LeBron James and the Jews
I guess I should get the (many) qualifiers out of the way first.
I do not believe LeBron James to be an anti-Semite. I do not believe LeBron James harbors any hateful feelings towards Jews. I do not believe LeBron James should be fined, or suspended, or placed on any sort of double-secret probation. I’ll also add that I’m not some Pepe the Frog-like creature (hello, Clay Travis) who’s been waiting for a moment to pounce on the world’s most outspoken black athlete with a bag of what-about-isms. I’m a fan of LeBron’s, and applaud how he’s chosen to use his platform and voice to educate, enlighten and, often, rebuke. I typically find his social commentary intelligent and strikingly cutting.
All of which is precisely why I was so disappointed by his Instagram post yesterday, and angered by his faux-apology afterwards.
For those who haven’t followed: On Sunday, Darren Rovell, a reporter for the Action Sports Network, posted a screenshot of an Instagram post from James (how’s that for a 21st century sentence). At the bottom of a post was a lyric from the rap song “ASMR” by 21 Savage:
“We been getting that Jewish money, everything is Kosher.”
The Twitter post kind of/sort of (more on this in a bit) made its way around social media, with some people criticizing LeBron, and so later in the day James offered the following apology, though I’m not quite sure we should label this statement as that:
“Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone,” James told an ESPN reporter. “That’s not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That’s what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn’t through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody.”
I don’t think a genuine apology has ever contained the words “if I offended anyone.” That’s the kind of thing a public person says when they feel they have to apologize for PR reasons, not because they erred. It’s also the kind of phrase that reveals a person’s ignorance, which, in this case, is what LeBron has shown himself to be.
I truly do believe LeBron believes he’s being complimentary when he says Jews are good with money. But ignorance is no excuse for dangerous speech from a public figure and it certainly doesn’t give said public figure, no matter how much we like him*, the freedom to issue a half-assed, hollow apology where he claims to have not known better and then double down on the offensive speech. LeBron didn’t accept ignorance as an explanation when Phil Jackson described him and his friends as a “posse.” I’m not sure why he thinks I and other Jews should accept that as an excuse here.
*So much our social and political conversations these days are about knowing who’s side you’re on first and then carving out opinions that fit under those umbrellas. For the most part, the people who cover sports are on the same “side” as LeBron’s (i.e, not Donald Trump’s). We’ve all spent so much energy applauding him for taking on Trump and others (Long Live U Bum!) that, I think, many in the public and the media are hesitant to go after LeBron on this.
** I’m also confused as to why this whole ordeal hasn’t generated the sort of rage that we often see when a public figure says something offensive. Like, why hasn’t Dave Zirin written or Tweeted a word about this? Is this an access thing (in that reporters are afraid to lose access to LeBron?) Is it a Jewish thing? If the answer is because we’re all finally learning that it’s OK to not always pounce on people for mistakes then I’m cool with that. But I don’t suspect that’s the case here.
Here’s the history and context that LeBron (and, given my Twitter mentions and some quick scans of social media, many others) are clearly unaware of. By linking Jews to money, LeBron was perpetuating a stereotype that has literally caused the murder of millions of Jews. This is not the space for a full lesson on the history of anti-Semitism, so let’s just summarize it by saying that the belief that Jews controlled the world’s money was, and is, often at the root of that hate. Put another way: Six millions Jews weren’t murdered during the Holocaust solely because Hitler and his acolytes disliked Jews; they were targeted because Hitler and his followers believed Jews to be dangerous and in need of extermination, and the view that Jews are greedy and conniving and able to control banks and financial institutions was a major reason why.
That form of Anti-Semitism hasn’t dissipated in the years since. The Holocaust might be in the past, but the root of what led to it still lives. Have you heard the way the alt-right described George Soros? Or the chanting in Charlottesville? Or seen some of Donald Trump’s favorite memes?
I don’t expect LeBron James to know all this. Why would he be well versed in the history of Anti-Semitism?* Again, this all started with a rap lyric and not an original quote, and it’s not like 21 Savage is the only rapper to recently make a reference to Jews and money. Jay-Z did the same thing on his most recent album.
*To that point, we could go much deeper on the relationship and history between African Americans and Jews and how each perceives the other, but that’s a much larger conversation—one covered a bit by the great Adam Serwer last year—for a different time, and a macro conversation. I’m trying to keep this in the micro.
So I understand how LeBron—who understands that everything he does and says is considered “news”—could post that lyric and not have any idea that doing so would be feeding into a dangerous anti-Semitic trope. That’s fine, and what education is for—if you’re willing to be educated. LeBron, however, seems unwilling to acknowledge that he’s in need of one.
This would be problematic for most public figures. Take someone like LeBron and it becomes even more troublesome. LeBron, after all, has spent the past few years constructing a platform for himself that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the world of sports. He’s spoken out an all sorts manners of non-sports matters, and even hosts a talk show on HBO where social commentary is the primary focus. He’s made it clear that he wants to be considered an authority on social issues, and I believe he deserves to be commended for this. But you can’t pick and choose when your words matter and when they don’t. LeBron has grown to the point where he now carries a voice that has the ability to shape minds throughout the world. He possesses a power that few do. But that power comes with a responsibility. I don’t think I’m asking too much when I say that this responsibility includes not promoting, and then defending, the use of thousand-year-old Anti-Semitic tropes.