I have no problem admitting that I’m a huge Kanye West fan. Not of the man per se, as I don’t know him and have found some of his public conduct deplorable, but of some of his work. His song “Stronger” has a permanent spot on my workout mix, because I enjoy the song and respect the tremendous homage to the film “Akira” in the music video. (Although, Kanye as Tetsuo, really? Then again, the angry teenage behavior thing kind of fits…) But, most recently, I have to admit that I respect his ability to forgive others. Specifically, the President of the United States. President Obama has referred to Kanye West as a “jack---.” On the record. Twice. Yet clearly Kanye is willing to forgive him that public insult (after accusing the President of using him as a distraction) and rushed to defend Obama recently on a New York radio show.
In trying to explain why some of the President’s initiatives appear to be stalled, Kanye said the following:
“Man, let me tell you about George Bush and oil money and Obama and no money. People want to say Obama can’t make these moves or he’s not executing. That’s because he ain’t got those connections. Black people don’t have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don’t have the same connection as oil people. You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.”
Now, I’m not sure how much more connected you can be beyond being the President of the United States of America. But I’ll happily ignore that rather significant logical inconsistency in favor of addressing what has been getting a bit of press, namely the suggestion that Kanye West made an anti-Semitic statement. The director of the Anti-Defamation League (a civil rights NGO), Abraham Foxman, described this as anti-Semitic as “the age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government.”
With due respect to Abe Foxman and the work of the ADL, I completely disagree. While I can very easily see how it can be taken that way, I do not think that Kanye West made an anti-Semitic statement. It had a little more eloquence than his interruption of Taylor Swift—but not by much. Instead, we have a reasonably inept foray into public political commentary that manages to denigrate his own community yet amounts to little more than click-bait for news sites as a well–known public figure is accused of being anti-Semitic. My takeaway from this is that it is even less significant than Miley Cyrus’ recent comment about “70-year-old Jewish men” behind desks. It’s not about Jewish power and agency, but that the black community Kanye is speaking about lacks the sense of community and mutual support he attributes to Jews. It is heartbreaking to hear someone as accomplished as Kanye West say his community doesn’t offer support and connection to other people in that same community.
I can’t speak for the black community in any meaningful sense, and there are many people around on campus who are much better suited to address that part of Kanye’s statements. I can speak to some degree about the larger Jewish community, and it is true that there are some very strong, enduring and serious connections among Jews. No, those connections aren’t really about money, power or influence even though these are often ascribed to the Jewish community. Instead, we are talking about connections in the relational sense. Being part of the Jewish community isn’t only about ritual observances, Hebrew school, holidays and food. It’s about being a part of a larger community with shared values, history and experiences. What connects members of the community isn’t some secret handshake or admissions policy, but a shared understanding, common histories and experiences of family. This is by no means exclusive to the Jewish community, but it is something that is generally consistent across Jewish communities worldwide.
When I travel, I know that I can walk into almost any synagogue on Friday night and feel right at home, even when the tunes and language used are unfamiliar to me. I know that I can reach out to people separated by multiple degrees of separation and that they will welcome me into their communities and into their homes. Not because they know me, but because this is what people in extended communities do. Jewish life at Duke welcomes all members of the Duke community because this is simply something that we do as a values-based community. Communities require not just the dedication to build them, but also the effort to sustain them.
As we end the festival of Hannukah, a holiday about the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish people as a nation, let us all work in our larger Duke community so that no one feels as alone as Kanye West thinks the President is. Let us build communities that are just as he sings: better, faster, stronger. Better at welcoming others, faster to reach out and stronger than before.
Jeremy Yoskowitz is the campus rabbi and assistant director for Jewish life. This is his final column of the semester. Send Rabbi Jeremy a message on Twitter @TheDukeRav.