Kyrie Irving and the Fraught History of Our Collective Liberation

Kyrie Irving and the Fraught History of Our Collective Liberation

Kyrie Irving and the Fraught History of Our Collective Liberation

Kyrie’s anti-Semitism isn’t new, but his allies are. And that’s terrifying.


Thanks to Jeff Bezos, Kyrie Irving is using his giant NBA platform to promote a movie available on Amazon that luxuriates in the heat of anti-Semitism like Steve Bannon at a cross burning. The film, Hebrews to Negroes, promotes the idea that the Holocaust—which affected my family intimately—was a lie. It promotes the idea of a link between us modern Jews and Satan worship. It includes quotes attributed to Adolf Hitler about how fraudulent modern Jews are—we aren’t “real Jews.” We are apparently instead focused on world domination. (For what it’s worth, I’ve never understood why, if Jews are set on world domination, I’ve never been invited to any of the meetings.)

To be clear, I’ve always advocated that athletes should feel free to use their platform to talk about whatever they like. I have written in staunch defense of Maya Moore and Colin Kaepernick and all athletes who do more than just “shut up and play.” But that doesn’t mean I, or any of us, should just applaud every time an athlete has something to say about life outside the lines. That would be patronizing and deeply condescending. We should take an athlete’s ideas seriously enough to question and challenge them if we disagree. Especially if they promote hate. Irving is not a wayward teen who needs to be protected and defended by not only his legions of followers but also those dizzy with the romanticism of an athlete speaking out. He is a fully grown and exceptionally wealthy man who has made the journey from Covid denialism to posting a video by racist, anti-Semitic, child-massacre aficionado Alex Jones, to now promoting more lies that aim to divide and demonize. Despite efforts to be coy, Kyrie knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows his ideas are actually threats and doesn’t seem bothered by this. As he said in his disturbing Saturday press conference, “I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone. I have a whole army around me.”

If these views sound familiar (real Jews and fake Jews, global domination, Holocaust denialism, the work of Alex Jones), it’s because they are being widely propagated or hinted at by white supremacists and the right wing of the Republican Party. Similar ideas have recently been expressed by Donald Trump, Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, and fascist lawyer-for-hire Jenna Ellis. And that’s what disturbs me the most about Kyrie, Ye (FKA Kanye West), and the ways these ideas are finding shallow purchase among a thin layer of Black celebrities and athletes.

This is a fraught and tense time, and there is a fraught and tense historical relationship between Black and Jewish people that demands serious—and honest—discussion. There is a history of Jewish radicals in the 1930s organizing against racism in Northern cities of and farmlands of the Jim Crow South. There is a history of Black people wholeheartedly fighting against fascism, from volunteering for the Spanish Civil War to spilling blood in World War II, a war thought to be against the kinds of white supremacist politics represented by Hitler and the Nazi party. There is a tradition of Jewish participation—and martyrdom—in the Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and ’60s.

Yet there is also another history. It is the history from earlier last century of Jewish small-business owners, in Black areas of cities around the country. The moneyed class and white Christian supremacists had few roots in urban Black neighborhoods, but Jews, the former residents of these same “ghettoes” before migrating out, as the Irish did before them, owned shops and small businesses—meaning that the face of economic power and authority was often a Jewish one. Even if that power was not the actual power wielded by industrialists and racist politicians, it became a part of Black politics that Jews were responsible for the burdens of racism on Black life. These ideas were prominent enough that there is no Black leader—from Martin, who worked closely with Jews like Stanley Levison, to Malcolm, who wrestled with his own feelings about Jewish people—who hasn’t been confronted with the question of where Jews fit in the struggle for Black liberation. That’s also why, for over a century, anti-Semitism has been referred to as “the socialism of fools.” It can come from a place of hating exploitation and oppression, but when it comes to knowing your enemy, the word “Jews” becomes a stand-in for “exploiters.” This is no different from many racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups in a country whose workers have historically—with grand, widely celebrated exceptions—been stubbornly resistant to class struggle. Instead of challenging ingrained issues of race and class that run deeply in the marrow of this rancid economic system, we point fingers at each other: divided and conquered.

Let’s take the music industry: a deeply parasitic and exploitative business. Generations of Black performers were bled dry by this sordid business. But that’s not because there was a cabal of secret Jewish executives. It’s because the music industry is exploitative and racist, no matter who is in the seat of power. Or take the media, allegedly controlled by Jews. That would be news to Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan, his unabashedly racist son. Last I heard their name wasn’t Murdochowitz.

It is further confused by fissures in the Jewish community. There are many liberal Jews who are for social justice, who marched in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, and who overwhelmingly vote Democrat. There are also a growing number of leftist Jews who would stand for the liberation of Palestine before they would ever make excuses or justifications for the actions of the Israeli state. Then there are the hard-core Zionist Jews, beloved by Trump, Ellis, and friends because they are the “real Jews,” a trope that dehumanizes and endangers all of us. These Jews have traded rabid support for Israel in return for a blind eye and near-silence when the GOP and its allies crank up the anti-Semitism. So who among Jews is friend and who is foe in the fight against oppression? It depends on what Jew you are talking to. There is no united Jewish thought or Jewish cabal. If there were, we’d only argue among ourselves.

What terrifies me about the current moment is that Kyrie’s politics are migrating and finding a sick alliance among Nazis, fascists, nationalists, and all manner of white supremacists who have long promoted these notions but wanted no part of Black politics unless it was about expressing common separatist ideas. It certainly never manifested into solidarity. Until now. This has expressed itself in the pro-Kanye social media posts by the GOP and that right-wing billionaire child of apartheid, Elon Musk. This expressed itself in the (white) Nazi rally in Brentwood, Calif., which promoted solidarity for Ye’s anti-Semitic rants. Then, over the weekend, the message “Kanye is right about the [J]ews” was projected on the outside of one of the end zones at the Georgia-Florida football game. This is the case with Bannon’s championing right-wing Black candidates as long as they call for confrontation against his shared enemies. It’s ugly, cynical, and racist. And extremely dangerous.

Kyrie’s film of choice wants people to “wake up.” But he’s just perpetuating a nightmare of division and helplessness. We all need to wake up, but we need to wake up to the fact that the same GOP politicians courting anti-Semites like Ye are also using unprecedentedly racist crime hysteria ads, which endanger the entire Black community. Jews (and all of us) need to do more to speak out against that and the racism that assails Black life every day. Jews also need to wake up to the idea that silent right-wingers like Representative Lee Zeldin and Ambassador David Friedman will sooner support white supremacists and Christo-fascists than their community—as long as their friends on the far right support Israel. The fact that their buddies support Israel only because they think a united Israel is a precursor to an end-time when all Jews go to Hell is never a part of their political calculation. They would also rather risk providing support to those who would spur on murderous attacks in our places of worship than link arms with their fellow reform-oriented Jews under attack.

Let’s all pledge to wake up and learn from the past but to not be shackled by it. A system that feeds upon division is the problem. The only people who benefit from division are the mega-rich and powerful—who come in all religions—frolicking on yachts while the world quite literally burns. The Christo-fascists won’t stop with Jews. They’ll just be names to check off on a list, on their way to other targets. We will be either united in fear, or we will be united against a common enemy. I’m not sure the future holds much else.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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