Making Excuses for Antisemitism, from Kanye to FDR

by Rafael Medoff

How many ways are there to excuse antisemitism? Quite a few, it seems.

The CEO of Adidas, the German-based apparel company, says that rapper Kanye West “didn’t mean it” when he went on those antisemitic rants last fall. Among other things, West threatened to “go death con 3 [sic] on Jewish people,” ranted about “Jewish Zionists” controlling the media, and declared there were “good things about Hitler.”

“I don’t think he’s a bad person, it just came across that way,” Adidas head Bjorn Gulden claims. But at least Gulden is candid about his motive for excusing West’s bigotry: “That meant we lost that business, one of the most successful collabs in the history…very sad.”

A few days later, on the other side of the ocean, police said that the thug who smashed up the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania was “experiencing a crisis.”

In other words, according to the police, it wasn’t antisemitism, even though the attacker was ranting and raving about Jews as he rampaged through the Hillel center.

Whether or not the assault in Pennsylvania was connected to the upcoming anti-Israel conference on campus, or the proximity of the Jewish holidays, will eventually be determined. But this much is already clear: the attacker knowingly singled out a Jewish target, and was screaming anti-Jewish slurs as he damaged a Jewish organization’s property. That sounds like something more than a random moment of personal “crisis.”

Since celebrity antisemites have more fans than lesser-known bigots, they tend to enjoy more protection from excuse-makers.

After Mel Gibson’s first public antisemitic tirade, in 2006, actress Jodie Foster told USA Today: “Is he an anti-Semite? Absolutely not.” Then why did Gibson make antisemitic comments? “It’s no secret that he has always fought a terrible battle with alcoholism,” she declared.

Foster did not comment when, a few years later, an apparently sober Gibson referred to Jews as “oven-dodgers.”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tried to excuse her own 2019 comment about Jews and money (“all about the Benjamins”) by claiming, “I wasn’t aware of the fact that there are tropes about Jews and money.”

Omar’s political allies used several different excuses in response to her statement that Americans Jews use their “political influence…to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Omar was merely being “insensitive” (as opposed to bigoted).  Senator Bernie Sanders insisted that Omar’s remarks constituted “legitimate criticism of the right-wing, Netanyahu government in Israel,” although Omar had been referring to American Jews, not the Israeli government or its policies.

From time to time, a historian can be found among the excuse-makers. President Franklin D. Roosevelt repeatedly made antisemitic comments not because he was antisemitic, but just as a way of “breaking the ice” with foreign dignitaries, according to Richard Breitman, in his 2013 book FDR and the Jews (coauthored with Allan Lichtman).

During a meeting with the Soviet foreign minister in 1942, President Roosevelt agreed with a complaint by a White House aide about the large number of “distinctly unsympathetic Jews” and “kikes” in the American Communist party. And in a conversation with Josef Stalin during the 1945 Yalta conference, Roosevelt joked about “giving” America’s six million Jews to the king of Saudi Arabia. FDR merely “was using anti-Semitism as an ice-breaker” on these occasions, Breitman wrote.

The problem, however, is that an “ice-breaker” is, by definition, something that is done at the beginning of a conversation, in order to facilitate a more open discussion. But the transcripts of Roosevelt’s conversations reveal that the remarks about “kikes” took place at the very end of an hours-long dinner meeting; and the “joke” to Stalin was made on the next-to-last day of the week-long Yalta conference—in other words, long after the “ice” was broken.

Why do some people make excuses for antisemites? Reasons vary. Sometimes business interests are at stake. Sometimes the goal is to advance a political agenda or protect the reputation of a public figure whom one admires. But whatever the motive, making excuses for antisemitism is wrong—because it undermines the fight against bigotry and encourages antisemites to believe they can get away with it.

(September 2023)