When Lori Lefkovitz heard the antisemitic comments made by Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, she says the words and sentiment coming out of the artist’s mouth sounded familiar.
Lefkovitz, the director of the Jewish Studies program at Northeastern, says Ye’s comments are part of a more recent trend of nakedly visible antisemitism dredged up by former President Donald Trump. At the same time, it’s part of a millenia-spanning history of antisemitism.
“In fact, antisemitism has never gone away,” Lefkovitz says. “After World War II, it went underground where it’s actually safer. Today, Jews on the street and in Jewish institutions are experiencing real fear.”
The corporate response to Ye’s comments came a few weeks later, as left and right Ye’s partners jumped ship. A week after he proclaimed, “I can say antisemitic [stuff], and Adidas won’t drop me” on Drink Champs, Adidas cut ties with Ye. A day later, the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown followed suit, leaving Donda Sports, the agency founded by the artist.
But Lefkovitz says that doesn’t mean Ye, whose fanbase and social media following is larger than the global Jewish population, hasn’t already done damage. She points to the banner that was recently hung over a Los Angeles freeway, which read, “Kanye is right.”
“There has been a mainstreaming of lies that are conspiratorial––about the Democrats, about voting machines, vaccines, the threat of immigration, about all kinds of things––that has given permission to say the quiet part out loud and to say out loud things that many people believe,” Lefkovitz says. “The oldest, most tried and true, effective conspiracy theory is the conspiracy theory against the Jews.”
The history of antisemitic conspiracies stretches back millenia. In 1144, Jews in Norwich, England, were falsely accused of ritualistically sacrificing a Christian boy. Known as blood libel, this antisemitic canard became a common accusation levvied at Jews and, as a conspiracy theory, persists today. But Ye’s comments are reminiscent of a more recent form of antisemitism, Lefkovitz says.
“The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forged document by the Czarist Secret Police that Henry Ford propagated in America,” she says. “The Protocols has been translated internationally and this forgery has never been out of print. It supports the accusation of ‘the great replacement theory’ that claims that international Jewry controls global financial systems and the media, that Jews exploit other races and they are out to control the world.”
The ideas presented in the Protocols can be seen today in the right-wing conspiracies around George Soros, a billionaire, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor known for funding progressive causes. Ye’s comments tapped into the same vein of antisemitic conspiratorial thinking, one that has been leveraged openly by modern right-wing politicians like Marjorie Taylor Greene in the wake of Trump’s presidency, Lefkovitz says.
Although Ye’s weeks-long tour of antisemitic social media posts and comments made on TV did prove too much for corporate America, Lefkovitz questioned how quickly companies like Adidas and Balenciaga responded.
Yakov Bart, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, says the internal calculus any brand makes when one of its clients has a “catastrophic shutdown” is a matter of “evaluating risk and reward.”
“The bigger the star, the bigger the potential benefit for the brand, the more willing the brand is to overlook the potential red flags in the initial stages of negotiating the partnership,” Bart says.
Brands will typically try to assess how customers will react and weigh the customers they may potentially lose against the potential customers they may gain by having a particular client. In Ye’s case, the calculation was fairly simple.
“How many customers want to enter a relationship with a brand that implicitly endorses antisemitism?” Bart says. “This is a very easy decision to make, which is why I don’t think there was much strategic consideration behind it.”
Lefkovitz is more cynical. For her, Adidas’ delayed decision is indicative of a world in which antisemitic comments like Ye’s have become more accepted, or at least more visible.
“It’s not ‘Adidas, are you moral or immoral?’” Lefkovitz says. “It’s that we’ve reached a moment that was unthinkable a decade ago, that it is a calculation. This celebrity was convinced that his antisemitism would have no consequences.”
More worrying are the real-world consequences of figures like Ye and Trump bringing antisemitism into the mainstream. The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents in 2021 were the highest they had been since the ADL started tracking them in the 1970s. One in three Jews has experienced some form of antisemitism over the last five years, according to the American Jewish Committee.
The rise in antisemitism goes hand in hand with a recent increases in racist hate crimes, homophobia and transphobia, Lefkovitz says. For Jews, there is a “latent anxiety” that has come to the surface.
“The real consequences are acts of violence, and people are afraid of being targeted and are hiding their identity,” Lefkovitz says. “I have friends who have said that they don’t really feel comfortable wearing a skullcap in public––even in New York City with large Jewish populations. It’s like wearing a bull’s-eye on your back.”
However, Lefkovitz hopes something positive can come out of the controversy around Ye’s comments: education. Ye himself has rejected offers to educate himself––the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum invited him for a tour, was promptly turned down and then flooded with antisemitic messages–but Lefkovitz urges his former partners to step up.
“I hope that the example of Ye and Adidas will lead to a broader conversation about antisemitism and corporate responsibility,” Lefkovitz says.
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