Kanye West, antisemitism and the conversation we need to be having

Antisemitism is on the rise (yet again). Jews are fearing for their safety (yet again). And Kanye "Ye" West is back in antisemitic discourse (yet again).

Ye and Ty Dolla $ign are expected to release an album this week – Ye's 11th, "Vultures" – after his antisemitic remarks last year cost him significant brand deals (and billionaire status), not to mention lost him plenty of public sympathy despite his mental health struggles. His new album seemingly addresses that controversy; a track that landed last month mentioned antisemitism and contained vulgar lyrics about sleeping with Jewish women.

It's not as if Ye's music career is suddenly as successful as it once was. But, disturbingly, his highly publicized antisemitic rhetoric doesn't seem to have hurt his ability to draw a crowd. The Miami Herald reported hundreds of people turned out for a last-minute listening party this week in South Florida, and the Miami New Times estimated the rapper drew a crowd of 1,000, with fans paying $200 to $600 for admittance.

"It's shameful that he seems to want to profit off of antisemitism in general, and particularly at this moment when antisemitism is surging at all-time highs," says Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union.

One also can't help but look at the upcoming album's collaborators like Nicki MinajOffset and Quavo and Chris Brown and what they're willing to stand alongside.

"The fact that a large array of high-profile music industry celebrities will continue to collaborate with him, even on a new album that doubles down on antisemitic rhetoric, tells us something very concerning about where the Overton window currently is on the subject of Jews in American society," says David Shyovitz, associate professor of history at Northwestern University and director of the school's Crown Family Center for Jewish and Israel Studies.

Experts say Ye's antisemitism is uncomplicated and worthy of swift denouncement amid an otherwise complicated moment for Jews across the world as the the Israel-Gaza war rages on.

"Kanye’s antisemitic slurs perpetuate fear and endanger the Jewish community," says Alan Ronkin, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C. "At a time when Jews around the world are lighting Hanukkah candles to drive away the darkness, let’s focus our attention on ending antisemitism and all forms of bigotry.”

Antisemitism is on the rise (yet again). Jews are fearing for their safety (yet again). And Kanye "Ye" West (pictured) is back in antisemitic discourse (yet again).
Antisemitism is on the rise (yet again). Jews are fearing for their safety (yet again). And Kanye "Ye" West (pictured) is back in antisemitic discourse (yet again).

Kanye West, antisemitism and how we got here

It does not appear a huge recording studio is propping up Ye's latest album (USA TODAY has asked Ye's rep about the particulars). "This is a huge step down from his previous albums," says Gabriel Rossman, a UCLA sociology professor. It remains to be seen exactly how wide Ye's platform actually is, though, he has 62.8 million monthly listeners on Spotify and 31.7 million followers on X (formerly Twitter).

"Overall, the main story about Kanye West is once it became widely known that he is extremely antisemitic – and over a long enough period that his expressions may be related to manic episodes but not confined to just one of them – that every organization he had been collaborating with fled from having any association with him," Rossman says.

Preliminary data from the ADL shows 1,402 antisemitic incidents occurred across the U.S. from Oct. 7 through Nov. 20. That marks a 315% increase compared with that time frame last year, when Ye and Kyrie Irving's high-profile antisemitic rhetoric was dominating the news cycle.

Given what's happened since, "it almost feels quaint to be remembering where the discourse on antisemitism was a year or so ago," Shyovitz says.

Kanye West and separating art from the artist

Is it possible to separate art from the artist? There's no clear answer to that question – though ask Jews about actor Mel Gibson or musician Roger Waters and you'll likely be met with shakings-of-head.

"The longer answer is that his flavor of antisemitism is quite prevalent … and any attempt to block his music or de-platform him only proves to those who subscribe to this type of antisemitism that the Jews are in charge and they are persecuting Ye, so it's really a lose-lose situation for Jews and their allies," says Jenny Caplan, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati who specializes in American Judaism.

Does that mean his new album will inspire more antisemitic incidents? Charles Lehman, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, says not necessarily; though it does serve as a reminder that someone can be widely seen as antisemitic and still find a considerable amount of success (take, for example, the aforementioned Pink Floyd musician Waters, who performed at the London Palladium in October).

What message are we sending about antisemitism?

Academic circles, college campuses and broader media have been struggling with how to define antisemitism in this wartime era. Experts agree it's crucial to call out clear-cut antisemitism.

"Any public figure as unapologetically antisemitic as Kanye West should be relegated to the fringe where he belongs," Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York said in a statement. "If there is no prohibitive price to be paid for virulent antisemitism, then what message are we sending to the rest of the world?"

Shyovitz adds: "It just seemed like there was enough of a unifying consensus that whatever those academic issues might look like, everything (Ye) was saying was really beyond the pale."

Evidently, the already slippery slope of antisemitism is only growing slippier.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kanye West 'Vultures' album draws a crowd, celebs despite anitsemitism