The relationship between Black people and Jewish communities has been complex throughout history with moments of solidarity and collaboration and instances of tension and conflict.
Both share a history of surviving violence and oppression and have fought alongside each other during the fight for civil rights.
But, there have been conflicts between the two communities particularly related to economic and political power. Jewish business owners and landlords have been accused of extorting Black communities while Black leaders have been criticized for promoting antisemitic conspiracy theories.
That relationship was the center of a grassroots conversation Wednesday night hosted by leaders of Denver’s Jewish and Black communities. The grassroots panel discussion led by Caren Press, Theo E.J. Wilson and Evan Weissman drew more than 100 people.
“It’s important to recognize and address these complexities and work toward building a stronger relationship based on mutual respect, understanding and solidarity,” said Michelle Quattlebaum, Denver Public Schools board director, at the event.
“This includes acknowledging and confronting past harms, listening and learning from one another and working together to address systemic issues that affect both communities such as racism, poverty and inequity,” she said.
Attendees were invited to the school to discuss where their histories connect and diverge, so that they could heal and find ways to combat white supremacy together, said Press, a retired attorney.
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The idea to host Wednesday’s dialogue came after rapper Kanye West, now known as Ye, spewed a series of antisemitic tropes online and on television. His rhetoric has led to vandalism, harassment, intimidation and violence, under the “Ye Is Right” campaign, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.
At the event Wednesday, Weissman, who is Jewish, and Wilson, who is Black, said they held a discussion in Montbello with Black people and Jewish people shortly after West’s remarks. Jewish attendees seemed to unanimously agree the comments were antisemitic. But that was not the case for all Black community members who attended.
In his well-known 2004 song, “All Falls Down,” West ironically raps, “They made us hate ourself and love they wealth,” referencing America’s stubborn racial divide and the growing economic wealth gap between white and Black Americans.
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West seemed skeptical of white supremacy, according to the lyrics in that song, but he changed his tune when Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, Wilson said.
In 2018, West said he thought slavery was “a choice,” then, he wore a “White Lives Matter” shirt, and made antisemitic comments on the show “Drink Champs,” shortly before praising Adolph Hitler while wearing a ski mask.
“Here’s why what Kanye did was dangerous,” Wilson said during the Wednesday night event. “People are not grasping the power of stochastic terrorism,” the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of violence against them.
The Anti-Defamation League has been tracking a progressive spike in hate crimes against Jewish people since before Trump was elected. After Trump, West and far-right groups promoted tropes about Jewish peoples’ power and their false belief that Jewish people control the world, for example, instances of violence against Jewish people have increased.
Stochastic terrorism was present in Nazi Germany when Jewish people were regularly called “subhuman,” and during the Rwanda genocide, when Hutus called Tutsis “cockroaches,” leading to violence against both groups, Wilson said.
When one oppressed group discriminates against another oppressed group, they often inadvertently align themselves with white supremacy, by using white supremacist tropes and arguments to defend and spew their hatred, such as by focusing on an alleged inferiority of people who are not white, Wilson said.
“Wrong move,” Wilson said Wednesday night. “You forfeit the moral high ground that you won by overcoming oppression when you ally yourself with the forces that would commit hate crimes against that group, and you, too.”
West’s problematic comments further fractured a divide already present between Black people and Jewish communities, Wilson said.
In late 2022, Black NBA player Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to the 2018 film “Hebrews to Negroes: Wake Up Black America.” The movie, driven by antisemitic tropes, made false and hateful claims, including the claim that the Holocaust never happened. For a week, he declined to apologize or say that he did not hold antisemitic beliefs. He was suspended indefinitely from the Brooklyn Nets and did eventually apologize.
“Here’s a rule of thumb: Don’t be a shill for white supremacy,” Wilson said.
The relationship between Jewish people and Black people becomes even more fraught and complex depending on who is spewing antisemitism, Wilson said.
“There is a disparity, we’ve noticed, on how the Jewish community reacts to white antisemitism and Black antisemitism,” he said.
For example, in 2019, white House Republican Mo Brooks of Alabama read a passage from Hitler’s 1925 book, “Mein Kampf,” and used its contents to attack Democrats and news reporters during an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Around the same time, Black rapper Nick Cannon was fired from his long-standing show “Wild ’n Out” after spewing antisemitic conspiracy theories.
“(Brooks) read ‘Mein Kampf’ into the Congressional Record and (he) did not receive the same kinds of consequences,” Wilson said. “So now we have to unpack what’s going on. Perhaps is the adjacency to whiteness and the myth of Black dangerousness one of the things playing into this disperate role, and is it skewing the common ground that we all must find?”
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In 2015, Wilson “infiltrated” the alt-right movement by creating fake white supremacist social media accounts and using the online platforms to view the same kinds of stories and videos fed to alt-right groups. The goal was to better understand the movement, he said.
“What I found was this: The Jews were a favorite scapegoat of white supremacists when confronted about white supremacy — and it was super weird,” Wilson said. “When I talked about the colonization of Africa, and when I talked about the genocide of Native Americans, for some reason, it was always the Jewish peoples’ fault. Some of the antisemitic tropes are exacerbated, and not alleviated, by proximity to whiteness. They’re made worse by it.”
Antisemitism has mostly affected white Jewish people through interpersonal bigotry and hatred, Weismann said.
“There also has been systemic, structural and institutional ways that antisemitism has played out,” he said. “But, by and large, for white Jews, right now, that is not the case at the moment, and it hasn’t been for quite some time.
“The point is to take that, and (decide) what do you do with it? Do you use that in an empathetic way to understand who is on the receiving end of systemic oppression today? For white Jews, we have to acknowledge the power that we have. Being able to be white, being able to exist and not have to face the same systemic oppression, what do you do with that?”
He encouraged, not only white Jewish people, but all attendees Wednesday, to show up in solidarity and support any group that is oppressed, all the time, and not just when the issue directly impacts them, when it’s convenient, or when they’re feeling a visceral reaction to a current event.
After the panel discussion, many attendees asked Wilson and Weissman to explain how Zionism plays a role in Black-Jewish relations and the ability for the two groups to stand in solidarity with one another.
“Here’s what’s interesting about Zionism,” Wilson said. “Martin Luther King was a Zionist at first. In fact, Zionism was a popular perspective in Black America at first. What changed it? We know the date: June 7, 1967.”
The Six-Day War in 1967 between Israel and the Arab states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan commenced after years of tension between Israel and its neighbors. Israel Defense Forces launched preemptive air strikes and ground offenses that crippled the opponents before seizing the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
The war ended with a ceasefire, but significantly altered the map of the Middle East, and gave rise to lingering geopolitical tensions.
The war also created hundreds of thousands of refugees. And more than 1 million Palestinians began living in occupied territories under Israeli rule.
After that war, Israel immediately began constructing Jewish-only settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, which are declared illegal under international law and continue to cause conflicts between the two groups living there.
“When Black Americans saw what happened to Palestine, they didn’t necessarily see Israel defending itself,” Wilson said.
Martin Luther King, who was against all violence “was put off” by the events in the Six Day War, Wilson said. And many Black Americans felt similarly, in general, he added.
“What we saw, and what a lot of Black people see in Palestine, is Jim Crow on steroids,” he said. “We (Black Americans) know, like nobody’s business, what it means to not have a land of your own, to be kicked out of everywhere and to be oppressed everywhere you go.
“Do Jews have to pass through checkpoints run by Palestinians? Or is it the other way around?” Wilson asked. “So, from our lens, until we figure out how Israel can look a lot more like a place that Dr. King would probably want to lend his moral support to, it’s going to be difficult for us to get on board. I believe that everybody deserves a homeland, but, like this? That is the question the Black community has about Zionism and Israel.”
Increasingly, younger Jewish people are fighting against Zionism or questioning it, Weissman said. And some Jewish people, depending on their age or political views, may agree with that fight, he said.
Growing up, Weismann had more Muslim Palestinian friends than Jewish friends.
His parents were Zionists, he said. “And I understand it. But something about it didn’t rub me right.”
He would ask his family questions about Zionism, a political ideology that called for the creation of a Jewish state, and now supports the continued existence of Israel as such a state. When Weissman asked questions, he was shushed by family members, who said he was “bringing more pain to the family.”
“I would get every single defense, and some of those defenses would make sense, and some of them were absolute garbage,” Weissman said Wednesday night. “Because you’re seeing the repercussions, both here and in Israel, and the trope that Jews are progressive, except for in Israel, that can’t always last. We have to answer those questions. … To me, it’s clear that something needs to change within the Jewish community to realize that there was a Judaism long before there was Zionism and there can be a future where Zionism looks different or doesn’t exist and where people can still be safe.”
Before the panel discussion ended, attendees said they were committed to continually finding ways to band together and fight collectively against white supremacy, such as by creating educational events to study history, dispel myths and show how racism and antisemitism connect and how people can interrupt racist behavior, and tropes, when they encounter them.