Black America's Anti-Semitism Problem

An academic paper explores the character and sources of black anti-Semitism

December 21, 2022

From Kanye West endorsing Hitler to Kyrie Irving inviting followers to watch a documentary about how blacks are the true Jews, anti-Semitism from prominent black figures has been in the news. A recent study explores the phenomenon of black anti-Semitism more broadly, ruling out popular explanations—and excuses—for its frequency.

Black anti-Semitism is nothing new. It has appeared in the works of black intellectuals since at least the early-20th-century black nationalist Marcus Garvey, as Elliot Kaufman observed in Commentary, and defined politics in New York City—the American metropolis where blacks and Jews most often rub shoulders—for generations.

But where does it come from? A new paper by sociologists Eitan Hersh of Tufts University and Laura Royden of Harvard explores this question. The pair reveal—using a survey of thousands of Americans—some shocking statistics, including that black and Hispanic young adults report anti-Semitic views at rates similar to white young adults who self-identify as "alt-right."

The paper torpedoes popular explanations for black anti-Semitism, like the claim that anti-Semitism is just "anti-whiteness" or an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians. But it does not, despite its attempts to do so, pinpoint the source of this prejudice, so their findings suggest simply that views like Irving and West's are more common than we'd like to believe, and aren't going away any time soon.

Their finding is important nonetheless, particularly as anti-Semitic incidents reach record highs amid a surge in major cities. They clarify that these attacks are not, as some still maintain, exclusively the work of white supremacists like the shooter who targeted Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. Rather, attacks like the stabbing and car assaults that left three men injured in Lakewood, N.J., in April exemplify the persistence of this black anti-Semitism.

To measure anti-Semitism, Hersh and Royden asked their survey respondents three questions: Are Jews more loyal to Israel than America, is it appropriate to boycott Jewish-owned businesses to oppose Israel's policies, and do Jews in the United States have too much power?

The majority of respondents said no to these questions, but black respondents were much more likely than whites to say yes to at least one—13 percentage points more, after accounting for differences in age, sex, and education. Hispanic respondents were also slightly more likely to agree, though the difference was not statistically distinguishable from zero.

The effect was most pronounced among young blacks and Hispanics. Both groups were 16 percentage points more likely to agree than whites in their age group. Anti-Semitism was particularly common among young blacks and Hispanics who called themselves "conservative." But that was a small group, and anti-Semitism was more common even among liberal blacks compared with liberal whites. Black and Hispanic young adults, in fact, were about as likely to agree with at least one of the statements as were white "alt-right" identifiers in the same age group.

Hispanics are often lumped with whites in hate crime data, so it is difficult to trace precisely the implications of this prejudice among Hispanics, which is an under-discussed and undercovered aspect of the story.

Hersh and Royden's survey also allowed them to examine several theories of the causes of anti-Semitism. One was "minority group competition": the idea that fighting over scarce resources like housing provokes anti-Semitism. Another was the idea that anti-Semitism is a manifestation of anti-whiteness: As James Baldwin put it, "Negroes are anti-Semitic because they're anti-white." A third, opposite possibility was the idea that people disliked Jews because they dislike Israel and because they supported the Palestinians. And fourth is that demographic or behavioral differences—for example, that minority groups are less well-educated or more likely to go to church—explains the variation.

None of these explanations stood up to scrutiny.

Take group differences. Hersh and Royden statistically controlled for both church and college attendance. While each mattered for whether or not someone held anti-Semitic beliefs, holding them constant blacks are still much more likely than whites to have anti-Semitic views. The authors also compare respondents in states with and without a lot of Jewish people (doable because most Jews live in just a few states). Again, race still predicts anti-Semitic views, meaning that proximity to Jews—"minority group competition"—doesn't explain the difference.

Similarly, Hersh and Royden argue that black anti-Semitism is more than just anti-white bias. That's because they measure views, like whether Jews are more loyal to Israel than America, that only apply to Jews, not whites. They also rule out the idea that anti-Semitism is just a function of pro-Palestinian views: Remarkably, blacks and Hispanics were more favorable toward Israel than whites across three separate measures.

To supplement this, Hersh and Royden asked respondents who said they believed Jews had too much power in which domains they had such power. Very few respondents—7 percent of blacks/Hispanics and 9 percent of whites—selected only Israel and Palestine. Instead, these respondents said Jews had too much power in areas like news media, finance, and entertainment. This suggests that anti-Semitic bias is not driven by anti-Israel views.

Having ruled out these popular explanations, Hersh and Royden are left only to speculate on the causes of black anti-Semitism. They point to the rising salience of victimhood in American culture, arguing that it may either make people more prone to embracing conspiracy theories or provoke competition over "victim" status. It is also possible, of course, that anti-Semitic views are just a product of prejudice—no need for further explanation.

What is apparent is that the views propounded by individuals like West and Irving are not unusual, particularly among black Americans. Unlike other forms of prejudice, Hersh and Royden observe, anti-Semitism is not fading among younger Americans: At least among minorities, the oldest hatred isn't going away any time soon.

Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal.