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Looking Forward

Is Kanye’s antisemitic vitriol seeping into our schools and streets?

A superintendent’s vague condemnation falls flat in a district with its own real problems

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And in the third week of Kanye West’s antisemitic meltdown, Adidas, the sneaker company literally founded by Nazis, cut ties with him despite a projected loss of $250 million; The Gap pulled his products off store shelves; producers scrapped a documentary about his life; and Madame Tussauds stuffed its wax visage of the rapper into storage.

Oh, and the superintendent of my local school district put out a statement of condemnation.

If it seems a bit too late, coming a full 18 days after West — who legally changed his name to Ye — was banned from Twitter for declaring war on Jews, don’t worry, it was also way too little. The short email inexplicably did not name West/Ye, vaguely expressed concern that “many students have been talking about the situation,” and obfuscated the fact that a few days earlier, a Jewish mom had announced at a public meeting that two middle-school students had recently greeted her daughter at recess with a Nazi salute.

“As some of you may have heard, a well-known entertainer and entrepreneur has made several hateful, antisemitic statements this month,” the superintendent wrote. “We do not tolerate any form of antisemitic behavior — whether it’s expressed in verbal or online bullying, graffiti, jokes, or other kinds of activity.”

And: “Let’s continue to take a united stance against bigotry and intolerance.”

Let’s. Let’s begin to understand the connections between the conspiratorial vitriol spewed by a well-known entertainer and entrepreneur and the harassment of an eighth-grader in a New Jersey town that loves to talk about tolerance.

Let’s consider the fact that the Nazi salute those kids are accused of making resembles one Trump supporters made at an Ohio rally a few weeks ago. Let’s talk about why it seemed to take a minute for the world to wake up to West’s horribleness, and by all means, let’s continue to take a united stance against bigotry and intolerance.

All about Ye

To recap, for those under a rock: West is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, has been expanding into fashion and, despite being buddies with Donald Trump, made a ridiculous run for president in 2020. On Oct. 3, he donned a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt at a Paris fashion show, on Oct. 7 he was restricted on Instagram for posting a text conversation with Sean “Diddy” Combs that invoked antisemitic tropes, and on Oct. 9 he was locked out of Twitter after saying he planed to “go death con 3 on Jewish people.”

Major news outlets were initially mealy-mouthed about this, calling it “alleged” or “purported” or “widely deemed” antisemitism; some were wary of platforming hate from a person known to be mentally ill. Of course, Ye’s personal platforms — more than 31 million Twitter followers — are bigger than most publications, so, you know, the cat was out of the bag.

Eric Liedtke and Kanye West.
Former Adidas CMO Eric Liedtke, left, and Kanye West, right, at Milk Studios in Hollywood, June 28, 2016. Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Adidas

Ye continued to rant and rave, blaming Jews individually and collectively for all manner of problems, and rejecting the by-now de rigueur invite from a Holocaust museum to visit and repent. Trump rushed to West’s defense as corporations including his record label and agent ran in the other direction. The white supremacist Goyim Defense League hung gross spray-painted banners declaring “Kanye is right about the Jews” over an LA freeway. Reports surfaced that West wanted to name his 2018 album “Hitler.

Kanye, having been dumped by Adidas, showed up at a Skechers store and then went for a bagel.

Meanwhile in Montclair, New Jersey, on Oct. 17 a woman named Michele Silver went to a school board meeting to talk about what happened to her daughter, an eighth grader at Buzz Aldrin Middle School, where my son graduated in 2021.

Four days before, she said, a boy they’d known since first grade made eye contact with her daughter and put his arm out in a “Heil Hitler” motion. Almost exactly a year ago, she said, a different kid had called her daughter a “Jewish cunt.”

“When is enough enough?” Silver asked. “What else has to happen to my child or anyone else’s for Buzz Aldrin and the administration to wake up and realize that antisemitism has been and continues to be a major problem in our schools?”

Antisemitism near and far

You may recall hearing before about antisemitism in Montclair, a town of 40,000 about 13 miles from Manhattan where I’ve lived since 2016. A few years ago, a former NAACP official made offensive remarks about Jews and gentrification, and swastikas were found at the high school — on three separate occasions. During the Israel-Gaza war in May 2021, the Forward reported that Montclair High somehow chose right-wing terrorist Meir Kahane to highlight for Jewish-American Heritage Month.

The superintendent, Jonathan Ponds, ended up apologizing for the Kahane gaffe, which he blamed on lazy Googling by an overworked assistant principal. We heard again from Ponds in January, six days after the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue, when he sent a communitywide email saying he was thinking “about our Jewish brothers and sisters,” and that “no one should be anxious about going to a place of worship,” though somehow failed to use the word “antisemitism.”

I emailed to thank him, and asked for a meeting to discuss his approach to confronting antisemitism and how it fit into broader efforts to combat hate. He wrote back the next day, saying he’d love to talk to me, and looped in his assistant to schedule a time.

So I sent a note with 11 different options over two weeks, which they ignored for a week, so I re-sent it, and then the assistant said “the next few weeks are jam-packed” and asked that I send questions by email. I wrote back saying I didn’t have a list of questions; I wanted to have a conversation, and asked Dr. Ponds directly if “you indeed want to make the time for this as you initially said” — and then they both ghosted me.

‘We have to rely on our principals to bring it to our attention’

After I posted on Facebook this week about the superintendent’s mystifying statement about antisemitism by a “well-known entertainer and entrepreneur,” I quickly heard from David Cantor, who the school district hired last month as head of communications. I knew Cantor years ago, when he was a spokesperson for New York’s schools and I was education editor of The New York Times. Turns out he also spent 10 years working for the Anti-Defamation League.

I asked Cantor why Ponds put his email out on Tuesday, more than two weeks after West’s antisemitic tirades made international headlines. He said it was because a principal had informed the central office the day before that students were talking about it. I asked if kids “talking about it” meant condemning it or repeating it, and Cantor said he didn’t know. I asked why the statement didn’t name the “entertainer and entrepreneur” and he said “we didn’t want to trigger unfounded alarm or a media spectacle” or have it show up in search results for Kanye and Montclair (huh?). I asked about what happened to Silver’s daughter, and he said it is being investigated.

I asked to speak to Dr. Ponds, and Cantor said the superintendent would be open to it after Nov. 8, because until then he is focused on drumming up votes for a $187.7 million bond issue on the ballot. I mentioned that I’d be more inclined to give the schools more of my tax money if I felt more confident in their leadership.

“If there’s antisemitism in town, it’s got to be called out,” Cantor said. “We have to rely on our principals to bring it to our attention, because we’re not in schools.”

‘It would have made sense to run it by someone’

Since the trio of swastikas showed up at Montclair High, the superintendent has had a deal with the rabbis at our four local synagogues: he gives them a heads up about any incident of antisemitism so they can be prepared if a congregant comes to them. My rabbi, Marc Katz, is part of the group, and said their advice has been the same each time: make sure every school complies with New Jersey’s Holocaust education mandate, add some anti-bias training specifically regarding Jews, and, as Katz put it, “use us as a resource.”

Which is why he was surprised, having met with Ponds just last week about the Silver situation, to see his statement only after it was emailed to the community on Tuesday.

“If they were in dialogue with lots of Jewish leaders, which they were, it would have made sense to run it by someone,” Rabbi Katz said. “It was too vague — you want to name hate in a specific way and talk about why it’s problematic. ‘People are talking’ is never the right thing to say, I need to know what’s going on.

“I feel like any statement needs to have three paragraphs: paragraph one, what am I responding to; two, empathy; three, denounce hate,” Katz continued. “They missed paragraph two.”

‘If it’s happening in my town, is it happening in every town?’

It’s been interesting to watch the chorus of Kanye condemnations swell this week — and, alongside it, concern about antisemitism generally. On Tuesday, hours after the other (Adidas) shoe dropped, the Committee to Protect Journalists reached out to me asking how/if “the rise of antisemitic hate crimes in the United States” had “affected the Forward’s approach to safety.” On Wednesday, a writer from the International Journalism Network asked to interview me about how we cover antisemitism.

And the head of AI for the People, a group focused on racial justice through policy, journalism and pop culture, asked a group I’m part of for help in adding to its work “pushing back against Black antisemitism.”

Pictures of the Goyim Defense League banners supporting Kanye West’s comments about Jews went viral after they were captured in Los Angeles, Oct. 22, 2022. Photo by screenshot from Twitter

None of which is likely to help Michele Silver’s daughter deal with being harassed for her Jewishness on the playgrounds of Montclair. And if it’s happening in my town, is it happening in every town?

How does all this antisemitic bile spewed by a “well-known entertainer and entrepreneur” — or, you know, a former president of these United States — filter down to microagressions at our schools or on our streets?

I asked the ADL if there’d been an uptick in harassment or swastika vandalism or violent attacks amid the Kanye unraveling, and it seems it’s too early to say. The group has collected reports of 361 such incidents between Oct. 9 and Oct. 27 this year. That’s a lot fewer than the 497 in the same period last year — and under the 397 over those days in 2020 — but Todd Gutnick, the group’s spokesperson, cautioned that 2022’s is “an incomplete data set” because reports tend to trickle in for months after any given date.

Of this year’s 361 incidents, 7% “have referenced Ye/West,” Gutnick said, adding that there’s also been a jump in “offensive literature” as the “Goyim Defense League in particular has felt emboldened by Ye’s antisemitism.”

‘There are not consequences’

I called Michele Silver and asked her whether she thought Kanye or Trump or any other well-known entertainer or entrepreneur might have influenced the kids who harassed her daughter.

“I’m not sure how to answer your question,” she said. “But knowing how the administration has handled things at the schools in the past, I think, is sending a message to these children that this behavior is not getting punished. There are not consequences.”

Silver filed a “Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying” complaint after the “Jewish cunt” incident last year. There’s a rather opaque investigative process; she was notified only that no violation was found. Silver filed another H.I.B. report about the Hitler salutes, and is waiting to hear; after the Montclair Local published a lengthy article about the case this week, the ADL has gotten involved.

Someone briefed on the situation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it publicly, told me that the school investigators were unable to confirm the first incident happened. In the second case, this person said, “there’s disciplinary action being taken,” though nothing is official until the school board meets again next month.

As it happens, the Nazi salutes occurred on the very day that Michele Silver was taking her daughter after school to visit a nearby Jewish day school as a possible alternative to Montclair High. They loved it. “When we walked out of the tour, she said, ‘I feel like I fit in here,’” Silver recalled. It reminded her of the confidence and “ease with herself” she sees in her daughter when she comes home from Jewish sleep-away camp.

Then the other day, Silver saw her daughter put on the necklace she got as a bat mitzvah present in May with her Hebrew name, Tzipporah.

That’s how one eighth grade girl is taking a stand against bigotry and intolerance.

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