Sports stars are more than just athletes. Despite what NBA star Charles Barkley proclaimed in a commercial years ago, players are indeed role models. People listen to what they say, and are inspired by their actions. That is why many were disturbed when LeBron James posted a story on Instagram quoting a song lyric: “We been getting that Jewish money, Everything is Kosher.”
James later apologized for sharing the anti-Semitic lyrics, and the NBA will not punish him for it because it was deemed an honest mistake. In fact, the rapper who wrote the song, 21 Savage, seems not to have understood the harm the words would cause. In the apology he posted on Twitter he wrote: “The Jewish people I know are very wise with there [sic] money so that’s why I said we been gettin Jewish money I never thought anyone would take offense I’m sorry if I offended everybody never my intention I love all people[.]”
If you are surprised that someone connecting money to Jews doesn’t realize this is an anti-Semitic trope with centuries of history behind it, then perhaps you have not ventured into other cultural contexts. When I visited China almost 25 years ago, one of the people I met was happy to tell me that the Chinese admired Jews for how successful they are at making money.
I was uncomfortable with that conversation in China because it represented the use of a stereotype of Jews, but with a positive spin. It just so happened that this person, like 21 Savage and perhaps LeBron James, happened to think this supposed characteristic of Jews is good, while in fact all stereotypes are bad because they reduce something complex into something simple. While the Jewish people have been very successful over the years, the reality is that Jews, like all ethnic groups, have wealthy, poor and middle class people.
Some are clearly unaware that Western culture has tied Jews to money in order denigrate us. Saying that Jews have all the wealth and power is a way to categorize our people as the enemy, that we are using these levers of control to keep everyone down and destroy the “true” Germans in the case of Nazi propaganda or the “true” Americans in the case of modern neo-Nazis.
LeBron James has not faced a major negative reaction to his Instagram post because he has accumulated a lot of goodwill for his positive efforts on and off the court. It is possible, even in 2018, to make a mistake, but this incident should remind us that fighting anti-Semitism requires constant effort. It should not be taken as a given that everyone understands our history. In fact, we should assume any non-Jews we meet require some education on our part.