(JTA) – It started with a shirt and ended in a conflagration over antisemitism and Republican politics.
Such is the extended news cycle over multiple antisemitic comments last week by Kanye West, the artist and provocateur who prefers to go by Ye. On Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, Instagram and Twitter, West made a string of comments reflecting a range of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories.
The spree culminated with West’s vow to “go death con 3 ON JEWISH PEOPLE.”
DEFCON is an acronym that refers to the state of alert of America’s militaries; “death con 3” appears to be a muddled use of that term. Still, it conveyed a clear violence to many who saw it.
Twitter removed that post, saying it violated the company’s policies, but not before it was shared widely by Jews and others alarmed by West’s behavior. The response has become something of a Rorschach test for American Jewish anxieties. Is antisemitism tolerated or sufficiently condemned? Has the vaunted historical relationship between Blacks and Jews frayed beyond repair? And why are Carlson and other prominent conservatives standing by West?
The last question only grew more pointed as footage leaked showing that West had made other antisemitic comments on Carlson’s show that did not air and as Orthodox Jews, who are more likely to be politically conservative, began re-engaging after the two-day Sukkot holiday, Oct. 10-11, that overlapped with the peak controversy.
“Back from the Jewish holiday now,” right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, an Orthodox Jew, wrote early Wednesday morning [Oct. 12] on Twitter. “As usual, two things can be true at once: Kanye’s moves toward pro-life, faith, and family conservatism are encouraging; his ‘death con 3’ posts and Black Hebrew Israelite language are clearly anti-Semitic and disturbing.”
For those who want to understand this fast-moving saga, here’s a recap of YeGate.
A string of provocations culminated in West’s vow to go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE.”
West has a long track record of provocations, as well as a history of bipolar disorder that he has said causes him to become paranoid. (He has also said it is “dismissive” to question whether he has stopped taking his medication whenever he “speaks up.”) But the current moment began with a shirt.
In Paris to showcase a fashion collection he designed, West wore a “White Lives Matter” jacket, a dig at the Black Lives Matter movement and a reflection of his long-standing conservative politics. (The Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights group, says “White Lives Matter” is “a white supremacist phrase.”) The shirt elicited revulsion by many in the fashion world – and embrace from political conservatives who cherish West as an authentic Black voice who shares their values.
On Oct. 6, Carlson brought West onto his show, where he praised West as advancing “obviously true” ideas. When their wide-ranging conversation touched on the Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration brokered between Israel and Arab countries, West said he thought Jared Kushner was motivated only by profit. “I just think it was to make money,” he said, in a comment that echoed antisemitic tropes about Jewish greed.
Then, on Oct. 7, West posted snapshots of a text conversation he said he had with Sean Combs, the rapper also known as Puff Daddy and Diddy. After Combs urged West to stop promoting the shirt, West responded, “Ima use you as an example to show the Jewish people that told you to call me that no one can threaten or influence me.” Shortly afterward, the post – which West had captioned “Jesus is Jew” and which harkened to antisemitic conspiracy theories about invisible Jewish control – was deleted, and Meta, Instagram’s parent company, said it had removed content that violated its policies.
West switched to Twitter, where he had been less active. Elon Musk, the serial entrepreneur and self-proclaimed free-speech absolutist who is in the process of buying the social media platform, welcomed him publicly. West first tweeted criticism of Meta’s Jewish founder, Mark Zuckerberg, then followed up by saying, “Who do you think created cancel culture?” Yair Rosenberg, in The Atlantic, in a newsletter devoted to analyzing West’s antisemitism, wrote, “He presumably did not mean the Mormons.”
It was on Twitter where, early in the morning of Oct. 9, West posted the unambiguous message heard around the world.
“I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE,” he wrote.
“The funny thing is I actually can’t be Anti Semitic because black people are actually Jew also,” West added, appearing to allude to a belief core to the diverse Hebrew Israelite movement. He then returned to the idea of Jewish control: “You guys have toyed with me and tried to black ball anyone whoever opposes your agenda.”
Within hours of West’s post, the tweet was no longer accessible. Instead, it was replaced with a notice reading, “This Tweet violated the Twitter rules.”
Criticism of West’s antisemitic comments has come from many corners.
“The holiest day in Judaism was last week. Words matter. A threat to Jewish people ended once in a genocide. Your words hurt and incite violence. You are a father. Please stop.”
That was one of the earliest celebrity responses to West’s “death con 3” tweet, coming just hours after the post itself. It was by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who has been involved in restoring the synagogue in her Jewish grandparents’ Hungarian hometown and later said she cried upon reading West’s “abhorrent” tweet.
Countless people issued similar statements. “Whether or not Kanye West is mentally ill, there’s no question he is a bigot,” the Jewish “Friends” actor David Schwimmer wrote in an Instagram post that went viral. “His hate speech calls for violence against Jews.”
The celebrity posts followed statements from Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the ADL, condemning West’s comments before and during the Carlson interview.
“Kanye West has more twitter followers than there [are] Jews in the world,” tweeted Carly Pildis, the director of community engagement at the Anti-Defamation League, on Oct. 9, in a post that was shared thousands of times. “There are an estimated 14.8 million Jews and he has over 30 million followers. American Jews are experiencing a historic rise in antisemitic incidents. His actions are extremely dangerous and must be called out.”
The episode has been particularly hurtful for Black Jews, some of whom say they struggle to be heard when they push back against that common perception, reinforced by West’s comments, that Black and Jewish identities are mutually exclusive. “Black Jews have our own story to tell. We don’t need him to say a word,” tweeted Michael Twitty, the author of “Koshersoul: The Faith and Food Journey of an African American Jew.”
While some Jews, including the comedian Sarah Silverman, fretted about whether non-Jews cared about West’s antisemitic comments, it’s clear that criticism of him has come from a diverse swath of people, including the New York Democratic politicians Ritchie Torres and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, journalist Dan Rather and the Black novelist Brandon Taylor.
“It does not matter if #KanyeWest is mentally ill, a morally well society defends #Jews from #Antisemitic threats,” tweeted Cornell Williams Brooks, a Harvard Kennedy School professor and former president of the NAACP, in one representative example. “Whether somebody’s sick or sane does not make Antisemitism less lethal. Physical attacks often follow verbal assaults. #WordsMatter.”
But conservatives have mostly stood by West throughout.
One set of people appeared to be standing by West after his Carlson interview and the subsequent criticism: right-wing Republicans who have long seen West as an ideological ally. The “death con 3” tweet put them in an awkward position.
Since at least 2016, West has demonstrated a growing relationship with America’s Christian Right. That year, he told a concert audience that he would have voted for Donald Trump for president if he voted, saying that he appreciated Trump’s “futuristic” way of speaking. He met with Trump shortly after Trump was elected, then endorsed him publicly in 2018. That fall, he wore a “Make America Great Again” hat to perform on “Saturday Night Live,” where he delivered a pro-Trump speech that never aired, making him a darling in an emerging discourse around “cancel culture” in which conservatives allege that their views are not permitted.
In 2020, he semi-announced his own presidential candidacy, offering up a platform in an interview where he frequently referenced his belief in God as an animating idea for his politics. (He also expressed concern about needing to combat the effects of the Devil.) To the extent that the campaign ever existed, it was supported by Republican operatives and seen as a potential spoiler effort aimed at helping Trump’s reelection campaign; at one point, West met with Kushner in Colorado and said the two were speaking “almost daily.”
On his show last week, Carlson praised West as a “kind of Christian evangelist” and urged viewers not to discount his ideas as the thinking of someone with mental illness.
Amid the backlash after the interview aired, some conservatives who had previously championed West rejected his comments about Jews. But many remained silent, and others pressed forward with their praise, suggesting that they are at best unbothered by West’s antisemitic comments.
“It’s like you cannot even say the word ‘Jewish’ without people getting upset,” Candace Owens, the Black conservative influencer who wore a “White Lives Matter” jacket alongside West in Paris, said in West’s defense. Owens is employed by Shapiro’s media company.
“Kanye. Elon. Trump,” the official Twitter account for the Republican House Judiciary posted on Oct. 6. The post remained up Oct. 11, despite many calls, including from conservatives, for it to be deleted. Meanwhile, Missouri’s attorney general, Eric Schmitt, tweeted, then deleted, the night of Oct. 11, “America needs a @kanyewest @KidRock tour. Let’s go!” (The White Michigan rapper has long aligned himself with the political right.)
Indiana’s attorney general, Todd Rokita, tweeted that “Kanye’s message in this instance is fair and accurate, & regardless, he is entitled to his opinion,” adding, “The media will steamroll anyone if they do not kowtow to their way of thinking. According to them, you’re not thinking correctly if you don’t completely agree with them.” He later clarified that he was referring only to West’s criticisms of “the media and Hollywood elites,” not the “death con 3” comment, and also emphasized that he supports Israel.
For many concerned about antisemitism among Republicans, the response has been telling. “What’s striking about Ye’s naked antisemitism isn’t that he crossed a line but that, for some of his powerful allies, he didn’t,” wrote Michelle Goldberg, the liberal columnist, in The New York Times on Oct. 11.
Meghan McCain exhorted her fellow conservatives to break with West, saying that because the left can be critical of Israel, the right bears a stronger responsibility to be a reliable ally for Jews.
“The Republican Party brand is supposed to be anti-celebrity and anti-elite. Yet anytime a big name shows even the slightest interest in conservative causes, they are granted prime time interviews and slobbered over by pundits and politicians,” McCain wrote in the Daily Mail on Oct. 11.
Later, she added about antisemitism, “The left cannot be relied upon to take up this cause, so the right cannot compromise itself. If conservatives don’t stand with our Jewish friends, who will?”
Carlson held back footage in which West made additional antisemitic comments.
On Carlson’s show, West’s comment about Kushner was one of many in which he expressed extreme and controversial views. But unaired footage published on Oct. 11 by Vice revealed that West had in fact made multiple antisemitic comments that were edited out of the final broadcast.
In one comment, he criticized Planned Parenthood as being created “to control the Jew population.” In explaining what he meant, he made clear that he was approaching the topic from a Hebrew Israelite perspective: “When I say Jew, I mean the 12 lost tribes of Judah, the blood of Christ, who the people known as the race Black really are.” (Planned Parenthood does have historical roots in eugenics, which it has disavowed; it also figures in conspiracy theories that often overlap with antisemitic theories.)
West also said he regretted that his children’s school celebrates Kwanzaa, an African-American holiday. “I prefer my kids knew Hanukkah than Kwanzaa. At least it will come with some financial engineering,” he said, in a comment that appeared to allude to ideas that Jews are good with money.
And when discussing how Black people criticize each other, he offered Jews as an analogy. “Think about us judging each other on how white we could talk would be like, you know, a Jewish person judging another Jewish person on how good they danced or something,” he said, before pausing and saying he thought he could get in trouble for saying that and asking for it to be edited out of the final cut. It was.
Other comments reflecting paranoia about the people close to him, which West has previously said is a hallmark of his illness, were also edited out of the final cut. The result is calling attention to the role played by Carlson in promoting dangerous antisemitism.
Carlson is a leading proponent of “great replacement theory,” an anti-immigration philosophy that has united white supremacists across borders in their hatred of Jews and immigrants and has inspired multiple mass murders, including of Jews. Earlier this year, Carlson produced a special focused on condemning the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who features in many right-wing conspiracy theories, including great replacement. Carlson’s embrace of that theory caused the head of the ADL to call for his ouster last year.
“The story here isn’t that Kanye is antisemitic – we already knew that – but that Tucker worked to launder that antisemitism into slightly more socially acceptable forms, to maintain plausible deniability with elected officials,” tweeted Joel Swanson, a doctoral student in American Jewish history whose study includes antisemitism. “Don’t focus on Kanye to the exclusion of Carlson.”
West’s current fixation on Jews follows other notable comments about them over the years.
West has had a relationship with Jews that has veered from admiration into hostility, sometimes in the same moment.
He has proposed a Christian movement to replicate the solidarity he sensed among Israelis when he visited the country. (His then-wife, Kim Kardashian, baptized their daughter North West in Israel, where she connected with the country’s ancient Armenian community.) As much as he seemed to have appreciated the country, his concert there was weird and alienating. He has said that former President Barack Obama was frustrated in his efforts to legislate in part because Blacks are not as connected as Jews.
He has worked with prominent Jews and tried to emulate them; a sitcom he filmed in 2008 inspired in part by Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” was well-received in screenings but never widely released. As much as he now criticizes Kushner for being an opportunist, he and his ex-wife, Kardashian, worked with Kushner on one of the Trump administration’s rare domestic policy successes, criminal justice reform.
PHILISSA CRAMERis the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's editor in chief. RON KAMPEASis JTA's Washington Bureau Chief.