(RNS) — Some years ago, when I worked for the Anti-Defamation League, I recall a lesson I learned from the then-executive director, the legendary Abe Foxman.
“Never call someone an antisemite,” he said. “You don’t know what’s going on in that person’s heart.”
“Instead,” Foxman said, “address the behavior. ‘Uses antisemitic language.’ ‘Engages in antisemitic acts.’ Don’t label people. You’re just asking for a fight.”
With all due respect for my former boss, I am going to, at least temporarily, disregard his counsel.
Kanye West is a Jew hater.
Notice I did not even dignify him by calling him an antisemite. That sounds too polite, as if there were an ideology lurking in the background or foreground.
Over the past few days, I have actually doubled the number of times I have ever thought about Kanye West. (Actually, that is inaccurate. Zero times two is still zero. But you get the picture.)
In a now infamous, deleted tweet, Kanye called for violence against Jews: “I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE [sic]… The funny thing is 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.”
When you consider that Kanye has twice the number of Twitter followers as there are Jews in the world, it’s beyond frightening.
And yet, where are the Jews in the entertainment industry? Where are their voices?
Yes, Sarah Silverman has spoken out. “Kanye threatened the Jews yesterday on twitter and it’s not even trending. Why do mostly only Jews speak up against Jewish hate? The silence is so loud.”
So has Jamie Lee Curtis, whose father, Tony Curtis, was a total A-list Jewish celebrity in his time (does Jamie Lee identity as Jewish?): “The holiest day in Judaism was last week. Words matter. A threat to Jewish people ended once in a genocide. Your words hurt and incite violence. You are a father. Please stop.”
So has Rob Reiner: “Kanye West is a mentally ill anti-semite.” (I do not like mixing “mentally ill” in with “anti-semite,” but that’s another story.)
Perhaps there are a few more whom I have missed, but the basic truth remains: The highest-profile Jews in American life are not speaking out.
Sarah S. was right — “mostly only Jews speak up against Jewish hate” — but not the Jews of the small and large screen.
Let me also be clear: It is not only Kanye. He is only the most public, most famous and least subtle of the Jew haters.
It is the ongoing onslaught against Jewish bodies and sensitivities that seems to be happening on a daily basis — in the streets, in the universities and the political realm.
Consider Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania.
Mastriano has criticized his opponent, Josh Shapiro, for sending his children to a “privileged, elite school,” which just happens to be a Jewish day school. When you consider that Mastriano is a Christian nationalist, you understand why the Jewish community of the Keystone State is concerned. As in, very concerned.
But, back to the A-list Jewish celebrities.
It is time for them to leverage their public personae and to make a difference.
I bring you back to a moment in American history, which Ken Burns briefly described in his PBS documentary on the Holocaust, but which needs for us to learn from its lessons.
In 1943, Hollywood celebrities produced a dramatic pageant, “We Will Never Die,” at Madison Square Garden.
The purpose: to raise public awareness about the plight of European Jewry — a large percentage of whom were already dead by that time.
Those celebrities were all Hollywood luminaries: The pageant was written by Ben Hecht; music by Kurt Weill; stars like Edward G. Robinson, Paul Muni, John Garfield, Ralph Bellamy, Frank Sinatra and Burgess Meredith. Forty thousand people filled the seats — thanks to newspaper advertisements provided gratis by the Hearst Corp.
Yes, many of those celebrities were Jewish: the author, composer, Robinson, Muni and Garfield.
But Bellamy, Sinatra and Meredith were decidedly not Jewish. (Sinatra’s affinity for Jews and Jewish causes is well-known; a cafeteria at Hebrew University in Jerusalem bears his name.)
“We Will Never Die” went on the road, with performances in Philadelphia, Washington and Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles performance at the Hollywood Bowl was broadcast nationally on NBC radio.
The Washington audience contained senators, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and Eleanor Roosevelt.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of that original pageant, it is time for this generation to step up.
It is now time for American cultural heroes to publicly lend their voices to one of the most profound political and moral crises of our time — the threat of growing antisemitism.
Whatever its source. Especially, because with Kanye, the proverbial call is coming from inside the house — the very house of American popular culture.
Do I have to name names (to use an old and dark phrase from American political and cultural history)?
Steven Spielberg. Barbra Streisand. Paul Simon. Bob Dylan. Larry David. Jerry Seinfeld. Howard Stern. Howie Mandel. Amy Schumer. Judd Apatow. Natalie Portman. Scarlett Johansson. Randy Newman.
Mila Kunis. James Franco. Daniel Day Lewis. Dustin Hoffman. Adam Sandler. Ben Stiller. Jesse Eisenberg. Seth Rogen. Isla Fisher. Sacha Baron Cohen. Emily Rossum. Donald Fagen. Carole King. Neil Diamond. Adam Levine.
Michael Douglas. Alicia Silverstone. Goldie Hawn. Billy Crystal. William Shatner. Marlee Matlin. Drake. Lenny Kravitz. Bar Rafaeli. Gal Gadot. Jason Alexander. Fran Drescher. Mandy Patinkin. Billy Joel. Mayim Bialik. Howard Stern. Jonah Hill.
That would just be the short list.
You will say, correctly, that many of these personalities are uninvolved in the religious and communal life of the Jewish people.
That would be true.
However, this is hardly the time for us — and them — to nitpick and micromanage the inner workings of Jewish identity.
Because here is the news flash.
Kanye was not calling for violence against only those Jews who affiliate with the Jewish community, belong to a synagogue and went to synagogue for the Days of Awe.
Kanye could not give a _____________ about the niceties of Jewish identity. Kanye is not the Pew Report.
Jew haters never care about that stuff. Reform, Conservative, assimilated, shul-going, pork-eating, Shabbat-violating, Israel-visiting or Israel-apologizing — it’s all the same to them.
There is no time like the present for the most prominent Jews in American culture to get that memo — to stand out, to step up and to speak out.
There is nothing understandable, justifiable or excusable about Kanye’s words.
No excuses. No winks. No nods. No rationalizations. No cutting slack.
Memo to Jewish celebs: In his tweet, Kanye was coming for you.