Butterflies and beer halls may not be the most obvious things that come to mind when I speak the names Kanye and Kyrie, but as I have followed the news this past month, it has been these images to which I have returned again and again. For those of you without access to technology, let me explain, or – given the time constraints – let me sum up.
About a month ago, Kanye West tweeted his intent to go “death con 3 on Jewish people,” one of a series of antisemitic comments made by the rapper/record producer on television, radio, and social media – hate filled remarks, ravings and rants which have gained traction on the internet. “Kanye is right about the Jews” banners have been hung on an LA Freeway overpass and projected onto the wall of a Jacksonville football stadium. To the credit of the ADL and other advocacy organizations, a number, but not all, of Kanye’s corporate relations have distanced themselves from him and his bile.
Meanwhile, here in New York, Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving posted his support for a documentary film espousing antisemitic tropes such as Jews being responsible for the slave trade. The basic sequence of events since the first post begins with Kyrie’s initial refusal to disavow his support of the film, followed by a non-apology apology if he had inadvertently hurt anybody, followed by a more fulsome and coordinated declaration to stand against antisemitism, followed an axe-to-a-mended-fence refusal to disavow antisemitism, followed by his being suspended late Thursday night by the Nets. Neither story, Kanye or Kyrie, is easy to track in its particulars, never mind both together. A busy week for my friend Jonathan Greenblatt and the ADL. A whole lot of Jew-hatred shared on the internet to hordes of Twitter followers whose numbers, as my brother pointed out to me earlier this week, far exceed the population of the Jewish community itself.
This morning I have no interest in unpacking the psychopathology of Kanye and Kyrie, the former who has said that slavery was a willed choice and the latter, quite literally, a flat-earther. There are no doubt a number of reasons not to speak to the news, not the least of which is that to do so serves to keep the story alive. Those not on Twitter or other social media platforms might rightfully wonder how serious the problem really is. Some have cautioned me on speaking out, reasoning that doing so focuses our attention on one particular strain of antisemitism, when the real danger comes from white nationalists, from Iran, from the progressive left, or from any number of places. In calling out the hatred of two prominent African Americans, all we are doing, one person suggested, is thrusting our respective communities into hardened defensive postures. Besides, some might say, some have said: “Rabbi, you have spoken out repeatedly in defense of free speech. We may be repulsed by what is being said, but as a supporter of the First Amendment, don’t you think people have the right to say whatever they want? These are not government officials, just foul-mouthed record producers and athletes. It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last time someone with a megaphone spews hate against our people. Sticks and stones, Rabbi, it’s just words. Talk to us about something more pleasant . . . like this past week’s election in Israel.”
It is because I have heard such sentiments from community members, it is because I fear that my silence on the subject may be misinterpreted to signal that I believe that now is a time when it is best to stay quiet, that this morning I want to speak about antisemitism, but not only about antisemitism. This morning I want to talk about the rhetoric of hate more broadly, about where it could lead, about the importance of speaking out – about butterflies and beer halls.
Proud, historically minded, and thick-skinned as I am as an American Jew, it neither surprises nor scares me to hear a slur from the latest antisemite. I am saddened. I wish it were not so. I condemn hatred of all kinds, especially hatred that is directed at me and my people. But I am not a naïf. Antisemitism existed long before my entry into this world and will exist when I leave it. This morning is not the time or place to address the etiology of the world’s most ancient hatred. What I fear is the butterfly . . . or the butterfly effect. You may remember learning about it in junior high school, the theory attributed to Edward Lorenz: how a tornado in one part of the world can trace its origins to the inconsequential flutter of a butterfly’s wing in another part of the world. That small causes may have large effects in ways that could never have been anticipated. Words may hurt some and not others, but the sticks and stones that hurt us all never begin with just sticks and stones; they begin with words.
The rhetoric of hate never stays rhetoric. Last week, here in America, we observed the four-year memorial of the eleven slain in the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, an assault perpetrated by a domestic terrorist radicalized by online hate. Yesterday in Israel, it was the anniversary observance of the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose assassination was the culmination of years of incitement, extremist language, and demagoguery. No matter what happens with the findings of the January 6 committee, no matter what we discover in the coming days about the attacker of Nancy Pelosi’s husband, we know: Words are never just words. We are living in the midst of perfect storm of forces: the surge in online hate; the mass dissemination of false information; the narrow casting of our national conversation; the erosion of democratic norms; the heightened alienation and isolation of the individual; the increased access to the tools of violence; and, as of last week, a total unknown regarding what, if any, guardrails will remain on Twitter, the primary platform for the good, bad, and ugly of far too many people’s information. Antisemitism isn’t the only hatred out there. No differently than a pogrom can be traced to a blood libel, the spike in anti-Asian violence has its roots in the false and reckless attribution of COVID to an entire people. That words never stay just words is a truth that transcends faith, race, or ethnicity. Jews just happen to be a people who know this truth firsthand; who know that our persecution in Egypt did not begin with slavery but with being labeled as “the other” by Pharaoh; who know that banners declaring “Jews are our misfortune,” or pronouncements that Jews “get their act together” are a beginning, not an endpoint. There is a discernible line from the online news of the past month to yesterday’s FBI alerts about credible warnings of violence against Jewish institutions in New Jersey and to antisemitic flyers distributed on the campuses at which both my children attend. One need not prove direct causality to be concerned; it need not be Leopoldstadt to be dangerous. I neither fear nor care to dignify the rantings and retweets of those who traffic in online hate. I do fear and care about the butterfly effect, about what happens when that hatred enters the alienated head of a societally alienated individual who owns a gun.
All of which is why it is not just butterflies I am thinking about this week, but beer halls. We pause at this time every year to observe the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, when, on November 9, 1938, state-sponsored mobs ransacked homes, hospitals, schools, and synagogues throughout Germany – a date often identified as the beginning of the end for European Jewry. But as those with a textured historic sensibility know, this week also marks the anniversary of Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, when, on the evening of November 8, 1923, in a beer hall in the Bavarian capital, a young Adolf Hitler silenced and seized control of the crowd and politicians present with a pistol shot in the air. The putsch failed and Hitler was jailed. But it was during that year in jail, effectively a sabbatical, that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, that the Nazi party shifted to center stage, and that Hitler’s profile was elevated from house painter to national hero, eventually leading him to become Chancellor of Germany just ten years later. Not November of 1938 but of 1923, the Beer Hall Putsch – that was the beginning of the end.
And while there are many lessons to be learned on this anniversary, both here and in Israel, including the observation that fringe mobs don’t stay fringe forever, the lesson I want to focus on comes by way of Michael Brenner’s stunning new book on the rise of Nazism, entitled In Hitler’s Munich. Brenner’s focus is not just on the hatred of the antisemites preceding Hitler’s putsch but on the inaction of so many in the lead-up to that night. How that September, when the sukkot of Munich Jewry were burned down and the windows of Munich’s Ohel Jakob Synagogue were shattered, somehow the “perpetrators could not be identified.” How when a film based on Lessing’s play Nathan the Wise was premiered and an atmosphere of pogrom prevailed, rather than restoring order, the officer in charge of public security criticized the film for its positive depiction of Jews. How when a district rabbi called on the government to respond to acts of antisemitic remarks in a public spa to signal that such behavior would not be tolerated, the request was refused for fear that such a statement would signal that Bavaria was hospitable to Jews. The list goes on, but the point is one and the same. Brenner describes a world of permissible antisemitism, institutionalized antisemitism, the banalization of hate, the tacit complicity of those authorities, officials, and clergy charged with maintaining the safety of the public and providing a moral voice and backbone. Hate that was left unchecked by Munich’s citizenry and the citizenry of the world and was thus left to develop into radical racism and state-sanctioned antisemitism, an anti-Jewish journey that would find its fulfillment in the crematoria.
History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. At our own peril does the Jewish community stay silent in this hour. Of course we have to build bridges of dialogue and understanding; that it is the long game. But right now we are playing defense. We must be willing to throw flags on the field, to leverage our social and political capital to fight hatred and to defend our people when we see hatred. If I can turn the mirror onto our own community, it is high time we stop giving people a pass on their hate because they are good on Israel or good on progressive politics or good on any issue. It doesn’t matter if the antisemitic flyer or fist comes from a white nationalist or a campus leftist – it threatens just the same and it hurts just the same. Antisemitism needs to be called out as wrong no matter where it emanates from. Those who hate us know that in dividing us they make us weaker. And it is never just words, it is never just nonsense. As Sartre wrote, “Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies.” If you have the means to support the ADLs and AJCs of the world, then do so. If you can volunteer your time towards such causes, then do so. If you hear an off putting, offhand remark in your office, in the line at the grocery store, or anywhere else, then be the person, the upstander who says something. And know that the most important thing about the coming week is not the anniversary of Kristallnacht or the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, but election day – this Tuesday. Vote in this election, vote in every election, for those who stand up against antisemitism, for those who defend democracy.
This week, Abraham, the founding father of our people, is called on step forward, to be a blessing so that all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch interprets the verse to mean “I will bless each nation in accordance with the respect it shows the Jewish spirit.” To defend the Jewish people, to fight antisemitism, is a fight for our own well-being; it is also a fight for the very soul of our nation. May each one of us and all of us together do our part, rising up to the calling of the hour so that our people and our nation continue to be deserving recipients of God’s blessings.
Brenner, Michael. In Hitler's Munich: Jews, the Revolution, and the Rise of Nazism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022.
Sartre, Jean Paul, “Anti-Semite and Jew.” 1946.