It seems that many of those defending Kyrie Irving in response to the Brooklyn Nets’ conditions for his reinstatement have no understanding of what he did or why it was offensive and potentially dangerous.
Before I get into the specifics of why so many Jews and others who care about the spread of Jew-hatred reacted so strongly to what Irving promoted on social media (as well as to his initial responses to those concerns), let’s address the “free speech” argument.
As a preliminary, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the right to free speech doesn’t mean one gets to say or write whatever they want, without consequences. What it means is that as long as speech doesn’t directly incite violence or endanger others (the “shouting fire in a crowded theater” example), then the government (not private individuals or businesses) cannot punish a person for it.
Moreover, free speech goes both ways; If one has the right to say something egregious (as long as it doesn’t directly incite violence), then others have the same right to denounce that statement.
Lastly, the freedoms enshrined in the U.S. Constitution include not only free speech, but also freedom of association and freedom of contract. This means that individuals and businesses are free to choose not to do business with people who say or do terrible things.
Returning to why many people exercised their right to free speech to decry Irving’s actions:
First, Irving recommended on Instagram and Twitter, to his millions of followers, a very antisemitic movie based on the extremist ideology of the Hebrew Israelites’ “One West Camp” (also commonly referred to as the “BHI”). This film, promoted as a documentary by Irving, includes many horrible outright lies and antisemitic tropes. According to the film, the Holocaust didn’t happen, and the Jews, particularly those in America, stole the Hebrew identity from African-Americans. The film also claims, erroneously, that it wasn’t primarily Arab and European Christians slavers and slave traders who were responsible for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but Jews.
This film also falsely asserts that the Jews did all of these terrible things to further a nefarious conspiracy to steal the “real” Jewish identity from the people who were taken to the Americas from Africa as slaves.
Second, after Irving was informed that using his platform to promote an antisemitic film was problematic, he was belligerent about it in multiple press conferences and refused for more than a week to apologize for his promotion of dangerous antisemitic tropes.
This is no small matter.
The members of the Hebrew Israelite One West Camp and others believers in this conspiracy theory, including the Nation of Islam (thanks to Louis Farrakhan promoting it), falsely accuse Jews of enslaving the people of Africa in order to steal their identity. Believers also regularly assert that Jews are satanic, with the Jewish faith frequently referred to as the “synagogue of Satan.”
These mendacious, inciting claims have led to deadly violence.
After all, if you truly believe that a group of people conspired to steal your identity (and cultural inheritance) and enslaved all of your ancestors in order to do so, wouldn’t you be incited to commit violence against them? In December of 2019, two members of an extreme faction of the Hebrew Israelites were so incited. They killed a police officer and then three people in a kosher supermarket in Jersey City, N.J.
One of the Jersey City killers’ social media posts demonstrated that he held very extreme and dangerous antisemitic beliefs. In some posts he called Jews imposters, accused Jews of controlling governments, of being responsible when law enforcement killed black people, being members of the “synagogue of Satan,” as well as worshipers of Satan. And this Jersey City attack could have been much worse—as we now know, these killers planned to murder the more than 50 children in the Jewish day school next to the kosher supermarket.
And while we have no way of knowing exactly how many of the near-daily attacks on Jews (many of them violent) in cities like New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc. are motivated by the same antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories on display in the movie promoted by Irving to millions of people, it is hard to dismiss the concern that many do.
That is why Irving’s actions, including his promotion of a Der Sturmer-like movie, to millions of people was so disturbing, as was his refusal for so long to own up to the reasons people were concerned.
To be clear, the extremist Hebrew Israelite camps and their colleagues in antisemitic hate-mongering among the NOI are in no way to be confused with black Jews or Jews of color. There are also many Hebrew Israelites who don’t ascribe to any of these conspiracy theories. These theories also have nothing to do with the Igbo of Nigeria or Lemba of Southern Africa, who observe many pre-Second Temple Jewish holidays and traditions, and claim to be descended from one of the “Ten Lost Tribes,” just like the Bnai Menashe of India.
In fact, the overwhelming vast majority of black or brown Jews in America and elsewhere have nothing to do with the hateful conspiracy theories espoused by the movie Irving promoted. To the contrary, the vast majority of all Jews in all lands, regardless of their complexion, follow and believe in the same history, heritage and faith. But this conspiracy theory brand of hate promoted by Irving invariably puts a target on Jews and often ends up putting a virtual bullseye on Jews of color.
White supremacist Jew-hatred also claims that Jews are deceptive and conspiratorial pretenders. One of the main Nazi beliefs was that Jews conspired to destroy the pure Aryan race with so-called inferior blood. This belief was passed onto American white supremacists and it is part of their antisemitic “white replacement” conspiracy theory.
This is why in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacists were chanting “Jews will not replace us,” while other white supremacists (such as David Duke and Tree of Life killer Robert Bowers), who would otherwise have nothing in common with members of the NOI and extremist Hebrew Israelite camps, use their same “synagogue of Satan” rhetoric and conspiracy theories to incite Jew-hatred.
So while the extremists whose views Irving promoted would likely hate the comparison, the reality is that they have much in common with the white supremacists promoting “white replacement theory” or the “great replacement theory.” Both, with their hate- and violence-inciting claims, promote the false and dangerous notion that Jews as a group are inherently duplicitous, evil and conniving and have either stolen or are trying to destroy another identity.
These are the facts. And this is why, regardless of whether one agrees with all of the conditions set forth by the Nets for Kyrie Irving to be reinstated, everyone should understand why Irving’s promotion of such hate-filled, false tropes about the Jewish people is so concerning for so many people.
Black people and Jewish people have for centuries been the targets of white supremacy. There is no white supremacy without antisemitic conspiracy theories. It is long past time for the black community and the Jewish community to be completely united in their rejection of all race-based, ethnicity-based or faith-based hate, and its associated conspiracy theories—regardless of who promotes them and whether that person plays basketball, designs shoes or trolls the Internet for a living.
Micha Danzig served in the Israeli army and is a former police officer with the New York Police Department (NYPD). An attorney, he is active with a number of Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including StandWithUs, T.E.A.M. and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF).
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.