'Incidents like this encourage loud, ignorant people'

In antisemitism discourse around Jamie Foxx’s ‘Jesus’ post, evidence of culture clash

The star quickly apologized for a social media post many saw as antisemitic, but does the conversation about it reflect a larger disconnect between Black and Jewish communities?

Jamie Foxx speaks to a large crowd during a 'kneel-in' to protest police racism on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, June 1, 2020. (AP/Eric Risberg)
Jamie Foxx speaks to a large crowd during a 'kneel-in' to protest police racism on the steps of City Hall in San Francisco, June 1, 2020. (AP/Eric Risberg)

JTA — When Shawn Harris saw that Jamie Foxx had written “They killed this dude name Jesus… What do you think they’ll do to you???!” on Instagram on Saturday, she thought, “Let’s see what happens next.”

Harris, a Black Jewish artist and educator in Virginia, weighed the possibility that the Oscar-winning actor was echoing the age-old antisemitic charge that the Jews killed Jesus. But she also considered that, in this case, “they” did not refer to Jews.

So when Foxx deleted the post and clarified his statement in an apologetic post on Sunday, Harris felt reassured. Foxx wrote, “I want to apologize to the Jewish community and everyone who was offended by my post,” explaining that he was “betrayed by a fake friend and that’s what I meant with ‘they’ not anything more.”

But if Harris wasn’t upset with Foxx, she was troubled by the social media conversation surrounding his posts. Multiple antisemitism watchdogs criticized Foxx for the post, implying despite his clarification that his initial post was antisemitic. Other users on the network formerly known as Twitter denied that the post suggested anything antisemitic. Still others posted explicitly antisemitic comments in response to the debate.

“What was distressing to me was the conversation happening around it,” Harris said. “As often happens, the initial incident is a relatively minor thing, and it gets blown out of proportion by a whole bunch of people, and it encourages loud, ignorant people to come out of the woodwork.”

She added, “To me it looked like a basic kind of culture clash that was taken in all kinds of directions by people adding their two cents about it and not really listening to the substance.”

Foxx’s posts, and the responses to them, showcase the delicate nature of adjudicating accusations of bigotry in real time. The posts also resurface questions that have circulated as both antisemitism and social media have become increasingly prominent in American public life.

When should audiences read prejudice into ostensibly anodyne statements? How should advocates react when they detect signals of hate? How should the public judge apologies against the statements they have come to apologize for? How much does context matter — and which context counts?

“Either way you slice it, this is a perfect storm of cultural competency failures in multiple directions,” Rabbi Shais Rishon, a Black Jewish writer who goes by the name MaNishtana, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. In a subsequent tweet, he wrote, “Multiple things can be true at the same time… Multiple things can be wrong at the same time.”

Shais Rishon, aka MaNishtana, a Black Jewish writer and rapper, fears racial tensions in America. (Courtesy of MaNishtana)

In the immediate aftermath of Foxx’s posts, multiple Jewish groups called him out. StopAntisemitism, a watchdog with 72,000 Twitter followers, posted a screenshot of the “Jesus” post and wrote, “Did Kanye hack Jamie Foxx’s Instagram account?” That was a reference to the rapper and fashion mogul formerly known as Kanye West, who went on an antisemitic tirade last year.

After Foxx apologized, StopAntisemitism tweeted, “Words matter. And those with massive audiences on social media have a responsibility to be careful with their content to not incite more hatred than already exists.”

On Saturday, the American Jewish Committee released a statement referencing the initial post and the apology. It praised Foxx’s apology — and conveyed that the “Jesus” post was antisemitic, regardless of his intent.

“The deicide charge, falsely implicating Jews in Jesus’ death, has fueled antisemitic hatred for centuries,” the statement said. “Jamie Foxx did the right thing by apologizing for this statement. It is important for everyone, including Foxx’s millions of followers, to know why his post was harmful.”

The condemnation spread beyond Jewish activists. The actress Jennifer Aniston, who had initially liked Foxx’s first post, wrote on Instagram: “This really makes me sick” and “I do NOT support any form of antisemitism.”

Several Twitter users wrote that what Foxx had initially posted was a phrase understood among many Black Americans to refer to betrayal among friends, rather than to an antisemitic dog whistle. Yvette Nicole Brown, the actor and comedian known for her roles on the TV show “Community” and a range of other shows and films, tweeted that Aniston “owes Jamie an apology.”

“The phrase ‘They killed Jesus, what you think you got coming?’ Has been a phrase in Black churches & homes FOREVER,” Brown tweeted on Monday. “It has ALWAYS been about #FakeFriends. It is NEVER said as a dig against Jewish people. NEVER!”

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, tweeted on Saturday, “We welcome @iamjamiefoxx’s apology and thank him for his clarification.” The group also wished him health following a recent hospitalization. Greenblatt tweeted on Sunday that he had spoken to Foxx and that Foxx confirmed “privately what he also said publicly. His message of love for the Jewish community is crucial in this time of rising hate.”

The groups that criticized Foxx have stood by their statements. In an email to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a spokesperson for the American Jewish Committee wrote that the group’s reaction was warranted because Foxx’s post could have been read as antisemitic regardless of what he meant.

“It is important to continue to educate and explain why something may be interpreted as antisemitic,” the spokesperson wrote. “Foxx has 16.7 million followers; we do not know how they will interpret and internalize the comment, so it is imperative to call out statements that can be antisemitic.”

Liora Rez, StopAntisemitism’s executive director, told JTA that while the group appreciated Foxx’s apology, antisemitism “must be called out each and every time no matter who it is from.” She added, “Words matter and it’s important for Jews to be able to define and identify what we consider to be antisemitism.”

The discourse around Foxx’s posts did lead to explicit antisemitism. Some of the more than 150 people who shared StopAntisemitism’s post included their own antisemitic statements. One wrote that Jews find the deicide charge offensive “because the Jews know better than anyone who killed Jesus.” Another, whose account supports West’s supposed 2024 presidential campaign, wrote: “They spread more hate than anyone that they complain about.”

Antisemites hang a banner over a Los Angeles freeway declaring ‘Kanye is right about the Jews’ next to another advertising the Goyim Defense League’s Goyim TV website. (Oren Segal, via Twitter/used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Harris said one possible takeaway from the discourse — the idea that Foxx had intentionally said something antisemitic — did not sit well with her, especially as some critics seemed to liken Foxx to other Black public figures who have been accused of bigotry toward Jews.

“It was a bunch of people trying to make Jamie Foxx the latest Black face of antisemitism, which got on my nerves because Jamie Foxx is not advocating hatred of Jewish people or giving people who hate Jewish people a platform,” she said. At the same time, she added, “Some people did kind of get very dismissive of the concerns about antisemitism.”

MaNishtana wrote that one way to lessen misunderstandings of this kind is to seek out the perspectives of African-American and Caribbean Jews, “Because we live in BOTH worlds and speak BOTH languages, and we’re CONSTANTLY watching our worlds talk past each other.”

The upshot of the incident, Harris said, is that Foxx apologized exactly how she would have wanted him to. “He did exactly what we wish everyone did in that situation,” she said, “which is [say] like, ‘OK, I get it now, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.’”

The lesson, she said, is “Listen a little better, be a little more sensitive.”

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