By Rav Mordechai Burg
Two things can be true at once. Great thinkers can see multiple sides of an issue at the same time. Nuance, subtlety, and complexity are paramount when considering ideas. I believe the following are two true statements:
- Kanye West is suffering from severe mental health issues.
- Mental Health is not an excuse for antisemitism. The antisemitism that has reared its ugly head in the wake of his comments is indicative of a much larger issue that goes well beyond Kanye West.
It is cruel to give Kanye West a platform. It is clickbait at its worst. Taking advantage of someone who is incapable of doing better to get more eyes on your program is an act of evil. Kanye is clearly not well and needs help. For those of us who have watched people with mental health disorders destroy their lives, you know what I am talking about. It is heartbreaking to watch.
Kanye is a global personality with millions of fans. To put these numbers in context, there are approximately 15 million Jews in the world. Kanye has 32 million followers on Twitter. His words (for reasons that boggle the mind) matter to many. Elon Musk was correct in removing Kanye from Twitter after he posted a vile picture of a Magen David and a swastika together. It incites violence, and free speech should not be conflated with dangerous speech. Antisemitism is on the rise. CNN reported that there was a 400 percent rise in antisemitism last year. In the forty-five minutes following Kanye’s last Twitter post, over 30,000 people retweeted his tweet. Over 28,000 liked it. That is not to say that all those people agreed with Kanye, but the comments on social media were horrifying. As Jordan Peterson recently posted, antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine. When we see the rise of antisemitism, we are sure to see the collapse of society soon afterward. I won’t dignify the antisemites who posted their hateful rhetoric below his comment by quoting their words but suffice it to say that it was awful to read.
I’m currently writing this article not from Eretz Yisrael where I live but from Los Angeles. Last night I had the opportunity to sit down with a close talmid who is now successfully working in the business world. This talmid commented, “For the first time in my life, I am uncomfortable walking down the street.” He shared with me that an elderly Holocaust survivor told him that this was the environment in Nazi Germany before the Holocaust. I am not suggesting that we are on the verge of another genocide in America. We ought to be very careful with how we speak about these things. And yet, nearly all of us grew up asking the question, how did the Jews in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s not see it coming? How come they didn’t get out? I always assumed it was because they were rooted in their communities. They owned homes. They built Shuls, Yeshivas, and Mikvaos. They had their friends and family. It takes a lot of courage to uproot everything and leave it all behind. Still, they certainly would have left had they known what was coming. Watching what is happening now, I wonder if they didn’t exhibit the same type of cognitive dissonance that many are experiencing right now. The issue is not Kanye. He is a sick man. But Kanye has revealed a much larger issue. The cancer that is antisemitism has spread beyond what most of us had imagined possible. We grew up hearing the words “never again”. My Rabbeim always told us that a Holocaust could absolutely happen again. Even in America. I didn’t believe them. They were old-fashioned. They had the PTSD of so many who grew up in the post-Holocaust generation. I never felt uncomfortable walking down the street in America. In retrospect, I was wrong and they were right.
Years ago, Jewish actor Sacha Baron Cohen went to a bar down South and, playing an antisemitic character, sang a song with the words “Throw the Jew down the well…” Those in the audience joined him in singing the song and clapping along. Cohen meant to expose the antisemitism that exists in middle America. But most who saw his bit, myself included, shrugged it off. “Antisemites gonna antisemite”. A few uneducated southerners are not indicative of a larger problem. But this is different. We are talking about blatant antisemitic comments from thousands of people on social platforms. There is no sense of embarrassment. These are not anonymous accounts posting their hate without worrying about potential consequences. The antisemitism is being openly flaunted. The oldest antisemitic tropes are being rolled out on social media for all to see. It is not just about the people stating them- it is about the tens of thousands of people who agree with them.
We are obligated to pay attention to what is happening around us. I imagine that many will respond to the antisemitism that we are facing in their own unique ways. Lubavitchers will light even more Menorahs in public so that they chase away the darkness with the light of Chanukah. The ADL will continue to call out the antisemitism we are facing. Lobbying organizations will press for continued adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Zionists will tell Jews to move to Israel. There will be calls for greater investments in Teshuva. Less talking in davening. Greater devotion to talmud Torah. More ahavas chinam. All these are important responses, and I don’t see myself as worthy enough to add my opinion to the myriad of those that already exist. I will only say this. The canary has died. Those who remain in the coal mine, acting as if nothing has happened, do so at their own peril. Rolling your eyes and saying it’s just Kanye and Kyrie is a mistake of epic proportions. The cancer has spread, and society is in need of radical treatment.
Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com