“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue . . .” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
“You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21)
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirkei Avot 1:49)
On August 11-12, 2017, white supremacists and neo-Nazis converged on Charlottesville, VA for a Unite the Right rally, chanting “The Jews will not replace us!” What on earth did this chant mean? Evidently, Right-wing extremists believe that Jews are behind a nefarious plot to undermine “white” America and “Western civilization” by bringing people of color to the United States and undermining the (steadily dwindling) white majority. But for Pittsburghers who do not know this history, the real meaning of the Charlottesville chant was brought home to us on October 27, 2018, when Robert Bowers, a 46 year old “lone wolf,” massacred 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The belief that Jews are plotting to flood America with immigrants to dramatically transform American society is not new. On the contrary, it was commonplace in the 1930s and 1940s, when far-right zealots like Father Charles Coughlin, Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, William Dudley Pelley, and Elizabeth Dilling frequently made such claims. The head of the National Economic Council, Merwin K. Hart, voiced fierce opposition to admitting Jewish refugees into the United States and maintained that “alien” influences in the Roosevelt administration—code for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was Jewish—were undermining American culture. As a result of the anti-immigrant policies championed by Hart and prominent Americans like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, many European Jews perished in Hitler’s concentration camps.
Carey McWilliams, the founder of The Nation, said that Hart and his allies believed that liberal and socialist Jews were behind the New Deal and the ensuing transformation of American society. Not content with preventing Jews from entering the United States before WWII, they also opposed the immigration of Holocaust survivors after World War II on the grounds that the Immigration Act of 1924, expressly aimed to preserve the racial character of America. By contrast, American Jews supported easing immigration restrictions, and founded the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which became the bogeyman of the far Right. And since Right-wing nativists subscribed to Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy theories, as the Nazis did, opposing Jewish immigration was a way to strike a blow against communism and Judaism simultaneously, and thereby preserve the white Christian character of the United States.
Because of misinformation gleaned from alt-Right chat rooms and websites, Bowers was convinced that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which met regularly at the Tree of Life, was taking money from George Soros (and/or other Jewish liberals) to bring immigrants and refugees in the United States to dilute and, in due course, to destroy “America”—or rather, his white supremacist fantasy of it.
Needless to say, his attack left the citizens of Pittsburgh reeling. I personally knew two of his victims, Irv Younger (z’l) and Cecil Rosenthal (z’l), for more than 20 years. It was my Rabbi who was approaching the sanctuary when the carnage commenced, who had the courage and presence of mind to stay standing on the threshold, waving and shouting to other congregants to stay away. Later that night, my daughter, who worked at The Children’s Institute, directly across the street from The Tree of Life, joined me and hundreds of people who thronged the junction of Forbes and Murray to chant, sing and pray for solidarity and strength.
The Tree of Life massacre left many Jewish Pittsburghers, and Jews across the nation, wondering whether—or when—another act of white supremacist terror would shatter an American Jewish community. And six months (to the day) after the Tree of Life massacre, 19 year old John Earnest entered a Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA, hoping, like Bowers, to kill as many Jews as possible because he too believed that Jews are trying to “replace” whites with immigrants of color. In his manifesto, Earnest cited the Bible, lamented the decline of white European civilization, and railed against “cultural Marxism,” which he blamed on the Jews. He also charged the Jews with responsibility for the death of Jesus and the early Christian saints, and declared that Jews fund “politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race.”
How do we account for these weird ravings? Eric Ward, an anti-hate activist and scholar who has studied white supremacist groups for 30 years, explains that according to white supremacists, “Jews are a race of their own.” He further explains the white supremacist view that Jews’ “ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.” Ward also connects anti-Semitism with anti-black racism by pointing to a dystopian fantasy novel, The Turner Diaries, written by white supremacist leader William Pierce (under a pseudonym), in which “Jews have unleashed Blacks and other undesirables into the center of American public life”, and subsequently “follows the triumph of a clandestine White supremacist organization that snaps into revolutionary action, blowing up both Israel and New York City.” Based on his experience with white supremacist groups, Ward concludes that:
Contemporary anti-Semitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents a direct, existential threat to Whiteness. Moreover, . . . as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack. This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the United States—became, in effect, post-racial—is a myth that we must dispel. By insisting that Jews are “white,” and that anti-Semitism is a fringe prejudice, we are unwittingly aiding the White nationalist movement, by shielding their core beliefs from view, and protecting them from direct attack.
Ward’s words seem directed toward anti-racist activists who designate Jews as “white” or “white adjacent.” As a result of this designation, anti-racist activists view Jews as intent on maintaining—rather than overturning—white supremacy. Of course, this is precisely the opposite of what white supremacists believe, which is that Jews, not being genuinely white, sully the racial purity of our nation. In other words, Jews threaten whites because they are not white enough, and Jews also threaten blacks because they are white and want to maintain white supremacy. Sadly, these opposing characterizations both cast Jews as a grave threat to whites, on the one hand, and to African Americans on the other.
These reflections call attention to an old but newly visible strain of anti-Semitic sentiment in the African American community, which is a type of “replacement theology” that has been propagated by Louis Farrakhan and some members of Black Hebrew Israelite movement and claims that the Jews of the Bible were really black Africans, who are the real “Chosen People,” and that Ashkenazi Jews are mere pretenders and imposters posing as the real thing. According to this sect, white Jews have usurped the place of the “real” Jews (i.e. blacks) in order to confuse and exploit them.
Unsurprisingly, black replacement theology also has lethal consequences. On December 10, 2019, David Anderson, 47, and Francine Graham, 50, killed a police officer and three civilians in a Kosher supermarket in Jersey City. The van that they drove to the scene of the crime contained enough explosives to blow up five football fields. Both of them were once affiliated with the Black Hebrew Israelites. Later that month, on December 28, 2019, Grafton Thomas burst into a Monsey, New York, Rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration and hacked at people with a machete, seriously injuring five people. In his journal, he rambled on about “Ebinoid Israelites” and “Semitic genocide,” and his cell phone records contained references to Hitler, the Nazis and the Jews.
In the aftermath of the anti-Semitic attacks at the Tree of Life synagogue and in metropolitan New York in 2019, the American Jewish community was stung by anti-Semitic outbursts from a broad spectrum of African American and British entertainers, athletes and community leaders in 2020, including Ice Cube, DeSean Jackson, Nick Cannon, Larry Johnson, Wiley and Rodney Muhammad. Thankfully, many high-profile African Americans, including Charles Barkley, Stephen A. Smith, Michael Wilbon, Zach Banner, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, criticized DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson for their anti-Semitic comments. But high-profile exchanges between celebrities, which garner so much media attention, do little to slow the spread of Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic venom in the broader African American community. That being so, progressive Jews are puzzled and dismayed that so many activists downplay or dismiss their concerns on this score as trivial and unworthy of serious discussion, or worse yet, as a deliberate distraction from the important racial issues at hand.
Let’s frame this issue a little differently. Though they embraced opposing ideologies, how different were the actions of Robert Bowers and John Earnest from those of David Anderson, Francine Graham and Grafton Thomas? Perhaps it is a matter of perspective. Obviously, the latter three are not white supremacists. But their beliefs and actions are symptoms of a dangerous trend which deepens the fear and mistrust between Jews and blacks, two communities who should be natural allies against hatred and white supremacy
There is reason to be optimistic. Since October, 2018, many interfaith and interracial groups in Pittsburgh and around the country have been trying to heal the rifts between the Jewish and African American communities, and to restore a measure of the trust that characterized the Black-Jewish alliance before the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. However, these welcome developments (and the hopes they inspire) cannot dispel a lingering sense of dread. After all, according to the FBI, Jews comprise merely 2 percent of the American population, but are the target of 57.5 percent of hate crimes nationally. Moreover, an increasing number of synagogue defacements and violent assaults in Jewish neighborhoods are committed by anti-racist and/or pro-Palestinian activists who hold all Jews equally responsible for the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
So as we remember the eleven victims of the Tree of Life massacre, and re-inscribe their lives and legacies in our hearts and memories, let’s also roll up our sleeves. For their sake and for our children’s sake, there is a lot of work left to be done.
Daniel Burston has taught psychology at Duquesne University for three decades, and is the author of Anti-Semitism and Analytical Psychology: Jung, Politics and Culture (London: Routledge, 2021.)
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