“What effective measures will the collective Negro community take against the vicious antisemitism?” Rabbi Everett Gendler shared this question with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1968, 10 days before King was murdered.
Nearly 55 years later, the actions of two iconic Black figures demand that we ask a version of this question again. Ye, the hip-hop artist and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West, has unleashed a rash of antisemitic tirades, and the Brooklyn Nets basketball superstar Kyrie Irving posted on social media a link to a documentary laden with antisemitic views.
The actions of Ye and Irving bring spent tropes of Jewish control to the surface. Their provocations also compel us to grapple with sometimes conflicting Jewish and Black views of race and privilege and how the suffering of the communities shapes their identities and fuels their fight against bigotry. It is painful and a bit embarrassing to admit that African Americans and Jews have, for one reason or another, competed, quarreled and jostled with each other to gain attention and empathy for our struggles and the injustices we confront.
None of that can blunt an abiding truth: We are, after all, old friends and lovers, sometimes rivals, with all the affection and bitterness such a relationship evokes. Black antisemitism is real; so is Jewish racism, from the horrendous bigotry of white Jews against Black Jews to the profoundly anti-Black statements of David Horowitz, who called Barack Obama “an evil man” and “an anti-American radical.”
But here we are, together, in the same boat, as fierce waves of hate threaten to sink our vessels in the ocean of American opportunity. To shift metaphors: We should remember the ways that our communities have historically passed the baton to each other in the long relay for justice. Until we see antisemitism as a toxic species of the white supremacy that threatens Black security and democracy’s future, none of us are truly safe.