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"Understanding the Roots of Anti-Semitism in America"
The recent surge in anti-Semitic incidents and statements made by public figures has sparked a crucial conversation about the role society can play in addressing and combating this issue.
In an effort to model the kind of open and honest discussion required to sustain democracies, I joined a panel of experts for a conversation on ‘Honestly’ with Bari Weiss. Together, we delved into the root causes of this problem and explored potential solutions.
Topics included the history of Black-Jewish relations in America, both its highs and its lows, including the strong Black-Jewish allyship that took place during the civil rights movement as well as the continued influence of notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan in pockets of the Black community.
Leading the conversation, Bari expressed concern about the rise of antisemitism and the spread of harmful ideologies including among celebrities like Kanye West, who has been hobnobbed with white nationalists and Holocaust deniers.
Below is a transcript of some of our conversation. I hope you find meaning in it.
At the risk of sounding like we're in group therapy or some bad camp icebreaker, I want to ask you guys why each of you are here, like what brings you to this conversation. And let's just start by laying our cards on the table. And here are mine. I'm not sure if you guys know this, but I am Jewish. And I worry a lot about antisemitism, not just for the sake of my community, the Jewish community, but for the sake of broader society. And I wrote a book a few years ago in the aftermath of the massacre at my synagogue in Pittsburgh Tree of Life, which basically made the case that when you start to see antisemitism rising in a culture or a country, it is a sign 100% of the time in history, that that society is dead, or at least is dying. And so when I see Kanye West, there's alot of things that I love about Hitler, a lot of things,one of the greatest artists of our time spreading antisemitism, unapologetically. When I see him meeting with the former president of the United States, we learned from Kanye West's Twitter feed that the rapper had dinner with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and that he was accompanied by white nationalist and Holocaust denier, Nick Fuentes. West became engulfed in controversy along with a holocaust revisionist and neo-Nazi. When I see Jews getting beaten in the streets of Brooklyn, and no one really saying anything about it, or when I see college students hiding their Judaism. I want to call all of it out for the danger that it is. But or rather, and I also am someone that doesn't like public shaming, I don't like the bullshit of canceled culture. And so I find myself wondering whether I should celebrate Kyrie Irving suspension from the nets? Is it canceling? Or is it just consequences? And I want to push myself to make sure that I'm not inadvertently embracing tactics that I typically reject. Just because it's my group right now that's vulnerable. So those are my stakes. That's why I'm coming to this conversation. And I'm curious to hear from each of you the same.
Chloe, how about you?
Yeah, I'm interested in where bigotry comes from, and how it emerges psychologically. I've done a lot of work studying this in anti-racism spaces. I've done a lot of work fighting against anti semitism on this front as well. And I'm curious about how, and why bigotry becomes popular in a society and what that says about our society and particularly a society's insecurities and how it deals with scarcity. And I'm interested in helping people form responses that are informed by an awareness of that scarcity, that could be creating bigotry, and perpetuating it and making sure that their responses are not perpetuating it. But in fact, creating an environment where bigotry can be transformed, and the relationships that we have with each other can be restored. That's really what I'm interested in, in coming into this conversation.
[to audience] Chloe is someone who has sort of always had one foot in and one foot out of two worlds, right, the worlds of black America and the world of Jewish America.
[To Chloe] I'm curious how you think about the integral relationship between these two worlds. During the period, we're talking about the civil rights movement from the other side, right, you've noted and written about the fact that many of the leaders of that movement, people like Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, obviously MLK, Bayard Rustin, Count Basie, were staunch Zionists. So Jews, as Bret [Stephens] was saying, were drawn to the fight for civil rights because of the Jewish imperative to stand against Pharaohs of any kind, to stand for freedom from oppression, for hating slavery and injustice. Were those black leaders drawn to defending the Jewish people and the Jewish cause for freedom for the same reason?”
“Yes, many of them were. And this was especially the case during protests that erupted within the Jewish community against Soviet mistreatment of its Jews and Soviet dehumanization of Jews which resulted in this association of Zionism with racism. I mean, many of the civil rights movement leaders that you mentioned, came out staunchly against that, and came out against the persecution of Soviet Jewry. And so there was this ally ship, there was this reciprocal sense of mutuality, that really permeated certainly a lot of Dr. King's philosophy in the sense that he believed that everything was interconnected. And so, of course, “even as our Jewish brothers and sisters marched for us, we will march for them.” And at the same time, you also had opposing sentiments coming out of the black community that were opposed to the Civil Rights Movement opposed to the style and philosophy of the Dr. Kings and the Bayard Rustins of the world, who said, and believed that other ways of being would bring about power, and would bring about liberation. And of course, you see, you saw this in in the Nation of Islam. You still see it in the Nation of Islam today with Louis Farrakhan, back then Malcolm X, and you see this within the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, which comes from a different strain. And it would be a mistake to try to characterize any group of people in any direction, meaning to idealize a group of people as only angels is equally as dehumanizing in a way as seeing them as only demons. We have to be able to see the complexity that exists within our fellow man, which also exists within ourselves.
On The Nation of Islam’s Sense of ‘Chosenness’
Chloe, you've written that the “psychological attraction of that antiSemitism,” the reason the Nation of Islam has had such success in attracting both converts and admirers derives, at least partly from a sense of competition for chosenness. What did you mean by that?”
Yeah, so there's a historically beleaguered community that saw a man, Elijah Mohammed, promoting a vision in which that same community, instead of being ridiculed and reviled for its skin color, would be deemed as actually chosen for its skin color. And so there's a sense of chosen-ness that is a powerful, potent stream within Nation of Islam ideology, and this is really par for the course when you have a community that is deeply impacted by scarcity, both psychologically and materially as we know, the black community was and it's also I should specify, specifically men. These are men who have been historically deeply wounded in a racist society that are looking for a powerful masculine symbol that they found within people like Elijah Muhammad, and Malcolm X. And many others who were preaching a doctrine that, in many ways, actually, rhymes, is not quite the same, but rhymes with something like what a Jordan Peterson might tell men, right today. So there's this potent call to make your bed right and defend your woman and protect yourself. That was the clarion call that was coming out of the Nation of Islam historically. And of course, if you have a wounded, beleaguered community, that is going to be a very attractive call, the problem with that call is that it comes with this hatred, this deep sense of hatred against Jews and against white people in general. And that hatred, has buried itself within the Nation of Islam’s philosophy. And, you know, the question becomes, is it possible to be sustained, to empower yourself to stand up for yourself without making that dependent upon tearing the other down, without making that dependent upon being in competition with another group of people who have a sensibility around “chosen-ness”? And this is specifically why Jews specifically are attacked. Because when the Nation of Islam says, “no, no, because you are black, you are chosen,” it also concludes that any other group of people that are claiming to be chosen, are a threat, necessarily to that, to that ideology, to that philosophy. And so the penetration with which the attack comes has to be of a certain potency, because it's a direct threat to that idea.
The controversy surrounding Kanye and Kyrie Irving's anti-Semitic beliefs were also very much a part of the conversation.
I think right now in the culture, there's this kind of grouping together of Kanye, Kyrie, Kanye, Kyrie, but they're really different examples. Right, Kyrie Irving shared on Twitter a link to a movie called “Hebrews to Negroes wake up black America.” It's a horrible film, laden with anti semitic tropes, including Jews on the slave trade, and the Holocaust never happened or exaggerated. And as Bret just explained, Kyrie initially refused to back down from his pos; he tried to claim I can't be anti-semitic if I know where I come from, nodding to this idea that blacks are the real Hebrews or the real Jews, not to go into all the details, but there was this kind of debacle, he was suspended from the team for eight games, he was forced to apologize publicly, it was kind of humiliating, the ADL accepted a half a million dollar gift only to give it back. That's the shakedown that sort of Bret was referencing. It struck many of us in the Jewish community as a kind of Latter Day Al Sharpton move that was really, really cringe worthy. That to me seems like a much more clean cut example of the kind of canceled culture that I think all of us in this conversation are repelled by, and I guess, if we could go back in time, what what should the response Chloe to Kyrie sharing that link have been if you're the owner of the nets, or if you're running the anti Defamation League, you know, either of those personas are really, you know, what, what should the right response to him sharing that link? Again, let's remind people, this is someone who also believes that the earth is flat, what should have been the right response to him?
I think that a more appropriate response would have been having private conversations inviting Kyrie to have private conversations with the head of the team with the head of the ADL, I think that the former CEO of the ADL did such things in the past with folks who would say anti semitic or prejudicial things. I think that the problem with the performance nature of the society in which we live is that we are incentivized to perform every aspect of our lives, including challenging anti semitism. And so perhaps it may have been the case that the ADL got caught up in that sort of sensibility, right. And it's, it's rushed to cancel if canceling is popular, and it's it, you know, gets you a lot of attention and we are in an attention economy, right, then you're more likely to do things that I think end up being harmful in the long run and also end up perpetuating the very notions that Kyrie had in his mind or Kanye had in his mind about the Jewish community being all powerful and being able to stop things and Kmele I hear what you're saying about Kanye being punished or you know, I don't think he was canceled. I think it's actually impossible to cancel Kanye but certainly, consequences for his actions. I think with Kanye though, shaming won't work. If the goal is to actually get us into a space where we're having conversations with each other, but also, when we have offended each other, we're able to realize how we've offended each other and why we've offended each other, and how that has brought in so much pain towards each other, if that's the goal that we want to get to. And I don't think shaming will work. So the question, I think, for us is, how can we actually meet Kanye? And others, people like that, who clearly have a platform who clearly have influence? And who are also clearly suffering on some level? Can we do both? And it seems to me that there has been a total absence of that in the conversation, our society has not been primed for that; we have not been conditioned, we have not learned how to actually do that. And if we could get to a place where we're able to respond to the comments of the world in that way, I think there's a greater chance that we'll get the outcome that we're seeking
On Dave Chapelle’s Monologue
Some people said that chapell’s jokes normalized anti semitism. And Eli, you wrote this great column where you talked about giving Chappelle what you called a shtetl pass, and made the argument that basically we need to give artists and especially comedians wide latitude in terms of what they're able to say. So what did each of you think about his monologue in brief? And what did it reveal about where we are? And did you have the same reaction to that moment as I did if we could just each briefly weigh in?
“I also loved it. I was laughing the entire time. I will just add, though, that I think that this ally ship like posture [where two groups bond over having the same political agendas], as opposed to a friendship-like posture actually results in even greater outrage from Jews when seeing anti semitism come from the black community. And I think there might have been a little bit of that recognition, or awareness and what Chappelle was saying when he said that line”. [This is in reference to the line Chappelle said when he said that Jews needed to recognize that black people are not responsible for the holocaust and other sufferings Jews have experienced.]
On Repairing the Relationship
Chloe, you recently wrote that the greatest American moonshot of the past 100 years wasn't JFK, his idea of, of a man landing on the moon, it was Dr. King's idea of fundamentally transforming national consciousness across lines of color. The current moment calls on us to do this work again, beginning by repairing the wounded but necessary friendship between blacks and Jews. How do we do that, other than me hosting Kanye for a lesbian Shabbat dinner here in Los Angeles?
Well, [laughs] I think that we have to learn how to get in right relationship with our full complexity. That means working on ourselves, and making sure that we are not easily susceptible to conspiratorial mindsets, making sure that we understand that the project of integration, that term has a lot of cultural cachet for obvious reasons, but the project of integration isn't just a societal project. It is also an individual and a communal project in the sense that we have to recognize as human beings, that we contain both the potential for good and evil, and we should not caricature ourselves or any other group of people by seeing them and as I said earlier, as either all good or all bad. This requires an adoption of a new way of seeing and a new way of being. And it is a very difficult thing to do, right? It's very difficult for the people in the civil rights movement to respond to white supremacists by saying, “Actually, I love you, and you're my brother, and even though I'm going to protest what you're doing, I'm going to do so nonviolently. And I'm going to do so while recognizing that you too, are actually suffering,” right?
It's very difficult to do that. And it requires practice and actual habit in order to be able to do that. And I think the present moment, which is, as we've already established, rife with conspiratorial ways of thinking, it is incumbent upon us to take upon that practice, so that we can bring into fruition the beloved community, and it's not something that simply falls from the heavens, it's something that we have to work on and bring it to fruition. And I think we have to take that up as individuals and as a society as a whole.
Up Next: Chapter 6 - The Jazz Approach to DEI: Avoiding Overfitting and Finding Clarity
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