Correction: An earlier version of this opinion piece stated that all Black Hebrew Israelites share a similar belief on Ashkenazi Jews. It’s inherently incorrect to label all members of any group as believing anything. The Chronicle regrets the error.
Here’s what everybody can agree on: Nick Cannon was fired from ViacomCBS after the June 30 episode of his podcast went viral.
“We have spoken with Nick Cannon about an episode of his podcast ‘Cannon’s Class’ on YouTube, which promoted hateful speech and spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories,” read a statement released to several media outlets. “While we support ongoing education and dialogue in the fight against bigotry, we are deeply troubled that Nick has failed to acknowledge or apologize for perpetuating anti-Semitism, and we are terminating our relationship with him.”
Cannon, 39, is an actor, comedian, rapper and host of “The Masked Singer” on the Fox TV Network. He was a host on “America’s Got Talent” for eight seasons. Until last month, he was also the host of VH1’s “Wild ‘N Out,” the sketch comedy and game show series he created for MTV in 2005. In 2019, he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminology from Howard University. He has nine-year-old twins with his ex-wife, Mariah Carey, and a three-year-old son with his current partner.
Cannon’s firing was all over social media in no time. I looked to see what, exactly, he’d said, and found a quote from the podcast, a 90-minute conversation with rapper Professor Griff, a former member of the rap group Public Enemy in a Variety story.
In addition to name-checking Louis Farrakhan and hitting all the dog-whistle high points about media control and banks, Cannon enlightened his audience about who was and wasn’t Jewish.
“It’s never hate speech, you can’t be antisemitic when we are the Semitic people,” Cannon said. “When we are the same people who they want to be. That’s our birthright. We are the true Hebrews.”
Heavy sigh. Giant eyeroll. The first time I heard this was 2013. An earnest young man, part of a newly-formed Black Hebrew Israelite group at Milwaukee Area Technical College was telling me that white people weren’t real Jews. We were actually Khazars from the Caucasus. I didn’t try to argue him out of it. I was too bewildered to figure out how to construct an argument that would make any sense.
Bewilderment gave way to outrage, then settled into anger. I was angry to my bones. I’ve always been Jewish. My father, great-grandfather and a bunch of great-uncles were rabbis and my grandfather was a cantor. How dare some guy who didn’t know an aleph from a bet (I know because I asked him) tell me who I wasn’t?
Researching Black Hebrew Israelites and their practices, I learned that some are straight-up hate groups; others toe a more moderate Black separatist line. Some believe white Jews are not really Jews.
Which bothered me. A lot. What bothered me even more was not understanding what about it bothered me so much. So I did a deep dive into my own head, working to unpack what was going on.
Part of it was that being a member of a minority group is part of my core identity. Part of it was that one of the things I value most about Judaism is its very inclusivity – that you don’t have to be born Jewish to become Jewish.
These people had turned that tenet on its head.
Not only had I not felt threatened by the notion of a bunch of Black Americans declaring themselves to be Jewish, I had been excited at the prospect of being able to engage with an enlarged community. I didn’t need to diminish or demean them to keep being who I had always been. In their view, though, claiming Jewish status necessitated erasing me. Which helped get me to the real “Aha!” moment: Uplifting yourself by erasing other people is oppression.
Fast-forward to 2020, and a significant moment for Blacks and Jews when it comes to oppression.
For 400 years, people who are Black in America have been enslaved. First literally, and then by more than a century of laws and practices designed to keep them from being able to live as freely as those of us who are white.
At Passover, Jews are instructed to tell the story of the Exodus as if we ourselves left Egypt. The Haggadah includes a passage from Genesis 15:13, in which Abram is told that “Your descendants will be strangers in a land that isn’t their own, and they will enslaved and oppressed for 400 years.”
For millennia, we have recounted the story of our freedom after 400 years of enslavement. If anyone ever had a special obligation help free a community that has suffered similarly, it’s us. And, to paraphrase Hillel, the time is now.
The question, then, is how to make that happen?
One answer, for white Jews, is disaggregating white privilege and Jewish identity. As Jews, we are unquestionably members of a vulnerable minority community, with all that entails. As white people though, our lives have been made easier by virtue of our skin color. It’s not something we asked for, and it’s not something we can change. What we can do is use that privilege to challenge the current reality, to listen without trying to minimize the rage and pain of Black Americans, and to support them as they lead this current movement for change.
What we don’t have to do is let anyone erase us or tell us who we are.
Which is why, when I started seeing some surprising things on a couple of Facebook feeds, I spoke up. Here’s part of what one friend wrote:
“We are definitely in the season of doing our own thing. I heard Nick Cannon and I do not feel he said anything anti-Semitic.”
Someone weighed in to agree with her:
“I read it and didn’t hear anything anti-Semitic, either! I actually read it twice because I was looking for something anti-Semitic cause that’s what he was accused of!!! I wanted to compare what he allegedly said, to what he actually said!!! And after reading it again, I was trippin’!!! I’m STILL trying to figure out what the hell he said!!!!”
My response was that “It felt anti-Semitic to me.”
My friend asked me to explain, and because I trust her, I did. Along with what I said above about the Black Hebrew Israelites, I added this:
“Blacks and Jews have a complicated history. We’re both marginalized in different ways, we’ve used each other to uplift ourselves at the others’ expense, and we’ve also supported each other. It seems to me that this is a time, for so many reasons, that we need to look at ourselves and see what we’ve done to make things worse and better for the other community, and to focus on ways to uplift each other and ourselves. Nick Cannon’s firing is a mistake because Cancel Culture is a really convenient way to erase what we don’t like without trying to address it in any kind of constructive way. Griff and Farrakhan, to my mind, are in a different league than Cannon. And I’ve encountered a local Black man on FB who told me to keep my Jew sorcery to myself when I tried to engage with him. There’s no way forward for someone willing to otherize me in that way, and since Amy’s Rule # 1 is “I am not a toilet,” (my other rule #1 is ‘You’re more organized than you think you are,’ but that’s another story for another day) I choose to focus my energies into more productive pursuits. The world is a mess and it would be good to try and make it better. This kind of stuff doesn’t do that. I know this is long. These are weighty issues deserving of more than sound bites. If anything I’ve written raises other questions or doesn’t make sense, please feel free to ask me to clarify anything I’ve said or elaborate further. Thanks for reading./rantover”
Wisconsinite Amy Waldman is a regular contributor to the Chronicle. Update: Nick Cannon has apologized and fasted for Tisha B’av after reading a Bari Weiss book on antisemitism.