Last month we saw the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. Robert D. Bowers walked into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on congregants as he yelled, “All Jews must die!” Bowers is so far right that he has refused to support President Donald Trump on the grounds that he is “controlled by Jews.” Bowers based his reasoning for his attack on a conspiracy theory that the migrant caravan working its way through Mexico is a Jewish plot intended to destabilise America, a theory that has its own extensive history.
After the shooting, Trump said, “You wouldn’t think this would be possible in this day and age, but we just don’t seem to learn from the past.” But is this really so surprising? The president has repeatedly been warned about the dangers of tolerating white nationalism, fuelling conspiracy theories and borrowing language from anti-Semitic propaganda.
Although American Jews have never experienced the same level of state-sanctioned oppression as European Jews have, anti-Semitism has never been absent from the the US. Populist American leaders in the 19th century similarly encouraged the idea that Jewish bankers posed a threat to the security of hardworking Americans and images of Jews with big noses were routine in political cartoons. Nativist organisations also fervently fought for federal restrictions on immigration against Eastern European Jews.
Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, once wrote that there was a “Jewish plan to control the world, not by territorial acquisition, not by military aggression, not by governmental subjugation, but by control of the machinery of commerce and exchange.” He even published the Protocols of Zion (a fake document that purportedly details the secret Jewish plan for world domination) in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, in 1920.
Anti-Semitism manifested itself across the country. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan also targeted Jews. In the 1920s the Klan stated that Jews “procured” young women to “enhance their own monetary interests.” In Massachusetts, Irish Catholic gangs in the 1940s conducted vicious “Jew Hunts.” In the 30s and 40s, Jews still faced tight restrictions that kept them out of law firms, medical professions, universities and colleges, fraternities, hotels, country clubs and more. Like African Americans, Jews were subject to real-estate restrictions that prevented “Hebrews” from living in particular neighbourhoods.
Conditions improved after World War II. The horror of the Holocaust made explicit anti-Semitic ideas and policies unacceptable in mainstream US society. In post-war America, much of the Jewish community prospered. Jewish synagogues and civic institutions sprouted up in almost every region of the country and legislation outlawed residential and employment discrimination. But anti-Semitism did not disappear from American life. Anti-Semitism continues to crop up on both sides of the political spectrum. On college campuses in particular, criticism of Israel has sometimes veered into anti-Semitism.
However, it’s even more shocking when it comes from the top. Despite having a daughter, a son-in-law and grandchildren who are practicing Orthodox Jews, Trump has employed and encouraged anti-Semitic rhetoric. In 2016, he retweeted messages from anti-Semitic supporters, refused to clearly distance himself from the former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and tweeted out a photograph of Hillary Clinton next to a Star of David in front of piles of money with text that read: “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!”
After Trump became president, the situation did not improve. In January 2017, the White House’s official message on Holocaust Remembrance Day did not mention Jews or anti-Semitism. Trump also refused to denounce the neo-Nazis who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 chanting “The Jews will not replace us!”
It’s not just Trump. A Republican congressional candidate in Illinois, Arthur Jones, once called the Holocaust an “international extortion racket.” The National Republican Congressional Committee released an ad in Minnesota that depicts George Soros, a Jewish billionaire philanthropist, as a puppet master, standing over piles of cash, causing social unrest and “owning” Democrat Dan Feehan.
Although the Pittsburgh shooter ultimately rejected Trump, Bowers was present in a political moment when prominent figures such as Trump and his surrogates have encouraged and enabled conspiracy theories, including birtherism, QAnon and Trump’s accusations about the father of Sen. Ted Cruz being involved in murdering John F. Kennedy.
As writer John-Paul Pagano put it: “anti-Semitism is different from most racism in that it ‘punches up’ against the perceived oppressor – the Jews, who are cast as a diabolical elite. Anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory. That’s why it leads to salvationist mass murder.”
Thus, an environment in which conspiracy theories flourish and find new ground is perfect for anti-Semitism itself to flourish.
Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the number of anti-Semitic incidents reported increased by 57% in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League. They also found that the number of anti-Semitic posts have increased on Instagram and Twitter. One frequent target has been the Hebrew Immigrant Society, or HIAS, which has been lobbying for the admission of refugees. Hours before the shooting, Robert D. Bowers posted online: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
Anti-Semitism is a distinct form of hate, one deeply rooted in conspiracies about the role Jewish people play in shaping public life. While the conspiracy theory is a false one, as we have seen, its ramifications are far too real.