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The Kyrie Irving Affair

Shortly after the billionaire rapper Kanye West was exposed as an ignorant, boorish and unrepentant antisemite, forcing the sportswear behemoth Adidas to cancel his lucrative contract, another African American celebrity crashed and burned.

Late last month, a day after Brooklyn Nets’ basketball star Kyrie Irving tweeted a link to Ronald Dalton’s film, Hebrew to Negroes: Wake Up Black America and then posted an Instagram screenshot of its rental page on Amazon, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece on its antisemitic content.

It caught the attention of the mass media and created an immense ripple effect which has proven to be detrimental to Irving, a recent convert to Islam.

In quick succession, the Nets suspended him, he offered a bribe and a belated apology, and Nike hit him in the pocket book by suspending its business relationship with him.

Unsettling and disturbing in every conceivable respect, the sordid Irving affair speaks to a fairly new phenomenon: Why are some African American celebrities so susceptible to the world’s oldest hatred?

For decades, particularly during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights era, African Americans had no better ally in the white community than Jews. To be sure, there were tensions between Jews and black people, but in general, Jews supported the democratic agenda of the civil rights movement. Having been the victims of oppression and discrimination themselves, Jews could empathize with its legitimate objectives.

To this day, the majority of Jewish Americans support liberal social and political causes beneficial to all minorities, including African Americans.

Nonetheless, the poison of antisemitism has seeped into the mindset and body politics of some influential African Americans. This has occurred at a fraught moment when openly-expressed antisemitism is on the ascendancy in the United States.

Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, is concerned by this trend. Speaking at a rally in Pittsburgh on November 7, he said, “Whether it’s out of malice or ignorance, we’ve seen recently big celebrities reposting vile antisemitic conspiracy theories online. You don’t have to be a student of history to understand how dangerous that is, and how unacceptable it is.”

Yet African American leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and organizations like Black Lives Matter have remained deafeningly and conspicuously silent so far and have not called out Irving.

It’s unclear why Irving chose to embark on this malignant and self-destructive path, but his proclivity for the unconventional may, in part, explain his abhorrent behavior. He has suggested that the earth could be flat. And as the coronavirus pandemic claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans, he flatly refused to be vaccinated.

Irving’s troubles began on October 27, when he promoted Hebrew to Negroes, a 2018 propaganda film based on Dalton’s book series, to his 4.6 million Twitter followers.

The three-hour movie, a tissue of lies and calumnies, claims that the “Black Hebrew Israelites” are the real descendants of the biblical Israelites, and that modern Jews are imposters who expropriated the heritage and identity of Black Hebrew Israelites.

Among other false accusations, Dalton claims that Jews have oppressed and defrauded black people, that Jewish merchants were heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, that Jews falsified the history of the Holocaust, and that Jews control the media.

Naturally, he cites passages from two notorious antisemitic tracts — The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a czarist tract proven to be a forgery, and Henry Ford’s The International Jew.

Within a day of posting his implicit endorsement of Hebrew to Negroes, Irving’s employer, Joe Tsai, voiced disappointment that he had supported “a film … full of antisemitic disinformation” and declared that the promotion of hate is wrong.

The following day, the National Basketball Association condemned hate speech, but did not mention Irving.

Irving remained stubbornly defiant, claiming that “history is not supposed to be hidden from anybody.” As he put it, “I’m not going to stand down on anything I believe in. I’m only going to get stronger because I’m not alone.”

On November 2, Irving tried to buy his way out of his predicament, offering to donate $500,000 to anti-hate organizations. And in a half-hearted, unconvincing retreat, he said, “I do not believe everything said in the documentary was true or reflects my morals and principles.”

The next day, NBA commissioner Adam Silver rightly condemned Irving’s “reckless decision to post a link to a film containing deeply offensive antisemitic material.”

Stunned by Silver’s rebuke, Irving said, “I didn’t mean to cause any harm. I’m not the one that made the documentary.” Shedding crocodile tears, Irving acknowledged that “some points” in the film were “unfortunate.”

Asked whether he was antisemitic, he cryptically replied, “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.”

At this juncture, with Irving steadfastly refusing to issue an unqualified apology, the Nets suspended him for five games, explaining he was “unfit to be associated” with the team.

In the wake of his suspension, Irving finally apologized. “I am deeply sorry to have caused you pain,” he wrote in an Instagram post, saying he had “no intention to disrespect any Jewish cultural history regarding the Holocaust, or perpetuate any hate.”

Irving’s coerced apology did not impress Nike, which has sold his overpriced signature brand of sneakers for the past eight years. On November 4, Nike announced it would not launch his next line of sneakers: “At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech, and we condemn any form of antisemitism.”

Nike acted in the spirit of decency and smart entrepreneurship in cutting loose Irving, who must explain what impelled him to endorse a movie that shamelessly defames Jews and overtly disseminates antisemitic myths and tropes.

Irving owes everyone, including his fans and corporate sponsors, a clear explanation of his descent into bigotry. Unless he fesses up and unequivocally condemns this misbegotten film, his suspension should not be lifted.

In-your-face antisemites like Irving should not be permitted to play professional basketball and earn tons of money while doing so.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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