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The Charleston and Tree of Life Shootings Are Connected Struggles

CounterSpin interviews Audrey Sasson on anti-Semitism, racism and resistance.

A woman walks past a makeshift memorial outside the Tree of Life Congregation on October 30, 2018, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Janine Jackson: On October 5, Fox host Maria Bartiromo asked Sen. Chuck Grassley if he thought George Soros was “behind” public criticism of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination — or, as she put it, “paying these people to get you and your colleagues in elevators or wherever they can get in your face.” Grassley responded:

I have heard so many people believe that. I tend to believe it. I believe it fits in his attack mode, and how he uses his billions and billions of resources. I think it promotes incivility in American society.

An hour later, Trump tweeted:

The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionally made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others.

Neither Bartiromo nor Grassley nor Trump noted that George Soros is Jewish. They don’t need to. References to a billionaire secretly pulling the strings of disruptive, unpatriotic activists draw on decades, even centuries, of antisemitic ideas — ideas that can fuel violence, as painfully shown by the October 27 killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

That the horror of Jews being killed because they were Jews came shortly after two black people were killed because they were black, in a Kentucky grocery store, seemed to encourage some to think about the relationship between antisemitism and the white supremacy rearing its head in Trump-era public life. Others have been seeing those connections — and acting on them — for many years now. We’re joined now in studio by Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. Welcome to CounterSpin, Audrey Sasson.

Audrey Sasson: Thank you so much; it’s a pleasure to be here.

Let’s start with the mythology around philanthropist George Soros, an actual, complex human being, deserving of scrutiny, like any other powerful person. It’s hard to overstate how large Soros looms in the minds of the right and far right. He was also sent a pipe bomb, along with other frequent Trump targets. Tell us about the Soros myth, and how it fits with what we know about how antisemitism works.

I want to actually lift up, not only was he sent one of the bombs, he was sent the first bomb that went out to the political opponents. And that, I think, is significant. At JFREJ, we have for a long time, of course, been critical of the accumulation of capital and wealth, and how that is creating an unequal society, and we’re very invested in trying to push back against that.

But the case of Soros is troubling and obviously dangerous, for a lot of reasons. George Soros is Jewish, he is an immigrant and he is the face, really, of what is considered the typical conspiracy theory about Jewish power, Jewish globalism, Jewish puppet mastery over social movements.

And this is not new; this goes back centuries, as you mentioned. And in Trump’s campaign, it also came up early on. So I don’t know if you remember this, but Trump’s final campaign ad, that he did right before the election, included an image of Soros, talked about the elite globalists who are controlling everything.

And this idea of Jews controlling the economy, controlling popular disruption and unrest, basically does two things: It delegitimizes the message and it delegitimizes the messenger. And so when there are popular movements that are united, that are multiracial, that are cross-gender or cross-class, these movements get interrupted. And the idea here is that the people who are organizing don’t have the chops to do it on their own, they don’t have the agency to do it on their own. Oftentimes black and brown folks [who] are basically told — or in the case of Kavanaugh, women — that they don’t have the agency, so that they can’t really do this, but also that it is in the interest of these global elites to control what’s going on. And so it creates a very convenient target and scapegoat.

It’s saying that these these people, all of these people, could only be pawns, because they couldn’t possibly have these goals and the agency to act on them on their own, if they weren’t being puppet-mastered.

Well, the idea that Jews corrupt the “true citizens” of a nation, that also explains why Tree of Life was targeted, not just for their religion, but for their relationship with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. That’s why a guest on Fox Business accused Soros of masterminding the group of Central Americans struggling to seek asylum to the US. It has to do with bringing other people in, right?

It’s the undesirables, exactly. So it is no coincidence that there was a direct link there, made by the shooter, between the synagogue and HIAS. The president, 45, has been talking about the caravan and the migrants in ways that would have evoked that, and so it was no surprise to see that there was a link being made there.

And so I think what it does is, it calls on us to actually double down on the fact that we are united and we won’t be divided. And what these attempts are, are really attempts to divide our movements, and we have to remain vigilant against that.

I wanted to just underscore one thing that former executive director of JFREJ Dove Kent wrote recently, that it isn’t “just antisemitism on its own, but antisemitism deployed against the left that gives the lie about Soros its cultural power.”

We can connect, you know, “the Koch brothers are funding this group and that group,” and it doesn’t have the same impact, because the Soros story feeds on all these other ideas…

Lies. We’ve seen it in the history. The civil rights movement is another example where this was done. I recently saw this totally amazing — I’m mean, it’s in our book as well, we have a guide called Understanding Antisemitism that we invite people to check out — and it has an example of this leaflet that was out in the ’50s, basically blaming the Jews for the civil rights movement; they are the puppet masters behind that, and that essentially the black community would not be rising up on its own without it.

The reason that it’s so important to connect the dots between white supremacy and antisemitism — and we’re seeing more and more understanding and acknowledgement of this, thanks to a lot of really good writing and analysis that’s being circulated right now — is that if people are dealing with a bad economy, inequality on so many levels–racial and economic inequality–and they’re looking for something to blame for that, we “punch up” against the Jews to “punch down” against the people of color and the immigrants and others. So that there’s sort of this space created where white Christian nationalists can basically say, “This is our home. This is our nation. You all, whether you’re Jewish on one side of this — and you’re not white, no matter how white you may look, you’re not white to us — you’re the ones that are basically responsible for this uprising by people down below us.” Then that creates an “us and them,” and it really paves the way towards the fascism that we see moving forward.

That’s a great point.

Of course, there’s another side to the linkage, which is the positive of the links. You almost sense some surprise on some of the media’s part, like, “Would you believe the first folks who came out in solidarity with the Jews in Pittsburgh were Muslims?” But this sort of solidarity among and across communities that face discrimination is itself not new and has its own long history.

Absolutely. It has been incredibly powerful to be able to see that manifest and materialize, because we know; JFREJ has been in relationship with a lot of these groups, here for the last three decades, and across history, like you mentioned. We know that white Christian nationalism is coming after all of us; we see that. At our vigil on Saturday night, that JFREJ held to honor the memories of those fallen in Pittsburgh — and in Kentucky, frankly — we had Muslim allies come out, and they were the ones who named the centrality of antisemitism to white supremacy. We didn’t have to say that; they knew that they were coming arm-in-arm with us because we share — I don’t want to say “enemy” — but it’s really our shared purpose. Our shared purpose is to overcome that together, to build a world where we can all be in our multiracial splendor together!

Let me ask you about media. There was a thing in the LA Times, and it said, I’ll just read you this quote:

Activists said Trump’s vilification of liberal philanthropist George Soros, whom he has accused of hiring people to protest conservative causes, has played into conspiracy theories about wealthy Jews.

So we don’t know from this if Soros has hired protestors; it’s just something [Trump] claims. We don’t know whether Trump’s vilification of Soros actually plays into conspiracy theories. Not to mention that this quote is followed up with, “Trump’s supporters deny that he has stoked hate,” I just feel like this kind of reporting, “Activists claim there are conspiracy theories that target Jews,” I think the time for that has passed.

Thank you for saying that. I couldn’t agree more. There’s a sort of “both sides” thing going on here. The dangers and the stakes are so high, the threats are escalating, we’re in a proto-fascist moment. And for the media to not be able to name that is at best just a willful ignorance, and at worst, it’s pushing an agenda that’s really not paying attention to the fact that there’s a context here for all of these dog whistles and all of these statements.

When Trump says he’s a nationalist and not a globalist, what is he saying? What is he saying right there? He’s doing two things. He has double duty right there.

He’s saying to his white Christian base that might not be neo-Nazis, he’s saying to them, “We’re together. We can build our white Christian nation together. I am with you. We are the ‘majority’” — according to him. And to the neo-Nazis out there, he’s saying, “I see you. I understand. Those Jews out there, they’re the problem. They’re the ones who are causing all this trouble for us by riling up the masses.”

And that foments violence. and that’s why we end up with the hate violence, the political violence — I don’t even want to say “hate.” It is political violence, and it’s political violence because it is targeted, it has a political purpose, and that purpose is to push us even further into this “us versus them,” white Christian nationalist state.

And there’s no reason for media to allow any sort of deniability there. Maybe, in terms of signals, this might be more subtle: Washington Post White House bureau chief Philip Rucker tweeted:

Remarkable protest seen in Squirrel Hill. Demonstrators are neither yelling nor chanting. They don’t seem angry. Old and young, they are walking peacefully, singing softly and letting their very presence (and placards) deliver their message.

I am not denying that he was moved, and that there is something powerful about quiet protest. But I can’t help but get a vibe there that, “They aren’t making noise like the…ahem…black people,” you know? That this is the “correct” way to protest: just weep quietly in the street. I really think we have to resist that policing of grief, for one thing.

I’m not really trying to accuse him of anything. I just think that any sort of thing that seems to hold some of our movements against others, that appears to contrast the Jewish resistance to the shooter in Pittsburgh — ”It’s not like a Black Lives Matter march” — I think we’ve got to push back against that.

A hundred percent, yeah. And of course JFREJ has been arm-in-arm with Black Lives Matter from the get-go, and our membership is multiracial, and we see these things as connected. Just today, someone called up the office and said, “I wanted to check in, because I think I heard there was a vigil tonight that was going to be honoring the Pittsburgh victims at the same time as the Kentucky victims, and I think that’s exactly what we need to be doing.” This was a Jewish woman up on the Upper West Side who saw what was going on and connected the dots and was like, “This is all of it.”

Charleston and Tree of Life, these are connected, these are connected struggles. We are all in this together. So yeah, any attempt to divide us, and any attempt to terrorize us into that isolation, is something we have to resist. We have to be mindful of the threats, we have to be real about all of that. But we have to resist the attempt to divide our communities.

Well, I was going to ask you where you see hope, and I think you just said it, really, with that increasing recognition. I meant, also — coming out of that Washington Post thing — I guess I really meant to just sort of say, what sorts of things would you like to see more or less of from media? So you can connect those two things, if you like, in your final thoughts.

Yeah, I mean certainly, for the media to be a little bit more attentive to these sort of dog whistles, and to put them in context and to not let politicians be able to skate on these things. When someone says “incivility” or — there are certain terms that are clearly signaling an agenda that we shouldn’t let them get away with. You know, there was a Wall Street Journal piece a while back, when the tweets about Soros starting coming out, and there was a response saying that it’s antisemitic, and that we weren’t going to fall for it. Of course JFREJ said, “We’re not falling for this!” But there was a piece that really legitimized these things, like you said, creating, sort of, “What is the argument for or against calling Soros to task for funding these movements?”

The part that I want to also lift up is that we live in a world where there are going to be people who fund our movements, and that is not the same thing as paying protestors. Obviously, we shouldn’t have to explain that. But it was really strange, because the article is just like, “They even had a table set up with markers at the Kavanaugh hearing.” Like, “Clearly someone is paying for this and they’re going out of the way….”

And I want to just say, from a personal perspective: so I know intellectually and theoretically and from an organizing perspective, why all of that is totally messed up, and we need to be vigilant and we need to be mindful and we need to not buy into it.

And I was like, “Those women! The agency that it took to go out there, the courage it took for people to go and speak their truth, their vulnerable truth. And how dare you? How dare you take that away?”

To me, that was one of the most insidious things about it, that you would strip that agency away from people who are putting everything on the line in order to speak truth to power. Same with Pittsburgh, with anywhere where our movements are stepping into the line of fire, stepping into the really scary moment that we’re in. To take that away is just… How dare you?

And we all need to be doing more of, I think we are doing it, I am seeing it. I think we need to double down on what we have been doing, which is building multiracial coalition, building multifaith and multiracial coalition, understanding isolation is our enemy and the only way through this is together.

We are the majority. It’s not just that we are against all of these bad things. We also are the majority that are for so much good. Like the ideas, the organizations and the people on the ground that are fighting for Medicare for All, that are fighting against increasing concentration of wealth and power, that are fighting against entrenched racism within policing. We have a vision of a future where we can actually all have shared prosperity and power.

And shared prosperity and power is the only thing that is really going to push back against antisemitism and is going to push back against white supremacy. Those are the things that are going to get us there. I think that that is what we do share, and I think that we have to just leverage that and bring that to the front. I think we know what to do.

We’ve been speaking with Audrey Sasson, executive director of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. They’re online at, and that’s where you can find their resource, Understanding Antisemitism. Audrey Sasson, thank you so much for joining us today on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having us.

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