Core Values: On Antisemitism

by Alan Reinstein, English teacher

Recently, rapper Kanye West was suspended from Twitter for tweeting an image of a swastika — on the same day that he appeared on a podcast and said, “I like Hitler.” This followed a tweet in early October in which he wrote that he was “going death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE.” 

In October, professional basketball star Kyrie Irving tweeted his support for a 2018 movie called “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” which includes claims of Holocaust denial and of an international Jewish conspiracy, the belief that Jews throughout the world, although making up only 0.2% of the world population, have developed a powerful circle of influence that veers towards world domination. (Comedian Jon Stewart, who is Jewish, mocked the conspiracy claim, which has been around for hundreds of years, by saying, “I’m not on all the committees … but I’m on oil prices and bagel flavors.”)

As a Jew, I’m intrigued by two elements of what seems like an expanding freedom to speak out against the Jewish community. First, this is a reminder to many American Jews that no matter how much at home we feel within the American community, we still subconsciously see ourselves as outsiders, never completely safe among our non-Jewish neighbors. 

To many people who are not Jewish, this insecurity seems groundless (and there may be Jews reading this for whom this statement is foreign), but a long history of being excluded and feeling unwelcome can engender skittishness about one’s home that may never fully subside.

That’s what I think is at the heart of concerns about recent statements from popular entertainers that seem to give liberty to antipathy toward Jews. Seen as hypersensitivity by some, the fear that not fitting in will lead to discrimination or even expulsion is deeply a part of the Jewish psyche, something non-Jewish people may not fully appreciate.

This leads to my second point of interest. Because this feeling of being an outsider binds me in sympathy with other marginalized groups, my white racial identity giving way to my Jewish one, the antisemitic statements from two prominent African American celebrities make me worry (even while acknowleging questions about Kanye West’s mental wellness) that perhaps other members of the Black community also don’t see Jews the way many of us see ourselves — as partners in the fight against a white supremacist ideology that threatens democratic and humanistic principles. 

In addition, I think that those Jews who are also white, like me, may be forgetting that our whiteness is a significant feature of our American experience that offers us opportunities that are blocked to others. This may cause resentment from some people of color who hear white members of the Jewish community expressing solidarity with their struggles for social justice.

So where does this put us as a community of Newton South Lions? My message to people who aren’t Jewish: Be aware that many Jewish students and staff members beside you may feel their ancestral history of otherness and alienation deeply, even if they aren’t able to articulate it. 

And to my white Jewish family members: we should acknowledge that our white racial identity is also a prominent feature of our place within the American community, a feature that may even dominate others’ perceptions of us and separate us from BIPOC community members, even though we wish it didn’t.