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White Supremacy and Christian Hegemony Came to a Head in Poway Violence

The shooting reveals the complexity of white supremacy’s relationship to Christian power.

Flowers and mementos are left outside the funeral for Lori Gilbert Kaye on April 29, 2019, in Poway, California. Kaye was killed inside the Chabad of Poway synagogue by a gunman who opened fire during services.

Six months after Jews were massacred at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a month and a half after Muslims were slaughtered at the Al Noor Mosque and Inwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand, John T. Earnest entered the lobby of the Chabad synagogue of Poway, California, with an AR-style assault rifle and murdered Lori Kaye while injuring three others. Before his attempted rampage, the shooter, now charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder, dumped a manifesto on that places the Poway violence — as well as the mosque arson a month previous in Escondido, California — in a direct lineage with the terror in Pittsburgh and Christchurch. Such a lineage follows a far-right logic of “accelerationism” that attempts to ignite race war via a series of individual acts of violence. Like the Pittsburgh and Christchurch murderers before him, Earnest aimed to defend the white “European race” from those he described as threatening to replace it and to avenge Christendom from the Jews he described as persecuting and defiling it. White Christian violence multiplies.

That the chosen enemy shifts between Jew and Muslim in the multiplying scheme signals the two’s interchangeability in the paranoid ideologies of white Christian nationalists. In the dominant paradigm of the U.S. and Europe today, however, Jews are often absorbed into a Judeo-Christian West against Islamic civilization to the East; following the 2015 ISIS-inspired attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris, for example, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls effusively proclaimed, “Without the Jews of France, France is no longer France.” The anti-Jewish terror on this past final day of Passover, then, in its expressed links to anti-Muslim terror, points to a specific thread of white nationalism that refuses this Judeo-Christian solidarity. In confronting the specificity of the shooter’s violence, rather than reducing it to a monolithic history of white nationalism, a contemporary crisis of white Christian power becomes visible.

The public response to the shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue was swift and largely deployed preconceived political templates. In a roundtable on George Stephanopolous’s “This Week” that included exactly zero Jews, Meghan McCain — apparently appointed by the ABC network as national arbiter of anti-Semitism — played the referee between “the most extreme on both sides,” an uncanny repetition of the president’s notoriously flaccid response to the 2017 far-right violence in Charlottesville. McCain’s focus immediately pivoted toward Muslim American Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, shamefully comparing “some of [Omar’s] comments” to the shooter’s murderous acts. McCain thus declares anti-Semitism a problem of extremism that transcends politics — which is to say, a pathological error of irrational individuals. In doing so, she directs focus away from white Christian violence itself.

Some prominent Jewish figures have also capitalized on the violence in San Diego to double-down on their tirades against Muslim American women. Former New York state assemblyman Dov Hikind and president of the Zionist Organization of America Morton A. Klein both tweeted that Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were somehow either connected with or to blame for the shooting. These bizarre accusations, scribbled in hysterical syntax, index how, in the face of unambiguous white Christian violence, some Jewish Americans feel a feverish need to reconfirm their obedience to white Christian power by parroting its crusading obsession with the Muslim enemy.

Others, such as New York Times op-ed columnist Bari Weiss or Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, retreated to the empty word soup that has long defined dominant Jewish conceptions of anti-Semitism. Weiss on Twitter described anti-Semitism with the hackneyed metaphor of a “virus,” alluded to some vague societal “immune system,” and concluded that because our society’s “immune system” is “weakened,” the “virus thrives.” Such comforting but nebulous metaphors ultimately excuse her from considering the Poway violence in any of its specificity or political dimensions. Greenblatt, meanwhile, called for a united stand against “hate” by “enforcing norms and standing for our shared values,” invoking some kind of liberal consensus that dissolves the violence into an undifferentiated sea of abnormal behavior.

At the same time, the progressive Jewish and non-Jewish responses that merely “name” white nationalism and assert the complicity of Trump himself also do little to illuminate the Poway shooting in its specificity. We are told that his side fails to make crucial connections between events, even though the self-satisfied assertions of progressives also do not in and of themselves reveal how disparate events of white nationalist violence relate and interact. Instead, they allude to intersectionality while actually reifying a monolithic white nationalism (“them”) that targets an undifferentiated “us.”

Consequently, in the progressive perspective, white nationalist discourses and behaviors necessarily align with the unanimous agendas and policies of its political foes: the right-wing, period. Under such a simplified rubric, the alleged shooter’s own expressed motivations and ideologies are subordinated to the cause of opposing Trump. And instead of addressing the specificity of this white Christian attack on Jewish bodies in a Chabad synagogue, the shooting is summarily reduced to an obvious expression of the “bad” side.

But what are we to make of the suspected shooter’s disavowal of Trump, describing him in the manifesto as a “Zionist, Jew-loving, anti-White, traitorous cocksucker?” What are we to make of the shooter’s choice of a Chabad synagogue, especially when Chabad’s international outreach network, global dissemination of Jewish texts, and public ties to both Trump and Putin made frequent appearances — with accompanying photos — on the neo-Nazi internet forum that staged the real-life attack? We can dismiss the manifesto and the internet forum that spawned it, squeezing the shooter’s attack into our preconceived grids of right-wing ideology and violence — or we can listen.

It is necessary to confront the way in which Christian anti-Judaism and modern racism coagulate in “alt-right” culture and multiply in extrajudicial acts of individual violence, a process called “real-life effortposting” that translates virtual forum posts into material terror. It is necessary to recognize the particular type of anti-“globalist” white nationalism championed by the suspected shooter, which promotes itself as both anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist. (For those on the left struggling against the forces of white supremacy and settler-colonialism in Palestine, this kind of “anti-imperialism of fools” is all the more important to confront and counter.) Once we acknowledge the complex ways in which white nationalism manifests, we can then discern the outline of a festering crisis of white Christian power.

The United States was indeed founded upon white power, a white power that ostensibly superseded Christian unity. The Naturalization Act of 1790 codified the political subject empowered by the United States of America as a free white person, and debates recorded in the Annals of Congress strikingly reveal that Jewish whiteness was never impugned. On the contrary, plantation owner John Page, a delegate from Virginia, argued in favor of Jewish inclusion, asserting that Jewish religious opinion will not “injure us, if we have good laws, well executed.”

The delegate’s argument marks Jewish inclusion in racial whiteness — which is not to say that all Jews in the United States were then or are now categorically white but rather that whiteness and Jewishness themselves are an unproblematic combination. At the same time, the inclusion of Jews as citizens in spite of their religious difference reveals how racial whiteness, in organizing white Jews and white Protestants as social equals, neutralizes but does not dissolve Jewish difference. White Jews may be friends to white supremacy but remain enemies to Christian hegemony. It appears that the violence we are now facing is the return of this repressed Jewish question, a question of Christendom’s internal and external enemies, a question that the universalist pretenses of democracy failed to answer.

President Trump’s ruling coalition of Republican loyalists and right-wing Jews creates a spectacle of Jewish complicity in state-sanctioned white nationalism. This Judeo-Christian unity is at odds, however, with the suspected shooter’s evangelical Christian supremacy. For, in addition to recycling some of the Christian gospels’ anti-Jewish episodes and seeking a much-belated revenge for the blood libel of Simon of Trent, the alleged manifesto imagines an international Jewish conspiracy of domination and genocide against “Christians of modern-day Syria and Palestine, and Christians in White nations.” And if the internet forum in which the shooter admittedly “lurked” is any indication, Chabad functions as a key figure in this imagined international conspiracy. Chabad, a Hasidic movement that started in a small village in western Russia, joins the usual suspects that populate anti-Semitic paranoia: The supposedly greedy and omnipotent Rothschild banking dynasty, the putatively “globalist” and “anti-Western” George Soros, and the presumably bloodthirsty and manipulative Zionists. (Criticizing the real violence perpetrated by the state of Israel does not require we refrain from indicting this conspiracy theory, just as criticizing U.S. intervention in Latin America does not require we refrain from disclaiming David Duke’s comparably anti-imperialist and anti-Semitic blather about both John Bolton and Elliot Abrams.)

The present crisis of white Christian power occurs between a global white superpower, seemingly inclusive of (white) Jews, and white Christian nationalists acting out in extrajudicial violence to exclude them. Such a crisis was in fact prefigured by media speculation that positioned “globalist” Jews Jared Kushner and Gary Cohn as White House rivals to the “nationalist” Steve Bannon; and it is also suggested in the manifesto itself, moving incoherently between the two registers of the white “European race” and of broader Christendom. If, as sociology professor Dylan Riley argued, “the effect of the Trump administration has been to exacerbate [rather than consolidate] the deep conflicts of interest within the dominant class,” then the Poway shooting reveals how Jews and Muslims become collateral damage as the dominant class’s complex interests in white and Christian power collide. We must be willing to wrestle with these ambiguities and complexities of our racial regime if we are to have any chance of dismantling it.

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