When I opened Twitter on Sunday, the first thing I saw was someone calling me a lampshade made of human skin. Then I got a comment saying I’d be first in line when they got the ovens back up and running. Someone commented on my Instagram post of me cuddling a goat, saying, “Kanye West was right about you people.”
For weeks, Kanye West’s media tour has relied on a slew of very old and very lethal antisemitic stereotypes, the kind that sometimes led to synagogue massacres: It’s the Jewish media, Jewish record executives, and “certain businessmen” he can’t trust who have ruined his life. All of this has had predictable consequences, including suspension from Twitter and Instagram, harsh condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, and the cancellation of collaborations. It has also resulted in more invitations from media has-beens for West, now known as Ye, to continue explaining himself, followed by increased coverage of every new antisemitic utterance.
It’s tempting to dismiss Ye’s remarks as the rantings of a lunatic. If this was the extent of American hostility toward its tiny Jewish minority, those shrugging their shoulders might be correct. However, these sentiments are only the tip of a much larger spear. Ye’s remarks come at a time when right-wing violence is on the rise, a delicate tipping point that can quickly devolve into chaos.
As a Jew in America, I’ve long expected a certain level of oddness in my interactions with non-Jews. Millions of Americans have never met a Jew – we make up only 2% of the population and tend to congregate in urban areas – and we have a muddled reputation, not to mention outright prejudice and myth.
I’ve come to expect that whenever I meet a non-Jew outside of the New York metro area, the conversation will veer into the murky territory of things getting weird.
Other encounters have been less ambiguous. A stranger called my boyfriend a kike in a grocery store while he was wearing a yarmulke and an anti-cop slogan on his T-shirt. I held a bag of onions in my hand and considered swinging, but instead we made a tactical retreat from the produce section.
But there’s always a difference between the buzzing thrum of background prejudice and the airhorn squeal of openly expressed hatred, between the dim commentary of strangers and the palpable anger in Ye’s voice as he claims the Jews are the source of his many grievances.
As a trans Jew in America, an invisible tangle of bells is going off in my chest; when things are quickly deteriorating, going wrong and when internecine acid is filling the air with its sting, it’s a bad time to be a member of the group that serves as a convenient eminence grise behind all social ills.
Being a Jew in America has a high wire feel to it, a sense of precarity, of existing on borrowed time; I’m the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors and, for the past few years, an avid chronicler of the rabidly antisemitic far right. There’s a sense of teetering – a cliff-edge looming – as an unstable country whose democracy is dwindling and whose economy has hit a rough patch looks for someone to blame.
If whatever grim alarm is going off inside me feels like it matches a certain historical rhythm, it’s because antisemitism’s nature rarely changes, even if its delivery is novel. Ye may have ranting about Jews on a podcast called “Drink Champs,” but the essence of their comments is little different from the bile of centuries past.
Antisemitism is one of the oldest features of Western culture, with documents of pogroms dating back to 1095, and it has survived era shifts and monumental technological changes by adapting to the zeitgeist of the time.
To the eleventh-century Crusaders, Jews were the descendants of those who plotted to slaughter Christ, only to be slaughtered in their thousands. They were well-poisoning plotters whose wrath at good Christians drove them to avenge themselves by creating a monstrous disease, according to the Bavarian peasants suffering from the ravages of bubonic plague three hundred years later.