We Need a Better Way to Fight Celebrity Antisemitism

When sports stars, musicians and talk show hosts mouth off, we have to come up with better and more creative ways to deal with the problem.
November 4, 2022
Photo by Erik Drost/Flickr/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

A few days ago, I was praying for a reprieve from the endless conversation about Kanye West. Kyrie Irving has apparently answered my prayers, though not in the way I had hoped. Did we really need another round of celebrity antisemitism? We didn’t, but here we are.

And where exactly are we? From the reactions to the basketball star’s posting of a link to an antisemitic film, it feels like we are at the beginning of the four-step program of the American Jewish response to the kind of recurring antisemitism we are treated to by cultural elite. By this I mean verbal assaults that range from insensitive, to ignorant to strategically malevolent. Whatever the motivation for the outburst, it triggers a pre-packaged response.

Step one is to get emotional and express outrage. This is the step that I sort of like. There should be a visceral reaction when people say, support, or defend antisemitic rhetoric. Too often, this step is skipped when it comes to bashing the Jews, often by Jews themselves.

Step two is to encourage and organize public pressure on the offender’s employer to punish him or her for the behavior. This is where we start to go off the rails. The cancellation model was perfected as a weapon against the Jews, and we have no business supporting it unless we plan to stay silent the next time some “white, Zionist, colonialist” professor is denied tenure.

Antisemites get to be employed in America. So do homophobes, people who don’t believe all women, people who think Taiwan isn’t China, election deniers, and all kinds of people who have views the other half of the country hates. We can’t, and should not, advocate for all of them, and in this case, Kyrie Irving, to be fired. The long list of intolerable views for which corporations are meant to penalize people has already extended well beyond the limits of common sense and if Jews pile on, we will absolutely regret it.

Step three, where politically expedient, is to bring in the usual cast of Jewish communal professionals who work out a carefully crafted public “apology” with the antisemite’s crisis management team that everyone will read and know the celebrity didn’t write and doesn’t mean. Kyrie did what he could with step three. His declaration that he was taking “responsibility” for the “harm” he caused was taken as sincere by exactly no one.

And why should he apologize? He isn’t really sorry, which became clear the more he spoke. Why exactly, then, are we extracting false “apologies” from him? To soothe ourselves?

If we needed further proof that these statements are empty, we can recall Adidas’ words when they disengaged from their contract with Kanye West after his “Deathcon 3” comment about the Jews. Adidas claimed its company “does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech.” Except, they do. On November 3, the company proudly announced the launch of their collaborative athleisure line with model, Bella Hadid who in 2021 posted to Instagram that Israel practices, “ethnic cleansing, military occupation and apartheid over the Palestinian people.”

We have become so addicted to logging the “PR apology” so we can feel that we have accomplished something, that we are allowing people and companies to use them to move the media cycle along, and substantively change nothing at all. We have forgotten that the goal is to deal with antisemitism, not our angst about antisemitism.

And then there is Step Four: “Jesse Jackson” the offender by sending in an NGO to extract a large charitable donation to vaguely “fight hate” in return for “official Jewish absolution” for the antisemitic sin. How does this help a single victim of antisemitism? Do we ever find out exactly where those critical donations went and what the ROI was? For all the donations collected by reformed antisemites turned Jewish philanthropists, is antisemitism abating in America?

The point is not that one individual named Kyrie Irving posted a link to an antisemitic film. The concern is that millions of people who follow Irving and his career might be influenced by the film because he gave it legitimacy. Are those people changed by Kyrie’s now rejected offer to donate to obscure “anti-hate” efforts? Will the Nets’ offer of a donation change anything other than their own public image? Will a word soup apology Kyrie didn’t author convince some 18-year-old in Brooklyn that in fact six million Jews did die in the Holocaust after all?

Everything we do when these incidents take place is designed to solve the problem of our feelings about antisemitism, not the problem of antisemitism itself. It is a performance, with emotionally satisfying yet practically ineffective outcomes. Maybe it even makes things worse. People like Kanye and Kyrie are contrarians who clearly don’t like to dance to mainstream tunes. By pushing this routine on them, we are making them resistance martyrs to the millions we had hoped to persuade, which encourages them to double down and exacerbates the very problem we are trying to address.

The eight people in the front row of the Nets game last Monday night at Barclays Center demonstrated more creative energy than the entire American Jewish establishment when they sat courtside wearing t-shirts that read, “Fight Antisemitism”. Mocking Kyrie Irving has a better shot of reaching the hearts and minds of his followers than running him through the 4-step program does.

Maybe NBA Commissioner, Adam Silver, should sponsor and disseminate a short video by Ruth Wisse, professor emerita of Comparative Literature at Harvard University and scholar of Jewish history and culture, to refute the top 5 falsehoods in the antisemitic movie Irving referenced. It could play on the jumbotron at every stadium during halftime at all games for the next month. It might be harder for some of his fans to get on the antisemitism train with him once they realize his antisemitism is born of plain ignorance and susceptibility to rank propaganda, rather than fashioned by some well thought-out theory about the Jews.

When sports stars, musicians and talk show hosts mouth off, we have to come up with better and more creative ways to deal with the problem. We can start by remembering that the problem is not how hurtful words make us feel, but how they can misinform and influence others. Our strategies and solutions have to focus on the latter or we will be stuck in this loop for a long time.

Rebecca Sugar is a writer living in New York. Her column, The Cocktail Party Contrarian, appears every other Friday in The New York Sun.

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