At a Hanukkah celebration last month, President Biden stated: “Today we must all say clearly and forcefully: Antisemitism and all forms of hate and violence in this country have no safe harbor in America.” But simply saying it, no matter how forcefully, does not appear to carry much weight against the increasingly evident support among many black Americans for ideas and voices espousing violence toward Jews. Black and Hispanic youth report higher rates of anti-Semitic views than among white youth on the alt-Right.
Unfortunately, much of the pushback so far treats the problem of anti-Semitism like an issue for classroom discussion, curable by tackling ignorance and rudeness. This approach doesn’t appear especially effective against the loose slurry of ideas borrowed from sources like the Nation of Islam and Black Hebrew Israelites, tinged by both far-left villainizing of privilege and far-right fears of “replacement” by minorities. Last week, when Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt sat down with prominent hip-hop radio DJs, he began with a careful defense of Jews spending time protecting Jews when blacks are also in need of defense. He responded to questions about the distinctions between public and private speech and about how to distinguish a benign “punchline” from an inciting “punch.” Scrolling through the more than 11,600 comments below the interview video, a theme emerges that suggests this conciliatory conversation didn’t land: that anti-Semitism is justified.
A few weeks ago, Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving returned to the basketball court after his eight-game suspension for promoting the anti-Semitic film Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America—and initially refusing to denounce anti-Semitism. Before his NBA reinstatement, Irving gave a 21-minute interview in which he spoke about how the controversy affected him: the discomfort he and his family have felt, how he loves all people, and finally, how he didn’t realize that it wasn’t safe to criticize certain groups. The “deep apologies” that he did offer focused on how thoroughly he was misunderstood, saying that he didn’t “stand for anything close to hate speech or antisemitism or anything that is ‘anti,’ going against the human race.”
But Irving’s trespass did not consist in accidentally comporting himself like an anti-Semite. It involved tacitly promoting ideologies that call for violence and harassment specifically against Jews—such as have already been gaining in the U.S. Over the past few years, attacks on American Jews have risen by almost a third. Thirty-two percent of Jewish college students report having personally experienced anti-Semitism. As seen recently in Manhattan’s Central Park and Penn Station, credible threats on Jewish lives are multiplying.
In fact, Irving has neither apologized for any unintended incitement nor even acknowledged the phenomenon of growing animosity and violence toward Jews—especially among American blacks. If he had actually wanted to defuse the hold of these ideologies on some of his fans, he might have tried saying something like this:
There is no truth in the claims in Hebrews to Negroes that there was no Holocaust or that today’s Jews usurped Judaism from blacks and should be punished for it. In fact, roughly 6 million Jews were murdered for being Jews during World War II; there is no historical support for a religious usurpation; and it is never okay to harass or attack Jews. If your religion tells you that they deserve it, then your religion is despicable.
And he might have added:
Jews make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population but routinely suffer 60 percent of religion-based hate crimes. Here in New York City, nearly half of all hate-crime victims are Jewish—in a city only around 7 percent Jewish—and in cases where the attacker’s race is known, 42 percent of attackers are black. Brooklyn has experienced 186 hate crimes so far this year, at least 74 of these against Jews. This is shameful, and anyone who commits crimes against Jews needs to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
If anything, Irving’s peace-and-love non-apologies served as a dog whistle to those whose ideologies he refrained from condemning. On his reinstatement day, scores of Black Hebrew Israelites, outfitted in the uniform of the group Israel United in Christ, amassed in military formation in Grand Army Plaza shouting: “Hey Jacob, it’s time to wake up. We have good news: we are the real Jews.” Still shouting, they army-marched to the nearby Barclay’s Center, where Irving was finally back on court, to distribute fliers promulgating the same brand of libel against Jews that Irving could have explicitly countered, but didn’t. Nothing that Irving has said or done since has stopped Hebrews to Negroes from becoming the best-selling book in multiple Amazon categories or delegitimized its hateful message.
Perhaps conscientious education can cure people of prejudice; certainly, dialogue is a critical and healthy part of civics. Anti-Semitism, however, is an age-old malignancy that leapfrogs bias to become something irrational, suffused with magical thinking and the potential for violence. Maybe to combat this growing surge, we need to focus less on explaining why anti-Semitism is not nice and more on discovering what forces of misplaced grievance and fear in the black community are inflaming it now.
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