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Why Our Words Matter By Olivia Graham

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As an avid watcher of The Kardashians, I always follow up on Thursdays to see the latest episode. I listen to Kanye West's music and enjoy seeing all of the obscure designs that he comes up with for his collaborations with Adidas, GAP, and his own company, YEEZY. I now feel a budding sense of shame that I (unknowingly) supported an antisemite.

On October 8, 2022 Kanye tweeted that he would go “death con 3 on JEWISH PEOPLE”. I don’t actively use Twitter and had no idea that this was even going on until one of my Jewish friends posted about it on their Snapchat story with a bunch of emojis - one with its head exploding, another with a cocked eyebrow, and one with tears streaming down its face. I too was all of these different expressions. But my first reaction was to laugh. I laughed. His tweet was absolutely absurd!

It is known that Kanye has Bipolar Disorder so my logical response was to give him the benefit of the doubt that he couldn’t really mean what he had written. I understand mental illnesses are hard to deal with and knew that  sometimes he had manic episodes. I constantly refreshed my Instagram page and looked at different news sites and even Twitter to learn more. There was nothing. Not one statement was released from him or his team stating that he didn’t really stand behind his comment, that it wasn’t actually something that he believed, or that it was connected to a manic episode. Instead, I found nothing.

Kanye West once said: “I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it”. I mean, obviously. If he had bothered to “read history” maybe he would know that these biases he holds against Jewish people have constantly been debunked. They are clearly false and dangerous things to say.

I was deeply troubled by his comments and I asked my friends what they thought about the situation. Everyone, including my non-Jewish friends, uttered words like “horrible” and “sad” and how bad they feel for the Jewish community. Once again I headed to Instagram to see what I could find. While my Jewish friends and other accounts that are affiliated with the Jewish community posted about the situation by discussing how antisemitism was absolutely inappropriate and how they stand by the Jewish community… my non-Jewish friends' accounts were dormant. Not one of those friends had voiced those same opinions or support on Instagram. I wondered where the public outrage from my friends was. If they thought the situation was appalling, why didn’t they post about it? It doesn’t take much to show solidarity by clicking “add to story” and sharing publicly how you feel. 

I started to ponder why they wouldn’t post something related to Jewish Activism… was it “controversial”? During 1st period while discussing momentous moments in American history, I couldn’t help but turn to my friend and peer at the desk next to mine and ask, “why didn’t you post about the Kanye situation, like actually?”

“Umm… well because I didn’t want to be labeled in a certain way that would make me weird to my friends”, they responded.

Oh. I didn’t think that posting about things related to the Jewish community would be considered controversial, and could end up with someone even being made fun of. We have, unfortunately, had many opportunities recently to practice allyship and I wondered what was stopping them now. Their response made me see that antisemitism has, and may continue to be, rooted in not only political ideals but also social ones too. The situation seemed to worsen and it did so quickly. My Instagram feed, TikTok For You Page, and TV News Station became flooded with content from Nazi sympathizers. There was a post with a group holding up a banner that stated that “Kanye is right about the Jews” and that people should “Honk if you know”. Kanye is right about the Jews? Right about… what?

That feeling of shame that I (unknowingly) supported an antisemite grew. I liked Kanye. I put money in his pockets. I inspired him to express his values to the world and encourage others to do the same. For the first time in my life (that I can remember) someone I supported, even looked up to, was openly antisemitic. Someone I admired was voicing a prejudice towards me and my entire community and I don’t know what to do about it. Just as problematic, many of my friends who also admired Kanye were writing this off as being connected to his Bipolar Disorder, rather than holding him publicly accountable.  But what hurt the most was that Kanye West is 45 years old and should know better than to say such false and inappropriate things, but my friend is 17 and felt that speaking out publicly against Kanye might make things weird. We can’t let future generations be scared of standing up for what's right. So, I personally am going to make it my job to make sure nobody gets made criticized for being an upstander, rather than idly watching hate continue to grow. Hate is a lot like a tree… But I suggest that instead of letting the roots dig their hate into the dirt of society, I think that expanding with our branches, reaching out, and not being afraid to blossom will lead to a more harmonious society.

I looked for the voices of people speaking out against him and his hateful words so I could find and lift up more allies. His ex-wife, Kim Kardashian, released a statement saying that what Kanye did was unacceptable and that she sides with the Jewish community. Then GAP and Adidas both dropped their partnerships with him, ending their successful relationships of many years. Twitter and Instagram silenced his accounts. Then I saw a TikTok with 500,000 likes that showed Kanye’s entire collection scattered across the musty floors of GAP, clothes everywhere with red dots indicating that everything was 75% off.  It was reassuring but was it enough? What can we do about the problem that has already taken root?

The Holocaust Musuem located in Los Angeles publicly stated that they would give Kanye a private tour of the museum so that he would “understand just how words can incite horrific violence and genocides”. Soon after, during a podcast, he rejected their offer. I was shocked. The faculty of the Holocuast Museum in LA showed immeasurable amounts of goodwill by inviting him there, and he rejected them, denying their offer. Albert Einstein said, “education is the progressive realization of our ignorance”. How can Kanye realize his ignorance if he doesn’t want to be educated? How can we expect him to admit he was wrong if he doesn’t want to be informed?

I don’t know what to think. I guess I am writing this blog to let people that hold these prejudices against Jews know that they are simply wrong. I am a 17 year old girl living in the Chicagoland area, close to where Kanye grew up. I am like any other teen. The Jewish people I know are all ordinary people, just like everyone else. I worry about those around me that aren’t speaking out. If they don’t speak out against antisemitism, is that because they may be like Kanye and believe in antisemitic lies? As Kanye famously said in his song Violent Crimes, “people never change, they just get better at hiding who they really are”. I hope that isn’t true. I hope that those who aren’t sure, or who say things they shouldn’t, are open to being educated about the danger of their words. I hope we can do more to educate people and make it clear that this type of speech is not okay.

We need more role models and influencers who are aware of the world and can acknowledge other people's differences, whether that's race, language, culture or more. I know this wasn’t a definitive answer to the whole situation. My opinions and thoughts are constantly changing and racing as I read new information and see different people’s reactions. I know one thing for certain, that allowing influencers and celebrities to get away with sharing hate speech, should not be a precedent for the future. It’s our job to hold people accountable for their actions, not just in private conversation, but in public words and actions.

About the Author: Olivia Graham is a current junior at Vernon Hills High School. She attends Congregation Or Shalom has been teaching there for a number of years. For the last three years, Olivia has helped students learn Hebrew at Congregation Or Shalom through different movements. She is the current president of Jew Crew, the youth group at her synagogue and she is very excited to see what this year holds for that as well. Outside of youth group and synagogue, Olivia enjoys doing gymnastics, playing trumpet, and baking.