How could you be so heartless? Unpacking Kanye’s antisemitism

Let’s be the ones who set the example in our own communities and call out antisemitism. Our words will have a ripple effect, encouraging others to do the same.
Kanye West makes repeated, antisemitic comments on the “Drink Champs” podcast on October 16, 2022. (Photo: YouTube screenshot)

Do you ever notice how when you shine a light on something, one of two things can happen? Either you can expose the object for what it is or you can draw more attention to it.

The story of Kanye is one we initially debated writing about. On the one hand, such vitriol and filth does not deserve a platform.

On the other hand, the Kanye story became too hard to ignore — not because Kanye said what he said, but because once the toothpaste is let out of the bottle, there is no way to put it back in. Once Kanye uttered these words across all these platforms, the damage was done. 

Our responsibility as journalists and educators is not to expunge antisemitism once and for all. Indeed, Yair Rosenberg is correct to say, “antisemitism is a non-Jewish problem, which requires a non-Jewish solution.”

But we can shine a light on Kanye’s comments, call them out and show how they reflect classic antisemitic tropes. So, here’s a breakdown of this story — including key takeaways for the Jewish community and where we go from here.

What did Kanye actually say?

First, here’s a timeline of Kanye’s antisemitic remarks.

The multi-day tirade began on October 6 on Instagram in a now-deleted post titled “Jesus is Jew.” Kanye posted a text conversation he had with Sean “Diddy” Combs, saying he would use Combs “as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.”

His account was restricted by Instagram following the post.

Kanye then went on Fox News and told Tucker Carlson that Jared Kushner’s efforts to normalize ties between Israel and Arab nations, leading to the Abraham Accords, were motivated by money.

After being restricted on Instagram, Kanye took to Twitter on October 9 and threatened the Jewish community, saying he was going to go “death con 3” on Jewish people. 

Kanye was making a reference to the U.S. military’s DEFCON alert state — at DEFCON 3 the U.S. Air Force is ready to mobilize in 15 minutes.

Kanye then defended himself, saying that he could not be antisemitic because “black people are actually Jew.” Twitter deleted his tweet an hour later, which prompted Kanye to send a new tweet insinuating that Jewish people created cancel culture.

Twitter then suspended Kanye for his antisemitic tweets. The conservative commentator Candace Owens came to Kanye’s defense, saying that no “honest person” would think his words were antisemitic.

A few days later, on October 15, in a since-deleted episode of the “Drink Champs” podcast, Kanye repeatedly blamed “Jewish media” and “Jewish Zionists” for alleged misdeeds, stating 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 added that he was “#MeToo-ing the Jewish culture. I’m saying y’all gotta stand up and admit to what you been doing.”

On October 17, in an interview with Chris Cuomo, Kanye criticized the “Jewish underground media mafia” and alleged that “every celebrity has Jewish people in their contract.”

On October 19, on “Piers Morgan Uncensored,” Kanye said he did not regret his antisemitic remarks, but he subsequently apologized to “the people that I hurt with the ‘death con’” comment and to “the families of the people that had nothing to do with the trauma that I have been through.”

Diversity of perspectives

Jewish influencers, some celebrities, and the White House spoke out against Kanye’s antisemitic comments. Meanwhile, Adidas, talent agency CAA, fashion house Balenciaga and Vogue announced they were cutting their ties with the rapper.

After Twitter and Instagram locked Kanye out of his accounts, Stephen Colbert joked that “Kanye’s social media presence is not getting stronger” with this video parody set to the tune of his 2007 song “Stronger.”

In addition to condemning Kanye’s remarks, many blasted major news outlets like The New York Times, Associated Press and Wall Street Journal for couching their language and not calling Kanye’s tweet antisemitic:

Others voiced their frustration that most celebrities and influencers did not condemn Kanye’s hateful rhetoric.

“Jews are literally screaming that Kanye’s continued remarks are antisemitic, and yet the majority of people seem to be unsure,” Jewish activist Amy Albertson tweeted

“The writing is very much on the wall. We should not have to (and I personally will not) beg for support or solidarity,” she added. (Editor’s note: A growing list of celebrities are taking a stand against Kanye’s antisemitism.)

Others pushed back on the idea that Kanye’s antisemitism is a result of mental illness (in 2019, the rapper said in an interview with David Letterman that he has bipolar disorder).

“Mental illness is not an excuse for racism and for misinformation that stokes and encourages those who have this hate [to say] ‘Yes, I can do this,’ and there’s no consequences,” Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, who founded the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, said.

Similarly, Friends star David Schwimmer wrote on Instagram:

“Whether or not Kanye West is mentally ill, there’s no question he is a bigot. His hate speech calls for violence against Jews…If we don’t call someone as influential as Kanye out for his divisive, ignorant and anti-semitic words then we are complicit.”

How Kanye’s statements reflect classic antisemitic tropes

As our publisher John Kunza wrote, Kanye’s statements reflect classic antisemitic tropes. Here are three of them — let’s break each one down.

  • Black people can’t be antisemitic because they are “the real Jews.”
  • Jews disproportionately control the media and society.
  • Jews are motivated by money.

1. Black people can’t be antisemitic because they are the “real Jews.”

This trope is an example of what some refer to as the “Khazarian Hypothesis,” a conspiracy theory dating back to the late 1800s about the origin of Ashkenazi Jews. 

According to the theory — which has been thoroughly debunked by scientific, historical, linguistic, and other evidence — Ashkenazi Jews are not the descendants of the biblical Israelites.

Instead, this theory claims, they are descendants of the Khazars, a Turkic-speaking people in the Middle Ages who are thought to have converted to Judaism at the instruction of their ruler. 

Proponents of this idea hold that the Jews did not migrate from Jerusalem and Babylonia into Western Europe but instead came from what is now Russia and Ukraine (where the Khazars had established a powerful state in the 600s).

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who is known for his antisemitic rhetoric and has defended Kanye’s antisemitic statements in the past, has repeatedly promoted this idea, denying the Jews’ connection to ancient Israel as well as to Judaism.

For instance, in a supposed message to the Jewish community, Farrakhan said: “You came out of Khazar. You were the one that became a convert to Judaism, and look at your behavior since you have taken land from the Palestinians.”

This theory is popular among members of the Black Hebrew Israelite movement. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has also promoted this idea in order to delegitimize Jewish claims on the Land of Israel. 

Watch our video on the conspiracy of the origin of Ashkenazi Jews to learn more.

Finally, even if Kanye were Jewish, it is important to note that anyone can make statements that are antisemitic, including Jews.

From the Middle Ages until the present day, there are plenty of examples of Jewish people perpetrating antisemitism, despite being Jews themselves. Being Jewish does not absolve anyone of antisemitism.

2. Jews disproportionately control the media and society.

Singling out Jews who are involved in media and finance is a trope that’s part of a larger conspiracy theory claiming that Jews control everything as part of some global plot. But where does this conspiracy theory come from?

This trope finds its roots in 18th- and 19th-century Russian antisemitism. One of the people who gave this theory a major push was Jacob Brafman.

Brafman was a Russian Jew who had a falling out with his local community, converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, and authored attacks against Jews.

In his work, “The Local and Universal Jewish Brotherhoods,” Brafman claimed Jewish organizations were coordinating an internal Jewish conspiracy.

His work established a framework that would later be used in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated antisemitic text describing a Jewish plan for global domination and control of the media and financial institutions, among other things.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel said of the “Protocols”: “If ever a piece of writing could produce mass hatred, it is this one….This book is about lies and slander.”

While the book was proven as a forgery as early as 1921, it became an enduring source of inspiration for antisemitic conspiracy theorists around the world — even today. Watch our video on the origins of antisemitic conspiracies to learn more.

3. Jews are motivated by money.

Kanye’s claims that Jared Kushner brokered peace agreements between Israel and Arab nations “to make money” and that Hanukkah involves “financial engineering” reflect longstanding antisemitic claims of Jewish money, wealth and greed. 

Oftentimes, it’s an idea of Jewish control of money and financial institutions like the U.S. Federal Reserve. Jews can then “leverage their power for insidious purposes because of the stronghold they have on financial institutions,” the ADL explains.

Are Jews wealthier? In the U.S., where 48% of Jews live, while many Jews are poor, it is true that they are wealthier on average. According to the 2020 Pew Report, “one-in-four American Jews say they have family incomes of $200,000 or more (23%). By comparison, just 4% of U.S. adults report household incomes at that level.”

Historically, one important contributing factor to Jewish wealth was their unique position in Catholic society. Early Church law forbade lenders from charging interest on loans — but only between Christians.

Jews were exempt from the ban on moneylending and therefore benefited from an ironic monopoly that lasted for a few centuries. So in the 12th century, when kings and princes needed large amounts of money for wars and other risky ventures, they went to Jews.

Why is it that — on average — Jews have achieved more material success? It’s because Jews value education, gravitate to urban environments where economic opportunity is greater, and have developed a culture that values entrepreneurship. Watch our video on this topic to learn more.

Takeaways for the Jewish community: Where do we go from here?

In the aftermath of Kanye’s statements, Trump’s comments on American Jews, and other recent antisemitic incidents, many of us might be feeling alone, scared, or in need of guidance and support. Here are five takeaways we could all reflect on at this time:

  1. Words matter and have consequences — let’s use our words for good. Hateful speech is dangerous because it could lead to more hate and even violence. That’s why Jewish tradition stresses the power of words. The power of words applies not only to Kanye West but to us as well. Our individual platforms and influence may be only a tiny fraction of what Kanye’s is, but we could achieve more together, and could still use the power of our words for good.
  2. Antisemitism comes from all political ideologies, races, and religions. We might associate antisemitism with a particular group, but there is no one community that drives antisemitism. Throughout history, people across the ideological, racial, and religious spectrums have spread antisemitism. It’s key to focus on fighting antisemitic ideas and not get hung up on the identities of the perpetrator. When we learn to rebuke anti-Jewish bigotry no matter who spreads it, we will be one step closer to defeating it.
  3. Let’s educate ourselves and others about the roots of antisemitism and classic antisemitism tropes. We ought to learn about the false Khazarian hypothesis, antisemitic conspiracy theories, and Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitic rhetoric. Being able to recognize antisemitism won’t stop the problem — but it will give us tools to identify it, understand its historical roots, and more effectively respond.
  4. Let’s appreciate the influencers and celebrities who have spoken out about Kanye’s comments. Jamie Lee Curtis, Khloe Kardashian, Meghan McCain, Amy Schumer, David Schwimmer, and Reese Witherspoon are among a growing list of celebrities who have condemned Kanye’s antisemitism. Even if some celebrities were slow to respond, we can appreciate everyone who wasn’t silent.
  5. Let’s focus on what is in our locus of control. Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Let’s be the ones who set the example in our own communities and social networks and call out antisemitism. Our words will have a ripple effect, encouraging others to do the same.