November 1, 2023
By: M L CLARK
Early one October morning, a Jewish community was shattered by an act of senseless violence. Elders, including Holocaust survivors, were either killed or injured out of pure hate. “All Jews must die!” shouted the gunman, who had initially declared that he was going to attack this community because he couldn’t “sit by and watch [his] people get slaughtered.” On October 27, 2018, he killed eleven people at Shabbat service, wounding six.
The Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue massacre was the largest assault on Jewish citizens in recent US history. Only this summer, in August 2023, did the culprit receive sentencing: death by lethal injection, to be carried out at a future date. The Jewish community in Pittsburgh hasn’t returned the synagogue to normal services; there has been debate about how to go forward, and fundraising for renovations to mark the horror and tragedy of that day.
But the event, while traumatic, was not surprising to many. In the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election, there had been a significant uptick in antisemitic events, and similar was emerging ahead of the 2018 midterms. Between them, Charlottesville, Virginia hosted the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, which boasted Nazi symbols and slogans among its neo-Confederate, neo-Nazi, neo-fascist, Klansmen, and other alt-right attendees. There, a white supremacist drove his car into dozens of counter-protesters, killing one. The president at the time, the now quadruply indicted Donald Trump, said of the event, in which protestors shouted “Jews will not replace us”, that there were “very fine people” on both sides.
Antisemitic events have been on the rise in the US in recent years, stemming primarily from Christian nationalist and other far right movements. But only recently have we seen right wing media and politicians express consistent concern about anti-Jewish messaging. In the last month, calls to ban certain phrases, block speakers, deny public marches, and remove people from their jobs for statements ranging from critical of Israel to directly hateful of Jewish people have surged.
What changed, for a part of the US political spectrum that has tolerated antisemitism in its rank-and-file for decades?
Only the source.
Hateful rhetoric after October 7
On October 7, operatives for the Gaza Strip’s governing authority breached Israeli territory and set about killing soldiers and civilians alike, while rounding up hostages to take back to Gaza. Initial Israeli death reports range from 1300 to 1400, and include families with young children, elders, Holocaust survivors, Nepali students, Thai laborers, Bedouin, and young adults partying at a desert rave. Unverified rumors of more elaborate atrocity spread like wildfire after the attack, when the cold-blooded murder of civilians should have been horror enough.
Around 240 people are still hostages of Hamas. Thus far, 1,012 verified names of the dead in Israel have been released, including 660 civilians: 24 between 4 and 17 years old, none younger so far disclosed.
In its 1988 Covenant, Hamas expressly called for the killing of Jewish people, and the eradication of Israel. Hamas never acts with a primary interest in improving the quality of life for everyday Palestinians; the group is engaged in religious jihad: funded in part by Iran, which also supports other paramilitaries in the Middle East. Hamas has a long history of stealing aid marked for Palestinian civilians, intimidating locals, and using civilian infrastructure for military operations.
Israeli government responded swiftly to the attack by declaring war and beginning a massive bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip. Although information blackouts have accompanied very real blackouts in recent days for the hard-hit region, the current death toll reported by the Gaza health ministry sits at over 8,700, with over 3,600 children: a predictable figure in a country where 47% of the population is under 18. On October 26, the health ministry shared a report of 6,747 names of Gaza’s dead, in response to US President Joe Biden’s stated skepticism of its numbers.
Global hatefulness surged in two waves: first, after the initial attack by Hamas on Israel, when many celebrated Hamas for its “win”, and second, after Israeli government’s bombing campaign started to yield huge civilian death counts in Gaza.
The anger runs a spectrum. Some hate Israeli government policy, some hate Israel as a whole state project, and some hate Jewish people around the world irrespective of their relationship to Zionism. (Zionists, too, are divided; different forms of Zionism have been in tension since the rise of the modern nationalist movement in the 19th century, and some are so extreme as to question the Judaism of Jews who do not support Israeli government actions, especially in the West Bank and Gaza.) Conversely, some are furious with Hamas, some with Palestinians for not having eliminated Hamas themselves, and some with Palestinians in general, right up to denying that Palestinians are even a “real” ethnic group.
Although the ideological motivations exist on a spectrum, the consequences are real. In Chicago, a six-year-old was killed in an anti-Palestinian attack on him and his mother. In Dagestan, Russia, a mob formed in the Makhachkala airport, trying to reach and attack any Israelis from a just-landed plane. At Cornell University, an individual (now arrested) threatened to kill Jews during a mass shooting in a campus dining hall. Violence against Palestinian, Muslim, and Arab peoples has been on the rise as well, with police in Dearborn, Michigan investigating a person who wanted to round people up to “hunt Palestinians”.
Most of the world has called for a ceasefire in Gaza on humanitarian grounds, just as the world rallied in record-breaking numbers to protest war ahead of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But just as media downplayed the extent of protests at the time, so too does the news today downplay how many humans have been gathering in acts solidarity for peace. Today, protests grieving ongoing Palestinian trauma in the wake of terrible Israeli loss often find Jewish and Muslim citizens side by side, and joined by people of other faiths, along with secular folk.
Mounting strife is much easier to report, but as the Middle East teeters on the brink of fuller conflict involving Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen (among others), the journalistic choice to amplify notions of division and hate is dangerous. It verges on gamification of a very real situation with human beings on the line.
This newfound outrage speaks to something deeper, and more difficult
to address, about the hateful rot at the heart of a great deal of Western
politics around the Middle East.
The fact that some are calling for the extermination of whole peoples must be discussed seriously, not sensationally, and certainly not as a competition between different targets and sources. As Israel commits to a long war campaign in Gaza, rhetoric in global protests and online media forums ranges from the explicitly to covertly exterminationist. In Sydney, Australia on October 11, the crowd at a pro-Palestinian march chanted “Gas the Jews”. In Berlin, Germany, Molotov cocktails were thrown into a synagogue, while other buildings were marked with the Star of David. Not everything shared can be trusted; some footage from older events is lately getting passed around to elevate tensions. But there is enough careless and overt cruelty to go around in this last month alone.
One phrase often heard in protests, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”, has a contested history. When some people chant it, they simply mean “end the suffering of Palestinians from Gaza to the West Bank”. But the slogan has historically also meant “wipe out Israel and return all of Palestine to Arab control”. This is in part because Israel is not just touted as the “only democracy” in the Middle East; it is also expressly a Jewish democracy, a complex term that any US citizen familiar with the struggle to divide church and state might appreciate. How does a state remain both Jewish and fully democratic? This is a challenge that Israeli citizens have been struggling with internally, as Orthodox and other far-right figures expressly seek to increase Jewish numbers and drive out other demographics, so as not to be democratically toppled by other citizens.
Sometimes the phrase is even more provocatively written in Arabic: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be Arab”. This is in contrast to the language found in the founding charter for Netanyahu’s political party, where Likud members declare:
The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is
linked with the right to security and peace; therefore, Judea and Samaria [West Bank
territories] will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the Sea and the
Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.
In the “Palestine will be Arab” construct, the expression could either mean wiping out all Jewish people, or only the settlers that many Arabs view as Western-derived, non-native and thus colonial in the region. In practice, though, the idea of a nuanced return of Palestine solely to Arabic peoples of all faiths is unrealistic. Nearly a century of Western-exacerbated conflict between residents does not bode well for the safety of any religious minority in the region for many years ahead.
At present, as UK Labor MP Andy McDonald discovered when suspended for its use, the most antisemitic reading of this slogan has won the media war. Any pro-Palestinian protest that chants this expression is marked as meaning “destroy Israel, and all the Jews within it”. Whether protesters intend the interpretation or not, this is now the dominant reading: a call to arm for violence against Jews.
Meanwhile, exterminationist messaging and action toward Palestinians has also emerged from Israeli officials, ultra-Orthodox settlers in the West Bank, and global pro-Israel supporters. In the immediate wake of the massacre, members of Netanyahu’s Israeli government spoke in sweeping terms about Palestinians and its planned destruction of the Gaza Strip.
Nakba, or “catastrophe”, is the Palestinian word for a state of ethnic displacement that many hold began in 1948 and continues today. Netanyahu’s government banned the word from textbooks in 2009, and routinely blocks civilian events marking the occasion for Arab Israelis. Nevertheless, on October 7, a parliamentary member of the governing Likud Party in Israel, Ariel Kallner, called for a “Nakba that will overshadow the Nakba of 48.” On October 13, President Isaac Herzog further stated that all Gazans were responsible for the events of October 7:
It is an entire nation out there that is responsible. It is not true this rhetoric
about civilians not being aware, not involved. It’s absolutely not true. They could
have risen up. They could have fought against that evil regime which took over
Gaza in a coup d’état.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, at an October 13 press conference
As reported by local journalists like Israel Fry, who was harassed after dedicating a Jewish prayer to dead Gazan civilians, Israeli social media includes calls to kill Palestinian children now so they don’t become Hamas fighters later (just as social media in other parts of the world advocate for killing Israeli children before they grow up to be oppressors, settlers, and IDF). He also notes the emboldened killing of Palestinians in the West Bank by religious-extremist settlers, and how Arab Israelis, two million of the country’s 9.4 million, have faced harassment, denial of service, and dismissal from their jobs after the attack.
In his October 28 speech ahead of a ground invasion, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressly cited ancient Israelite struggle against the Amalek. The Amalek were a people near Canaan, biblically said to have attacked Israelites after they fled Egypt. Israelites were enjoined to defeat them, which they did by attacking the Amalek’s best fighters. But YHWH compelled them never to forget the Amalekites’ initial transgression, and Israelites had difficulty differentiating between Amalekites and Canaanites in future regional conflicts.
In 1 Samuel 15:3 the god of Abraham then tells the Israelites, “Now, go, and you shall smite Amalek, and you shall utterly destroy all that is his, and you shall not have pity on him: and you shall slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
Suffice it to say, ethno-religious dogwhistles and related hateful rhetoric and action abound in this horrific conflict. There is no lack of exterminationist talk from pro-Palestine and pro-Israeli groups. Both “sides” contain people comfortable with the use of dehumanizing language for their political opponents, and with calling for the other demographic’s total elimination.
That’s not new.
What’s new is the US rhetoric of suddenly discovering antisemitism, simply because it’s shown up in traditionally left-leaning circles, even though it’s been practiced by plenty on the right as well. This newfound outrage speaks to something deeper, and more difficult to address, about the hateful rot at the heart of a great deal of Western politics around the Middle East.
The novelty of right wing outrage over antisemitism
On Friday, October 27, the US Senate unanimously passed a resolution condemning “anti-Israel, pro-Hamas student groups”: a blanket depiction of pro-Palestinian protesters who in recent weeks have gathered, marched, and walked out on classes at US universities, in the long tradition of activist response to political events.
Journalists, publication editors, company heads and board members have been forced to resign for comments such as “war crimes are war crimes even when committed by allies, and should be called out for what they are”: but all of this is part of the regular churn of marketplace economics (sometimes called cancel culture). Even a Conservative MP in the UK, sacked for publicly calling upon Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to support a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, is to some extent simply the price of doing business in a parliamentary system.
But the involvement of US officials in a condemnation of the exercise of free speech in public spaces poses serious questions about a country that not only claims to defend its First Amendment, but also does so in abundance when it comes to the right of neo-Nazis to march.
In the lead-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election, antisemitic incidents surged. Thereafter, they kept rising: vandalism, desecration to Jewish cemetery stones, bullying and outright assault. Yes, some of the bomb threats were issued by a disturbed Jewish Israeli-American teen out of boredom (and for profit, making crypto cash by selling his threat services), but they built upon a long-standing fount of antisemitism in US society, and were bolstered by the Republican Party’s current willingness to entertain an anti-Jewish voter base.
In the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin was the radio voice of the era: an explicit antisemite with a weekly audience of up to 40 million, who also published a magazine that perpetuated the conspiracy myths found in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It’s from this fake document that we get the modern “blood libel” notion of an international Jewish cabal running the world through Christian child sacrifice.
In the 1990s, Pat Robertson’s The New World Order continued the antisemitic myth of Jewish-financed global conspiracy; it was a bestseller among Christian conservatives. With the launch of QAnon in 2017, the alignment of Democrats with antisemitic blood libel mythology only deepened in far right US political culture, which was also gaining more traction and representation in public office.
In 2020, a Survey of American Attitudes Toward Jews found that between 11 to 14% of US citizens hold intensely antisemitic attitudes, while 61% “agree with at least one or more classic [antisemitic] canards”, and that 19% believe that “Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust”.
Trump was one of the most vocal proponents of the antisemitic “dual loyalty” myth during his time in office, referring to Israel as “your country” when talking to US Jews, and attributing low levels of support for him among the demographic to their lack of fealty to Israel.
“Any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total
lack of knowledge or great disloyalty. … Jewish people who live in the
United States don’t love Israel enough. I believe we got 25 percent of the
Jewish vote, and it doesn’t make sense. It just seems strange to me.
But I did very well in Florida.”
Washington Post, October 17, 2022
Trump has Jewish family members, and also a history of evasive response to support from the KKK and other white supremacist groups. In 2022, he had dinner with noted antisemite Nick Fuentes and Ye (formerly Kanye West), who was given abundant airtime among right wing pundits as he elevated conspiracy theories about Jewish people, wavering between claiming that today’s Jewish people aren’t legitimate descendants of Biblical Judaism, and playing into the myth of “financial engineering” being a Jewish trait.
Trump also noted that Christian evangelicals have been “far more appreciative” of his in-office policy around Israel. That, though, is no surprise, because it is the Christian evangelical movement that has for the last few decades been the strongest proponent of US action in Israel. In the 1960s, Christian leader Billy Graham visited Israel, and was there convinced that the nation of Israel was a fulfillment of “God’s plans” in a way that mattered significantly to Christian destiny, too. When the Moral Majority rose to Republican power in the 1980s, Israel was a central issue, and Jerry Falwell sustained close ties to Israeli leadership.
It was for US evangelicals that Trump moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He said so himself on his campaign trail for re-election in 2020, though with much more chutzpah when overriding any role for Israeli self-determination: “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals. … You know, it’s amazing with that: the evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people.”
Earlier this year, the FBI warned that antisemitism remains a “persistent driver of transnational violent extremist narratives and attacks”. In June, the White House called for the Pentagon to investigate the rise of antisemitism and Islamophobia within US military operations: both forms of hate related to the rise of far right extremist organizations that target military and police for recruitment. Some of their handiwork was seen in the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection.
Suffice it to say, US conservatism has a long history of tolerating “free speech” and “free association” for antisemitic groups and prominent public individuals: in part, because its stated support for Israel also has a strongly self-serving motive, with respect to satisfying Christian Evangelicals.
Even now, in Congress, that so-called right wing support for Israel has been leveraged to try to push through other changes. Biden asked for a $106 billion USD package that would include funding for Ukraine, Israel, fortification of US interests in areas competitive with China, and US southern border security. House Republicans, under the new Christian nationalist speaker Mike Johnson, offered a funding package for Israel alone, with funds taken from the Internal Revenue Service. Gutting the IRS has been a key component of right wing policy, to minimize its enforcement power against major tax evasion. Even Senator Mitch McConnell, no fan of Democratic administrations, expressed concern about the narrow focus.
And just where, exactly, does all the political grandstanding leave everyday Jewish people trying to navigate an antisemitic world?
The danger of gamified global politics
In a recent op-ed for Haaretz, Nissan Shor summarized the grief felt by many Jewish and Israeli people at some leftist responses to the events of October 7:
It’s often said that we direct our anger toward those we love, because this anger stems
from unmet expectations and unfulfilled hopes. I find myself angry with those I believed
were like me those who I thought shared my values—leftist ideals, humanism, human
rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and so forth. It seems I was mistaken, and we were
all mistaken, both Israelis and Jews. All too swiftly, we were cast aside, as if thrown beneath a
speeding train.… The voices of those usually quick to decry “micro-aggressions” have fallen
silent. I’ve searched for some form of condemnation—however faint, however subtle, just
something to grasp hold of—but found nothing. Absolutely nothing. … For these individuals,
radical notions serve as status symbols to be flaunted, rather than genuine beliefs. The Palestinian
people don’t truly concern them. These hollow liberals are products of the neoliberal economy.
Even if they perceive themselves as Marxists or leftists, their political identity is shaped in much
the same way as anything else in that system. It’s akin to a consumer item, like a windbreaker
purchased from a second-hand boutique. They drape themselves in the flag of Palestine, adopting
a mere aesthetic stance and exhibiting a fetishistic view of the Oriental subject. …A feeling of terrible
loneliness envelops me. I am a left-winger, I still believe that part of the harsh criticism of Israel
is fully justified, I know what we are doing in the territories and in Gaza, I haven’t forgone my solid
opinions. But I will not justify—and I expect of others not to justify—the barbarism, and not to
“understand” it, not even by an iota, but to struggle against it. Every justification,
every explanation, is unacceptable.
Just Like Me”, Haaretz, October 26
At the crux of this grief is a media culture that continues to treat horrific death as existing in a scarcity economy for empathy: as if one cannot be outraged at both the slaughter of civilians on October 7, and also at the mass killing of civilians in Gaza ever since. As if one horror must be “explained” to make room for the next, or as if one needs to generate more sordid details to “one-up” the other nightmares.
As noted above, there is plenty of hatefulness toward Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim peoples. And some of that hatred comes directly from Israeli and Jewish people: ultra-Orthodox settlers, many Zionists, sitting politicians, and average armchair commentators. Some of that hatred also comes from Western citizens who view Israeli-Palestinian conflict in purely racialized terms, and who have leaned into generic Islamophobia and a hatred of “brown” people to inform political response to the events of October 7 and ensuing brutality in Gaza and the West Bank.
This is part of what we lose when we flatten demographics: our ability to remember that everyone within them is still an individual, and that individual reactions vary. No one inherently speaks for an entire group when they call for retributive violence out of trauma. No one inherently speaks for an entire group when they call for peace and grieving out of trauma, either.
The idea that exterminationist rhetoric needs to be addressed as an either/or is also a profound failure of our humanism. We all fail to uphold the values of democracy and greater human equity for which we purport to stand, whenever we treat crimes against humanity as existing in competition with one another.
What happened in Israel on October 7 was an atrocity, which needs no rumor-driven embellishment to be seen and treated as such.
Ongoing horror in Gaza, along with emboldened attacks in the West Bank, is also horrific, and also rightly strikes at the hearts of many: including Jews and Israelis who object to retaliatory violence being carried out in their names.
There will never be full consensus between any of these groups. There will always be people angry that someone is upset about harm done to others, while grieving their own losses. This is the nature of trauma, and also the nature of life in a world with such a history of genocide that many feel they can never let down their guard.
And really, can they?
No one “side” has a monopoly on its use for political gain.
But while this is our status quo—so long as antisemitism is only ever addressed when it’s politically useful for any given party to do so—we can never expect marginalized people to trust in any of their so-called allies. There will always be people in Israel and Palestine, and living as Jews and Muslims and Arabs and Palestinians elsewhere in the world, who act as if they can only count on themselves and their niche resistance groups to secure the future of their demographics.
Because so long as the world treats the Israeli-Palestinian crisis as political theater?
All these groups are correct.
Even amid our global protests, far too many humans still find themselves alone.