The Kanye/Kyrie storm, an explainer

Hundreds of Black men dressed in purple this week and lined up to insist on Kyrie Irving’s reinstatement into the NBA. His crime? He favorably retweeted a Netflix documentary based on the antisemitic document The Protocol of the Elders of Zion, which included the view of the Black Hebrew Israelites that they are the true Jews.

His retweet came on the heels of Kanye West’s tweet declaring that he was about to go “DeathCon 3 on Jewish people.” Kanye went on to accuse Jewish entertainment managers of secretly murdering family members of various Black entertainment artists, including Kanye’s own mother.

While decrying antisemitism, some of my mutuals were tempted to affirm Kanye’s rage, since it’s true that many of the powerful entertainment managers in Hollywood are Jewish, and after all of his shenanigans, Adidas finally dropped Kanye only after his comments about Jews. A few nights later, Dave Chapelle jokingly acknowledged on Saturday Night Live that Jews are so powerful in Hollywood that their concerns seem to supercede all others. Social media was alive with claims that Kanye and Dave Chapelle were uncovering the Illuminati, while Jewish commentators argued over whether or not to be scared, offended, or amused by Chapelle’s monologue.

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Along with the random attacks on religious Jews in New York that have become endemic, the strange horseshoe of rising left and right-wing anti-Semitism demands our attention. Is America’s Jewish population too well-off for us to concern ourselves with conspiratorial claims against them? Is a cry of ‘anti-semitism’ against Kanye, Kyrie, or Chapelle a failure to appreciate a legitimate complaint in the Black community?

Who are the Black Hebrew Israelites?

Black Hebrew Israelites marched around the Nets' stadium on November 9th and 20th, 2022, showing support for Kyrie Irving, himself a Muslim. Check out Eric Mason’s Urban Apologetics or Jude 3’s interview with Vocab Malone for helpful run-downs on this 140-year-old movement. BHI’s believe that Deuteronomy 28 shows that Blacks (and possibly Latino and Indigenous people as well) are the true Jews because of the terrible experiences they’ve endured, which sound like the curses described in this passage.

According to this view, those who call themselves Ashkenazi Jews now are actually Turkish in derivation and converted around 700 A.D. While this group is wide-ranging enough to include more and less virulent strands (for instance, the Israel United in Christ group formally disavows violence on their website), the original One West group is viciously racist against Jews, whites, and Arabs. Some subgroups condone rape of teen girls in heaven and forms of polygamy that deeply oppress second and third wives. Softer versions of Black Hebrew Israelitism are reflected in the work of rappers such as Kendrick Lamar.

Other alternative urban spiritualities have similarly separatist and supremacist tendencies. Kemetists argue that most of the amazing accomplishments in history actually come from Egypt (Kemet), including the story of Christ, which they claim derives from the myth of Horus.

I recently met a Kemetist who argued that Black people can only flourish by being educated in a set of stories about Africa that cannot be verified, such as the claim that Socrates went to school there (according to Plato’s dialogues, Socrates never left Athens except to fight in a battle when he was young). That my desire to find evidence for the stories belied my white European mind, whose standards of rational justification cannot serve Black people. Nor did he think that Black people could be successful in a market-based economy. The Nation of Islam holds that white people are a science experiment gone bad, and their leader, Minister Farrakhan, calls Jews “termites.” Malcolm X, on the other hand, rejected these views prior to his death after becoming disillusioned with the immoral behavior of the movement’s founder, Elijah Muhammed.

Black Americans comprise the most religious demographic in America, with around 80% identifying as Christian. But outside of that super-majority, groups like the Black Hebrew Israelites, Kemeticists, and the Nation of Islam can be especially attractive to disaffected young Black men and women impressed with their powerful presence and erudite explanations of their beliefs and how they lead to Black power.

As my co-author and I chronicle in Black Liberation Through the Marketplace, Black people, and men in particular, were criminalized, unjustly imprisoned, and left to die of disease under the convict leasing program that ran from the end of Reconstruction into the early 20th century. Racial terror through lynching and massacres persisted throughout the Jim Crow period, and official, state-sponsored exclusion from basic economic and political rights didn’t end till the mid-1960s. That some portion of such a group would turn to cults of radical Black identity, separatism, Black supremacy, and Black power ought not to be all that surprising. In fact, we ought to be more surprised that so few did; the moral sophistication and practical brilliance of the civil rights movement is a product, not of Black power movements, but of the Black church. It’s method and achievements, and even its music and its religious commitments have become influential the world over.

While Black power is a popular topic in college history classes, it was and has always been a fairly fringe element in Black American life. But the conspiratorial element of typical anti-Semitism might be especially challenging for Black Americans, who really were the victims of various government conspiracies, including the Tuskegee medical experiments from the 1930s to the 1960s and, quite possibly, government involvement in the inner-city crack epidemic of the 1980s.

The Anti-capitalism of Antisemitism

The built-in antisemitism of these movements is not unique to alternative urban spiritualities. Similar conspiracy theories against Jews—claims that they are at the heart of a globalist empire of finance, and blood libel claims that they are involved in various forms of secret murder—trace their roots to the middle ages.

The association of Jews with high finance arose in two ways:

  1. Christians and Muslims disallowed lending at interest, but because of a verse in which Jews are allowed to lend to Gentiles, Jews were allowed as an exception to this rule, and
  2. often not being allowed to own land, Jews were forced into the cash-based economy.

Most Jews were simple tailors or other sorts of craftsmen, but the fact that the local banker or jeweler had a high likelihood of being Jewish created a stereotyped association with wealth and privilege. The Jewish faith tradition is also a highly literate one, so that as economies shifted toward information and innovation, they naturally excelled. The Rothschilds of Germany founded and expanded a large international banking business. When the interwar hyperinflation sent Germany into financial chaos, Hitler could draw upon a bundle of prejudiced ideas to blame the “Jewish bankers,” even though governments print money and cause hyperinflations, not banks.

The origin of blood libel, the idea that Jews were killing Christian children to bake matzoh with, or that they were poisoning the wells of the fellow townspeople, is much harder to explain. It may be as simple as prejudice against those who are different, or the association of Jews with the killing of Christ. Later, Jews fared better during the Black Plague because of their handwashing rituals, but since no one understood germs at this time they were assumed to have demonic assistance. Whatever the explanation, these pernicious rumors led to violent pogroms, especially in Russia. Martin Luther’s frustration with Jews’ unwillingness to convert to Protestantism led him into an antisemitic fervor, including a recommendation to totally suppress their religion, confiscate all their wealth, and subject them to forced labor.

The anti-capitalist aspects of antisemitism are often forgotten even though they’re quite prominent. Karl Marx himself said that “money is the jealous God of Israel” and that the religion of the “real Jew” is “huckstering” and “self-interest.” The association of Jews with some sort of global capitalist cabal is just the latest rendition of an age-old accusation. Henry Ford–not such a capitalist slouch himself!–said that “all evil” is due to “the Jewish capitalists” including “the war,” “the outbreak of thieving and robbery all over the country” and even “the inefficiency of the navy.” Notice that Ford’s series for his local newspaper was called “The International Jew,” a slight against the cosmopolitan nature of free trade.

That most famous of antisemitic screeds, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, records the fake meetings of a Jewish plan to rule the world. Hitler was deeply influenced by the work, who, leaving no hated thing unattributed to the Jews, blamed them as capitalists for the interwar hyperinflation, and as Bolshevists for starting the 1917 communist revolution. A favorite of Black American antisemitic conspiracists is the claim that Jewish people were central to the transatlantic slave trade and to the Southern planter population (they weren’t). Recently, Jew-hating as a form of anti-globalism is back, with right-wing protestors at Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” while the left’s pro-Palestine push has careened into quite a few instances of unhinged anti-Zionism in European politics and on American college campuses.

The most puzzling thing about this trend is its sheer irrationality. As any good theorist of capitalism will tell you, it works so well because it’s not actually being planned by anyone. In fact, no person or group of people has the information or expertise to determine economic outcomes on a grand scale. We can plan and build businesses, and when we do, we benefit our customers and employees. But beyond that? I’m not sure how this global cabal is supposed to be motivated, but if they’re trying to decrease abject poverty and infant and maternal mortality, or extend our average lifespans, they’re doing a bang-up job.

Should We Be Worried? YES

Our knee-jerk analysis of oppressor and oppressed easily leads us into shrugging off threats to Jewish people since they are overrepresented among the cultural and economic elite. But I would warn heavily against this; the 20th century gives us no shortage of privileged groups oppressed unjustly for that very reason. Obviously, the European Jews themselves come to mind, but don’t forget that kulaks (landlords) were starved to death by the Soviets; Pol Pot murdered a third of the Cambodian population in four years, killing thousands because their glasses gave them an intellectual appearance; and Mao’s student groups would humiliate and torture their own professors in “struggle sessions”.

The insane power of the modern nation-state weaponized by anti-capitalist ideology allowed all of these things to happen to people who had money and cultural cache, on the assumption that they were somehow harming others with all their productivity. In the end, a market economy is a compromise with the imperfections of our nature; I hope you’ll be virtuous, but even if you’re a greedy bastard at least I can incentivize you to produce something useful. The utopian vision of the revolutionaries, on the other hand, brooks no impurity. All must be cleansed.

While frustrations with one’s managers may be quite frustrating for millionaire sports stars and billionaire rappers, I don’t think we should display any social tolerance for Ye’s kind of talk, or for Kyrie’s promotion of these hateful ideas. To do so is not showing love or deference to the Black American experience; after all, that experience was in many ways shaped by a sense of identification with Exodus of the Ancient Hebrews, and by an orthodox Christianity that loves and admires Judaism and values its people. We ought to know enough about alternative urban spiritualities to speak intelligently to their false claims about the true nature of Israel, Christ, or the Jewish people.

Let us engage Black antisemitism, just as we engage nationalist antisemitism or extreme anti-Zionism, with firmness and rational argument. This world must never again allow the lies and hatred that led to the Shoah, no matter who is spewing it. Never. Again.

Rachel Ferguson is the Director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago, Assistant Dean of the College of Business, and Professor of Business Ethics. She is an affiliate scholar of the Acton Institute and co-author of Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America..

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