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How to address antisemitic rhetoric when you encounter it

A participant holding a sign at a 2020 solidarity march in unity against the rise of antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2021.
Erik McGregor
LightRocket via Getty Images
A participant holding a sign at a 2020 solidarity march in unity against the rise of antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in 2021.

Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, set off a chain reaction of condemnations from companies, brands and the public after he made antisemitic remarks earlier this year. Now, political leaders are joining the criticism after former President Donald Trump dined with Ye and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist and Holocaust denier also known for his antisemitic positions and language.

Trump has said that he did not know Fuentes before the dinner at Mar-a-Lago and was not aware of his reputation, but many people, including late-night TV hosts Stephen Colbertand Jimmy Kimmel,have pointed out that Ye has also spread antisemitic rhetoric.

The dinner has prompted calls from some of Trump's former allies and supporters who have reached a breaking point with Trump's unwillingness to put distance between himself and those spreading antisemitic rhetoric.

While you are highly unlikely to find yourself at dinner with Ye or Fuentes, that doesn't mean you won't encounter antisemitism. In April, the Anti-Defamation League released a report saying that antisemitism had reached an all-time high in the United States in 2021. More than 2,700 antisemitic incidents were reported to the organization that has been tracking these occurrences since 1979.

With this type of hateful rhetoric on the rise, it's important to not let comments pass by when you hear them. But there's a big difference between rebuking a celebrity online and confronting a friend or acquaintance in person. So, what can you do?

It just takes a bit of a different approach, says Dov Waxman, the director of the Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies at UCLA, because not all antisemitic incidents rise to the same level of response.

As the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation chair of Israel studies, Waxman researches contemporary antisemitism. He spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about different examples of antisemitic incidents and how best to approach your response to them.

Why a public response to antisemitism is so important

It's not that people weren't making antisemitic remarks in the past, but how they're broadcast to millions of people through social media today that makes a difference.

"The significance of what somebody like Ye said isn't the novelty of what they said. I mean, they are really repeating longstanding antisemitic tropes and anti-Jewish stereotypes," Waxman said. "It's rather the fact of the medium through which he said it, and the fact that he has 30 million followers."

So when it comes to celebrities like Ye, Waxman said the appropriate response really comes from the brands and partnerships pulling their support, cutting financial ties and speaking out about why they did so, as many companies did.

"When public figures engage in antisemitism, it is important to signal that behavior is unacceptable and that there's a price to be paid," he said. A lack of response when influential people make antisemitic statements could cause people to incorrectly believe such statements are acceptable.

"Allowing his comments to pass is dangerous because it can legitimize or normalize those kinds of comments," Waxman added. "It's very important to signal in responding to somebody like Kanye West or Kyrie Irving... that those kinds of statements or actions are wrong."

Let's say a friend or someone you know makes an antisemitic joke or statement

One big thing to remember is that there's a difference between making an antisemitic statement and being an anti-Semite, Waxman said. Many people unintentionally make these types of comments or jokes and are unaware that there's a problem with what they've said. In these instances, you should let your friend know that what they said is antisemitic, Waxman said.

"We need to kind of point this out, without shaming that person, without responding to them as if they're an anti-Semite," Waxman said. "Saying, 'well, you know, you may not mean it. You may not be aware of this, but what you said is actually antisemitic,' and explaining why it is."

Generally, these interactions should happen in the moment. This helps those around understand the issue with what was said, as well as lets the victims of the statements know they have an ally.

"It needs to be observed because the reaction is signaling to everybody else that this is unacceptable," he said. "But when we do that, we need to be able to do it in a way that doesn't further inflame the situation and doesn't actually exacerbate it."

"If you actually avoid making statements about their character, about who they are as a person, and while the focus on what they did or said, their behavior, then I think ... you open up more an opportunity for more productive dialogue."

For some groups, the best response is not to give them a bigger platform

Not all those making antisemitic statements deserve the type of attention Ye received, and there's not just one way to respond. In fact, it's important to make sure that you're not actually amplifying the message by giving it attention. This is especially true, Waxman said, with far-right neo-Nazi groups looking for publicity, like those who hung an antisemitic banner above a busy freeway in LA.

"We shouldn't do their bidding," Waxman said. "We shouldn't fall into that trap by reacting in such a manner that actually brings them more publicity and attention when it's somebody like, you know, Kanye West."

While antisemitic comments made by celebrities might not always be worth the public's attention, Waxman said that conspiracy theories or worldviews in which Jews are scapegoated for world problems are particularly dangerous and should be called out and denounced.

"That's one that historically has led to the Holocaust, among other kinds of anti-Jewish persecution," Waxman said. "That's where we really have to be attentive, and we really have to respond and for example that we hear politicians spout all these kinds of ideas ... we have to not vote for those politicians and get people to pay a price."

What should you do if you don't know the person or you witness a hate crime?

When things become physical, it's important to consider your safety as well. If you witness a physical assault or a hate crime, you may not want to intervene in that situation or put yourself at risk and that's understandable, Waxman said.

But that doesn't mean you can't and shouldn't do anything. You can immediately seek help from law enforcement or the authorities in the moment, check in with the victim, and you can follow up with a report about what you saw after, Waxman said.

Waxman said that reporting what you saw or heard is the most important part, and this goes for both physical and non-physical interactions or observations.

Not everything rises to the level of a crime, though things like antisemitic graffiti and speech should still be noted. In these cases, you can report what you observed to the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitism in the U.S.

Edited by Mallory Yu

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wynne Davis is a digital reporter and producer for NPR's All Things Considered.