Resisting the Tide of Bigotry

American Jews are left divided and looking for new directions as Donald Trump embraces the white supremacism of the alt-right and the Zionism of Benjamin Netanyahu

Rabbi Chuck Diamond, formerly of the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, leads a vigil outside the building where 11 people lost their lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., November 3, 2018. Alan Freed/Reuters

We are, as a species, a distractible lot—especially at a time of seemingly endless diversions, news events large and small, and discord that stretches across the globe, from Hong Kong to Venezuela to Belarus. Yet, there are trends that deserve our focus, and the deaths of at least eighty-five people over the last two years at the hands of gunmen driven by white supremacist hatred cannot be ignored.

On October 27, 2018, a gunman shouting “All Jews must die” stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States and slaughtered eleven congregants as they gathered to pray. Not five months later, on March 15, 2019, another gunman posted a white supremacist manifesto online referring to the slaughter in Pittsburgh, then live-streamed a rampage through Christchurch, New Zealand, where he slew fifty-one Muslims at two different mosques. A month later, at a Chabad synagogue in Southern California, a white supremacist killed one worshipper and wounded three others, including the rabbi, after posting another manifesto that praised the killers in Christchurch and Pittsburgh.

On August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old man posted his own white supremacist manifesto, then drove more than one thousand kilometers to El Paso, Texas and opened fire in a Walmart retail store, intending to repel what he saw as a “Hispanic invasion”. When the rampage ended, twenty-two were dead, victims of an ideology that appears to be spreading wherever white people proclaim that they are being “replaced” by black and brown-skinned people. 

The response to the El Paso slaughter on 8chan, an online free-for-all chat board frequented by white supremacists, was instructive. “Contrary to popular belief, we do not hate spics, n**gers, or even arabs (sic), and near enough without exception are happy to have them live IN THEIR OWN LANDS,” wrote one poster minutes after the shooting. “The only issue is them coming to our lands, but we do not BLAME THEM for that. We BLAME THE JEWS.”

Those mass shootings—plus another deadly December shootout at a Kosher grocery store in Jersey City, New Jersey that took three more lives; a Hanukkah stabbing in Monsey, New York, that same month; and the deaths of nine more at the hands of a white supremacist in Hanau, Germany, in February—are only the ones we are aware of. Smaller, less-visible episodes have surely taken place without receiving as much attention. Mass shootings at schools in Florida and Texas were less directly connected to white supremacist ideology, but the gunmen involved appear to at least have been exposed to “theories” variably known as “White Genocide” or “The Great Replacement”, the notion that a tide of black and brown people is rising to eradicate the white race at the behest and orchestration of the evil genius Ashkenazi Jew. 

These murders are only the ones that came to fruition. The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish-led American civil rights organization dedicated to combating bigotry, recently wrote that at least twelve white supremacists had been arrested in the United States in the year after the Pittsburgh attack on allegations that they were plotting or threatening anti-Semitic attacks. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) both affirmed this fall that white supremacist extremism is the biggest domestic threat that the world’s remaining superpower faces.

Some of the plots that have been foiled could have been horrific. When Christopher Hasson, a self-proclaimed white supremacist and U.S. Coast Guard officer, was arrested in February 2019, he had amassed an enormous arsenal of shotguns; handguns; semiautomatic, military-style assault rifles; ammunition; and a “kill list” that included some of the most prominent leaders of the United States’ Democratic Party. “We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost,” Hasson wrote in his own manifesto, inspired by other white supremacist killers—especially the deadliest of them all, Anders Breivik, who murdered seventy-seven people in Norway in 2011.

The ideological web that connects Breivik to all the killers who followed him is spreading through dedicated white supremacist websites like The Daily Stormer, unregulated online chat sites like 4chan and 8chan, and allegedly “well-regulated” social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, where racist and anti-Semitic content is supposed to be banned, but white supremacists gamely evade the content police. On October 8, 2019, YouTube purged a video uploaded to its servers by the violent neo-Nazi Atomwaffen Division. Two days later, the same video was re-uploaded to an account with the same display name and copied dozens of times. 

“YouTube is either unable or unwilling to employ comprehensive and consistent methods to tackle the problem of white supremacism on their platform,” wrote the Counter Extremism Project, a technology group working to counter online extremist messaging, from white supremacy to violent Islamism.

If anything, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns and economic recession will foster still more extremism. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories tracing the creation and spread of the virus to billionaire investor George Soros and a secretive Jewish cabal have ricocheted around the internet. In its annual “threat assessment”, the DHS highlighted the extremism churning beneath a locked-down society’s surface.

American Jewish Response

The reaction of American Jews to the rise of deadly anti-Semitism seems to range from denial to befuddled inaction to rank both as side-ism. When Donald Trump began shifting the blame of unrest to the left and a loose-knit group of radicals known as “Antifa”, the American Jewish Committee joined in the effort to find an equivalence between leftwing and rightwing violent extremism—despite the conclusion of Trump’s own government that rightwing extremism poses a far more pronounced danger. Admittedly, it is all so new. While violent bigotry and white supremacism are sewn into the fabric of American life, anti-Semitic violence is not, at least not on the massive scale shown by the former in the last two years. A nation founded on the creed that “all men are created equal” could not have cradled race-based slavery for 250 years (from the arrival of the first African slaves to our shores in 1619), hatched the Ku Klux Klan, and embraced the public terror of lynching without white supremacist ideology. 

Anti-Semitism—targeted hatred and discrimination aimed at Jews—has existed in what is now the United States since twenty-three Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands disembarked in what was then New Amsterdam in 1654. Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor and father of New York City, wrote to the directors of the Dutch West Indies Company, “We have, for the benefit of this weak and newly developing place and the land in general, deemed it useful to require them [the Portuguese Jews] in a friendly way to depart, praying also most seriously in this connection, for ourselves as also for the general community of your worships, that the deceitful race—such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ—be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.” 

Despite such anti-Semitism, Jews stayed in North America and thrived, and while acts of violence toward Jews, such as the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915 or the bombings of southern synagogues in the 1950s and 1960s, at times shocked the nation’s conscience, they did not come to be indelibly identified with Jewish life in America. The massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, with eleven killed, was the deadliest act of violence against Jews in the 365 years that Jews have lived in North America. That is remarkable considering the history of racist bloodletting in the United States, from the massacre of about 300 indigenous Lakota people at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1890 to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where as many as three hundred African-Americans were killed by a white mob in 1921.

When my book (((Semitism))): Being Jewish in America in the Age of Trump was published in the spring of 2018, it went through the history of the emerging white supremacist “alt-right” threat, the deadly white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 that took the life of an antiracist counter-protester, and the swarming bigots on the internet who were and are willing to destroy the lives of anyone who catches their eyes. 

The book was inspired by my own experiences during the 2016 presidential election, when an organized online mob targeted Jewish journalists like myself with an endless barrage of threats, violent images, taunts, and trickery. The online assault forced me to examine this new breed of anti-Semitism and grapple with the forces unleashed by Donald Trump’s nationalist movement. I started with a warning: “The Jew flourishes when borders come down, when boundaries blur, when walls are destroyed, not erected.” Trump’s brand of intolerant nationalism was on the rise globally, from Washington to Warsaw, Manila to Milan, Budapest to Brasilia. I wanted American Jewry to take heed that such forces historically have tended to turn against us. 

I am convinced that more rightwing anti-Semitic bloodshed is inevitable. But Jews in America have not responded with anything like united resolve; rather, there is fear. 

In a poll of American Jewry taken by the American Jewish Committee ahead of the first anniversary of the Pittsburgh massacre, 84 percent of respondents said they think anti-Semitism has increased in the United States in the past five years. About 20 percent said they had been the target of anti-Semitic remarks online, while 23 percent said they had been targeted by anti-Semitic comments in person or through mail or phone. A third of American Jewry said they have avoided outward displays of their faith—jewelry with Jewish symbols or wearing a skullcap—for fear of a hostile response. 

Yet, an organized, sustained effort to counter rising intolerance is not greatly evidenced. In my book, I wrote of what I called “The Israel Deception”, the all-consuming debate over Israel that has distracted American Jewry from the trends in our own society that could do real harm. The “alt-right”, a name that rightwing bigoted nationalists gave themselves, emerged in the later years of George W. Bush’s White House in 2007 and 2008, when some fringe conservatives, disenchanted with Bush’s foreign policy adventurism and the collapse of the global financial system, turned inward. Yet, Jews did not notice this gathering storm until 2016, with the rise of Trumpism and that movement’s merger with the existing alt-right. Why? Because in the complacency of the Obama era, American Jews fought with each other or with outside forces almost exclusively over the Jewish state Israel.

Predictably, my calling out “The Israel Deception” only heightened the preoccupation. As I travel the country discussing my book, I am almost always confronted with Israel. To differing degrees, Jewish audiences have told me that I have it all wrong: that the real threat to Jewry comes not from the violent right but from the intolerant left. And by “leftwing anti-Semitism”, what they really mean is rising anti-Israel attitudes. In East Hampton, New York, after I was accused of being a self-hating Jew, I was told in the sanctuary of the Jewish Center, “the number of rightwing anti-Semites could fit in this room. The number of leftwing anti-Semites would fill this city.” 

Confused Conflict: Israel, Anti-Zionism, and Anti-Semitism

By the calculus of Trump’s Jewish apologists, Trumpist nationalism is not a manifestation of the threat facing Jews, and President Trump is not part of the problem; he is the savior, the greatest American friend that Israel ever had.

After Pittsburgh, I figured that such relativism would fade away. Surely my co-religionists would see that while anti-Israel sentiments can at times spill into anti-Semitism, the young activists leading the anti-Zionist movement do not carry semiautomatic weapons and periodically open fire. I was wrong. The fighting between those warning against the anti-Semitic left and those fearing the anti-Semitic right has gone on unabated.

The inclusion of Israel in that debate has been confusing, in part because of the actions of Israel’s leadership. Yes, I warned, and still believe, intolerant nationalism is almost always catastrophic for Jews. When politicians begin defining who is and is not truly of a nation, who is and is not a true German, a real comrade of the Soviet Union, or a loyal citizen of Gaul, they usually choose Jews as the essence of the outsider in their midst—with lethal consequences. 

However, nobody has been more adept at bigoted nationalism than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Few have used national identity as deftly or been more willing to openly scapegoat the ethnic outsider—the Palestinian or the Arab Israeli—to rally voters to his side. Even Trump has tried (poorly) to keep a few black entertainers or Latino businessmen in his camp as testifiers to his true pluralistic heart. Netanyahu long ago dispensed with such niceties, even making common cause with nationalists like Hungary’s former Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who have dabbled in political anti-Semitism themselves. Confusing, I say, because if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, and if Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is the world’s foremost exemplar of Zionism as well as nationalism, how could nationalism be equated with anti-Semitism? 

And how could the movements behind Trump or Orbán or Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro be threats if those men are so aligned with Israel’s leadership? To many American Jews, especially older Jews, the Netanyahu–Trump alliance has been licensed to turn away from the growing pile of corpses left in the wake of the white nationalist movement. 

And don’t think the white nationalists haven’t noticed. Their leaders, like Richard Spencer, often say they are pro-Israel, because to them, Israel is the ethno-nationalist state they crave. If the Jews can have their own state, why can’t white people? In his rambling manifesto, a bizarre question-and-answer with himself, the New Zealand shooter asked, “Are you an anti-Semite?” He answered, “No, a Jew living in Israel is no enemy of mine, so long as they do not seek to subvert or harm my people.”

Demographics are not, however, on the side of those Jews unwilling to confront bigotry in the name of their allegiance to Israel or to its perceived protector, Donald Trump. 

Those who claim that “leftwing anti-Semitism” is the real threat have already lost the generation of American Jews currently at universities or emerging from them. Most of those young American Jews do not share the blind loyalty to Israel that their parents and grandparents had, and have, and have tried to instill in them. If they are not openly hostile to Israel, they are largely indifferent, attracted to Judaism’s commitment to social justice but not its sense of nationhood. 

The world’s struggles with the coronavirus pandemic will only hasten this generational shift. American Jews coming of age during the worst public health crisis in a century have seen the dangers of an incompetent government response and are not likely to fall for rhetorical feints like warnings of a rising, dangerous left or an appeal to solidarity with Israel. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City have joined Trump and his most ardent followers in railing against the public health strictures of masks and social distancing, even attacking journalists. But they are a tiny minority in a larger American Jewish community that has firmly sided with established science and epidemiology.

All of that is more bad news for old-line Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations, which were falling away even before the pandemic. Newer, smaller Jewish organizations like Bend the Arc, focused on social justice in the United States, not support for Israel, are on the rise. 

Toward A True Schism or New Coalition?

If young Jews are told that their Jewish identity revolves around their identification with the Jewish state Israel, they will make their choice and walk away. That is what even liberal pro-Israel groups like J Street and the New Israel Fund are finding. The world’s two remaining great Jewish populations—Israeli and American—appear to be heading toward a schism, a true break. This break is based on a clear ideological divide between one population—Israeli, that believes that ethnic identity and national cohesion are fundamental to its survival—and the other, American, that increasingly feels that ethnic identity and nationalism are threats to its survival. The latter believes that only with the reemergence of tolerant pluralism can the American Jewish community regain its sense of security.

I do not posit this schism as a good thing. In a world where Jews are a tiny, always threatened sliver of the population, the cleaving of the last two significant Jewish populations is an existential threat to Judaism itself. Moreover, the adherence of Jewish civil rights groups like the Anti-Defamation League to the fundamental, non-negotiable belief in Israel as an autonomous Jewish homeland is becoming a real impediment to their core civil rights missions in the United States. 

At multiple events around my book, I have been paired with a representative of the Anti-Defamation League, who was confronted by black or Muslim activists who see no way to separate the Anti-Defamation League’s civil rights mission from its Zionism. 

When I wrote the chapter “The Israel Deception”, my counsel was that Jewish, Muslim, immigrant, African-American, and LGBT rights organizations needed to agree to disagree on the Israel–Palestine issue and set it aside to make common cause against intolerance and bigotry. I would never say that Jewish civil rights groups need to renounce Zionism or their support for Israel as a Jewish state to pursue coalition building. That is completely unfair. 

But I do now see that simply setting aside the issue may be impossible. Instead, groups like the Anti-Defamation League need to find some common denominator with other civil rights groups on Israel, Gaza, and the occupied West Bank. That common cause could be civil rights—or human rights—for all people living in Israel and the territories. 

While it may be naïve to believe that issues of national and political sovereignty can be hived off from human rights, I do believe all actors in an anti-bigotry coalition can at least agree that the human rights and dignity of Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Druze, and yes, Israeli Jews, need to be safeguarded. 

To underscore its commitment to that notion, the Anti-Defamation League should take the significant step of embracing legislation, written by an American member of Congress named Betty McCollum, that for the first time would use American military aid to Israel as leverage to demand more humane treatment of Palestinian children in the West Bank. Saying that U.S. military assistance cannot be used to jail children does not seem too much to ask, and an affirmative gesture like that could at least jumpstart coalition-building between established Jewish groups and the vibrant young activists in Black Lives Matter and other nascent civil rights movements.

These are enormous and intractable issues: the rise of intolerance globally, the conflict between Jews and Palestinians that predates even the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and the looming schism between American and Israeli Jews. But they are all intertwined. Sadly, they must be confronted together.

In the early hours of October 12, 1958, in my hometown white supremacists calling themselves the “Confederate Underground” exploded fifty sticks of dynamite in a recessed doorway at my synagogue in Atlanta, the Temple. At an earlier time, in 1915, a congregant of the same synagogue, Leo Frank, was dragged out of a prison in Milledgeville, Georgia, and lynched by an anti-Semitic mob for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. Frank’s lynching sent the Jews of my southern city into a defensive crouch. Half of Atlanta’s Jewish population simply left.

In 1958, the response to the Temple bombing was different. Rabbi Jacob Rothschild’s sermon that Friday was entitled “And None Shall Make Them Afraid”. Ralph McGill, the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote the words of the re-emergent citizen of the world, where identity is both universal and nonexistent. “You cannot preach and encourage hate for the Negro and hope to restrict it to that field,” he advised. “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people, then no one is safe.”

As the United States approaches an election of multigenerational import, an election that could decide its future, those are words to remember. The threat of white supremacist intolerance and hate is not theoretical; it is here. The carnage does not lie. 

The response of the Jewish population and the population at large needs to match it. The mobilization during this election season has to be shaped not against a particular candidate, but around the ideals that the United States has long represented, however inconsistently and incompletely: freedom in a multiethnic, multiracial, multireligious democracy, tolerant of dissent but not of bigotry. Hard choices are overdue, as there will be sacrifices needed to defend democratic pluralism…and the wolves of hate are already loosed.

Jonathan Weisman is domestic policy editor in The New York Times’ Washington bureau, and author of (((Semitism))): Bring Jewish in America in the Age of Trump. His 2014 novel, No. 4 Imperial Lane, was a Chautauqua Prize finalist and Amazon Best Book of the Month. He has covered Congress, politics and economics for The Times.

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