On ‘Soul of a Nation’ Nick Cannon talks teshuva — but Black Jews don’t get equal time
Nick Cannon addressed his journey of teshuva following a summer of professional setbacks due to antisemitic comments — but he may have misrepresented what exactly he needs to atone for.
On ABC’s “Soul of a Nation,” Cannon spoke with anchor Linsey Davis about the infamous episode of his “Cannon’s Class” podcast in July, where he promoted conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds and said people of African descent were the “true” Jews. The actor and presenter lost his contract with ViacomCBS over the episode, in which he interviewed Public Enemy’s Professor Griff, but has since shown genuine contrition and got his job back.
“Ultimately I’ve always said that apologies were empty,” Cannon, who is now pursuing his Masters of Divinity, told Davis. “In Hebrew they call it teshuva, the process of not only repenting and through that if you’re ever met with a similar situation that you make a different decision — that goes beyond apologizing.”
Cannon’s response to his antisemitism scandal, which included a learning tour and an extended podcast conversation with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have been welcomed by members of the Jewish community who recognize Cannon as making a sincere effort to learn.
“I hurt people,” Cannon said. “I wanna lean into it. I want to understand why I hurt you. What did I say? What are these tropes? Educate me.”
Cannon’s education was largely self-led, and included reading Bari Weiss’ “How to Fight Anti-Semitism.” He’s spoken to Black Jews, including Amar’e Stoudemire to better understand the complexity of Jewish peoplehood.
Yet when pressed on one of the antisemitic claims that got him in trouble, Cannon may have mischaracterized what he actually said.
Davis brought up Cannon’s claim that Black people can’t be antisemitic because they are the true Hebrews.
“The purpose first was to say ‘We are all the same people,’” Cannon said. “That’s ultimately what I was saying.”
Yet the clip, used in the segment, says something a bit different.
“We are the Semitic people,” Cannon told Griff. “We are the same people who they want to be.”
The “they” there appears to be white Jews, suggesting that that group only pretends to be descended from the Israelites mentioned in the Bible — a claim made by certain sects of the Black Hebrew Israelite community.
When Davis asked Cannon if it was his belief, as stated to Professor Griff, that the claim to being Semites is the ”birthright of Black people,” Cannon said, “One thing that can’t be debated is that we all originate from Africa.”
Where the segment, seven minutes in an hourlong special on faith, falls down is its failure to give a voice to Jews that challenge the false binary between Black and Jewish.
There is one Black Jew who is shown speaking, Yolanda Savage-Narva, director of racial equity, diversity and inclusion at the Union for Reform Judaism. She gets a brief soundbite during a podcast taping of Cannon’s show at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. But her individual experience isn’t given extensive consideration. Cannon is the one shown introducing the topic of racism felt by Jews of color in many Jewish spaces
That the largest treatment of Black Jews in an episode focused on Black faith was in a discussion of antisemitic remarks made by a Black Christian is unfortunate. In a panel toward the end of the show there is some diversity with a member of the Nation of Islam, a bishop (named Vashti!) and agnostic author Charles Blow. There was no representative of the Jewish community.
It’s a pity, because Cannon was right on one point in July. The Jewish tradition also belongs to Black people — in fact, it is part of Cannon’s lineage. But the ones who take an active part in it aren’t given much time on this episode, supposedly devoted to the Black religious experience.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.