Last fall, a series of incidents stoked the flames of a perennial conversation about the relationship between Jews and non-Jewish Black people in the US. In October 2022, Ye (the rapper and fashion designer formerly known as Kanye West) tweeted that he was going to go “death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE” to his 30 million followers. He followed his tweet—which riffed on DEFCON, the acronym that refers to a military state of alert—with a series of antisemitic tirades. Later that month, NBA superstar Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to a documentary that claimed to show that Black Americans are the only true descendants of the biblical Israelites.
These events provoked a knotty set of questions: What were we to make of high-profile celebrities embracing such noxious views? Why were there immediate material repercussions for Ye’s antisemitism—Adidas cut ties with the rapper at a projected cost of over a billion dollars—when his many anti-Black statements (wearing a White Lives Matter t-shirt, calling slavery a “choice”) received little pushback from his corporate partners? And what does it mean that both of these celebrities are Black?
The discourse around these events soon fell into familiar territory, with many quick to call the whole affair the latest flare-up of “Black antisemitism”—a phrase that emerged in the 1960s amid debates over the role of Jews in the civil rights movement and the growth of Black power. In responding to this argument, progressives generally question the existence of “Black antisemitism” as a unique phenomenon, citing James Baldwin’s 1967 essay “Negroes Are Anti-Semitic Because They’re Anti-White.” The essay is often reduced to its title, which suggests that antisemitism in Black communities is best understood as an expression of hatred of white supremacy, thereby dismissing claims of difference between Jews and other white people in a Black/white binary. But as is characteristic of his writing, Baldwin’s argument is subtler and more ambiguous than any shorthand can capture.
Baldwin penned the essay following his resignation from the advisory board of the Black nationalist magazine The Liberator in response to a series of articles, “Semitism in the Black Ghetto,” which argued that Jews were especially responsible for the terrible conditions in Harlem. Explaining his resignation in the Black cultural journal Freedomways, Baldwin wrote that “it is distinctly unhelpful, and immoral, to blame Harlem on the Jew.” In the wake of his resignation, The New York Times invited Baldwin to “discuss the phenomenon of anti-Semitism among Negroes.”
In his essay for The Times, Baldwin moved from local reflections on the material conditions of Harlem to a consideration of the global dynamics of Christian imperialism, arguing that any discussion of “Black antisemitism” must begin from a consideration of the nature of whiteness. In tension with a good deal of contemporary debate, Baldwin suggests that both Jewish and Black Americans can fall prey to the pathologies of whiteness: Jewish people can throw off their memory of oppression and become the exploiters, while Black Americans can adopt the antisemitic attitudes of a colonizing white Christianity. This analysis pushes against the simplicity of the essay’s title, pointing at a certain degree of specificity regarding both Black expressions of antisemitism and how Jews inhabit whiteness.
Since last fall, the controversies with Ye and Irving have been followed by others. Most recently, the rapper Noname, who has built a reputation for social consciousness, came under fire for a verse on her album by Jay Electronica, whose lyrics often reference the antisemitic teachings of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. In response to the controversy, Noname wrote on Instagram, “no, i’m not antisemitic . . . i’m against white supremacy which is a global system that privileges people who identify as white.” To help us reflect on these recurrent incidents, we thought it would be helpful to look closely at Baldwin’s touchstone piece. To do so, we brought together four writers and thinkers who have thought deeply on these matters. Marc Lamont Hill is an author and a professor at CUNY Graduate Center, who was himself a figure in one such “Black–Jewish” flashpoint, when he was fired from his position at CNN after accusations that a UN speech in which he referred to a “free Palestine from the river to the sea” was antisemitic. nyle fort teaches African American studies at Columbia University and is a faith-based organizer with the racial justice group Dream Defenders. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an author and a professor of physics and women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire, and the chair of Reconstructing Judaism’s Jews of Color and Allies Advisory Group. Ben Ratskoff is a professor at Hebrew Union College; his current research explores how Black American intellectuals understood the persecution of Jews in Europe. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Daniel May: Throughout this essay, Baldwin argues that for very material reasons Jews have come to be the face of white supremacy for large numbers of Black Americans. I’m curious what you make of the link Baldwin draws between Jewishness and whiteness—and how you see that link as relevant to the controversies of last fall?
Ben Ratskoff: In Baldwin’s writing—especially his early writing—we see a struggle to triangulate three categories of Jew that exist in his imagination and his experience. There are the Jews from the Bible that he heard about in his father’s church, those almost mythical characters of suffering and exile with whom Black churchgoers often identify. Then there are the leftist Jewish intellectuals and artists he met in high school, who were his lifelong companions and collaborators. And finally, there are the white Jews engaged in exploitative behavior in Harlem.
The real Jews of his experience would include his high school friends. It would also include, we can assume, Black Jews in Harlem. But he’s not interested in talking about those Jews in this essay. He’s interested in the figure of “the Jew”—a figure who is understood as white, and who embodies the contradictions of white Jewishness.
Marc Lamont Hill: I can’t imagine that Baldwin wasn’t aware of the complexities of Black Jewish identity. There were Black Caribbean Jews and Commandment Keepers in Harlem his entire life. But Black Jews aren’t the people who are leaving at night, they aren’t the landlords. So, central to his critique is “the Jew” as it’s constructed in the public imagination, which is correlated with the capacity to assimilate into whiteness.
Chris Rock had a bit years ago: “Black people don’t hate Jews, Black people hate white people.” To me that would have been a better title for Baldwin’s essay, because I think that’s what he’s actually saying here. If it wasn’t Jews but Koreans who were the landlords in Harlem, would we have felt any differently about them? Probably not.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein: We know the answer to that question. We’ve seen it play out in Los Angeles.
nyle fort is a minister, activist, and scholar of race, religion, and contemporary social movements. He is currently an assistant professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University and a faith-based organizer with the Dream Defenders.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Presidential Professor of Urban Education at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. His scholarly research interests include Israel/Palestine, transnational political solidarity, and anti-racism. He is the author of several books and the host of TheGrio With Marc Lamont Hill and UpFront on Al Jazeera English.
Daniel May is the publisher of Jewish Currents.
Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is an associate professor of physics and core faculty member in women’s and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire. Her scientific work lives at the intersection of particle physics, cosmology, and astrophysics. She is also a theorist of Black feminist science studies, and the author of The Disordered Cosmos.