Deep Cuts: On Kanye West and That Thing He Said About Jewish People

When Kanye West talks about the Jews, what is he actually saying?

Not Available Lead
Image via Complex Original
Not Available Lead

"The segregationists and racists make no fine distinction between the Negro and the Jew." — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Last Monday, Kanye West was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for the following comments, made during an interview with Power 105's The Breakfast Club on November 26:


I thought about writing something when I first heard this, but didn't.

Looking back, my reasons weren't great, but I had them.

The most immediate one: I'm a fan. A big fan. I went through more than a few copies of College Dropout when it came out. I've picked up every album on release day. I once got into a debate, while defending the greatness of Late Registration's deep cuts, that went on every single day for most of an entire month. One Thanksgiving dinner argument in defense of what Kanye said about George Bush in 2005 nearly ruined the holiday for its bystanders. And I've spent a lot of words on the matter of the greatness that isYeezus, and the greatness of the Yeezus live show.

And then there's the simple fact that Kanye's been speaking a lot of truth to power lately in his interviews. He's been saying things that—while sometimes diluted by a tendency to repeatedly expound upon the matter of his own genius—are very true, and important. Then, the ADL condemned his comments.

If we're to take Kanye's other comments seriously, and give them the scholarly analysis and due respect he's demanded of them, then why wouldn't we give this one the same attention?

And like a lot of other Jews, I think the ADL is an organization that quite often only works to antagonize cultural tensions and find antisemitism where it doesn't exist, for reasons that range from institutional self-promotion to some very one-track, unilateral ideas about Israel. And I say this as a Jew who, true story, was once threatened with condemnation by the ADL (because, long story short, they have no sense of humor). I didn't want to play into their politics.

Finally, if others weren't so incensed over his comments, why was I? Also see: The response to racism that tells you you're seeing racism where it doesn't exist (and how that shit can make you feel crazy).

I wanted to gloss over Kanye's comments about Jews as, at best, a statement on income inequality that came out the wrong way, and at worst, wildly provocative for the sake of being wildly provocative (like that time he compared himself to Hitler). I also figured the Internet would churn out a loud discussion of this—as it has with everything else Kanye's said during this latest set of interviews—and that we could move on. I thought I could just let it all pass.

Whatever. It's Kanye. And so on.

But I couldn't. Kanye's comments stuck with me, they kept me up at night, and here we are.

Maybe it was because it didn't seem like there was much of a discussion about this. Or maybe it was because I've paid so much attention to these latest interviews over the last few months. They're the interviews where Kanye has again and again hammered home the point that "Whatever, it's Kanye" is the kind of insincere, dismissive, oppressive response to him that's part of the Bigger Problem, the power he's speaking truth to: His Truman Show wall. If we're to take Kanye's other comments seriously, and give them the scholarly analysis and due respect he's demanded of them, then why wouldn't we give this one the same attention?

The issues with what he said are, to massively understate the case, fairly complicated.

It'd be blithe to sit here and tell you that Jewish people in America have it particularly rough in the corridors of power in 2013, and that Kanye's words are completely and utterly without merit. The core of Kanye's statement is a truth about privilege, even if his framework was totally fucked up. Privilege, based on the color of one's skin—let alone gender, socioeconomic background, or appearance—is a very real thing. And yes: Black Americans have it harder in those corridors of power than many, many others (including Jews). 

And yet: What Kanye said was some ignorant, wack, generally fucked up shit. Not in that it's completely wrong in every way, but it is wrong, in more than a few ways. And dangerously so. There's that expression: It's not the crime, but the cover-up. The denotation of Kanye's words aren't the problem, but the connotation. It's the way they give cover to some nasty, destructive, centuries-old ideas.

It echos a specific and destructive stripe of rhetoric and revisionist history, the same antisemitic canard that's existed since the Middle Ages: There's a hook-nosed money-grubbing Jew who controls the levers of power from behind some shadowy impenetrable curtain, and he's the reason why your life sucks. It's misdirection. It's Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. It's the Protocols of The Elders of Zion. It's the same base sentiment that's driven persecution from the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, a mass genocide that occurred within the last century—one that Kanye's rapped about understanding so well. The same one that's literally the reason I have a tiny family, or certainly smaller than the family Kanye rapped about on "Family Business." 

And it's worrying to hear when it's said so casually, and moreso when it's regarded with so much apathy. Even, initially, by me. 

Just like the old, lame stereotype of rappers with Jewish lawyers, it's a cultural trope that still exists. But a scarier one, because it worked on people as recently as 1940, and worked elsewhere but a few days ago:

I will say it again. Kanye West is not crazy. Read Secret Relationships between Blacks/Jews. He is naming the names. In his rant is truth.
For once Kanye is right. #Jews #MoneyCounts
Kanye West is called anti-Semitic for saying Jews have networking connections. I'm just gonna leave that absurdity right there.
Jews mad he told the Truth? RT: @grouchygreg Kanye West's The Breakfast Club Interview Offends Jewish Community
I don't get why Jews would be mad at what Kanye said
Drake got a deal with Nike. Kanye got stuck with Adidas. Do you think it was cos Yeezy said Jews have connections? Just sayin

The last one's just funny, assuming (hoping) that person's joking.

As for the rest of them: The idea that I shouldn't be offended by the stereotype of Jews having power is absurd. We're talking about a stereotype that goes back to ideas of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy. Like, what, I'm supposed to be thankful that Kanye's not calling out the Jews for taking the blood of children and putting it into our Passover matzoh? (Yeah: People have actually said that shit.) 

Again: There are Jews with power and connections. But there are Catholics with power and connections. And Baptists. And Sikhs. And Asians. And Indians. And Germans. In 2011, some very powerful people spent record amounts of money trying to keep Barack Obama from being re-elected. Sheldon and Miriam Adelson—Jewish—spent more money than any individual donor. And how powerful were they—or any of the other people, Jewish or not, who gave Obama's opponents money—proven? Not very. On the other side of things, scholar Cornel West once found himself on the wrong side of President Obama's shitlist after he criticized Obama for his closeness with Jews.

Kanye hasn't demonstrated the kind of intolerance and hatred that a mentality of antisemitism represents. That said: Kanye West—who should know better, who stands for better—said truly some wack shit.

I've never considered the Black American experience and the Jewish American experience to be all that alike. And the connections have been both downplayed and overplayed on both sides. But when put to the question, I'm also cognizant of and proud of the connections black Americans and Jews have. The Jewish lawyer rap trope—even as the son of a Jewish lawyer—annoys me, mostly because it's a tired cliche, but moreover, because it muddles a reality about Black America and Jewish lawyers (like the fact that one in every two lawyers who fought alongside African Americans for unilateral equality in the civil rights movements of the mid-20th Century were Jewish). Religiously and culturally, the ending of persecution and suffering and the goal of equality for all is a core Jewish value. Obviously, like all theoretically great values, it doesn't always work out so well in practice (e.g. the feverishly religious geopolitics of Israel, the Crown Heights riots, and so on). But it's something I was always raised to honor and strive to, from an early age.

Now, all of this said? I don't think Kanye West is antisemitic.

Not because Rick Rubin (the Jew who founded Def Jam with Russell Simmons produced Yeezus and is producing his next album) and one of the DONDA members credited on nine of the songs on Yeezus, who also worked on the live show is Jewish, though if Kanye West actually hated all the world's Jews, he definitely wouldn't be putting crucial pieces of his artistic legacy in their hands. That said: "I have Jewish associates" is as much an excuse to say wack shit about Jews as "I've got a black friend" is for people who say racist shit about black people. Which is to say: Not much of one. Also, Nazis had Jewish friends, too. 

But I don't think Kanye hates Jews mostly because his music is generally about ideas like the struggle for equality and fairness. He hasn't demonstrated the kind of intolerance and hatred that a mentality of antisemitism represents.

That said: Kanye West—who should know better, who stands for better—said truly some wack shit. And while the ADL isn't correct, Kanye's not right for saying it, either. He's wrong. It's a disingenuous, lazy, and ignorant take on the powers that be, the one that he's otherwise so rightfully attacked over the last few months. 

At a certain point—as much of a fan of Kanye as I am, and as much as I have faith in him as an artist (and a decent human being), it becomes difficult to ignore the depth of his cultural influence, and harder not to ask whether or not he actually knows the power his words can have. For example: After those comments, his own comparisons of himself to Hitler, or a song title like "Black Skinheads," or that aforementioned Holocaust reference from Watch The Throne begin to feel cumulative, in a way they've never felt before. They feel like they add up to something more.

And I know they don't. Or I'm trying to convince myself that they don't. But I shouldn't have to wonder.

Even if he is simply trying to be provocative, the guy who told everyone that "the only thing I want to do is help people" a few weeks ago isn't doing such a great job, unless this is his idea of helping people, an exponentially more disturbing prospect (again: see the Tweets above). 

I'm not looking for an apology from Ye. In fact, I'd almost rather he didn't: There are people stupid enough to think that Kanye West apologizing for antisemitism would be just more evidence of Jewish influence and some sort of absurd Jewish conspiracy. And those people don't need anything else to go off of. This, for them, will probably be enough fuel for the fire as is.  

I just hope, more than anything, that someone's explained this to him by now. I don't want to have to wonder what Kanye really means, or if he really understands what he's saying. I just hope, going forward, that I shouldn't have to wonder. That's it.

- - -

When I was home for Thanksgiving a few weeks ago, my Dad, my girlfriend, my brother and I landed on the topic of what kind of grandmother my Dad's mother would've been to my brother and me. Like Kanye's daughter, I'll never know my father's mother.

Not because she was killed in the Holocaust, but because she hung herself in a shower in Queens, when my Dad was 20. She'd been waiting to do it for a while. She had survivor's guilt. Of her entire lineage, only she and her father made it out of Europe alive. Her father only survived as a slave, to a German soldier, who happened to like the way he spoke German. My grandmother died in 1975. She was 41.

The gap is never that wide.

RELATED: The 100 Best Kanye West Songs

Latest in Music