Pittsburgh shooter and pipe bomb suspect never met. But they have this in common.
Anti-Semitism has become a central motivating force in far-right ideology, tying together strands of rage, bigotry and conspiracy.
Law enforcement officers secure the scene where multiple people were shot on Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood. (Alexandra Wimley/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)Alexandra Wimley / AP
These nightmarish attacks are part of a rise in anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes, according to organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The ADL reported a 57 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents between 2016 and 2017. The increased targeting of Jewish people, though, is part of a broader wave of fascist rhetoric and violence directed at a range of groups — primarily people of color, immigrants, leftists, LGBTQ people and women.
It's not an accident that before he set foot in the Tree of Life temple, the Pittsburgh shooter ranted online that Jews were helping immigrants.
Anti-Semitism is a central motivating force in far-right ideology, and ties together the strands of rage, bigotry and conspiracy that have become more and more mainstream over the last decades in the Republican Party. Even for the Nazis, anti-Semitism was always more than just a hatred of Jewish individuals. It was a sweeping ideology that connected a broad range of prejudices and grievances. For Hitler, Jews were the masterminds of a vast anti-German conspiracy.
For example, the Nazis claimed that Jewish conspirators were responsible for stationing black French troops in the Rhineland following World War I. These troops, Hitler wrote in “Mein Kampf,” systematically raped white German women, "bastardizing the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate." Thus, anti-Semitism served as a delivery system for racism, sexual panic and nationalist pride. The resulting propaganda was "particularly successful in the 'racially sensitive' United States," writes Jason Stanley in his recent book “How Fascism Works.” Stanley notes that 12,000 people attended a 1921 Madison Square rally against these fictitious Rhineland atrocities.
Hitler also linked Jews to Communism and leftist ideologies. "The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight," Hitler fumed in "Mein Kampf." Jewish people were smeared as dangerous radicals, while leftists were smeared as alien outsiders promulgating a corrupt, non-German ideology. Such attacks greatly appealed to wealthy capitalists and industrialists both in Germany and abroad, who feared the rise of socialism and Communism.
Jewish people were smeared as dangerous radicals, while leftists were smeared as alien outsiders promulgating a corrupt, non-German ideology. Such attacks greatly appealed to wealthy capitalists.
The anti-Semitism prevalent in America today continues to use the same tropes blaming Jewish people for immigration, perceived threats to the white race, socialism and every other right-wing bugaboo.
Two days before the synagogue shooting, Fox News' Lou Dobbs interviewed a guest who claimed that refugees were "getting money from the Soros-occupied State Department." Is it any real surprise that the synagogue shooter's social media posts show he too was invested in related far-right memes and rhetoric about Jewish people promoting immigration in order to weaken America? The Pittsburgh terrorist was particularly incensed at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish group that works to advocate for immigrants and raise awareness of the plight of refugees.
Anti-Semitism, in short, serves as a kind of clearing house for fascist fears about corruption and impurity. Immigration, black rights, feminism, queer rights, socialism and anything that threatens a social order led by white men.
Anti-Semitism is inseparable from fascism — which has important implications for people on every part of the political spectrum. On the left, it means that enabling or excusing anti-Semitism ultimately undermines other goals and priorities. When Louis Farrakhan inveighs against Jewish people, he claims he's doing so to fight racism. But the truth is that targeting Jews empowers white supremacists, who have, since Hitler's day, used anti-Semitism to stoke anti-black racism and hatred. Similarly, Labor party leader Jeremy Corbyn's less virulent dabbling in anti-Semitic rhetoric serves to legitimate suspicion towards immigrants and outsiders — the very people Corbyn's opposition Labor party claims to want to help.
In America, though, it is conservatives who really need to think about the relationship between anti-Semitism and their current rhetoric and goals.
Republicans often point to Trump's support of Israel as evidence that he is not anti-Semitic. Because he moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, it is apparently to be impossible for him to be anti-Semitic. But the truth is that people can support Israel for many reasons. Trump's alliance with Ben Carson doesn't prevent him from being racist; his alliance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn't mean he's free from prejudice towards Jewish people. Right-wing support of Israel has long been related to evangelical visions of the end times, Islamophobia and pragmatic geopolitical concerns. Any or all of those can coexist with anti-Semitism.
Trump and other conservatives have denounced the Pittsburgh shootings, as they did the pipe bombs. But there has been little reckoning with the danger of hyper partisan, violent, rhetorical attacks on immigrants, people of color, and the left — not to mention on George Soros. Trump himself chuckled as supporters started an anti-Soros chantafter the philanthropist was sent a pipe bomb — and a day before the synagogue shooting.
Conservatives in America have a choice. They can continue to stoke panic about immigration and impurity, and, inevitably, fuel anti-Semitic violence. Or they can fight anti-Semitism by abandoning conspiracy theories and the rhetoric of hate. Either way, the fate of Jewish people can't be separated from the fate of other marginalized people. If you are determined to harm them, you're saying you are going to harm us as well.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer and cultural critic based in Chicago. He edits the website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of several books, including most recently "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."