Last month, Kanye West decided to regale his tens of millions of Twitter followers with some Saturday evening thoughts.
“I’m a bit sleepy tonight, but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” he wrote. In case any readers had questions about West’s anti-Jewish hostility, he clarified: “I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also. You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.
The tweet capped off a banner week of antisemitism for West. A few days prior, he joined Fox News’ Tucker Carlson for an interview in which he rattled off several antisemitic tropes, and took to Instagram to suggest Puff Daddy is being controlled by Jews.
West’s comments — broadcast to 31 million people on Twitter alone, roughly double the global Jewish population — drew off of age-old antisemitic conspiracies about shadowy Jewish power and capture of elite institutions. Unlike Father Coughlin, the American antisemitic radio host of the 1930s, West has the power of social media, not just airwaves, to broadcast his strain of anti-Jewish bigotry. But at the heart of both of their prejudices lies an enduring conspiracy about Jewish dominance and control.
This idea sits at the heart of almost all modern conspiracy thinking, according to Megan Black, an expert on antisemitism at the Western States Center, an Oregon-based organization that tracks extremism. I talked to her about the throughlines between Kanye’s antisemitism and white nationalist ideology, and why conspiratorial thinking almost always seizes upon Jews. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your colleagues at the Western States Center have written about how antisemitism forms the “theoretical core” of American white nationalism. Can you explain how you see Kanye’s expression of antisemitic ideology fitting into this framework, if at all?
Antisemitism provides a core animating logic for white nationalist ideology.
What conspiracy theories and especially antisemitism do is they give people something to hold onto to make sense of what’s going on in the world. So they can look at the problems in our society and rely on this age-old trope of blaming the Jews: ‘This is who’s influencing you. This is who is pulling the strings and they are the problem.’ It provides a villain. And the Jews have been deployed in this way for centuries. So it’s a very convenient narrative that’s already baked into our psyches and even to a certain extent, baked into our understanding of the world.
But the other thing that antisemitism does in these spaces is it helps make sense of things that in white supremacist logic otherwise wouldn’t make sense. White supremacy depends on the idea that white people are superior. That they are in and of themselves inherently better than other people. And so when you live in a multiracial society where you have people who are not white managing to overcome the traumas of slavery and Jim Crow, achieve the civil rights successes that they achieved in the 1960s up until today, get elected into office and step into positions of leadership — all of that defies the logic of white supremacy.
And so you have to find a way to explain to people why white supremacy doesn’t always win out. And the thing that they go to is: ‘The only reason that Black people or immigrants or brown people are succeeding in this way is that they are backed by Jewish people. These people who can pretend to be white, who can pretend to be of us, but they’re not of us. They’re actually diametrically opposed to us. They are the reason that Black people have managed to do as well as they have. They are the ones that are undermining our white superiority, our white supremacy.’
That’s why you have people going in and shooting up the Tree of Life Synagogue. They’re targeting Jews because they see Jews as enabling the people they find inferior to them and can’t abide the idea of living underneath or even in relationship with. This is why we see antisemitism as so core to the white nationalist logic. Because it really holds together all of the other racism that is so key to their hate.
Understanding all this, how can we make sense of Kanye’s comments? Is his rhetoric reinforcing the same white nationalist logic? That might seem counterintuitive to some people.
Kanye drank the Kool-Aid. You can be Black, brown, white, gay, straight, any identity, and still hold white supremacist views because what you’re buying into is not the hope that your skin color will change. You’re buying into the idea that this system of power can benefit you and that you, therefore, want to perpetuate it. Kanye sees value in this power structure because he thinks he can benefit from it. So he is willing to make racist remarks and make antisemitic remarks all in the hope of perpetuating this power structure that he sees as benefiting himself.
Ok. But of course, Kanye’s identity as a Black man has been a big part of this conversation. What do you make of his rhetoric when comparing it to the antisemitism that has been expressed in Black nationalist spaces? I’m thinking of figures like Louis Farrakhan, who has blamed Jews for slavery and Jim Crow, among other things. Is there anything new or novel about what Kanye is saying?
I definitely wouldn’t call it new. I wouldn’t say that Kanye is treading new paths in the Black nationalist movement. I don’t want to comment a lot on what this is about for Kanye because it’s really hard to figure out. But what he’s doing tracks much more with the logic that we see, I think, in white nationalist circles and in increasingly authoritarian circles and QAnon spaces.
This kind of antisemitic conspiracy thinking has been around for centuries. It’s very easy to pick up. It’s been seeded in our society for a long time, and it’s a convenient way of thinking. So it’s not surprising to me that Kanye picked this up and has made something of it. We see this in every fringe and extremist space, regardless of color.
One of the things we talk about a lot at Western States Center is that almost all modern conspiracy thinking is patterned on antisemitism. It’s almost inherently antisemitic in that it often requires some kind of secretive global cabal of people who are pulling the strings on unsuspecting Black and brown people or some other disenfranchised group and seeking to overturn a dominant power structure that’s almost always some version of white Christianity. That’s essentially all conspiracy theories — at their heart they’re almost always about Jews.
This reminds me of a piece I wrote for Coda at the beginning of the pandemic about anti-vaccine rhetoric and antisemitism. I was seeing on fringe anti-vaccine spaces online that people were talking about the vaccine as part of a shadowy cabal trying to impose a “New World Order.” It’s one of those things where you kind of have to understand the language to even know it’s a signal. So for a person who doesn’t have to spend their time in these online cesspools — lucky for them! — they might not hear this specific terminology and understand what it’s signaling.
Eventually, it will show itself. Like QAnon. At first, it took a while for the overt antisemitism to emerge. But like clockwork, it came along. Eventually, people connected the dots, and all of a sudden it was about the Jews.
An idea that I find compelling about antisemitism is that it can resurface and become dangerous when Jews are actually most assimilated in a society, which is not necessarily true of other forms of prejudice. You can see the rhetorical dangers of Jewish assimilation because it perversely reinforces this trope about secret control and power: ‘Look at how great the Jews are doing, look at their influence in politics, media and culture.’ How do you see the assimilation of American Jews as contributing or related to this current wave of antisemitism?
When I do this work specifically around trying to connect the dots on antisemitism and racism and anti-Black racism, it’s always important to talk about the ways in which these two forms of racialized othering and oppression show up differently. Because anti-Blackness shows up as this kind of ever-persistent form of racial oppression that never goes away and is always playing out in almost every kind of dynamic. And I think it’s important for the way in which white supremacy functions and for the way in which antisemitism has been manufactured in this space that antisemitism is allowed to kind of slip down under the surface for a while and it gets resurfaced when it’s convenient.
It’s convenient for white Jews to be allowed to assimilate because there’s a lot of benefit that comes from that. Historically, that benefit has been: ‘We can use Jews to provide money lending,’ because Christian communities didn’t believe in usury. And so they were like, ‘We’ll just deploy these Jewish communities to do this for us. And then when they make enough money off of us, we will run them out of town and slaughter their families if they resist and then take their wealth,’ which is what happened for most of medieval history with the expulsions of Jews from various parts of Europe. It was always this moment of: ‘We’ve had this community here. They’ve been very useful and beneficial to us. But now there’s something we’re upset about — maybe the plague — and we don’t understand where the plague is coming from so we’re going to blame it on the Jews and we’re going to run them out of town.’
So the way that antisemitism has played out historically, and I think continues to play out here in the United States, is that it’s really useful sometimes to have Jews feel really comfortable, and then it’s really useful sometimes to run them out of town and take all their resources.
It’s the macabre line of thinking many Jews are familiar with: Always have your passport renewed and your bags packed.
One thing this makes me think about is the role the U.S. plays in the American Jewish imagination. America in a way has served as an exception to the long history of violence that Jews have experienced in so many other countries, especially in Europe. So many American Jews, including myself, are here because their ancestors were fleeing persecution and found a safe haven here. That’s influenced how some Jewish Americans see the world and their place in it.
Liberal democracy: that is what distinguishes America as a sanctuary for Jews over most other places. Which is what makes the threat of white nationalism so anxiety-inducing. The very thing that is providing that protective umbrella is now being eroded in front of our faces.
One thing that strikes me about the conversation we’re having is that it is fairly high level, just in terms of having to explain all these things to someone who sees a post on Instagram and isn’t aware of this long history of antisemitic thinking and the conspiracy at the heart of all conspiracies. How you begin to disrupt the antisemitism that can spread so quickly online and add the necessary historical context? The antisemitic conspiratorial worldview is addictive for some people, especially in moments of confusion and crisis.
Our way of getting the word out about this is through as many leadership development programs as we can throw together and put out in the world. The idea is that we engage folks in a cohort because it is so complex and it’s so big and it’s hard to figure out where to start. So we bring people together, students and artists and civic leaders and organizational heads and people for whom these issues are now or will be relevant at some point in the future. And we do kind of a deep dive. And the place where we find the most helpful to start often is a kind of a historical retrospective. We go back to 1492 and look at the fact that Columbus launched Western imperialism, westward expansion, colonialism in the Americas and the transatlantic slave trade, all of these things followed that date.
But that same year is the same year that Jews and Muslims were branded as impure of blood and were expelled from Spain under this idea of a biological difference. It was the first time we saw this notion of biological difference really being used to systematically oppress a group of people in Western history. And so we start there and we ask people to start to trace the development of this kind of antisemitism and anti-Muslim bigotry and bias. And the emergence of this kind of racism. We find that it’s going back and asking folks to just reframe their understanding of history and expand it a little bit to include more narratives than just the American one. But as you’re saying, it’s really big and that’s really hard.
One thing that this Kanye situation is his comments are helping us connect the dots for people. We talked earlier about this language of globalists and this secretive cabal and how people can look at that and not quite know what they’re talking about unless you’re really in the know.
But when someone comes along and connects all the dots for you the way that Kanye has, it makes my job a little bit easier. And so that is one thing that I see as moving the needle in terms of our work to combat antisemitism. We’re able to call it for what it is.