By Eric Fusfield
The antisemitic utterances of Kyrie Irving and Ye (formerly Kanye West) prompted condemnations from many celebrities, both those with Jewish backgrounds and those who weren’t Jewish but who issued solemn pledges of support for their Jewish friends and colleagues.
Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon went as far as to tweet, “This is a very scary time,” to which one follower chimed in with an anti-Israel rejoinder.
Solemnity, however, unexpectedly yielded to outrage at the annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Los Angeles. What was no doubt expected to be one of the evening’s least momentous junctures, the honoring of lawyer-agent Allen Grubman, turned into a consciousness-raising session when rock star John Mellencamp took the stage for a profanity-laden introduction speech.
“Allen is Jewish, and I bring that up for one reason,” Mellencamp said. “I’m a gentile, and my life has been enriched by countless Jewish people.”
Mellencamp then turned it up a notch. “I cannot tell you how f***ing important it is to speak out if you’re an artist against antisemitism,” he continued. “Here’s the trick: Silence is complicity. I’m standing here tonight loudly and proudly with Allen, his family and all of my Jewish friends and all of the Jewish people of the world. F*** antisemitism!”
What was surprising about Mellencamp’s speech was not his principled stance, but the sheer indignation and the unbottled emotion that gave voice to it. For millions of Jews who have fearfully observed the growing normalization of antisemitic motifs in today’s popular culture, such a righteous outburst was surely a welcome surprise, but it begged a question for the entertainment industry: “Where have you been until now?”
We sometimes temper our responses to hatred, perhaps out of decorum, perhaps out of a sense that there may be worse injustices that merit greater attention and outrage. For a culture that rightfully decries racism and offenses against other marginalized groups, hatred and discrimination toward Jews sometimes receive less opprobrium than the world’s oldest and most persistent social illness warrants.
Some of this is undoubtedly due to the popular conception of Jews as a white, privileged group undeserving of victim status. Another contributor is the prevalent, but demonstrably false, notion of the Jewish state as a white, colonial settler project whose central aim is to displace an indigenous people.
But the mainstreaming of antisemitic attitudes plays a clear role as well. This is why the antisemitism and anti-Zionism of celebrities has proven so insidious. Whether it’s in response to Mel Gibson, John Cusack, Roger Waters, Ye, Irving and even U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the objections have been somewhat muted in proportion to the danger that antisemitic pronouncements by celebrities presents.
Polite tweets and affirmations of support for the Jewish community have been the norm among those who have registered objections. But antisemitic sentiments, like those expressed by Ye and Irving, persist in the public realm.
Enter John Mellencamp. As rock music critic Greil Marcus once wrote, rock and roll is not a “polite, quiet, cerebral” art form. “If you’re reading a newspaper, that music says, put it down, listen to me.” If someone is going to deliver the passion that the fight against antisemitism requires, it might as well be a rock star, then.
At a time of rising antisemitism, Jews need allies. Particularly helpful are allies with high visibility who can turn the dial on the outrage machine to a volume at which it can be heard by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Jews are vexed, fearful and angry at the antisemitism that has manifested itself across the political and social strata and injected itself into the popular culture. On a night in Los Angeles before a national television audience, Mellencamp channeled our indignation and used his platform to spread it. Will other celebrities follow?
Rabbi Eric Fusfield is B’nai B’rith International’s director of legislative affairs and deputy director of its International Center for Human Rights and Public Policy.