A Black rapper, a Latino white supremacist, and former president sat down for dinner. It sounds like a bad joke, but it happened last month when Donald Trump hosted two outspoken antisemites, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) and right-wing provocateur Nick Fuentes at Mar-a-lago. Since then, Ye has become more overt with his antisemitism, praising Adolf Hitler and Nazis, criticizing Jews and “the Jewish media” in an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars.
Much as Ye would like this to be all about Ye, it’s much bigger than him. The problem is the persistence of these antisemitic tropes: that Jews are greedy and deceitful, that they control the banks, the media, Hollywood, and the music industry. These tropes have existed for centuries in different forms, from medieval anti-Jewish rhetoric to Shakespeare’s Shylock. In the twentieth century, they appeared in the infamous forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, combining with Nazi racialist pseudoscience to inspire the Holocaust.
Though antisemitism never reached this pitch in the US, these same tropes found a home in interwar America through industrialist Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent and the hateful diatribes of radio priest Father Coughlin.1 While American antisemitism declined after the Holocaust, conspiracies about the European Rothschild family morphed into modern attacks on “globalists” like George Soros and “court Jews” like Jared Kushner. With the proliferation of this rhetoric during the Trump era, incidents of anti-Jewish violence have increased, most horrifically in synagogue shootings. Sadly, antisemitic tropes long predate Ye and will likely be around long after he is gone.
Insofar as Ye himself is a problem, it is his ability to disseminate these tropes and, as a Black celebrity with an enormous platform, to grant legitimacy to white Christian nationalists. Ye’s overt antisemitism and friendships with Trump and Fuentes raise the specter of an alliance between reactionaries among diverse non-Jewish groups in the US, fomenting what political scientist Joe Lowndes calls “cross-racial antisemitism.”2
A multicultural antisemitic alliance would provide Jew-hatred with a veneer of legitimacy and potentially inspire violence against a small and vulnerable American Jewish population (about 7 out of 15 million globally, compared to Ye’s 32 million Twitter followers). It would also damage relations between Black gentiles and white Jews, with Black Jews caught in the crossfire. As long as some Jewish people refuse to repudiate Trump, and some Black people refuse to condemn Ye, the antisemitic alliance will persist, threatening the Jewish community and American democracy.
It is too soon to say whether Ye’s unvarnished antisemitism, free of euphemisms like “globalists” and “New York values,” has legitimized Jew-hatred in broader society or specifically among African Americans. Black-Jewish relationsin the US have been marked by moments of cooperation and conflict, from the Civil Rights Movement to the Crown Heights riots of 1991. These relations have become more complex as the population of Black Jews has grown in number and visibility, breaking down the simple “Black or Jewish” binary. Nevertheless, the persistence of antisemitism in the Black community and lingering anti-Black prejudice in the Jewish community raises questions as to how much influence a figure like Ye has among non-Jewish African Americans, and how likely he is to provoke a racist backlash among white Jews.
Answering these questions is difficult in part because Ye deviates from one historic trend of Black antisemitism yet simultaneously follows another. In a standup routine from the 1990s, comedian Chris Rock responded to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan’s similarly overt antisemitism with bewilderment. “Black people don’t hate Jews,” Rock countered. “Black people hate white people. Just because we can tell the difference between one white guy and another doesn’t mean we have time to dice them up into little groups. ‘Jews are f****d up, but the Irish are cool.’ You’re all white to us.”
Rock’s commentary echoed celebrated novelist James Baldwin’s 1967 New York Times article, “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They Are Anti-White.” Baldwin argued that Black antisemitism was what I call “antisemitism of sameness.” African Americans assumed that Jews, a people who had long suffered persecution, would be more sympathetic to their plight. When Blacks used antisemitic rhetoric, it was because present-day Jews, who had access to whiteness, failed to live up to the lofty ethical standards expected of them and instead were just as racist as white Christian Americans.3
Ye’s antisemitism, however, represents something different: the antisemitism of difference. He singles out Jews among whites for his vitriol. What’s more, he uses antisemitism to integrate into a specific branch of the white power structure and to position himself as a powerful African American man within the tradition of Black separatism. Both impulses, to integration and to separation, are prevalent throughout African American history, but Ye’s appeal to both through antisemitic rhetoric is particularly dangerous.
While relying on established antisemitic tropes, Ye insisted he is in fact a descendant of ancient Israelites, making him the “real Jew” unlike the white impostors who claim Judaism today. This view, common among Black Hebrew Israelites, relies on antisemitism of difference within a specifically Black context. These lies may not interest white Christian supremacists who hate both Blacks and Jews, but they can appeal to Black separatists.
Ye has embraced separatism before, specifically in praising the aforementioned Farrakhan. At the same time, Ye uses antisemitism to ingratiate himself to the mostly white Alt-Right. While Ye’s antisemitism is anathema to mainstream America, it is either ignored, down-played, or well-received by white Christian nationalists or their enablers, like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump. Of course, Ye also employs anti-Black rhetoric to flatter white elites, a common tactic for Black conservatives, such as claiming slavery was “a choice.” But in advancing an antisemitism that appeals to white and Black supremacists, in spreading tropes that resonate with right-wingers of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, Ye threatens to inspire an anti-Jewish alliance more dangerous than anything American Jewry has seen in decades. As Jews know from experience, tropes and rhetoric are often only the beginning.
- See Leo P. Ribuffo, “Henry Ford and The International Jew,” American Jewish History, Vol. 69, No. 4 (June 1980), pp. 437-477; and Thomas Doherty, “The Deplatforming of Father Coughlin,” Slate, January 21, 2021. ↩
- University of Oregon political scientist Joseph Lowndes refers to “cross-racial antisemitism,” on Twitter, @JoeLowndes, November 29, 2022, 6:33 PM. ↩
- This phenomenon dates to the antebellum era. See Jacob Morrow-Spitzer, “The ‘Theoretical Jew’ Versus the ‘Southern Jew’: Black Perceptions of Jewish Whiteness in the 19th Century American South,” American Jewish History, Vol. 106, No. 1 (January 2022), pp. 31-54. ↩