June 17, 2019

Why Would LeBron James Post an Insensitive ‘Jewish Money’ Lyric?

Dec 18, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward LeBron James (23) reacts during the third quarter against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I lead a double life. Professionally, I’m publisher and editor-in-chief of a Jewish paper, but in my personal life, I’m a diehard Los Angeles Lakers fan. I mean diehard. Don’t ask me to explain this condition. It is what it is.

These two worlds – Jewish drama and Lakers drama – rarely merge, except for such moments as when I say wistfully to my son: “I wonder what it’d be like to be the Lakers reporter for the L.A. Times,” to which he invariably responds: “Go for it, Dad!”

I’d be lying if I said it never crosses my mind.

Anyhow, my two bubbles truly collided this past weekend when superstar Laker LeBron James posted for his 45.9 million Instagram followers these song lyrics from the performer 21 Savage: “We been getting that Jewish money. Everything is Kosher.”

Yikes.

I have to tell you it was a mind-bending experience watching my beloved Lakers play on Sunday night, knowing that the best player on my team had just offended my beloved people.

After the game, James must have realized he had jumped into dicey territory, as he told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, “Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. That’s not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So, I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.”

It’s fair to assume that James had no idea that expressions like “Jewish money” hark back to some of the worst stereotypes that have haunted Jews for centuries. Had he known that, I doubt he would have posted the lyrics. James is too conscious of his reputation.

But still, how could James be so ignorant and cavalier about something so sensitive?

Here’s my theory: Jews in America today are very different than the Jews who were persecuted for millennia. We’re no longer a fringe group that is weak and powerless. As a community, we’re seen as strong, successful and mainstream. Despite the remnants of anti-Semitism which never go away, America has been very good to us. We’re no longer defined by victimhood.

This can make people a little careless with their choice of language, especially when they see some “truth” in the language. That’s why James said “I actually thought it was a compliment.” In a society that values success, a stereotype based on that success seems more tolerable.

We had a similar situation a few years ago during the Academy Awards when the master of ceremonies, comedian Seth MacFarlane, played up the stereotype that “Jews run Hollywood.”

At the time, I remember thinking that as far as stereotypes go, “running Hollywood” sounds a lot better than some of the older anti-Semitic cabals—such as Jews being accused of using Christian blood to bake Passover matzot—and that MacFarlane probably figured Jews have a sense of humor and we could take it.

Maybe this is the paradox of the Jewish experience in America today: We came here to escape centuries of persecution based on nasty stereotypes, and now that we have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, we have to deal with the stereotype of success.

Evidently, American Jews have become so successful and funny that some people figure we “can take it.”

Of course, “successful and funny” is better than “fringe and weak.” But after being humanity’s favorite scapegoat for so long, it’s understandable if Jews are still hyper-sensitive to any stereotype– even a stereotype that LeBron James mistakenly feels is actually a “compliment.”

I do believe LeBron meant no harm and I accept his apology. But Mr. James, I’ll be a lot more forgiving if you bring us a championship this year.