Poway and Pittsburgh: the rise in murderous anti-Semitism, explained

Exactly six months apart, two different shooters went into American synagogues during services with an intent to kill Jews. The Pittsburgh shooting on October 27 claimed 11 lives, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. The Poway shooting on April 27 — the last day of Passover — claimed one, a woman named Lori Gilbert Kaye, who threw herself in front of the synagogue’s rabbi and saved his life.

Exactly six months apart, two different shooters went into American synagogues during services with an intent to kill Jews. The Pittsburgh shooting on October 27 claimed 11 lives, the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history. The Poway shooting on April 27 — the last day of Passover — claimed one, a woman named Lori Gilbert Kaye, who threw herself in front of the synagogue’s rabbi and saved his life.

The attackers in both cases had something in common beyond a hatred for Jews: They were motivated by a very specific kind of anti-Semitic ideology, one focused on a fictional Jewish plot to destroy America by encouraging mass nonwhite immigration. Like the marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia, who chanted “Jews will not replace us,” they believe that Jews are masterminding a plot to undermine white supremacy in America by bringing in literal boatloads of nonwhite migrants.

This particular brand of anti-Semitism is both old and new. It’s old in the sense that anti-Semites, including Adolf Hitler, have long cast nonwhite migration to Western countries as a Jewish plot against the white race. It’s new in the sense that it flourishes and spreads on the internet, encouraging violence in a terrifyingly unpredictable fashion.

It’s also “new” in the sense that it’s part of a broader rise in anti-Semitism in the United States since Donald Trump rose to power. Newly released data from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shows that 2017 and 2018 saw two of the highest numbers of anti-Semitic incidents in nearly 40 years of ADL data, an increase experts say is at least partially linked to Trump’s demonization of immigrants and famous Jews (like George Soros) who advocate on their behalf.

“We have a president who talks about ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’ and all sorts of other things about immigrants,” says Deborah Lipstadt, a historian of anti-Semitism at Emory University. “This stuff has been around for a long time … but now lots of the barriers are down, and now people feel like they can say it and they can do things.”

This is not to say that anti-Semitism is an exclusive province of the right. Left-wing anti-Semitism is a real thing, even in the United States. But the kind of anti-Semitism that’s inspired two mass casualty attacks on synagogues to date is, in fact, a principally right-wing phenomenon. It arises not out of Israel-Palestine grievances, as left-wing anti-Semitism often does, but rather from distinctively right-wing forms of xenophobia and racial grievances.

While both kinds of anti-Semitism need to be called out, it’s the right-wing variant that has actually taken lives. Yet in the wake of Poway, some conservatives have focused their critique on the left, a move that’s at once analytically inaccurate and morally misguided.

This new right-wing anti-Semitism poses a dangerous threat to the American Jewish community — one that has Jews like me more scared for our community than we have been in my lifetime. It’s high time to treat it like the threat it is.

What’s new, and what isn’t, about modern anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is ancient. Lipstadt dates its Western variant back to the foundation of Christianity, specifically the early church idea that Jews were responsible for Jesus’s murder. Over the course of time, it has taken on a variety of guises.

In 12th- and 13th-century England, Jews were blamed for several murders of young boys — an early version of the “blood libel,” the eventually common European theory that Jews kill young Christians and use their blood to make Passover matzo. The rise of scientific racism in the 19th and 20th centuries cemented the idea that Jews were a “race,” poisoning Western society by intermarrying with non-Jews and diluting their stock. “The cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew,” as infamous American scientific racist Madison Grant once wrote.

These two examples show how anti-Semitism tends to adapt to its time, mutating to fit whatever the prominent political controversies and fault lines are. Two of those major fault lines today are immigration and multiculturalism.

The man who attacked the Pittsburgh synagogue last October posted a short message on the far-right microblogging platform Gab explaining his motivation. He singled out the work of HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit that has recently focused on bringing in refugees from places like Syria and Afghanistan, as his motivation for attacking a synagogue.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he wrote. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”

The Poway shooter distributed a lengthy manifesto to the virulently anti-Semitic troll web forum 8chan with similar themes.

His diatribe is full of anti-Semitic grievance, with a surprisingly large number of references to classically Christian versions of anti-Semitism like collective Jewish responsibility for the murder of Jesus. But in the sections where he explains why he decided to target a synagogue specifically, he focuses on the same core idea as the Pittsburgh shooter, whom he repeatedly praises in the manifesto: the notion of Jews using nonwhites as weapons in their war on whites.

“Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race. They act as a unit, and every Jew plays his part to enslave the other races around him — whether consciously or subconsciously,” the Poway shooter writes. “[Latinos] and [blacks] are useful puppets for the Jew in terms of replacing Whites.”

This particular variant on the Jewish puppet master trope is not novel. Hitler saw interwar African migration to France as a Jewish plot against whites. Some Southern segregationists, believing blacks too intellectually limited to lead the civil rights movement, posited Jews as its true masterminds.

But the fact of mass nonwhite immigration to the West, which intensified significantly after World War II, has turned fears of so-called “white genocide” into the No. 1 concern of far-right political movements. Today’s fringe right is obsessed with the idea that whites are being destroyed by demography — that white countries are being “colonized” by the force of nonwhite breeding and immigration.

“The term ‘white genocide,’” my colleague Jane Coaston notes, “is the single most popular hashtag used by white nationalists on Twitter.”

So anti-Semitism, long a central part of the fringe right, adapted to fit this particular obsession with immigration and demographics. Modern right-wing anti-Semitism takes the ideas of Hitler and the segregationists and uses them as a kind of master explanation for why Western political systems are allowing “white genocide” to take place. You see propaganda to this effect in cesspools like the Daily Stormer and 8chan; it’s the reason the Charlottesville white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us!” as they marched with tiki torches.

And now it has inspired two different men to shoot up synagogues.

Modern anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and Trump

Poway and Pittsburgh: the rise in murderous anti-Semitism, explained Pete Marovich/Getty Images

It feels like a cliché to say that all hate is linked, that all minority groups are victims when any of them is attacked. Yet a direct implication of the above analysis of anti-Semitism is that it’s true: Hate directed at other minority groups stokes anti-Semitism.

When white nationalists agitate against African Americans, they blame Jews for advocating for civil rights. When white nationalists fret about Latino and Muslim migration leading to “white genocide,” they blame Jews for keeping the immigration system relatively open in the first place. When any minority group is demonized by the far right, it always seems to somehow ensnare Jews.

You see this very explicitly in the Poway shooter’s manifesto. He repeatedly cites the Christchurch shooter, a man who killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, as his inspiration. The New Zealand killer was also an 8chan denizen preoccupied by the notion of “white genocide,” and the Poway shooter saw attacks on mosques and synagogues as two sides of the same coin. He even claims to have set fire to a mosque in Escondido before attacking Poway’s Chabad synagogue, a crime with which police have just charged him.

The Christchurch shooter “was a catalyst for me personally,” he writes. “He showed me that it could be done.”

What this shows is that a political climate of generalized demonization of minorities ends up becoming one in which Jews become targets. The more angry people are about nonwhite immigrants, the more recruits the anti-Semitic fringe right gets — and the more of a threat they pose to Jews as a result.

Which brings us to President Donald Trump.

There is no doubt that the alt-right surged in popularity when Trump entered the race for the presidency — and then won. His demonization of Mexicans as rapists, his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the country, and his use of language like “shithole countries” and “invasion” to demonize immigrants mainstreamed alt-right ideas. He retweeted outright white nationalist accounts (one of which was called “White GenocideTM”) and broadcast alt-right memes (like one with Hillary Clinton’s face next to a Jewish star).

Around the same time as Trump’s rise, the ADL data shows the number of anti-Semitic incidents begin to rise again after declining and leveling off in previous years:

Poway and Pittsburgh: the rise in murderous anti-Semitism, explained Anti-Defamation League

The jump from 2016 to 2017 was, per the ADL, the largest single-year increase in the number of anti-Semitic incidents in its 40 years of collecting data. The report doesn’t break down incidents by ideology of the perpetrator, but a separate ADL research paper found that 49 of the 50 extremist murders in 2018 were committed by far-right extremists (rather than, for example, far-leftists or jihadists).

It also so happens that the surge in anti-Semitism began as Trump’s fortunes rose politically — and it’s very hard not to conclude that there’s at least some connection there. This is certainly the sense of what’s happening in the Jewish community: A staggering 81 percent of American Jews describe themselves as becoming “more concerned” about anti-Semitism in the US since Trump took office, per a 2018 GBA Strategy poll conducted for the left-leaning Jewish group J Street.

Now, it would be a mistake to blame Trump personally for any particular attack on Jews. The Poway shooter, for example, explicitly disparages Trump as “Zionist, Jew-loving, [and] anti-White.” The synagogue shooters weren’t immediately been inspired to violence by a Trump rally.

It’s better, instead, to think of the relationship between the Trump presidency and anti-Semitic violence as something like the one between global warming and extreme weather events. We know that by transforming the underlying nature of our weather patterns, climate change makes catastrophes like hurricanes more likely in general. But blaming any particular hurricane on climate change is impossible, because you can’t really know whether or not the storm would have happened absent the underlying systemic change.

Similarly, Trump has changed the underlying conditions of American politics. He has made virulent anti-immigrant sentiment more popular, attracted the support of far-right online political movements, and refused to credibly disavow these groups. Just days before the Poway shooting, he was still defending his “very fine people” comment about the Charlottesville “Jews will not replace us” marchers.

These are conditions under which people are in general more likely to be attracted to the fringe right, and thus introduced to anti-Semitic ideas about who’s responsible for “white genocide.” Even if particular attacks can’t be blamed on Trump, the overall system under him is one in which Jews are far less safe than we used to be.

“I think he’s an anti-Semitic enabler,” Lipstadt says. “He’s very careful not to criticize his followers. … He’ll enable anything that’s going to get him elected or get him support.”

Anti-Semitism, from left to right

None of this is to say that anti-Semitism is an exclusively right-wing problem.

On the left today, there’s a serious problem with a slippage between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Legitimate criticism of the Israeli government’s policy and character too often crosses the line into attacks on Jewish supporters of Israel, and even Jews in general.

The British Labour Party, taken over by its left flank in 2015, has become a redoubt of such leftist anti-Semitism. Dozens of Labour elected officials, candidates, and party members have been caught giving voice to anti-Semitic comments. One municipal Labour official called Hitler “the greatest man in history” and added that “it’s disgusting how much power the Jews have in the US.” Another Labour candidate for office said “it’s the super rich families of the Zionist lobby that control the world.”

The party received 673 complaints about anti-Semitism between April 2018 and January 2019 alone, an average of more than two complaints per day. Ninety-six Labour members were suspended for anti-Semitism during that time period, and 12 were outright expelled.

In the United States, this is far less of a problem.

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has said some things about Israel that have worrying resonances with anti-Semitic stereotypes. She has blamed pro-Israel groups for “allegiance to a foreign country” and claimed that money coming from such lobbying groups is responsible for America’s support for Israel.

It’s not great stuff, and it can and should be called out when it crosses the line lest the American left degenerate to the level of its British peers. Yet in the United States, there is no credible evidence that the left is fueling the rise in anti-Semitic violence in the same way as the right is. A Somali immigrant like Omar is not stoking the kind of hate about migrants that fuels the “white genocide” conspiracy theory. She’s the kind of person the alt-right would like to see eliminated.

And yet the reaction to Poway from some mainstream conservatives like Meghan McCain and Sen. Ted Cruz has been to bring up Omar, as if there’s some kind of relationship between her comments and the attack. Pundit Ben Shapiro grotesquely suggested that Omar has “a lot of the same opinions about Jews that the white supremacist had in that manifesto.”

One of the problems with anti-Semitism is that it’s pan-ideological, with examples of it cropping up on both sides of the political aisle. That makes it really easy to focus on the one coming from your opponents — everyone can talk about the anti-Semitism that’s politically convenient while ignoring the one that isn’t. It was a bad look when some Democrats and leftists did it after Omar’s comments; it’s a bad look now that conservatives and Trump supporters are doing it after Poway.

But the very comparison between those two things shows that the problem truly is worse on the right than it is on the left, at least in the United States.

The deadly anti-Semitic violence in America is coming from one side, with real and demonstrable connections to the way the leader of the Republican Party talks and thinks. Though the Poway shooter may have disavowed Trump, the alt-right in general loves him. They think they have a friend in the White House, and their online rhetoric reflects that. It’s not deflection to say that this is much, much scarier than Omar’s poorly phrased comments about the pro-Israel lobby. You can believe that Omar’s comments were bad, that they could help normalize certain anti-Semitic stereotypes, and that the anti-Semitism from the right, steeped in white supremacy, is the real threat to Jewish lives.

This is a truly scary time for American Jews. A 2018 American Jewish Council survey found that a majority of Jews feel “less secure” in the United States than they did one year ago. I certainly fall into that group.

America, a country that so many Jews have seen as a safe haven from European anti-Semitism, has now seen two synagogue shootings in six months — alongside a significant surge in anti-Semitic harassment and assault. The recent march of white nationalism has fundamentally destabilized Jewish life in this country, making us wonder whether this place really is as different as we’d like to think. It’s a fear that could very well outlast Trump’s presidency.

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