In some ways, a masked millionaire managing to even out-do conspiracy theorists by saying, ‘I like Hitler’ is so outright absurd, that it could be funny.
But when I watched Kanye West go on his latest antisemitic rant on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s podcast, in which he claimed to be a good person who just happened to like Hitler, I felt not only chilled but also utterly depressed. It is a scary time to be a Jew.
Jew hatred has become fashionable over the last few years. I’ve got used to seeing #Jews trending on Twitter all the time – never for a good reason.
Sometimes, the hatred is from the far left, who demonise us as Zionists (in their narrative, Zionists who are the puppet masters of politicians, have an obsession with money and like to kill children). And sometimes it is from the far right (who also claim Jews are the puppet masters of politicians, have an obsession with money and like to kill children).
We are fighting both, but right now Kanye – who legally changed his name to Ye last year – is at the centre of what is sometimes called the horseshoe effect – the idea that all the extremes meet in antisemitism. The problem isn’t that he is one man going on tirades but that he is an extremely influential man, who has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews in the entire world.
“I felt chilled to the bone when I saw a clip of what he was saying,” Lindi*, a 73-year-old Jewish grandmother from Leeds, tells me. “I feel frightened because a whole new tranche of people will be attracted by what he says. The world is a much smaller place than it used to be – ideas get quickly spread around.
“Just before he went on his rant, he was having dinner with Donald Trump who is a very powerful man hoping to become President again. The reach of people like this is huge. And it is no longer just about words – it is not just moaning about Jews at dinner parties – but actual physical attacks are happening.”
Last year antisemitic incidents reached a record high – up 34% – and of these 2,255 attacks, 176 were violent. We are one of the smallest minorities in the country, making up just 0.5% of the UK, but the victims of 23% of all religious assaults.
“One of the things that is worrying me is that he is turning two oppressed communities, who should be allies, against each other,” says Sam S*, 43, from London. “It feels like he’s trying to start a race war and it feels like the far right are encouraging it. I’m worried it’s not going to stop. It’s going to keep escalating.”
Some have put West’s rants down to mental health, as he’s previously spoken about his diagnosis of bipolar disorder. But many have contested the idea that mental illness could cause antisemitism.
“This isn’t just mental illness – what he is saying is the result of a deep ideology,” says Alex Hearn, 47, from London, who is an antisemitism activist and the director of Labour Against Antisemitism. “The things he has come out with are tropes going back hundreds of years; it is part of a deep conspiratorial belief system. They aren’t off-hand comments but the tip of an ideological iceberg.
“Some of it is far right, white supremacist, Nazi ideology and it merges in with a supersession ideology that Black people are ‘the real Jews’ and that the rest of us are just pretenders. It’s a mix of increasingly popular ideas.”
Prior to Kanye’s latest outburst, he’d already threatened to go ‘death con three’ on Jewish people. Disturbingly, a group in Los Angeles were later photographed draping a banner reading “Kanye is right about the Jews” over a freeway overpass.
For all the Hollywood celebrities who condemed anti-semitism in the aftermath, there were others who repeated some of the rapper’s rhetoric.
Most notoriously, basketball star Kyrie Irving posted a link to a controversial Amazon documentary called ‘Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America’ which contains both Holocaust denial and the same idea being spread by Kanye – that African Americans are the ‘real Jews’. (He’s since apologised).
Last week, Amazon boss Andy Jassy refused to bow to pressure to remove the film from the streaming site, saying: “We have to allow access to these viewpoints, even if they are objectionable.”
Hearn believes this stance is potentially “more dangerous than what Kanye is saying”.
“What we are talking about is the normalisation of conspiratorial thinking about Jews in popular culture,” he adds.
What can we do about Kanye and his antisemitism? Jews are stuck in a bind. Speak up and we are whiny – some even accuse us of being racist. Attempt to close him down, and that is proof of our ‘power’. And yet, I can’t tell you how powerless I feel.
“It is this battle which is most painful to me as a Black British Jew.”
For Black British Jews the situation is complicated and, perhaps, doubly painful. Before Kanye was attacking Jews, he was attacking his own people, says Lara Monroe, a 43-year-old from East London, who writes about her experience of being both Black British and Jewish.
“To divorce Kanye’s antisemitic comments from those he made towards his own Black community can miss the nub of what is going on,” she tells HuffPost UK. “When Kanye and Candace Owens were photographed together wearing an ‘All Lives Matter’ top that was a trigger that something deeper was coming.”
For her, it is particularly painful to see his attempts at starting a war between minorities when she encompasses both.
“Who wins when the relationship between the Black and Jewish communities is broken by the agents of chaos who consciously or unconsciously stir it? The white supremacists. It is this battle which is most painful to me as a Black British Jew.
“When someone like Kanye chooses to be one of those agents, both Black and Jewish people can either feed into this with anger, mistrust and accusations of lack of solidarity or we can do what works, by being alert to and disrupt any spark of supremacist language or behaviour.”
“We can see Kanye becoming radicalised as we watch.”
Within hours of the Alex Jones’s podcast broadcast, Kanye was temporarily suspended from Twitter. But activist Joseph Cohen, who is in his late 30s and from London, says the dangerous thing about stopping antisemites talking on the mainstream is that they head into more extreme spaces.
“We can see Kanye becoming radicalised as we watch,” he says. “At first it was just about a Jewish manager. Then it was ‘death con three on Jews’ and now it’s ‘I love Hitler’. One of the pluses of still being able to see what he says is that we can see the full extent of his radicalisation. It is almost impossible for anyone to defend him now. I do worry that if we don’t allow for free speech, we push them into the arms of the neo-Nazis, but as it is, Kanye is already in bed with them.”
Cohen, who investigates antisemitism for an organisation called Israel Advocacy Movement, raises concerns that Kayne is not only influencing white supremacists in America, but the far right in Britain too.
“The most powerful Black artist in the world has united with some of the most dangerous and violent white supremacists on the planet and the far right in this country – people like Tommy Robinson – are being inspired by it,” he claims.
“It was only recently that they were focused more on Muslim people and were even attempting to pretend they were friends of Jewish people. But now the far right is, once again, universally focused on Jews and Kanye is helping with that. People who never thought about Jews suddenly believe these tropes – these ancient tropes about us – because Kanye is saying them. And the hardest thing is, I don’t know what we can do about it.”
*Some interviewees chose not to share their surnames.