out their voices and expropriating their wealth. This is a cliche dating to the radical fringe of sixties black activism. When African Americans moved to northern cities in the Second Great Migration, many tended to settle in areas that hitherto been
Jewish-largely because Jews were the only whites who would rent to them. Jews, as landlords and shop-owners, soon came to be hated as the instantiation of an elusive upward mobility—the whitest of the white—in a phenomenon that sundry authors like Nathan Glazer, James Baldwin and Norman Podhoretz discussed at the time. He repeated the far-right trope that Jews use the media to manipulate the world in service of a shadowy “agenda.” This malevolence is tied to their insatiable avarice.
West’s ecumenical antisemitism transcends left and right not only in its content but also in its potential appeal. The rapper’s profile allows him to address a global audience of countless political shades. He offers them an explanation for what ails the world in this volatile moment—a Jewish conspiracy crushing the downtrodden from Abuja to Appalachia. The malaise of societies around the globe can thus be expressed through antisemitism, and the Jew can return to center-stage as arch-villain.
West might be an innovator, but he is not a creator. The antisemitism he is espousing-similar to what the encounter of Diedonné M’Bala Bala and Jean-Marie Le Pen produced in France—draws on ideas not only from America’s right and left antisemites, but also from the American right and left tout court. The right, especially in its Trumpian iteration, has placed conspiracy theories at the center of politics—from the canard that the last presidential election was stolen to the abhorrent claim that major mass shootings were hoaxes. The left has, in the name of a new bigotry that calls itself “equity,” insisted that individuals increasingly be identified by race or ethnicity. In a society where group representation in prestigious fields is minutely tracked and conspiracy theories run riot, it is no surprise that the Jewish conspiracy has staged a comeback. When one imputes uniformity to members of particular racial and religious groups and assumes that all aspects of politics and society have been engineered from behind the scenes, how else does one explain Jewish overrepresentation? Partisans on both sides ought to reflect on their role in pitching American Jewry into this hole.
American Jews cannot wait on such repentance with bated breath. There is, of course, much outside our control. American Jews cannot—and do not wish to—police the conduct of politics. Conspiracy theories are, to some extent, endemic to modern societies, in which seemingly abstract and invisible forces govern our daily lives. There is also nothing less certain than the easing of the mass migration, ecological disaster, and economic stagnation that has disordered our politics.
But the American Jewish community—and its principal bodies—are not powerless. The impulse to decry both extremes, secure funds to protect our communal buildings and reach out to people of good will has been the right one. But this needs to be wedded to an understanding of ecumenical antisemitism and how our actions either enhance or hinder it. Right now, major Jewish organizations have adopted a repressive model for incidents of public antisemitism. Case in point is Kyrie Irving, the Nets basketball star, who in November promoted an antisemitic Hebrew Israelite documentary on social media. The ADL initially seemed to have talked sense to him, having negotiated a deal for him to issue a public apology and six-figure donation to the group. He subsequently reneged on the accord and was slapped with an open-ended suspension, his reinstatement contingent on a reconciliation with Jewish leaders.
This seeming power to extract an apology and money in exchange for the resumption of Irving’s career was for some antisemites a vindication of their phantasms of Jewish hegemony and greed. Jewish self-defense often falls into this quandary: the success of such activities is often seen as evidence of Jews’ political and social capture. In a similar vein, Jewish reluctance to discuss representation fuels the idea that we have something to hide.
The best response to the West and Irving controversies would have been dialogue not censure, persuasion nou punishment. The latter approach often confirms the a priori assumptions of the antagonist, and can bring on to his side untold masses. Jews need to acknowledge the high rates of representation that race-conscious politics have made visible, explaining the phenomenon’s sociohistorical causes and rebutting far-fetched conspiracy theories.
Ruth Wisse, the storied Yiddishist and Harvard professor emerita, defines antisemitism as “the organization of politics against the Jews.” Ecumenical antisemitism, whether in fin-de-siecle France or now, is the most effective means of organizing politics against the Jews. We must discard the pieties and reticence of old if we are to defeat it.
Daniel Solomon is a doctoral student at the University of California-Berkeley and the Ecoles des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He is writing a dissertation on the life and times of the French Jewish poet André Spire.