U.S. President Donald Trump’s name has become so synonymous with pro-Israel policy that it’s easy to forget the fact that he had never set foot in the country before he entered the White House.
The same can’t be said of surprise 2020 contender Kanye West, who announced in a tweet on Saturday that he would run for president as an independent challenging Trump – who he has loudly supported in the past – and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. If West is serious about his bid (and with a volatile and unpredictable figure like West, it is sometimes difficult to tell), he will have to hurry to meet the deadline for adding independent candidates to the ballot.
West has traveled to Israel twice in the past decade. Though he has never made any explicit pronouncements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on both occasions he shook off petitions from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and calls by pundits to stay away – one writer argued that as an artist “intensely concerned with racism and oppression,” West had a responsibility to “boycott Israel as long as the occupation continues.”
West’s first trip, in April 2015, was for the baptism of his eldest daughter, North. His reality star wife, Kim Kardashian, is of Armenian descent and initiated the visit so their then-22-month-old daughter could be baptized in the Cathedral of St. James, an Armenian church in Jerusalem’s Old City. Accompanied by Kardashian sister Khloe, the couple came to Jerusalem following a roots trip to Armenia and dined with the city’s mayor, Nir Barkat.
The visit was immortalized in the reality show “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” Multiple rumors flew ahead of the trip – that the Kardashians were planning to buy a multimillion dollar apartment in Tel Aviv, that they would tour the country extensively, that West would stage a surprise concert at the Tower of David Museum – but all proved false. The visit was short and limited to Christian sites in Jerusalem, but West promised to return to perform in Israel.
The couple chose not to baptize their three younger children in the same spot, opting instead for a joint ceremony in Armenia last year. It was shortly after that trip that West first openly toyed with the idea of running for president at the end of a rambling acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards.
But 2018, West made good on his promise to play a concert in Israel and brought Israelis what they really wanted – his music – performing at Ramat Gan Stadium in September in front of 25,000 excited local fans.
When he did, however, local critics were disappointed, and his reviews were mixed, slamming “poor production” and “awful” sound, and grumbling that he couldn’t even muster a “‘Good evening, Tel Aviv’ or even just a simple ‘Shalom.’” Haaretz music critic Ben Shalev judged much of his performance to be “mediocre rap” that “lacked anything shocking, subversive or interesting.”
Before the Israel visits and presidential announcements, West got into hot water with the American Jewish community in 2013. During an interview with a New York radio station, he blamed U.S. President Barack Obama's shortcomings on the fact that he wasn’t as wealthy and connected as his predecessor George Bush because “Black people don't have the same level of connections as Jewish people.”
He later retracted the statement, calling it an “ignorant compliment.”
“I thought that I was giving a compliment, but it came off more ignorant,” West said. “When I said this comment about Jews having money, and Blacks not having money, I think it was, like, a ‘ignorant compliment.’” He added, “I don’t know how being told that you have money is, like, an insult.”
The original comments had raised the ire of the Anti-Defamation League, which associated West’s remarks with “the age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government.” The ADL urged West to apologize and “take responsibility” for his words, since “as a celebrity with a wide following, Kanye West should know better."
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan came to West’s defence over the statement.