Kanye, Tree of Life, and the Mapping Project

Yesterday we marked four years since the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. On that day seared into the memory of every member of our community, eleven Jews were taken from us by a white supremacist who espoused the antisemitic ‘great replacement’ theory; holding the Jewish people to be the nefarious force secretly siphoning white power by supporting non-European immigration to our country.  

This anniversary comes as antisemitism is very much still in the public discourse in recent weeks. This week I spoke with Yvonne Abraham at the Boston Globe about Kanye’s blatant antisemitism and the consequences he is now experiencing (including, belatedly, from Adidas, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the ADL, AJC, and many others).  

We discussed the inherent Catch-22 that occurs when antisemites are held accountable for their words and actions. I told her that “we end up losing, even when there are consequences… Antisemitism is so rooted in a conspiracy theory about Jewish influence and nefariousness that [punishing Ye] validates the antisemitism.” Which is of course not to say that there ought not be consequences, but rather that we need to understand the deep complexity that comes with fighting a conspiracy theory. It becomes, as my friend Yair Rosenberg at The Atlantic has described it, “a self-sustaining circle.”  

It is not lost on me that Kanye has been espousing hateful rhetoric for a long time about many communities, without the consequences of recent days. And that lack of accountability in the past, for him and for those who cynically platformed and amplified him in service to their own white nationalist ends (looking at you, Tucker Carlson), further feeds and validates the antisemitism of those who then say that he was only punished, finally, for going after Jews.  

As my friend Amy Spitalnick - an ally and partner of JCRC through her work leading the fight to hold the Charlottesville organizers accountable, and more recently in her clear and insightful condemnation of the so-called Mapping Project - told Yvonne:  

“Of course Kanye should be held to account. [But unless we hold to account the officials and institutions that] have mainstreamed antisemitism and white supremacy, we are only allowing it to fester and grow.” 

Speaking of clarity in condemnation, allow me to acknowledge and appreciate several Massachusetts leaders who spoke out unequivocally against antisemitism in recent days, including former Governor Deval Patrick and congressional delegation members Ayanna Pressley, Katherine Clark and Seth Moulton.   

And since I mentioned the Mapping Project, let us name the connection between Tree of Life, Mapping, and Kanye. There is an ongoing – and possibly unresolvable - discussion within our community about the relative threat to American Jews that comes from increasingly mainstreamed right-wing antisemitism (wrapped in a larger white nationalist movement) and left-wing antisemitism (given cover by excessive critics of Israeli policies). There is, as well, what is called a ‘horseshoe’ dynamic – in which the far ends of the ideological spectrum come to common cause.  

The Tree of Life attack was fueled by a conspiracy theory of hidden Jewish power. That’s the same conspiracy theory - although it is repackaged as the key to taking down a network of ‘powerful Zionists’ - that underscores the Mapping Project. They share the concept that whatever ‘my’ experience of oppression or loss of power is, it is the Jews who are secretly behind it. The same conspiracy theory fueled the hostage taker in Colleyville, who believed that if he attacked Jews and got America’s ‘chief rabbi’ on the phone, he could free a convicted terrorist.  

And the far right certainly takes advantage of this horseshoe. This summer, we saw the Goyim Defense League using the Mapping Project in a seminar to demonstrate “the domination of these Jews, and how infested they are all over”.  Those are the same folks that hung those “Kanye was right” signs on freeways in LA last week.  

And so, in this week when we remember the Tree of Life shooting, we also must name how these moments are all connected.  We need to collectively fight antisemitism in all its forms, in all its expressions, both rhetorical and violent, and without partisan benefit or agenda. And we need to see that the fight against conspiracy theories is predicated upon how those White supremacist conspiracy theories threaten all marginalized communities as well. We are all in this boat together.   

And, we must remember those taken from us four years ago this week and commit ourselves to not be deterred; we will continue to gather joyously and live vibrant Jewish lives in community with each other, as a tribute to their memory. May the memories of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger be for a blessing. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy Burton