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  • Dr. Shyam Sriram, Assistant Professor of Political Science

West and Irving Know Too Little about the Jewish Experience

By Dr. Shyam Sriram, Assistant Professor of Political Science

It seems like too many people have completely missed the point about the recent controversies surrounding Kyrie Irving and Kanye West. Both men have shown their expertise in gaslighting to make most of us look and feel crazy. Irving has not changed his opinion on Jewish people and the film, “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America,” despite his pathetic apology. He claims that the movie exposes the secret history of the Black experience in America, but what his tweets and public profile do not discuss is the religion of the Hebrew Israelites, whose platform is exposed in the film.

West, like his friend Donald Trump, also apparently does not understand what antisemitism means, and that using phrases about big money, globalists, secret financiers and the like is also antisemitic because it relies on insidious Jewish stereotypes that never go away. My former College of Charleston colleague, Dr. Joshua Shanes, has also taught me about philosemitism, which is the language of pretending to praise Jewish people while still engaging in behavior that “others” or excludes Jewish identity from mainstream perceptions of the norm (often Christian).

West has a history of this going back to 2013 when he remarked that President Obama could not get his agenda through because “"Black people don't have the same level of connections as Jewish people ... We ain't Jewish. We don't get family that got money like that." In October of this year, West tweeted he was going “death con 3” on Jewish people, and when criticized, posted a photo of himself with Mark Zuckerberg, who is Jewish. This is philosemitism, and is akin to then Vice President Mike Pence saying in a 2020 debate with then Senator Kamala Harris that President Trump could not be antisemitic because his grandchildren were Jewish.

West is a master of manipulation and gaslighting by making people feel guilty for accusing him of being antisemitic or poorly informed by engaging in historical and religious revisionism. This was on full display during an absolutely unhinged Oct. 17 episode of “Drink Champs” – freely available on YouTube – where West says the following:

“So, I took it over to Dov Charney at LA Apparel … So then we made the White Lives Matter tees, and then when I put up the tweet, the Def Con tweet, nah he ain’t releasing the tee because he’s Jewish. And I’m like, ‘See, this is my exact point that I’m making.’ Like Jewish people have owned the Black voice, whether it’s through us wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt or as all of us being signed to a record label or having a Jewish manager or being signed to a Jewish basketball team or doing a movie on a Jewish platform like Disney … I respect what the Jew … Jewish people have done and how they brought their people together … with the darker Jews with the 12 lost tribes of Israel who we are because we are Jewish also, we’re from Africa also. We’re the blood of Christ, so we’re not just Black, we are Jew just like the Jewish people.”

Both controversies have shown me how little most people really know about Judaism and its core beliefs and theology. As I mentioned before, the film promoted by Kyrie Irving is a documentary on Hebrew Israelites. They are neither Jewish or Israeli, but are a religious community known for being virulently anti-Jewish, anti-Christian, and basically anyone who criticizes what they believe. Let me say this again: Hebrew Israelites are not Jewish, but because they claim to be descended from the biblical Israelites, they also believe and loudly tell others they are more authentically people of the book than Jewish people. Hebrew Israelites undermine the theology, activism, and representation of actual Black Jews like Maayan Zik and Rabbi Shais Rishon (aka MaNishtana).

All Americans have protections under the First Amendment to the Constitution that include the freedom of speech, press, assembly and free exercise of religion. Yes, both men are entitled to their opinion, and they have First Amendment protections from the government, but not in the private sector (something people forget all the time). We live in a country predicated on capitalism and the dollar/markets rule all. Kyrie and Kanye are not good for business, so they have suffered financially. This is how boycotts historically work. While there is a history of Black-Jewish tension in the United States, most people do not realize that Kanye West and Kyrie Irving are exploiting that uncertainty and not healing it.

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