The Tree of Life and the roots of white supremacy

Dr. Elliot Ratzman, Visiting Fellow in Jewish Studies

Around the country, Jews and their allies came together this week to mourn the nearly dozen worshippers murdered on Saturday by a raging white supremacist. The gunman, Robert Bowers, a loner obsessed with conspiracies, resentment and Holocaust denial was so right-wing that he thought Trump’s nationalist agenda was being hamstrung by the presence of Jews in his administration, posting, “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a k— infestation.”

Saturday’s massacre, the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, sent shockwaves through the Jewish community. American Jews are likely only one or two degrees of separation away from someone who lives in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. My Facebook feed was a string of mourning, check-ins and stories about how we all knew someone who knew a victim or a member of the synagogue.

However, to dismiss the gunman and his antisemitism as merely “crazy” or to blame his acts on the empty affects “religious prejudice” or “blind hate” is to miss the bigger story here: white supremacy. In the minds of antisemites, Jews are not white. Therefore, it is imperative that we who seek justice make combating antisemitism part of our movements and to see Jews as a necessary part of antiracist coalitions — on campuses, in the cities and in all of our communities.

That Bowers and other right-wing nationalists do not consider Jews white might come as a surprise to people of color but is a familiar move to Jews. While most American Jews do not experience skin color prejudice, they nevertheless live with the communal memory of systematic violence and exclusion in Europe over the last few centuries — our grandparents and great-grandparents fled mob violence and state terror that framed Jews as racial others not part of the nations they lived among. Even Arabic-speaking Jews in the Middle East were, after the founding the State of Israel, treated as enemy outsiders by many Arab nationalist movements in countries from Iraq to Egypt.

That Jews are one faces of the resistance against white supremacy is clear from the gunman’s posts on social media before shooting up the synagogue.

He wrote: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” HIAS is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a hundred-year-old progressive advocate for refugee rights and pro-immigration policies who, along with other stalwart organizations like Catholic Charities, lobby elected officials and supply much needed resources — from legal services to material provisions — to refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. The demonization of immigrants and this month’s right-wing hysteria over the caravan of migrants making their trek from Central America most certainly contributed to Bowers’ paranoia.

Jews have become, for many on the far-right, the face of liberal anti-nationalism: Jews are the “globalists” seeking to undermine American greatness by promoting immigration and contesting Trump’s illiberal agenda. They might appear white, but according to the alt-right, they sabotage white nationalism by promoting liberal values, multiculturalism and tolerance. For the alt-right, Jewish support of such causes makes them insidious traitors to American greatness.

When Trump and others speak of “globalists,” they echo the accusations against the Jews of Europe that they were not loyal to the nations where they lived but were part of an “internationalist” conspiracy committed to undermining nationalism through socialism, Communism or multiculturalism that would dilute the “purity” of the nation. These ideas were Fascism’s engine of resentment that stirred mobs to loot Jewish property and participate in the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews.

Jews are all too familiar with white supremacy, as we were its primary victims in Europe.

The American Jewish self-perception of being an antiracist community does not sit well with well-positioned right-wing Jews who enable or embolden xenophobia. From David Horowitz’s rants that the “real race war” in America is against white people, to Stephen Miller, the callous architect of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies, high-profile right-wing Jews are part of the landscape of American xenophobia. However, these exceptions prove the rule that the American Jewish community –its institutions, its voting patterns and its historical memory –stand overwhelmingly against white supremacy.

It is also true that though American Jewish liberalism is statistically a demonstrable thing, the State of Israel is a complicating factor. Israeli governments and civil society have become increasingly intolerant of African asylum seekers guest workers, not to speak of Israel’s constant pressure on its Palestinian subjects — those non-citizens under its sovereignty. Richard Spencer and some others on the alt-right point to Israel as a model of the exclusionary ethnostate it hopes for the U.S. This dark mirror holds a disturbing picture for liberal American Jews, whose perceptions of Israel as an admirable, besieged social democracy — Bernie Sanders’ Israel — have given way to an illiberal democracy intolerant of different and dissent. Tellingly, American Jewish support of Israel has decreased dramatically in recent decades, which is why the Israel lobby has increasingly turned to Evangelical Christians and right-wing Islamophobes for advocacy and support.

Nevertheless, American Jewish mixed feelings for Israel should not disqualify Jews from antiracist coalitions.

It is no coincidence that the shooter Bowers spoke of Jews as an “infestation.” The anti-immigration rhetoric from germaphobe Trump on down has been about “purifying” the health — and complexion — of the nation by cordoning off the boarder from migrants allegedly “bringing crime…drugs” and sexual pollution. These are calculated logics straight from the Fascist playbook, the roots of white supremacy.

Jews on campus and around the country should be proud of their roles in promoting a tolerant, plural and just American society. Bowers, the murderer, was right on this: Jews should stand for the rights of migrants and refugees; Jews should represent a rebuke to narrow nationalism; Jews should stand up to fascist rhetoric and policies — our history and our religion demands that it is our responsibility — and therefore, Jews should be welcomed as ready allies in the fight for justice, to chop at the roots of white supremacy.

Jews around the country are feeling more vulnerable than at any time in our American history and so warrant our community’s support. Please join us in mourning our dead, our blessed martyrs to a better America. Let us support the very pro-immigrant organizations that Bowers sought to destroy through murder and mayhem, and let us all organize together for a just world.


***Dr. Elliot Ratzman is a Visiting Fellow in Jewish Studies and the Jewish Life Mentor through the Office of Spiritual and Religious Life. ***