Cardi B performing in Atlanta in June 2023. (Photo/JTA-Paras Griffin-Getty Images)
Cardi B performing in Atlanta in June 2023. (Photo/JTA-Paras Griffin-Getty Images)

Cardi B’s celebratory post did a lot of work with one word and two Jews

The platform formerly known as Twitter provides endless fodder for fresh outrage. One day last week, the most recent batch was tossed at famously wild rapper Cardi B.

She took to X on Aug. 3 to celebrate a minor legal triumph — no charges were filed against her following a July 29 incident when she threw her microphone at a concertgoer in Las Vegas. Her post, since deleted, read: “Remember …..” above a photo of two unidentified Hasidic men walking on a street. The apparent implication was that Cardi B owed at least part of her legal success to her skilled Jewish lawyer.

From among the rapper’s more than 31 million followers came plenty of responses from concerned Jews and others about the problematic nature of using that image. Other responses were simply a series of “laugh-cry” emojis or other affirmations of the “truth” of her post.

But the questions that the post raised go well beyond this singular instance and whether it was a harmless or harmful joke.

To begin, it’s important to understand the well-worn trope in hip-hop culture about getting into legal trouble and calling up your Jewish lawyer.

This includes the lyric from Cardi B’s 2018 song “Bickenhead”: “Lawyer is a Jew, he gon’ chew up all the charges / Don’t matter if you f— with me, I get money regardless.”

I wonder if Cardi B had posted a clip of one of those older rap songs or referenced her own lyric about calling up a Jewish lawyer that there would have been less outcry.

This “positive stereotype” that Jews have great legal minds can be read as a compliment. It also builds on positive myths around friendships between Black Americans and white Jewish Americans in ways that create (imagined) camaraderie. Like all stereotypes, though, there is a nasty underbelly. In this case, it’s that Jews are dangerously tricky or clever.

Millions could decipher Cardi B’s joke because almost everyone knows what the men in the picture are supposed to indicate — that is to say, Jews.

Both of these interpretations can be true at once and are captured in Cardi B’s post.

However, the central issue in this instance is that she used an image of anonymous Hasidic Jews to reference the “I’ve got a Jewish lawyer” trope. My book, “Silver Screen, Hasidic Jews: The Story of an Image,” explores precisely how and why this kind of imagery came to signify all Jews, especially when these particular men represent a demographically tiny group with immense internal diversity.

It’s a long story that begins with secularizing Jews mocking Hasidim onstage in the 19th century.

While those early Jewish critiques were about internal Jewish battles around religion and secularity, the image Cardi B chose can also be understood as dangerous for the ways it erases the individuality of the actual men in the photo and erases the multiplicity of experiences and “looks” of most Jews in the world, not to mention the ways it leaves women entirely out of the conversation. The post is also problematic because there has been an uptick in violence against Hasidim, and reductive imagery like that can contribute, however indirectly, to the violence.

It’s notable that millions could decipher Cardi B’s “joke” because almost everyone knows what the men in the picture are supposed to indicate — that is to say, Jews. I strongly suspect that in making her joke, Cardi B did a Google image search for “Jews” and landed on this photo. A reverse Google image search finds this same photo featured prominently on the Wikipedia entry for “Jewish religious clothing.”

This indicates that the reductive (and yes, potentially dangerous) nature of her post is not about some deeply antisemitic attitudes held by Cardi B. There’s no evidence of that here. Instead it’s about how pervasive such imagery is in conveying the idea “Jew.” If Jews and others wish to expand the idea of what a Jew can look like, we are up against powerful algorithms, themselves a reflection of more than 150 years of such images circulating.

With the rise of artificial intelligence, this will only become more widespread. Just type “Jew” into an AI image creator and see what happens. This may not be a battle we can win, but it is constructive to understand what’s going on and what it means.

It’s constructive, too, to leave Cardi B and her gaffe alone. She did delete the post after all, and Jews are not the only ethnic group subject to potentially dangerous, reductive imagery.

Our responsibility is not to attack a Black rapper for this any more than we should attack Google for its image search results. Instead, we should celebrate representations of Jews that challenge these reductive ideas about who we are and what we look like.

Shaina Hammerman
Shaina Hammerman

Shaina Hammerman is associate director of the Taube Center for Jewish Studies at Stanford University and author of “Silver Screen, Hasidic Jews: The Story of an Image.”