One way that celebrities are just like the rest of us is that they should not be tweeting late on Saturday night. Yesterday evening, Kanye West demonstrated why. “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE,” the rapper wrote to his 31 million followers. “The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.” He followed this up by asking: “Who do you think created cancel culture?” (He presumably did not mean the Mormons.) By the next morning, the first tweet had been taken down by Twitter and West’s account had been locked for violating the platform’s rules.
On its surface, this story is both sad and saddening—the unmoored musings of an unwell man. But it actually holds a surprising number of important lessons for us about why anti-Semitism endures today, how societal prejudice interacts with mental illness, and how we might better respond to sorry situations like these.
Anti-Jewish bigotry is a self-sustaining circle. It’s a common misconception that anti-Semitism is simply a personal prejudice toward Jewish people. It’s not. It’s also a conspiracy theory about how the entire world works, blaming shadowy Jewish figures for countless societal problems. Kanye’s tweets aptly illustrate why this form of anti-Semitism is so difficult to uproot: It’s a self-affirming conspiracy theory. The anti-Semite claims that Jews control everything. Then, if they are penalized for their bigotry, they point to that as proof. Heads, they win; tails, Jews lose.
This dynamic creates an agonizing catch-22 for Jews when they are confronted with prejudice: If they say nothing, the hatred spreads unchecked. If they say something, and it results in any consequences for the anti-Semite, the bigot just uses that as evidence for their anti-Semitic worldview.
For centuries, Jewish communities have found themselves in the precarious position of attempting to push back against anti-Jewish prejudice without also fueling its underpinnings. Outsiders who criticize Jewish organizations over their response to this or that anti-Semitic incident often fail to appreciate this point. But in any case, there is no way for Jews to square this circle. Anti-Semitism is a non-Jewish problem, and it requires a non-Jewish solution.
Conspiratorial anti-Semitism is depressingly common across communities, but seldom condemned unless it becomes embarrassingly obvious. Had West substituted globalist or Zionist or bankers or another euphemism for Jew in his tweet, it would likely still be up. Such terms have legitimate uses but are often used illegitimately to evoke anti-Semitic conspiracy. If you want to see this in practice, look no further than the supreme leader of Iran, arguably the most powerful anti-Semite on Twitter, whose account—unlike West’s—remains unimpeded by the platform:
West’s anti-Semitism proved too blatant for Twitter to ignore. But had he added even the slightest sheen of plausible deniability to his words, it’s likely that many on the platform and beyond would be defending them right now. Most anti-Semites today are not as ham-handed as West, and that is why anti-Semitism abides. Expunging obvious anti-Semitism is easy; honestly reckoning with the coded variety is hard, especially when it emanates from one’s own friends and allies.
The choice between “prejudice” and “mental illness” is often a false one. West and his family have acknowledged that he struggles mightily with his mental health. Over the course of his career, the rapper has had many public outbursts, including on social media, that seemingly reflect his tenuous state. It’s also not hard to see how these internal challenges could have been exacerbated by recent events in West’s personal life, including his divorce from Kim Kardashian.
In sensitive situations like these, there is a lamentable tendency to stigmatize mental illness as the source of societal prejudice, or to excuse such prejudice as the mere expression of illness. But this equation is profoundly mistaken. Most people who face mental-health challenges are not bigots and should never be tarred as such. In the minority of cases where such prejudice presents itself, something deeper is probably at work.
The sad reality is that those struggling with mental illness do not originate their society’s bigotries, but in their confusion and pain, they can sometimes latch on to them. Put another way, unwell individuals like Kanye rarely go on tirades against, say, the Amish; they tend to land on those already targeted by the broader culture, and to reflect their society’s preexisting pathologies, whether anti-Semitism or racism. They are not innovators but reflectors—which means that if we don’t like what we see, we ought to look more closely within.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with those who have enabled West to this point…