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Executing the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooter Won’t End Antisemitism

Antisemitism in the U.S. goes deeper than Trump and death sentences for mass murderers; it is baked into U.S. politics.

The Tree of Life Synagogue pictured on the first anniversary of the 2018 attack, on October 27, 2019, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Opponents of antisemitism are claiming a cautious victory after the conviction and sentencing to death of Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers last week. “Too often,” wrote Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation in response to the verdict, “governments and religious authorities have looked away when murder and mayhem occurred against Jews.” According to the American Jewish Committee, with this decision, “The U.S. government … demonstrated that such crimes will not be countenanced, excused or minimized.”

Politics in the United States may be getting more hospitable to antisemitic scapegoating. Antisemitic street movements like QAnon and Nick Fuentes’s “Groypers” may be growing. And expressions of antisemitism by celebrity musicians and athletes may be becoming more common. But where it really counts — courtrooms, prisons and policing — in a word, in the state, U.S. Jews are safe.

This optimistic view of the invulnerability of U.S. political institutions to assaults from antisemitic outsiders is comforting to many liberals, Jewish and gentile alike. The United States is not an antisemitic country, the argument goes; it is a liberal democracy undergoing a wave of antisemitic agitation and violence due to the toxic influence of political outsiders like Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Donald Trump, enabled by cowardly Republicans toeing the party line. The liberal solution is simple: Vote them out. Stop watching Fox News. Support Israel. And while we may be left unable to answer how 74 million people came to support an antisemitic demagogue in a non-antisemitic country, we can at least rest assured that every time one of those 74 million people massacres 11 Jews, they will be punished harshly after the fact.

This truistic rendering of antisemitism as inherently marginal to the political culture of the United States is nothing new. Some Jewish historians have long characterized the U.S. as a nation uniquely hostile to the spread of antisemitism, and used this rose-colored view to critique antisemitic politicians as “un-American.” For decades, these academics denied the existence of a homegrown, structural anti-Judaism in the U.S., and treated antisemitism as a marginal, 20th-century European import — as though the Union Army had not attempted to ethnically cleanse an entire military district of its Jewish population in 1862, or as though whole political campaigns were not made out of defaming their opponents as “Jews” and “Shylocks” throughout the first century of U.S. politics.

From the standpoint of more recent historians, these incidents represent no more than quirky anomalies in an otherwise liberal, pluralistic orientation toward Jews in the United States — if not by the public, then certainly by the state. Sure, the last Jews to gain recognition of their right to hold state office wouldn’t do so until more than a century after the signing of the Declaration of Independence; but generally, the United States has been good to the Jews. This white-washed, American-exceptionalist reading of Jewish history is everywhere as the media try to grapple with this latest, out-of-control wave of political antisemitism.

Journalists warning about the trajectory of U.S. politics with regards to antisemitism are quick to make comparisons to Nazi Germany, when the more apt comparison is to the United States’ own history of anti-Jewish oppression — right down to the central role played by ultra-wealthy automobile moguls in the spread of antisemitic propaganda. In 2018, headlines about the Pittsburgh shooting called it “the first pogrom in American history” and claimed that it broke from the rule that “pogroms don’t happen in America.” None of this is true. The first anti-Jewish pogrom in American history (that is, following the War of Independence — there were earlier pogroms in the colonies) likely happened in 1850 in Detroit, when a group of hundreds of Christians, led by the police, ransacked a synagogue on Yom Kippur in retribution for a rumor that Jews had ritually murdered a gentile girl for the holiday. In 1902, a large Jewish funeral procession was attacked by a mob of antisemites, who were later joined by the police under orders to “Kill those Sheenies! Club them right and left! Get them out of the way!” In 1911, a mob armed with iron bars and glass bottles rioted in Malden, Massachusetts, viciously beating Jews in the street and smashing Jewish storefronts. The Christian Front rioted in Jewish neighborhoods throughout the 1930s and ‘40s. Southern segregationists used bombs and mob justice to target Jewish communities across the South in the late 1950s and ‘60s. And of course, antisemitic rioters murdered two people and injured dozens in the Crown Heights neighborhood of New York City as recently as 1991.

This is not to say that Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the Republican Party have not contributed to a dramatic shift in the social positionality of Jews over the last several years. It is plainly more dangerous to be a visibly Jewish person in the United States than it has been in several decades, in no small part due to antisemitic agitation by the Republican far right. But Trump did not manufacture the antisemitism wave out of thin air either; he spoke to a deep-seated, if “colorblind” antisemitism present throughout the U.S.’s cultural and political life. The colorblind metaphor has been used to describe the process by which racism was politically laundered following the civil rights movement, forcing racist ideologues to decry “welfare queens” and “thugs” instead of Black folks by name. A similar process has shaped antisemitism in this country, pushing explicit Jew hatred out of the political mainstream while maintaining its key political and social ideas. The culture war politics of the modern Republican Party, for example, came into being during Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign — a campaign heavily influenced and staffed by antisemites from the John Birch Society. Trump’s brand of “anti-globalist” antisemitic scapegoating is unthinkable absent the legacy of Richard Nixon’s persecution of Jewish officials in the federal government as potential “communists,” or Ronald Reagan’s war on the influence of East Coast “elites” or David Duke’s success in securing the majority of the white vote in Louisiana in 1990 and 1991 while raving against Zionist influence in Washington.

Of course, the Republican right has not been alone in succumbing to the global antisemitism wave of the last decade: Democratic media figures, too, have ranted about Jewish “communists” executing liberals in Times Square and compared Bernie Sanders’s electoral success to the victory of Nazism. It was a Democratic mayor who led a discriminatory police crackdown on Orthodox Jews, scapegoating them for his city’s disastrous response to COVID-19. And one of the most important disseminators of antisemitic propaganda today with a mainstream platform is a Kennedy running for president in the Democratic Party primary.

Trumpism and the growing fascist street movement in the United States are important factors in the explosion of violence against Jews in the last several years. But the antisemitism that they have tapped into has been present in the organization of political power in the United States from the beginning. For the first century and a half of colonization in North America, some form of Christianness was the ideological and legal dividing line between citizen-subject and outsider. And even after the secularization of citizenship ushered in globally by the bourgeois revolutions, nation-states including the U.S. relied on the distinction between Christian and Jew — hardworking American and cosmopolitan elite; law-abiding citizen and outside agitator — to resolve the contradictions of capitalist democracy. Outside this context of structural antisemitism — that is, the embedding of these antisemitic categories into the organization of politics, culture and the economy — Trump’s antisemitism would have been overlooked. But because the U.S. ruling class relies on antisemitism from generation to generation, as do the ruling classes of all states descended from the politico-economic order of medieval Christendom, Trump’s antisemitism has found a hearing right alongside the antisemitism of far right movements all over Europe and the Americas, as have comparable discourses targeting dissidents and minorities in India, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Antisemitism is more than simple prejudice. It is as fundamental to modern, liberal political thought as the cult of individualism is to capitalist economics. And because of this, the ruling classes of the Christian world cannot help but turn to antisemitism in moments of crisis.

For now, Jews in the United States can trust the judicial system to adhere to the law in cases of antisemitic violence perpetrated by anti-government neo-Nazis. But that is a much more specific kind of trust than the blanket faith put in the U.S. political system by many Jewish historians and liberal politicos. Bowers’s trial, for example, mirrors another ongoing death penalty case in Texas. Randy Halprin, a Jewish prisoner on Texas’s death row, was arrested in 2001 after escaping from prison and sentenced to death by Judge Vic Cunningham (now a practicing private attorney in Texas) who called him a “k*ke” and a “fucking Jew,” and promised before a verdict had been reached to get Halprin the death penalty. Halprin’s sentence was, thankfully, stayed six days before his impending execution in 2019. But the basis for optimism about Jewish safety in the United States has long been predicated on an imagined institutional barrier separating allegedly “fringe,” far right ideologues from the institutions of the U.S. state. What happens when more judges are convinced by the rising tide of antisemitism to selectively enforce the law more harshly against Jewish prisoners? Limited data already suggest that Jews are overrepresented in the U.S. prison system and receive harsher punishments for the same crimes as non-Jews — particularly when the data are controlled for race. What does it mean for the alleged invulnerability of the U.S. state to antisemitism that the FBI has raised the alarm for nearly two decades about neo-Nazi gangs infiltrating local police departments, or that police are more and more frequently found to be collaborating hand in glove with fascist street movements like the Proud Boys? As McCarthyism’s overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on Jews demonstrated in the 1950s, the closeting of antisemitic sentiment under a thin veil of official philosemitism has never amounted to safety for Jewish people, save for those at the very top in terms of power and wealth.

These questions are not intended as alarmist, but provocative. Jews in this country — and around the world — do not need fear in the face of ascendent antisemitic and fascist movements, but serious politics and analysis. Liberals too often respond to antisemites like Elon Musk and Donald Trump with mere shock and moral superiority, treating them as eccentric, reprehensible bigots rather than the symptoms of a rotting political system that they are. Neither such superficial critiques, nor death sentences for the most violent antisemites, will stop the spread of political antisemitism. We must rely instead on the building of an anti-fascist movement, and more broadly, a positive movement for collective liberation that tackles antisemitism as part and parcel of the systems of imperialism, white supremacy and capitalism which oppress and exploit the great majority of people around the world. To get free, Jews and our allies must confront antisemitism in the U.S. at the root.

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