Pittsburgh and anti-Semitism in context

Three memorials to victims of the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, consisting of names (Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger) written on white hexagonal stars, with flowers, hearts and stars placed at the feet of the stars, with the word "hope" visible on one of them.Last Saturday, a racist gunman attacked a synagogue near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and killed 11 worshippers, including four Holocaust survivors, a married couple and two disabled brothers in their fifties; also killed was a doctor named Jerry Rabinowitz who was described by a former patient as the most effective AIDS doctor in Pittsburgh in the 1980s and early 90s who would treat patients with respect and without fear which a lot of doctors would not. This came at the end of a week in which two elderly Black people (one man, one woman) were murdered in a grocery store in Kentucky and pipe bombs were sent in the mail to a number of Democrat politicians including the Obama and Clinton families as well as some wealthy or celebrity democrats including the actor and director Robert De Niro and the financier at the centre of many far-right conspiracy theories, George Soros. I have nonetheless come across attempts on Twitter to take the event out of context, to emphasise that this was an anti-Semitic attack, to claim that the victims were Jews killed just because they were Jews rather than because there is a rising tide of hatred and of white-supremacist violence.

One example was a rabbi who quoted a tweet that called the attack an example of hatred and gun violence and said she would have ‘liked’ it but for the lack of any mention of anti-Semitism; another was a Facebook post by the Brighton-based writer David Bennun which started by asking “Why do people always kill Jews, for being Jews, wherever there are Jews?” and gave two possible answers (I have quoted sections from it rather than the entire post):

One: In every place that Jews live, but for their own homeland (and even there much of the outside world looks upon them as interlopers), as well as in places where they do not or can no longer live, they are the eternal Other. Perceived as in but not of that place (“despite having lived here all their lives”); not like Us; forever under suspicion. The poisoners of wells, the thieves of children’s blood. … This is the racist conspiracy theory known as anti-Semitism. It takes many forms, and there is no type of zealous political ideology, of the left or the right, in which it does not sooner or later flourish.

Two: Jews somehow bring it upon themselves. A view encapsulated in the words of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity . . . I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.” In this view, which is invariably held by people who, you understand, haven’t a racist bone in their body, it is always, of course, terribly regrettable that these awful things should be done to Jews by these awful people - but if only the Jews hadn’t provoked it through whatever it is that Jews do.

Except that in this case, the attacker gave his reason: because he blamed the organisation that ran the synagogue for bringing in ‘invaders’, i.e. immigrants. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered”, he also said, possibly referring to the caravan of refugees from Honduras making its way on foot northwards through Mexico (which had been alleged, without any evidence, by US Vice President Mike Pence to include people of Middle Eastern origin), or possibly referring to the “white genocide” trope common on the far right, that multiculturalism and mixed relationships dilutes the ‘purity’ of the “white race” and is thus effectively genocide. He also claimed that it was “filthy evil Jews bringing filfy (sic) evil Muslims into the country”. So, he was an anti-Semite, but his anti-Semitism was one of a number of other prejudices he had.

Then there was this tweet, by the Labour MP Jess Phillips:

So to her, this attack is representative of rising global anti-Semitism, not rising violent armed racism in the United States. Clearly this is to put the attack in the same context as the so-called anti-Semitism observed in the Labour party since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, an allegation largely based not on violence against Jews or anyone advocating it but attacks on Israel in response to its oppressions of the native Palestinians. So, let’s be clear: this man was not inspired by Jeremy Corbyn; he belongs to the American Far Right, is a white supremacist, and did not act out of solidarity with Palestinians.

It has to be remembered that the United States is not Europe and has its own history of racism and any understanding of American racists, including neo-Nazis, is incomplete without that history. The United States used to be a legally white-supremacist country in which Blacks were first slaves and then, in much of the country after they were freed, subjected to a legally-enforced regime of discrimination. Violent racists linked to organisations such as the Ku Klux Klan occupied positions of power such as in the police, judiciary and the legislature. Although the remnants of the KKK and other white-supremacist organisations from that time have since merged with the neo-Nazi fringe, they were not always anti-Semitic; the Confederacy had a Jewish secretary of state, Judah P Benjamin (previously a US Senator from Louisiana). Although anti-Semitism became established among segregationists in the 20th century, their principal targets were African-Americans. They wanted to preserve, as much as possible, the “old order” in which the white aristocracy ruled and Blacks were powerless and did menial work for them. After they lost the Civil Rights battle, mainstream right-wing politicians began to appeal to racist white voters using coded terms for (particularly poor) Black people; references to welfare queens and appeals to “law and order”.

In the modern western world, there are two distinct strands of white supremacist thinking: the fringe, traditionalist one inspired by Hitler which remains anti-Semitic, and the mainstream one that defends the current white-dominated world order represented by Trump and the newly elected fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, which numbers Jews among whites and is aggressively pro-Zionist. There are people, particularly on the political Right, who are not known for taking a strong stand against racism, particularly police racism and hostility to immigrants, who will sanctimoniously condemn anti-Semitism, especially alleged Left-wing anti-Semitism; also note how, when Iowa congressman Steve King was questioned about his connections to white supremacists in a public meeting, he angrily pointed to his lifelong support for Israel and demanded that the questioner be removed. In the UK, although their anti-Semitism was never a secret, the National Front of the 1970s exploited hostility towards immigrants from the Commonwealth; anti-Semitism was not emphasised as it was not a vote winner, and after Nick Griffin (a known Holocaust denier) became leader, open anti-Semites such as John Tyndall were manoeuvred out of the party as he realigned it to attack Muslims, and to a lesser extent non-white immigrants; Griffin attempted to court Jews, though he had little success as they knew his history. The BNP have dropped into obscurity but the fringe right represented by UKIP and the “football lads” element aggressively targets Muslims for hatred and is also pro-Israel.

If the Pittsburgh attack was against a backdrop of rising global anti-Semitism, then someone explain why the major anti-racist protest movement of the past few years was called Black Lives Matter, not Jewish Lives Matter. The reason is that Jewish Americans were not being shot or choked to death in the street by the police or, occasionally, white vigilantes (occasionally it was the learning disabled or mentally ill). Anti-Semitism exists, but there is no stereotype of Jews that would lend itself to justifying arbitrary police violence against an unarmed civilian, often a child. We know Donald Trump has friends who are anti-Semites and blamed the attack partly on poor synagogue security when places of worship the world over have their doors open, especially when they need to let worshippers in, but we also know he is supported by the mainstream, conservative Right which has strong memories of being allied to the Jewish Right during the Bush years, that he has Jewish close relatives and that he has taken a firmly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian stance while in office. Any violence is not going to come from the State.

And frankly, there are some who give the impression that they think anti-Semitism is not morally equivalent to other prejudices and some who say so explicitly. For example, last May Melanie Phillips (who may be seen as a fringe voice within the Jewish community but is a regular fixture on British TV and radio), on a panel along with Dawn Foster on Sunday Politics, claimed that Islamophobia was a term which “covers legitimate criticism of the Muslim community; any criticism of the Muslim community is considered Islamophobic”. She then claimed that there was no comparison with anti-Semitism (which she also claimed was endemic on the Left, not only the Corbynite wing of the Labour Party but also the Liberal Democrats as well), which was not like other forms of racism and for which there was “never any excuse” and was “a unique derangement”, “based on lies and demonisation”. The implication is that other forms of racism can be rationalised as based on fears over jobs, crime or demographic change, and can or even should be accommodated, while anti-Semitism is a derangement and any rationalisation of it is anti-Semitic in itself.

And it is also gun violence. In the UK we also have violent racists, but the worst racist incident in recent times anyone can think of was the murder (by stabbing) of a single Black teenager (Stephen Lawrence) in 1993 by a gang of five white, racist youths. They used a knife because the average person has no access to anything more powerful (you need a legitimate purpose, e.g. hunting, grouse/pheasant shooting or pest control, to get a licence for firearms); if they had been able to obtain the automatic weapons anyone with an axe to grind can get hold of in the USA, they could have killed many more people and so could others. We have also seen family murders committed using firearms, but massacres are extremely rare here. Much as with any of the numerous school and workplace shootings that have taken place in the USA, it is a legitimate opportunity to talk about the need for gun control and, especially, the control of automatic and assault weapons (or anything that can be modified to serve that purpose). It’s not countries that do not have racism that do not have racist massacres; it’s countries with gun control.

Last Saturday’s massacre was horrific. Of course it was. The synagogue that was targeted was chosen not only because it was a synagogue but because it had a history of helping refugees. There may well be more racial violence in the USA in the coming years, as well as in Europe where racist ‘populists’ are on the march in many countries. But it’s pretty nauseating to hear people emphasise the anti-Semitic aspect of this, and demand that it not be “lumped in” with gun violence or hate, when it took place against a backdrop of rising violence against minorities in general rather than Jews in particular. I agree with the editor-in-chief of the Jewish magazine Forward, Jane Eisner, who wrote in last week’s email newsletter, in regard to the comment of an imam who said he was relieved when he discovered that the killer was not a Muslim:

Isn’t that what it’s like to be a targeted minority in America? How often have we as Jews had the same reaction — pride when one of us wins another Nobel Prize, finds a new cure, invents another amazing device? And then how often do we cringe in fear when one of us is found to be a crook, a murderer, a predator, a detriment to society?

America has been a violent place for African Americans since its inception, and for other minorities for centuries. Jews have been relatively immune — privileged by the fact that so many of us are white, educated, prosperous, unthreatening, willing to fit in.

America might be a less safe place for Jews now than it seemed two weeks ago. But it was never safe for many other visible minorities, and while I do not doubt that there will be more of the same and some of it directed at Jews, Jews will not be the major target of whatever racial violence may ensue over the next few years in both America and Europe. The major targets will be Blacks, Muslims, refugees and other non-white immigrants.

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