Recently I had a debate with the editor of RapReviews.com over whether Jean Grae’s use of the term “Hebe” (“Hebes call me Meshugenah”) in her feature on Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows was anti-Semitic. I, first, adamantly advocated that it was. Afterall, “Hebe” has a derogatory connotation, at least according to the dictionary and my understanding of the term as an American Jew. But, in the end, I realized I was wrong. I brought up the debate to my parents. My dad thinks everything is anti-Semitic. But even he did not take offense. He reasoned that Jean used “Hebe” in the context of a Yiddish pun which, if anything, shows affection, not distaste, for Jews. So fair enough. I stand corrected.
In the course of our debate, we also discussed other references to Jewish people in hip-hop and whether those references are offensive. We spoke, for example, about Jadakiss bragging that he “Stacks chips like Hebrews,” on then-Puffy’s hit, “All About the Benjamins.” This line may not jump off the page as anti-Jewish. Afterall, it is saying that Jews are rich, which, presumably, is a good thing.
Once one places this stereotype in historical context, however, the anti-Semitic connotation of this similie should be beyond controversey. The stereotype that Jews are rich has a deep and troubling history. It echoes back to the Chronicles of the Elders of Zion which purported to expose a vast Jewish conspiracy in which Jews secretly monopolized the world’s wealth. Tellingly, even in modern America, anti-Semitism increases during hard times, as people are prone to blame Jews for society’s economic woes. Indeed, in a recent Stanford study, one quarter of those surveyed faulted Jews for the on-going recession.
Plus, “positive” stereotypes are seldom actually positive. Calling black folks “athletic” is a thinly veiled code for calling them animalistic, at least historically speaking (check out the recently exposed Nixon tapes for a good example of that). We all know what it means to call the Irish “good natured.” People who refer to Jews as “rich” don’t mean they’re hard-working and frugal, they mean they’re greedy and ambitious.
“Positive” stereotypes, moreoever, place a strange pressure on those being stereotyped. Jews who are poor have the hardship, not only of poverty, but also of failing to conform to society’s expectations. Those who make the “what’s wrong with positive stereotypes?” argument employ reverse logic and assume that the stereotype somehow helps the stereotyped, as if people thinking Jews are rich makes Jews richer. Instead, the stereotype simply leaves the stereotyped group with external standards of ambiguous connotation to grapple with. That’s not a great position for anyone to be in.
And all of this brings me back to the same unfortunately conclusion. As I have written about in my last two editorials, we as a society are far too willing to extend rappers a get-out-of-bigotry-jail-free card where we would not extend the same to other entertainers. Apparently rappers are allowed to call people “faggots” because “faggot” is just an insult. Apparently rappers are allowed to call Jews rich because being rich is a good thing. Rappers aren’t being bigoted, the argument goes, they’re just being mean. Or they’re just being nice. Whatever allows us to go on praising our heroes.