When celebrities, antisemitism and Israel collide

A quick review of comments made by predominantly black actors, athletes and musicians reveals that the time-tested tradition of blaming the Jews when things get tough has not gone out of style.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, left, talks with Nick Cannon on an episode of his online "Cannon's Class" show. (photo credit: YOU TUBE)
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, left, talks with Nick Cannon on an episode of his online "Cannon's Class" show.
(photo credit: YOU TUBE)
Pop culture celebrities are used to the glare of interviews and being on the talk show couch circuit. But some had the unusual experience recently of appearing before a different sort of forum – in the offices of Jewish communal leaders, both in the US and Israel.
Their infractions? Inflammatory tweets, statements, videos and utterances about Jews and Israel that raised the hackles of the protectors and defenders of Israel and the Jewish people.
A quick review of some of the comments made by predominantly black actors, athletes and musicians reveals that the time-tested tradition of blaming the Jews when things get tough has not gone out of style during the coronavirus era – instead, the antisemitism infection rate is rising, too.
Forget that many people over a certain age or who don’t follow Western pop culture religiously have no idea who Wiley, Nick Cannon, DeSean Jackson and Ice Cube are. When they dis Jews, everyone listens. Over the last few weeks, there have been an embarrassment of opportunities.
British rapper Wiley, long established on the music scene with 940,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter, wrote that Jews are “snakes,” “cowards,” at “war” with black people, and compared Jews to the KKK.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson – with 10 million followers on Instagram – claimed to be of “the real Children of Israel,” and called on black Americans to foil white Jews’ “plan for world domination.” Former NBA star Stephen Jackson doubled down on Jackson’s comments, saying “The Jews are the richest. You know who the Rothschilds are? … They control all the banks. They own all the banks.”
American actor/producer and talk show host Nick Cannon dove into the antisemitism waters in a “Cannon’s Class” video podcast that was released late June. Cannon interviewed “Professor Griff” Griffin, who performed with the rap group Public Enemy before getting kicked out in 1989 for saying Jews were responsible “for the majority of wickedness that goes on across the globe.”
Cannon praised the rapper for having “the most substance and weight in speaking unapologetically... and you stuck to your guns.” He added that “it’s never hate speech, you can’t be antisemitic when we are the semitic people.... That’s our birthright, we are the true Hebrews.”
Rapper Ice Cube added his voice to the mix last month when he slammed NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for including him in a column in The Hollywood Reporter as an example from the entertainment world who espoused antisemitic tropes. In response, Ice Cube tweeted, “Shame on the Hollywood Reporter who obviously gave my brother Kareem 30 pieces of silver to cut us down without even a phone call,” a reference to Judas, the disciple said to have betrayed Jesus.
And in perhaps the comments that have ruffled the most feathers – but focused not on Jews per se, but on Israel – Hollywood A-lister funnyman Seth Rogen caused Jewfros around the globe to unravel during a hipster conversation with fellow Jew Marc Maron on his popular WTF broadcast.
“As a Jewish person I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life! They never tell you that – oh, by the way, there were people there. They make it seem like it was just like sitting there, like the f****** door’s open!... They forget to include the fact to every young Jewish person,” said Rogen, adding some disparaging remarks about Judaism to boot.
THE JEWISH WORLD shuddered on its axis. Within days of each outburst, in much publicized meetings both live and virtual, Cannon, Ice Cube and Rogen were called into the proverbial principal’s office.
A day after his bosses at ViacomCBS cut ties with him over his podcast comments, Cannon spoke with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, and later met with him in person. The result was an apology by Cannon to the Jewish community for his “hurtful and divisive” words, and a statement by Cooper to AP saying “he appears to be someone who’s genuine in his desire to make sure people understand his apology. “But also... not to move forward saying, ‘OK, I have to go back to my regular things, thank you for helping to give me a lifeline after this terrible error.’ That wasn’t it. The thrust was: ‘OK. Now, what do we do? How do we roll up our sleeves? What can we do together?’”
Ice Cube made his amends in a two-hour phone conversation with Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America.
“Cube told me he supports condemning Black&all antisemitism& I condemned all racism,” Klein wrote in a tweet describing the conversation.
Ice Cube, for his part, tweeted: “Shout out to Mort Klein who had the courage to seek the truth and speak with me and see for himself I am obviously NOT an anti-Semite or racist. I admire him for the advocacy of his people and look forward to talking more on how Black and Jewish communities can work together.”
And Rogen? After an old-fashioned Jewish guilt appeal from his mother, he agreed to a Zoom call with Jewish Agency Chairman Isaac Herzog which resulted in another controversy.
Herzog released a statement after the meeting, saying that “Rogen told me that this is not at all what he meant and explained his words were meant as a joke, taken from a critical, humorous exchange with a fellow Jewish comedian. He was misunderstood and apologized for that, and I accepted his explanation.”
However, in a subsequent interview with Haaretz’s Allison Kaplan Sommer, Rogen said that he didn’t apologize and had never agreed that Herzog could make details of their talk public.
“I did not apologize for what I said. I offered clarity. And I think [Herzog] is misrepresenting our conversation,” Rogen told Haaretz.
Herzog “sent a letter to my mother on very fancy letterhead. My mom implored me to call this guy and I did and told him I thought this was a private conversation... at no point did I give him permission to publish any part of the conversation.”
THE PUBLIC statements by the celebrities and equally public disclosures of their subsequent take-it-backs (or not) raise some issues about the manner in which the Jewish establishment should deal with offensive statements and questionable attitudes by individuals who wield considerable influence among their legions of mostly young fans.
Are much ballyhooed summits and official statements the proper response for dignitaries like Cooper, Klein and Herzog to be taking when the good name of Jews and Israel is disparaged in such high-profile fashion? Or is it better to engage in quiet diplomacy and educational efforts without creating additional headlines?
According to Ido Aharoni, Israel’s former counsel-general in New York, it comes down to whether the situation is perceived to be a crisis.
“These are all forms of crisis management, and I don’t think it should be seen as a crisis,” said Aharoni, who met with numerous public figures and celebrities during his tenure from 2010-2016 and earlier as media counsel from 2001-2005.
“Even though I think the Seth Rogen case was badly mishandled by the Jewish Agency, I think it’s a wonderful thing that Abe Cooper and Mort Klein take initiatives like that. But I think it needs to be done as part of an institutional long-term strategic approach.”
“What’s needed is for mechanisms to be put into place for ongoing, quiet conversations,” he added. “And there are some things going on, that you and I haven’t heard of, that are meaningful and substantial. I know that the American Jewish community historically has been championing this, and that the AJC and ADL have championed working on black-Jewish ties. There’s a long, glorious tradition of black and Jewish dialogue, and we should continue with that.”
Former MK Einat Wilf endorses the publicity surrounding the meetings with the verbal culprits, saying that what’s said publicly should be retracted publicly.
“Generally, what characterizes these cases is that there’s not a long history of such statements by them, so they should be given the benefit of the doubt that they said them out of lack of education,” said Wilf, the coauthor of The War of Return.
“The next step is to reach out and give them the opportunity to acknowledge their mistake. Ultimately, it should be done publicly, because all the claims were made publicly, in many cases on platforms to millions of people.”
ANOTHER STATEMENT by Rogen that prompted varied responses is his claim that he wasn’t told the truth about Israel and its origins via his Jewish education.
According to David Breakstone, the deputy chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, it’s a complaint that he has heard frequently in his contact with the Diaspora.
“We are hearing consistently from too many young Jews who went through the best Jewish educational systems we have to offer in North America that they haven’t received the whole story related to Israel,” he said.
“I don’t think there was any intention among educators to mislead them, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t given the complete education they needed... a sin of omission in a sense. So, I don’t think Rogen’s statement can be dismissed.”
Aharoni, on the other hand, says that Rogen can only blame himself if he thinks the blanket was pulled over his eyes.
“I totally disagree with what Rogen said about being duped by his Jewish education about Israel. Sadly, he’s buying into the narrative that Zionism is some form of colonialism movement,” said Aharoni, who teaches international relations at NYU.
“I don’t know why he’s blaming his teachers, when he could just pick up a book and read about the history himself, about a land that, by the way, he’s never been to.”
Aharoni conceded that Rogen’s podcast was damaging and raised an issue about the current form of social media discourse that tends to simplify and dumb down complicated subjects.
“What he said was disturbing because it was a very simple way to look at a very complex issue,” he said. “It’s even more disturbing because it came from someone so prominent and widely loved by both a Jewish and Israeli audience.”
BOTH AHARONI and Breakstone agreed that Rogen’s statements should not be placed in the same ballpark as the antisemitic sentiments espoused by Ice Cube and the other personalities.
“I think we need to differentiate between antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments. There are times when it’s the same thing, but I think a lot of what we hear from the Jewish community against Israel is said by proud, affiliated, involved Jews. Whether their opinions are well informed or well substantiated or not, I wouldn’t accuse them of being antisemitic,” said Breakstone. “Too often, we conflate criticism of Israel with being anti-Israel. I don’t think Seth Rogen is anti-Israel.”
“I see a big difference between what Ice Cube said and what Seth Rogen said,” said Aharoni. “What Ice Cube said was classic antisemitism. You see Louis Farrahkan all over it,” he said, referring to the Nation of Islam leader who espouses antisemitic views. “Why he is still relevant, I have no idea, but that’s the source of most of the accusations we are seeing. But despite the technology that is giving voice and prominence and visibility to these extreme elements, the vast majority of African-Americans do not agree with the likes of Ice Cube.”
According to Breakstone, the recent outbursts need to be put into perspective and don’t reflect a substantial change on the American Jewish landscape.
“Herzl’s conclusion that the only answer to antisemitism is to have our own state was wrong. It will never go away. So we can come up with the excuses and say that Trump has legitimized white supremacy; that COVID has made people anxious and looking for a scapegoat, and Jews are a convenient scapegoat. But it’s really an ongoing phenomenon,” he said.
“Jews have every right and reason to feel indignant and understandably concerned. But perhaps we should be less surprised. This is far from the first time we have reached the pinnacle of acceptance and success in the societies in which we have lived, only to be shocked later by rejection,” said Breakstone.
Aharoni added that the Jews as a community in North American have become victims of their success as individuals.
“The good news, though, is that it’s never been more in to be Jewish in America than it is today. The mainstreaming of Jews and Judaism is an incredible phenomenon that wasn’t possible only 60 years ago.”
Whether the antisemitic comments by Ice Cube and Cannon and the questionable Israel history perspective of Rogen are aberrations or reflective of a growing segment of the American public, there’s no doubt that we’ll continue to see Jewish leaders speak out and engage the perpetrators and, as Wilf said, try to give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t really mean it or were uninformed.
“But later, as in Rogen’s case, when he pushes back after the public acknowledgment,” cautioned Wilf, “at least then you know that next time maybe you shouldn’t give him the benefit of the doubt.”