The murder of worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pensylvannia, by the white supremacist Robert Bowers, was motivated by anti-Semitism. Bowers circulated his views on social media, referring to immigrants and ethnic minorities in derogatory and menacing terms. However, he saved particular scorn for the Jewish people, regarding them as a uniquely cunning, sinister, organised and direct threat to the status of white America. While carrying out his attack, he reportedly yelled ‘all Jews must die.’
Why did this particular brand of hatred – anti-Semitism – rear its ugly head at this point? It is worth examining the persistence of this long-standing hatred. This act of domestic terrorism at Pittsburgh is arguably the largest slaughter of Jews in recent American history. While this shooting bears a striking resemblance to the racist killing of African African worshippers at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston in 2015, the Pittsburgh killing was motivated by anti-Semitic undercurrents that have been ever-present in American political and cultural life.
Trump’s words have lethal consequences
Bowers targeted that particular synagogue because it has its roots in the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an organisation has helped refugees and migrants from multiple ethnic and religious backgrounds settle in the United States. The anti-immigration rhetoric that pours out of the Trump administration has very real and serious consequences. Make no mistake – current US President Donald Trump has emboldened and legitimised anti-immigrant hatred and white supremacy through his words and actions.
Trump and his supporters have routinely denounced migrants and refugees as a threatening presence in the United States; speaking of migrants as an existential menace is a talking point of the white supremacist Alternative Right. The migrant caravan from Honduras, consisting of people fleeing US-made wars, poverty, environmental destruction and criminal violence, are portrayed by Trump as an emergent menace for which a military response is the only solution.
It is not surprising that responsibility for the Honduran caravan is attributed to the scheming and organisation power of the mysterious Jews by right-wing commentators. It is no exaggeration to say that the hysterical response to the migrant caravan – encouraged and led by the Trump administration – led to the Pittsburgh shooting. Bowers emerged from the fevered swamps of the racist and anti-Semitic Right to take action against persons that the president said were a direct and immediate threat.
Of course, it is the Jews who are held responsible – a conspiracy theory that denies any agency or intelligence to the Honduran refugees, but rather reduces them to naive dupes of the ever-conniving Jews. Amplified by right-wing commentators, the message of the Trump presidency was unmistakable – the Jews are ‘pulling the strings’. Trump and his supporters cannot dismiss political rhetoric as just mere exaggeration or playing to the crowd. Bigotry becomes normalised, and the hate that it spawns emerges from the fringes and makes its way into the political mainstream.
The longest hatred
It would be naive in the extreme to blame Trump exclusively for the eruption of anti-Semitic violence in America. Anti-Semitism has a long and dark history that predates Trump and the Republicans. It is an unusual hatred in that it found expression first as a religious anti-Semitism with the triumph of European Christendom and then as a racialised form of bigotry with the rise of pseudo-scientific theories about race from the late eighteenth century.
While it is common for racists to look down on people they see as inferior – note the habitual targeting of Hispanic migrants as lazy and subsisting on welfare – the Jewish people have been pilloried for their purported collective intelligence. This intelligence is not something that is ascribed to individuals, but as a collective entity to be wary of – the scheming, conniving, villainous Jew has made an appearance in many guises. Since the days of Shakespeare’s Shylock, the money-lending, greedy and sinister Jew has been held responsible for manipulating political events and economies, using the liberal cosmopolitanism of the Christian West to undertake treacherous, and sinister projects for financial gain.
Anti-Semitic oppression has a long pedigree – Jews were attacked for being ‘Christ-killers’, drinking the blood of Christian children, holding dual loyalty while living in Christian communities – among many other accusations. With the emergence of pseudo-scientific racial doctrines, the Jews were compartmentalised as a unique ‘race’ unwilling and unable to assimilate in the European West. When Jewish communities reached out to other ethnic and religious minorities in solidarity, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue, they were denounced by the Right as ‘bringing invaders’ into their country of residence.
The mechanised mass murder of the Holocaust, brought to the world’s attention the horrors that anti-Semitic bigotry can produce. For a time after World War Two, the menace of anti-Semitism seemed, if not completely vanquished, at least significantly diminished. Jews emigrated to the United States, which emerged from the world war as a strong, vibrant economy. Jewish people moved into the newly expanding middle-class suburbs and assimilated into the capitalist society which appeared to welcome them.
It is their role as the alleged puppeteers, the ones ‘pulling the strings’ by using their financial power that is the accusation that has resurfaced in numerous forms. In this context, it is useful to examine the work of a Belgian socialist, Abram Leon. Murdered by the Nazis in the concentration camps in 1944, Leon wrote a classic study called ‘The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation.’ Leon examined how the Jews became traders and financiers, first in the era of feudal lords and nobles, and subsequently in the capitalist economies of Europe. While Christian Europe was deeply anti-Semitic, the Jews could find only one area where they could at least make a living – in money-lending.
It would be incorrect to dismiss European Jews as exclusive money-lenders, for they did find themselves taking up jobs as artisans, stevedores and other manual labouring occupations. However, it was their role as the financier which the ruling classes latched onto – making a convenient scapegoat, the ills of capitalist society could be blamed on the tax collector, and the usurious money-lender.
In times of economic crisis, it was convenient to direct public anger against the money-lending, huckstering Jew – the Shylock of old, and the alleged puppeteer of events in the collective imagination of today’s conspiracy theories. Based on the erroneous belief that the ‘Jews have too much power’, the Jews now stand accused of masterminding Black Lives Matter, the civil rights movement, feminism, immigration (particularly from Muslim-majority nations), LGBTQIA rights, political correctness – all the usual talking-points of the ultra-right racists.
This concept of the Jews as a secret cabal with power over the majority fits quite well with the far-right; the latter are longstanding supporters of the state of Israel. The best friends that Israel has in Europe are the ultra-rightist anti-Semitic parties and political figures. Philo-semitism – elevating the Jews into a racial category of exceptional intelligence – is a common theme of anti-Semites.
Far-right parties have expressed their support for the construction of an ethno-supremacist state of Israel, because it mirrors their own desire for an ethnically homogenous white-settler state in their countries of residence. With a new demon against which to fixate – Islam – Israel and its anti-semitic supporters have made common cause.
Anti-Semitism is not just an afterthought or peripheral to the white supremacist mindset. The philosophical core of white nationalism is the claim that the Jewish people constitute the striking antithesis and eternal enemy to the white Christian nation. In times of economic crisis, as capitalism goes into terminal decline, old scapegoats are revived from hibernation. The Atlantic consensus of austerity and so-called ‘free markets’ is breaking down, and into the breach steps the Alternative Right. Let us stop victimising the Jewish people yet again by opposing the resuscitation of an old, discredited and lethal bigotry.