LeBron James sparked a torrent of criticism this week for an Instagram post. Before getting into the content of what he posted, it’s worth noting just how rare this kind of anti-LeBron fervor is. James has existed under the brightest possible lights since he was a 16-year-old high-school hoops prodigy. It’s remarkable how few of these kinds of controversies he has had to endure. Other than a television program—now regarded as groundbreaking—where he announced that he was “taking his talents to South Beach,” James’s off-court life has been charmed.
It’s especially remarkable when considering that James does not live the life of a sponsored brand like Michael Jordan, fearing controversy. He has willingly waded into issues of racism and police violence, criticized the current president, and emerged unscathed. Hell, as recently as last week, James raised eyebrows with his comment that “in the NFL they got a bunch of old, white men owning teams and they got that slave mentality.” Other than a coterie of stray reactionary voices, most people in the media either reported the comments verbatim or shrugged their shoulders.
But just days later, LeBron reaped the whirlwind for something that must have seemed innocuous in his mind. He typed in some lyrics by hip-hop artist 21 Savage on Instagram: “We been getting that Jewish money. Everything is Kosher.” The backlash was immediate and brutal on social media and among the sports commentariat. LeBron quickly apologized, saying,
Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. That’s not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So, I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.
But his apology was not sufficient to many. People who have reservoirs of resentment built up against LeBron James for his fame, influence, or outspokenness and used this as an opportunity to pile on. Others wrote tone-deaf responses suggesting that LeBron was engaging in an open, conscious, anti-Semitic attack.
But the truth is likely more complicated. A piece written by Adam Serwer in July, 2017 about Jay-Z’s album 4:44 offers perhaps the best way to understand what James was saying, especially the phrase “I actually thought it was a compliment.” In it, Serwer dissects the history, dating back at least to Frederick Douglass of black activists’ pointing to the Jewish community as a model of uplift and economic independence for the black community to emulate. When I was interviewing Jim Brown—whose politics I would describe as right-wing black nationalist—for my book Jim Brown: Last Man Standing, he similarly said, “I’ve always studied the Jewish community and they had it down pat. So, my thing was, I could take a lesson from Jewish people and concentrate on economic development and we can start black businesses, clean up black communities, and circulate the money. We don’t have to ask for a lot of favors or be dependent on a government that could take those favors away.”
And yet we have to say more than just that LeBron engaged in an unfortunate stereotype—one used historically to attack Jews—masked as a compliment. Phrases like “Jewish money” are extremely fraught in an era when hate crimes against Jews have risen staggeringly. According to FBI stats, anti-Semitic crimes rose 37 percent in 2017 and have been on an upswing every year that Trump has been in office. It’s been more than the already shocking anti-Semitic flyers on college campuses, grave desecrations, and threats on Jewish Community Centers. This is the time of the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh, of other synagogue killings foiled, and of the fascists in Charlottesville chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us” before the killing of Heather Heyer.
Trump and his ilk have provoked the puking up of kinds of barbarism against Jews in this country that I’d only read about in textbooks. The most vital possible question we face is, How do we build solidarity between groups targeted by the far right? That solidarity will never be forged by people like Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, who condemned LeBron, writing, “LeBron James should be condemned for Antisemitic and anti-White bigotry.”
In other words, as those comments demonstrate, a movement against racism and fascism won’t be built by ceding the space to hard-line Zionist groups that have shown themselves to be far more comfortable hobnobbing with Trump and Bannon than with the people protesting them. It also won’t be forged by ascribing unfounded ill-intent to LeBron James’s motivations. It can only be constructed through trust, patience, and explanation that one person’s “compliment” is another’s justification to attack and even kill. Mass struggles against racism and fascism need to be on the agenda, and Jews, like myself, have the task before us of building those struggles and allying with all those in the sights of the far right because, if it isn’t obvious, we are on their list of targets.