In recent weeks, we have been witness to a disturbing trend: a rash of public celebrity figures openly engaging in anti-Semitic acts and statements. The current spate began in early October with the rapper Kanye West (who lately goes by “Ye,” which he pronounces “Yay,” but which I propose we pronounce as “Boo!”) threatening Jews by tweet with what he called “going death con 3.” Before long, businesses such as the shoe company Adidas cut ties, with Adidas expecting to absorb a resulting quarter-billion dollar drop in business over the remainder of the year, but to save an even larger sum in royalties and marketing agreements with the rapper. Unchastened, he has since made the rounds of right-wing conspiracy media announcing, “I like Hitler.”
Next up was basketball player Kyrie Irving in late October supporting a Holocaust-denying anti-Semitic conspiracy film, also initially over Twitter. Unlike West, who opened with threats and intimations of violence, Irving had an opportunity to back out of his situation, simply by saying that he had misunderstood or been misinformed about the film, and he did not support its anti-Semitic messages. Instead, Irving told reporters in a news conference, “History is not supposed to be hidden from anybody. I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in.” Although he did later make some efforts at apology, Irving was ultimately suspended both by his basketball team and by shoe company Nike, which had a brand sponsorship deal with him.
In late November, a former President and current candidate for President of the United States hosted a casual dinner with the aforementioned newly-minted champion of public anti-Semitism Kanye West, along with a more established practitioner, the Holocaust-denying “Christian Nationalist” Nick Fuentes. As ever, Trump faced criticism but no tangible consequence for his conduct, so he followed up in mid-December on his bespoke Twitter-clone with a post claiming American Jewish leaders “should be ashamed” of their “lack of loyalty” to him, as he was – in his own assessment – “the best, by far, President for Israel.”
Even before asking whether moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem was actually more helpful to Israel than endorsing establishment of the state (Truman) or, say, resupplying the Israeli military in the midst of the Yom Kippur War (Nixon), one should note that this entire discussion assumes the anti-Semitic premise known as “dual loyalty,” the harmful, false proposition that Jews are never fully loyal Americans – and thus, never fully American – because our real loyalties are to the State of Israel.
You may have noticed that Twitter (or imitation Twitter) figures in all of these recent celebrity anti-Semitism stories. Sure enough, the ADL has documented significant increases in anti-Semitic tweets since Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and “amnesty” for accounts previously banned for hate speech. At minimum, purveyors of online hate are testing the waters to see what Musk will let them get away with. In the notable case of – wouldn’t you know it? – Kanye West, his reinstated account has already been re-suspended for posting anti-Semitic imagery. It remains to be seen whether Musk will reassert some control over the environment on Twitter, or generally let the inmates run the online asylum.
While the connection from an individual hateful statement to a specific hateful act or hate crime is omen difficult to establish, there is certainly a relationship between an environment in which hate is freely and frequently expressed, and various individuals acting on hateful impulses. Notably, in the period of the hateful public speech described above, two armed men were arrested at Penn Station in New York City in the active stages of a plot to attach a synagogue. Without entering into specifics, I will say that Jewish organizations are on the watch over a specific threat of organized harassment activities as I write.
Ironically, the heroes of the stories above are the shoe companies Nike and Adidas. I say this is ironic because Adidas was founded by an actual Nazi. Whatever his personal views or activities were, Adolf Dassler was a Nazi Party member from 1933 to 1945. Moreover, how did shoe companies become the arbiters of morality in our society? The truth is, they aren’t. They are just big, multinational businesses that don’t want to be embarrassed by their business associates, and calculate that the reputational damage these men have done themselves could be contagious. Therein lies at least one lesson for us to take from these events: we must do all we can to make sure those who spout anti-Semitic nonsense, or similar hate rhetoric directed at other groups, do not escape with their reputations intact. We must call out and shame them as hateful, delusional, and contagious, so that respectable sources of finance will steer clear of them. At least when it comes to wealthy celebrities, this should be a deterrent. When it comes to millions of amateur anti-Semites with no reputations to be lost, or those willing and able to find less respectable sources of finance, we’ll have to keep working to find ways to deter hate speech and hate crimes within the limits of the First Amendment specifically, and the principles of a free, democratic society generally.