Is Antisemitism on the Rise? How Kanye West’s Remarks Expose a Much Deeper Problem

Kanye West on red background with black slash

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Watchdog groups weigh in on why the rapper’s rhetoric is having a detrimental effect. 

Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, has been making a slew of antisemitic comments in recent weeks, prompting social media platforms to suspend him and companies to cut ties with him.

On December 1, Ye was suspended from Twitter after posting an altered image of a swastika inside a Star of David. “He again violated our rule against incitement to violence,” Elon Musk tweeted. Earlier the same day, Ye sat down for an interview with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, during which he made seriously antisemitic remarks, referring to the “Jewish media,” and claiming to see “good things” about Hitler.

Ye’s comments over the past few months have also inspired a well-known hate group — the Goyim Defense League — to display a banner over a busy Los Angeles highway overpass on Saturday that read, “Honk if you know Kanye is right about the Jews,” while giving Nazi salutes. But are his remarks part of a broader rise in antisemitism in the U.S.? 

Unfortunately, that’s what reports suggest — antisemitic incidents hit a record high in 2021. The Anti-Defamation League identified 2,717 acts of antisemitism across the country, including 1,776 cases of harassment and 853 incidents of vandalism. This marks the highest number on record since the civil rights group began tracking these acts of hate in 1979. While the group’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt says it’s “too early” to tell what the research will be for 2022, he said antisemitic hate on college campuses is already “frighteningly high,” and many Jews are already living in an environment of “heightened antisemitism and amplified intolerance.”

“You have to keep in mind that the threats by Kanye West and the outright vicious hate that he’s promoting is happening in the context of a community that’s already feeling under siege,” Greenblatt tells Katie Couric Media. 

In case you haven’t been following the news as closely, here’s a breakdown of why watchdog groups are on high alert following West’s hateful comments. 

A timeline of Kanye West’s recent antisemitism

On Oct. 3, Ye sparked backlash after donning a White Lives Matter shirt at Paris Fashion Week, which drew fierce backlash from many celebrities, including Diddy. West then posted their heated text message exchanges on Instagram, including one message in which he suggested that Diddy was being controlled by Jewish people — invoking an age-old antisemitic trope of secret Jewish control. This prompted his account to be restricted, leading him to jump on Twitter and threaten to go “death con 3” on Jewish people. He then got locked out of his Twitter account. 

Then just days later, West sat down with conservative Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, where he made several disparaging comments about Jewish people that were subsequently edited out (and later obtained and leaked by Vice). At one point in the interview, he said he wished his kids attended a school that taught Hanukkah so their education would come with “financial engineering,” perpetuating an antisemitic stereotype that Jewish people control financial systems. He has gone on to make several other hateful remarks, even blaming Jewish doctors for diagnosing his bipolar disorder.

But West is no stranger to this sort of antisemitic behavior, with documented instances dating back to 2011, when he likened himself Nazi leader Adolf Hitler. Just two years later during an interview with a hip-hop radio station in New York, he pushed an age-old stereotype that Jewish people control the government to explain why then-President Obama wasn’t getting certain policies done. 

Has West faced any major backlash?

West’s comments have prompted at least six companies to end their relationships with him. This includes U.S. bank JPMorgan Chase, French fashion house Balenciaga, the Gap, talent agency CAA, and Vogue.

Other companies like Adidas didn’t cut ties right away, which caused outrage, especially given the company’s history — the German company was founded in 1949 by a member of the Nazi Party. After placing their partnership with Ye under “internal review” earlier this month, the sportswear brand announced Tuesday that it would “end production of Yeezy branded products and stop all payments to Ye and his companies.” But watchdog groups have called out Adidas’s delay in ending the partnership.

“We are happy that they acted, however, we had hoped that they would be among the leaders versus the followers in saying no to hate, specifically with their past Nazi ties,” StopAntisemitism’s executive director, Liora Rez, tells us. 

A number of celebrities and public officials have also condemned the performer’s comments, including California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Democratic lawmaker Rep. Adam Schiff. Ye’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian posted on Twitter denouncing hate speech.

What about other incidents?

Sadly, the demonstration above the L.A. freeway wasn’t an isolated incident in Los Angeles. In recent weeks, local law enforcement has opened an investigation after residents found fliers spewing all kinds of stereotypes and conspiracy theories about Jewish and LGBTQ people. Sam Yebri, who’s running for the L.A. City Council, told the Los Angeles Times he found one such flier at his home, claiming that the COVID-19 pandemic and response was part of a Jewish “agenda.” Similar flyers were also reported in Beverly Hills, San Marino, and Pasadena earlier this year during Passover and Yom Kippur.

But these cases of hate are happening across the country: The ADL says it recorded antisemitic incidents in all 50 states last year, with the highest number of cases in New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Michigan, and Texas. And attacks and mass shootings at synagogues, such as the 2018 rampage at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, have left a devastating mark. The shooter, Robert Bowers, was indicted on more than 60 charges for killing 11 people who were trapped inside the place of worship, but his trial isn’t expected to go to trial until next year. “We do see higher concentrations of anti-Jewish activity in places with larger Jewish populations,” says Greenblatt.  

What’s driving this rise in antisemitic hate?

Watchdog groups, including StopAntisemitism, attribute the uptick in hate against Jewish people to extremism on both the left and the right. This is why Rez believes it’s important to not politicize the issue of antisemitism. 

“Extremist movements from the far left to the alt-right have one thing in common, and that’s the hatred of Jews,” she says, adding, “Sometimes it’s masked as anti-Israel activism.” 

In terms of data, the issue is two-fold — while the number of hate groups has dropped, certain chapters have become more radicalized. In 2021, the number of white nationalist, neo-Nazi and anti-government extremist groups across the U.S. dropped from 838 in 2020, to 733 in 2021. But certain groups, on the other hand, like the Proud Boys, have become more active, going from 53 to 72 chapters over the last two years. 

Still, there’s the fear that hate and anti-government groups have become increasingly normalized — as evidenced by the group of pro-Trump extremists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. But according to Rez, antisemitism runs much deeper — it’s embedded in the Jewish stereotypes and jokes that have been told for generations. 

“Words have consequences and jokes help normalize distortions and stereotypes against the Jewish people,” says Rez. “This type of hatred has been so normalized that Jewish people themselves don’t know when to identify it.”

What can be done to fight this hate?

Watchdog groups and advocates agree that we all have a role to play when it comes to combating antisemitism, or any form of hate. Greenblatt says part of this has to do with educating kids — he tells us that the ADL is one of the largest providers in America of anti-hate content in schools, and reached between 3.5 to 4 million kids last year alone. 

“We have to engage kids in a way that’s not ‘woke,’ and instead in a way that’s open and honest, because diversity is a strength,” he says. “It’s an incredibly powerful tool that the government can use at the local and federal level.” 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has recently taken action in raising awareness around hate. In September, the White House hosted the United We Stand Summit, a first-of-its-kind event aimed at countering the corrosive effects of hate-fueled violence. 

“We need to say clearly and forcefully, white supremacy, all forms of hate…have no place in America,” Biden said. “For in silence, wounds deepen.”