(RNS) — Dave Chappelle’s recent appearance on “Saturday Night Live” proves the comedian isn’t willing to miss an opportunity to minimize the abuse of oppressed people not his own.
Over the past few weeks billionaire rapper Kanye West (former billionaire, according to Chappelle’s “SNL” bit) and NBA star Kyrie Irving plunged themselves into controversy by respectively publicizing a range of antisemitic conspiracy theories — from claims of Jewish control of the media to Holocaust denial. But not long after Kyrie and Kanye eventually expressed some remorse, Chappelle doubled down with a 15-minute opening monologue decorated with carefully placed dog whistles signaling canonical antisemitic ideas.
Kanye “broke the show business rules,” Chappelle explained, “which are the rules of perception. If they’re Black, then it’s a gang. If they’re Italian, it’s a mob. But if they’re Jewish, it’s a coincidence and you should never speak about it.” Chappelle’s riff successfully platformed the once fringe idea that a corrupt cabal of powerful Jews runs the media.
There’s much to be concerned about in the growing popularity of antisemitic ideas among Black people, especially among entertainment figures, such as Nick Cannon’s infamous 90-minute podcast in 2020 that got him fired from ViacomCBS. What’s especially concerning is that some peddle these ideas within the frame of Black liberation and give voice to known antisemites such as Minister Louis Farrakhan, who mounted an hourlong fiery defense of Kyrie and Kanye.
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“Some of you that are persecuting him are the very ones that took away from him and from us, the knowledge of self,” Farrakhan opined, about Kanye. “You took our language, you took our culture, you took our history, you took our minds and inserted your mind into our minds through your systems. We know our history and we know yours. We don’t like what you’re doing to Kyrie or to Ye.”
The story of Black-Jewish antagonism articulated by these Black celebrities resembles the unfounded claims of Black Hebrew Israelite theology and canonical antisemitic texts more than any actual history.
There’s also a history of Jewish and Black unity that goes unnamed by these spokesmen of Black antisemitism that makes these arguments which juxtapose these targets of white supremacy problematic. With the latter tradition considered, it seems fair to say that antisemitism is a betrayal to the Black liberation struggle.
It’s worth noting that Black antisemitism is complex, because of the history of anti-Blackness in white Jewish communities. In his 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White,” James Baldwin explains the resentment that existed in Black communities in his time because of Jewish participation in anti-Blackness.
Baldwin describes the mistreatment of his family by their landlord, being indebted to the local grocer and the butcher who overcharged his family for bad cuts of meat. Baldwin identifies many of the power holders who mistreated his family because of their Blackness as Jews, but he concludes:
Not all of these white people were cruel — on the contrary, I remember some who were certainly as thoughtful as the bleak circumstances allowed — but all of them were exploiting us, and that was why we hated them. … In the American context, the most ironical thing about Negro anti-Semitism is that the Negro is really condemning the Jew for having become an American white man.
The problem of anti-Blackness in Jewish communities isn’t just historic. There’s a reason Ethiopian Jews took to the streets of Israel waving Black Lives Matter signs and chanting the name of George Floyd two years ago, highlighting the killing of Teka Solomon by a police officer as an example of systemic racism they face as Black Jews. “I feel like they don’t want us here,” one Black Ethiopian told Vice News. Last year, Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told ABC News, “We (also) have to confront the deep-rooted systemic racism that has particularly been pointed at Black and Brown Americans.”
All that to say, there are reasons some Black people think of Jews as white, generally speaking, and hold the same resentment for them they hold for white people in general.
At the same time, there’s more to the story.
Jewish historian Howard Sachar writes, “As far back as the 19th century, Jewish storekeepers were virtually the only Southern merchants who addressed black customers as ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ and permitted them to try on clothing.” The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism reports that “from 1910 to 1940, more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and 20 Black colleges (including Howard, Dillard and Fisk universities) were established in whole or in part by contributions from Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald.”
A significant number of white civil rights activists were Jewish. We would do well to remember Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were lynched during the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Summer Project in 1964. There is the famous friendship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who marched together from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Heschel sat behind King in Riverside Church as King denounced the Vietnam War. One of the first recorded anti-lynching protest songs, “Strange Fruit,” was written by a Jewish songwriter.
Jewish human rights activists collaborated with W.E.B. DuBois, Ella Baker and others to found some of the most prominent civil rights organizations in American history, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The fact that there are Black Jews engaged in a decades-long struggle for their human rights should be enough to show that the antagonistic Black-Jewish binary in this conversation is problematic. Some Jews are Black, and not just in Israel. There are Black Jews in America too. And the arguments espoused in the documentary that Irving tweeted and Farrakhan defended seem to erase them.
Black antisemitism betrays the struggle for Black liberation because it relies on white supremacist talking points. When we hear contemporary celebrities implying that powerful Jews are controlling the media and free speech, it’s hard not to hear echoes of Martin Luther. In his treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies,” which some say provided a blueprint for Kristallnacht, Luther claims that Germany is under Jewish control: “They stuff themselves … and live in luxury and ease. … With their accursed usury they hold us and our property captive.”
In these recent statements by Black entertainers and preachers we can also hear echoes of the infamous 1903 forgery “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” which purports to be meeting notes from the alleged Jewish cabal running the world. Although it has been thoroughly discredited, the book’s influence throughout history can be traced from Adolf Hitler, who insisted on the Protocols’ legitimacy, to the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, this year.
Many of our predecessors, even those who called out Jewish anti-Blackness, knew that Jewish people and Black people are both targets of white supremacy and therefore have a shared interest in working together to dismantle the system that seeks to dominate and exploit us all.