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The social media outburst this month from the rapper Ye, né Kanye West, may be the example of antisemitism capturing the most attention these days. But we’d be remiss not to locate this instance of anti-Jewish bigotry within a larger social climate.
Mere days after Ye’s rant (and after the comedian Sarah Silverman was rebuked for suggesting that Black Americans haven’t condemned Ye; read on to learn more about the knotty dynamics at play here), former President Donald Trump rehashed dangerous tropes about Jewish people and loyalty.
Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and former congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard also have raised concerns in recent weeks for embracing language that draws on age-old antisemitic narratives.
This rhetoric arrives just before the four-year anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting – the deadliest assault on Jewish people in the US – and makes clear the persistence of antisemitism.
“It’s hard for me to say that we, as a country, have learned anything,” Emily Tamkin, a senior editor at The New Statesman, told CNN. “I actually don’t think that the lessons that should’ve been learned from the attack were learned by Americans generally and certainly not by American politicians on the right.”
Tamkin explores some of the fallout from the Tree of Life shooting in her new book, “Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities,” a combination of historical analysis and memoir. But she doesn’t focus purely on tragedy. Rather, she gives dimension to American Jewish lives at a time when antisemitism is on the rise.
“It’d be impossible to write a book about American Jewish history and not include antisemitism. But this isn’t a book about antisemitism,” she explained. “This is a book about American Jews. American Jewish history is the history of American Jews, not the people who hate us.”
Tamkin and I spoke at greater length about this history and the ways it ought to inform our present day. The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What has the social climate even just over the past several months – Whoopi Goldberg’s claim about the Holocaust in February, Ye’s antisemitic remarks – revealed about the way so many in US society view Jewish people and Jewish experiences?
I grew up in a town without many Jewish people and experienced antisemitism in my day-to-day life. So, it’s not that I’m surprised that antisemitism exists. As an adult, I’ve been a little bit surprised by the extent to which it’s been embraced by some of our politicians.
I think that what Ye said was horrible. Personally, I’m more concerned about the fact that he was on a TV show run by a person who regularly has guests on who espouse antisemitic tropes and stereotypes.
The fact that many people know better than to say “Jews” or “Jewish” doesn’t mean that what they’re saying isn’t antisemitic. The same week Ye tweeted about Jews, we had Tulsi Gabbard say that she was leaving the Democratic Party because it’s run by an “elitist cabal.” And Doug Mastriano, who’s running to be the governor of Pennsylvania, has slammed his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who’s Jewish, for sending his children to a Jewish day school.
It’s important that we don’t just point to one celebrity and say, “Oh, my goodness, how could he say that?” Instead, we should look at this within the context of the current political moment.
What tension are you seeking to capture with the notion of “bad Jews”?
“Bad Jews” is a term American Jews throw at one another and ourselves. It’s a concept that many of us have deeply internalized, that we’re somehow doing this wrong. It’s a label people try to force others to wear, to claim that they’re somehow less authentic, that they haven’t inherited the tradition correctly. And this book attempts to push back.
Right now in US politics, and specifically American Jewish politics, it sometimes feels like we are just throwing the label of “bad Jew” back and forth at one other. Part of what I wanted to do is put this political moment in context. I started writing this book during the Trump years, when you had a president who said that American Jews who vote for Democrats, which is most American Jews, are disloyal.
I think that when you look at American Jewish history, what you find is that there’s never been consensus on what it means to be a good American Jew, or even just an American Jew. And as much as things are changing today and as much as people might feel like we’re in crisis today and as much as things are polarized and politicized today, what I wanted to do was put the present moment in this larger context.
In one of your chapters, you tell a more complex history of Jewish people’s participation in the civil rights movement. Tell me more about why it’s important to complicate this history.
I’ve joked to some people that another title for the book could’ve been “Stories We Tell Ourselves and Why They’re Incomplete.” The common narrative is that American Jews were very supportive of the civil rights movement. Broadly speaking, this is true – there were many American Jews who supported the civil rights movement. At the same time, there were American Jews who didn’t. There were American Jews who said that rather than fighting for civil rights for Black Americans, we should be focusing on our “own” issues. There’s the broader context that for most of US history, most American Jews have gone through life as White people and been treated as White under the laws of the US.
And it’s important to understand all of this. Just last week, we saw some American Jews invoke the civil rights movement and ask why more Black Americans weren’t speaking out against Ye’s remarks about Jewish people. First of all, to demand that Black Americans answer for one rapper is wrong. But also, this idea that all American Jews showed up during the civil rights movement, it’s just not true. It’s ahistorical. If we’re going to cite our history, we should at least understand that history.
I think that there’s also a tendency, in some quarters of some American Jewish communities, to point to the civil rights movement and as though our work in the US toward building a more just and equitable country is done. For this book, I interviewed Susannah Heschel, a scholar and the daughter of Rabbi Heschel, who famously marched with Martin Luther King Jr. She pointed out two things. She said that many people who said that they were supportive of the movement at the time weren’t supportive in tangible ways – in material ways – and still lived in largely White neighborhoods and perhaps resisted affirmative action. And that was for their own historic reasons, because of how quotas had been used against American Jews. But nevertheless.
And she’s gone on the record many times saying that this isn’t how she wants her father’s memory to be used. It’s not meant as an excuse to check out of calls for justice today or to act as though racism and racial inequality have nothing to do with you.
It’s important that we recognize that there are Jews of color, that there are Black Jews, that the face of American Jewish life, such as it is, is changing, and that when we talk about Black and Jewish relations, we do so in a way that doesn’t erase the existence of Black Jews.
What do you think gets overlooked in our conversations about antisemitism?
One thing that should be noted is that when we talk about antisemitism, people use it in really different ways. They understand it differently.
That said, I think that one important element of understanding antisemitism is that, within the antisemite’s conception, Jews are always foreign. They can never really be a part of the nation. When you look at conspiracy theories wherein Jews are trying to corrupt or corrode the nation – well, why would they do that? It’s because they can never really belong. You see this again and again throughout Jewish history. And part of what’s so upsetting about that to me is that that’s what I hear. You’re telling me that you don’t really think that I’m both American and Jewish.