How we challenge anti-semitism

Why we should care about what Kanye West posts

Rebecca Cavanaugh, Guest Writer

A Star of David art piece in the Czech concentration camp, Terezin, outside of Prague. (Courtesy Rebecca Cavanaugh)

The term ‘antisemitism’ has been all over the news in the past few weeks. However, antisemitic beliefs, actions and outbursts are nothing new – which we all know. 

 To acknowledge the obvious, the recent Twitter outburst by Kanye West has garnered significant attention from the media, celebrities, companies, private organizations and many more. Yet, this piece is not meant to give more attention than necessary to one problematic celebrity. Instead, it is to remind us that these hateful remarks are only one example of how normal we have allowed antisemitism to become. 

 The attention his posts have received is concerning in many ways. Some in support of West have gathered publicly, distributed flyers and vandalized property with antisemitic retorts and symbols. They have been using this attention as an opportunity to spread their beliefs to others in their communities. Those in opposition to West’s claims have voiced their disagreement, broken contracts and ended partnerships with him and his brand. Many celebrities and public officials have even made public statements saying they would ‘stand with the Jewish community’ in the face of this dangerous and hateful speech. 

 While it remains concerning that significant national attention to the rise of antisemitism has only come as a result of one celebrity’s posts, it is an opportunity for us to reevaluate the standard we hold ourselves to in challenging antisemitism. 

 At the moment, challenging antisemitism has become both a performative act and a social necessity. Performative posts and actions by influential people like celebrities and companies are a way for them to demonstrate support or opposition to a view for the sake of their followers, fans or customers. They attract significant attention and can utilize that as an opportunity to voice their social beliefs. However, it remains questionable what this actually achieves. 

 In one sense, using the same platform on which many spread hate speech and bigotry is an effective way to undermine those individuals’ positions and language. They reach a wide audience who then privately discuss the content of their statements. However, these responses to antisemitic posts and actions also cause this acknowledgment to become a ‘trend.’ We have seen this before with the Black Lives Matter movement, with many posting a black square on their Instagram in June 2020. Some posted their square and considered it ‘enough’ when the black community was calling for more to express productive support. These trends come and go, leaving people to move on quickly. Attention is short-lived, and the actual social impact is uncertain.

 Yet, the role of social media in challenging discrimination and bigotry has become essential. The ability to share information and videos across the country in a matter of seconds has shed light on previously ignored facts of society. My point is that this cannot be where it ends. 

 We must not become comfortable with the state of antisemitism in our communities and country. I have heard some comfort themselves by comparing current antisemitic trends with those of pre-WWII Germany, but that should not be the standard. The standard should never be that “we’re not as bad as we could be” but instead that we could be better. 

 If we have learned anything from recent attention, I hope it is how antisemitism permeates our lives and communities. Several organizations that track antisemitic incidents have reported significant increases in past years, most disturbingly in recent weeks. While this tracking is important, we must acknowledge that dramatic numbers should not be necessary to understand that discrimination and hate against the Jewish community is dangerous.

 My final plea to you is not to become comfortable, not to accept this as a normal belief and to not be surprised by the hate of others. Be aware of the ways antisemitism manifests around you, in the discussions you have, in the media you consume and in the things you believe. In order to encourage a safer and kinder future, we must acknowledge and undermine the bigotry around us with more enthusiasm than you may consider necessary. Support those who challenge this hate and discrimination in all its forms, even if their means of doing so are different than your own. A diversity of approaches in our personal actions, communal support and nationwide awareness allows us to bring these issues to the forefront of our attention. 

 Use this as an opportunity to learn more about how antisemitism exists in our society, media and systems. Recognize the attention you are giving to the beliefs of problematic and hateful people. Let yourself accept that any effort you make is helpful. We must not allow ourselves to be bystanders.