Islamist antisemitism debated following Texas synagogue attack
Jan 28, 2022 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
The aftermath of a Jan. 15 terror attack on a Colleyville Texas synagogue by a British Islamist seeking to free a convicted al-Qaeda linked terrorist has touched off a substantive debate about antisemitism, how fundamental it is to the Islamist worldview, and the problems some people seem to have in identifying it. This debate was largely occasioned by an FBI gaffe in which a senior agent appeared to deny the attacker, British man Malik Faisal Akram, had antisemitic motives, a stance later duplicated by some media outlets. (The FBI later reversed this claim.) This Update is devoted to the best entries in the debate about antisemitism and terrorism that the attack prompted.
We start with someone who knows a great deal about terrorists and their motives – Washington Institute scholar, and former senior FBI counterterrorism specialist, Matthew Levitt. Levitt looks at the antisemitic motives of Akram, and of the terrorist he wished to free, Aafia Saddiqui, as well as other signs of pervasive antisemitism in radical Muslim circles. He also places Islamist antisemitism in the context of growing concerns about far right violence and antisemitism. For some insights from this top counterterrorism expert, CLICK HERE.
Next up is New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, who sees in the reluctance to call out the obviously antisemitic motives of Akram part of a wider pattern of confusion and cavilling regarding antisemitism affecting Jews in the US and other Western nations. He identifies this pattern as part of a growing system of belief about power and “privilege”, which tends to place Jews in the category of “privileged”, while identifying non-white or poor attackers like Akram as one of the powerless, and thus nominally incapable of antisemitism or racism. He argues this development is profoundly worrying for Jewish communities in the US, and by implication, the West more broadly. For his important argument in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Atlantic magazine columnist Yair Rosenberg argues many people do not really understand the nature of antisemitism – which is not simply a prejudice against Jews, but a conspiracy theory about how the world works. Looking at the Colleyville attack and the beliefs which fed it, he quotes some experts about the effects of conspiratorial antisemitic belief systems. They argue that antisemitism is more than just a form of racism, but a belief system which creates a profound threat to democracy itself. For Rosenberg’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Another good comment on the increasing reluctance to acknowledge non-far right antisemitism comes from author and former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss.
- A summary of both Jihadist and neo-Nazi reactions to the Colleyville synagogue attack – plus a new study highlighting increasing admiration for Jihadists by neo-Nazi groups.
- Yesterday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Here is a video of PM Scott Morrison’s comments in honour of the day.
- A new study shows one quarter of Australians know almost nothing about the Holocaust. A discussion of the study’s implications is here.
- One promising feature of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day has been the growing number of Muslim states, organisations and individuals eager to take part in the commemorations – many listed by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) here.
- Also recommended is a comment on the importance of the day from AJC head David Harris.
- However, many Muslim extremists continue to violently reject acknowledging the Holocaust, as French-Tunisian Imam Hassen Chalghoumi explains in an interview in which he details the extreme measures he now has to take to protect himself after calling for respect for Holocaust commemoration.
- Veteran US Middle East mediator Amb, Dennis Ross lays out a policy plan to more firmly respond to attacks by Iranian proxies, such as the attack by Yemen’s Houthis on the UAE last week.
- AIJAC comments on a reported plea deal for former Israeli deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman – who was charged with obstruction of justice for alleged attempts to use his position to help accused child sex offender Malka Leifer avoid extradition to Australia – calling it “very disappointing.”
SYNAGOGUE HOSTAGE CRISIS REMINDS US THAT NEO-NAZIS AREN’T THE ONLY ONES TARGETING JEWS
by Matthew Levitt
NBC News, January 19, 2022
Although domestic extremism has emerged as a bigger homeland terrorist threat, the threat of jihadi violence from abroad remains acute.
The Colleyville synagogue siege was just the latest in a series of murderous attacks on synagogues in the US in recent years – most by far-right white supremacists, such as the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh in 2018, which left 11 people dead (Photo: Shutterstock, Brendt A Petersen).
As a gunman took Jewish worshipers hostage at a Texas synagogue Saturday morning, I was over a thousand miles away, standing outside a different synagogue and serving as a volunteer security guard alongside an off-duty police officer. Across the country, the painful reality is that American Jews cannot gather to pray without taking safety precautions to protect against a rising pandemic of another kind: antisemitism.
Thanks to the security training the Texas rabbi and his congregants received because of the pervasiveness of these threats, the four hostages escaped unharmed from the standoff at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. The only casualty was the assailant himself, British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, who was shot by the FBI’s hostage rescue team when it launched a raid after the captives escaped.
This hostage crisis came in the wake of a string of white supremacist and neo-Nazi attacks targeting Jews in Pittsburgh; Poway, California; and Kansas City, Kansas, to list a few. Not to mention there was the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a participant killed someone by driving his car into the crowd and neo-Nazis chanted, “Jews will not replace us.”
While far-right groups are responsible for a great deal of the recent violence directed at Jews—and much of the media focus on antisemitic incidents in America—Saturday’s attack is a reminder that antisemitism is the rare common thread that runs strong across the far-right, far-left, and jihadi ideological spectrums. The threat of jihadi extremism remains acute, even though domestic extremism has now emerged as an even bigger homeland terror threat.
I started my career as an FBI counterterrorism analyst and ended up leading one of the analytical teams at FBI headquarters in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It was then, 20 years ago, that synagogues in America first started establishing security committees. At the time, the most pressing threat—to the Jewish community and America more broadly—emanated from transnational jihadi terrorism.
For whatever progress the U.S. has made in foiling jihadi terror attacks—part of why the top law enforcement officials last year determined white supremacists presented the bigger threat—Akram demonstrated that the dangerous antisemitism that contributes to jihadism remains. In 2020, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, MI5, listed Akram as a “subject of interest” but closed its investigation after concluding he posed no terrorist threat at the time. In December, Akram traveled to New York and then, a couple of weeks later, took four Jews hostage at a Texas synagogue.
Why did Akram target Congregation Beth Israel? It was not just because it was close to the federal facility holding Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national serving an 86-year sentence for attempting to murder U.S. nationals, whose release he demanded in return for freeing the hostages. For that he could have targeted any institution near the prison.
No, Akram was convinced, as he told his captives, that Jews control society and hold immense power. As Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages, recalled, Akram believed they could “call President Biden and he will do it. We can call President Trump and he will do it, because Jews control everything.” He thought these four Jewish people could secure Siddiqui’s release because “Jews control the world, Jews control the media, Jews control the banks.”
While Siddiqui, Akram’s cause celebre, is in prison because she shot at a U.S. military officer and expressed a desire to kill Americans, she, too, is known for spouting antisemitic conspiracies. At her January 2010 trial, she famously called for subjecting the entire jury pool to genetic testing to exclude Jews. “If they have a Zionist or Israeli background…they are all mad at me,” Siddiqui said. “They should be excluded.” She later said her guilty verdict “is coming from Israel, not America.”
A painted portrait of Aafia Saddiqui, the convicted terrorist also known as “Lady al-Qaeda”, who has become a cause celebre both to Islamists and more widely in her native Pakistan (photo credit: FLICKR, Thierry Ehrmann)
Akram is not the only one to champion Siddiqui’s cause: Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State group have all sought her release, as has the government of Pakistan. But so have groups here in the United States, like the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR’s Dallas-Fort Worth chapter described Siddiqui’s conviction as “one of the greatest examples of injustice in U.S. history.”
CAIR quickly denounced the Colleyville attack as antisemitic and “an unacceptable act of evil” this weekend. But CAIR officials themselves have promoted antisemitic tropes. In November, Zahra Billoo, the executive director of CAIR’s San Francisco chapter, gave a speech denouncing not only anti-Muslim bigotry and right-wing groups, but also “polite Zionists”—including mainstream Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, which fights antisemitism, and Hillel, an organization for Jewish college students—as well as “Zionist synagogues.”
“When we talk about Islamophobia, we think oftentimes about the vehement fascists,” Billoo explained. “But I also want us to pay attention to the polite Zionists. The ones that say, ‘Let’s just break bread together.’” Accusing them of being part of an interconnected network of Zionist-supporting organizations trying to harm Muslims, she warned, “They are not your friends.”
(Billoo didn’t respond to requests for comment to media organizations when news of her remarks broke. However, in response to the leader of the ADL calling her comments antisemitic, the CAIR National Twitter account posted: “You use false claims of antisemitism to smear Muslims.”)
If CAIR doesn’t condemn such antisemitic tropes—these Jews can’t be trusted, they’re part of an organized Islamophobia network, don’t break bread with polite Zionists—it is not truly opposing antisemitism and the root causes of what we see underpinning these acts of violence against Jews. Indeed, the lesson from this latest assault must be that words matter and all antisemitic tropes—whether it’s “Jews will not replace us” or “Jews control the banks” or “don’t break bread with polite Zionists”—must not go unchecked.
The consequences of failing to do so can be devastating. In 2019, an astonishing 60 percent of all victims of anti-religious hate crimes were specifically targeted because of the offender’s anti-Jewish bias, according to the FBI. Compare that to 13.2 percent due to anti-Muslim bias and 3.8 percent due to anti-Catholic bias.
While a study by the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism showed that religion-based hate crimes in the United States tend to be less violent (many involve vandalism targeting houses of worship) than other types of hate crimes, Jewish targets were “greatly over-represented as victims of mass casualty attacks compared to other types of violent crime.” Antisemitic attackers only comprised 10.4 percent of offenders in the data set, but they accounted for 38.1 percent of those who planned or committed mass casualty attacks.
That is why I found myself standing guard outside a synagogue Saturday morning in the frigid cold and why synagogues across the country provide their congregants active shooter training. For Jews in America, being prepared to run, hide, or fight—one key aspect of such trainings—is no academic exercise.
Jewish communities must continue to be supported with funds to protect their synagogues, and all houses of worship should prioritize getting the lifesaving training that spared the hostages at Beth Israel. Meanwhile, my neighbors and I will continue to stand guard.
Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its Reinhard Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence. This article was originally published on the NBC News website.
What an Antisemite’s Fantasy Says About Jewish Reality
By Bret Stephens
New York Times, Jan. 21, 2022
British citizen Malik Faisal Akram travelled 4,800 miles from his home to attack a synagogue in Texas to attempt to liberate a convicted terrorist because he believed “America only cares about Jewish lives.” (Photo: Courtesy of OurCalling, LLC – a Dallas homeless shelter where Akram stayed.)
A man travels 4,800 miles from the north of England to the heart of Texas.
Once there, appearing to be homeless, he gains entry into a synagogue just before its Shabbat services. The rabbi welcomes him with a cup of tea. With a handgun, he takes the rabbi and others hostage for 11 hours while demanding the release of a convicted terrorist held in a nearby prison. He phones a prominent New York rabbi to help push for the terrorist’s release. A hostage reports him as saying, “I know President Biden will do things for the Jews.” A witness, who sees the drama unfold on a livestream, watches him “ranting about Jews and Israel” and saying he has chosen his target because “America only cares about Jewish lives.”
Antisemitism? You would think it could not be more obvious, as everyone from the prime minister of Israel to the president of the United States to the Council on American-Islamic Relations agrees. But first you’d have to climb over a strange wall of obfuscation, misdirection and doubt.
“He was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we are continuing to work to find motive,” the F.B.I. special agent in charge, Matthew DeSarno, said shortly after the standoff ended, presumably referring to the assailant’s bid to free the imprisoned terrorist. Both The Associated Press and the BBC parroted the line, with the Beeb tweeting, “Texas synagogue hostage standoff not related to Jewish community — F.B.I.”
The A.P. later deleted a tweet making a similar claim. And the F.B.I. amended its case on Sunday, calling the attack “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.” On Thursday, the F.B.I. director, Christopher Wray, finally acknowledged that it was an antisemitic attack.
Yet the only substantial reporting I found from a major American news organization that explicitly acknowledges the antisemitic nature of the attack was one astute story in The Washington Post. Instead, there was a focus on the assailant’s supposed mental illness, along with additional reporting on the ever-increasing security-consciousness of synagogues worldwide.
Compare that with the mountain of reporting regarding the anti-Asian hate that allegedly animated the killer in last year’s attacks on Atlanta-area massage parlors. Or compare it with the coverage of the unquestionably racist 2015 shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. For that matter, compare it with the naked Jew-hatred that drove the killer in the 2018 synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, which has been extensively reported and discussed. (His immediate “motive” was opposition to immigration.)
In the days since the attack, the F.B.I.’s head-in-sand approach, along with so much of the media’s strange pattern of omission, has been the chief topic of discussion in every Jewish circle to which I belong. How can it be, we ask ourselves, that Jews should be victimized twice? First, by being physically targeted for being Jewish; second, by being begrudged the universal recognition that we were morally targeted, too? And how can it be that in this era of heightened sensitivity to every kind of hatred, bias, stereotype, -ism and -phobia, both conscious and unconscious, there’s so much caviling, caveating and outright denying when it comes to calling out bias aimed at Jews?
The answer begins with the shape-shifting nature of antisemitism, which some perpetrate, others participate in (sometimes unwittingly), and a still greater number fail to recognize for what it is — in part because each successive mutation doesn’t exactly resemble its predecessor.
What we generally call antisemitism is a 19th-century coinage that helped turn an ancient religious hatred into a racial hatred. As racial hatred came to be considered uncouth after World War II, anti-Zionism (that is, blanket opposition to a Jewish state, not criticism of particular Israeli policies) became a more acceptable way of opposing Jewish political interests and denigrating Jews. Should Israel cease to exist, new forms of bigotry will surely develop for the next stage of anti-Judaism, adapted to the prevailing beliefs of the times.
The common denominator in each of these mutations is an idea, based in fantasy and conspiracy, about Jewish power. The old-fashioned religious antisemite believed Jews had the power to kill Christ. The 19th-century antisemites who were the forerunners to the Nazis believed Jews had the power to start wars, manipulate kings and swindle native people of their patrimony.
Present-day anti-Zionists attribute to Israel and its supporters in the United States vast powers that they do not possess, like the power to draw America into war. On the far right, antisemites think that Jews are engaged in an immense scheme to replace white, working-class America with immigrant labor. Tucker Carlson and others have taken this conspiracy theory mainstream, much to the delight of neo-Nazis like David Duke, even if they are careful to leave out the part about Jews.
The man who attacked the synagogue entertained the same type of fantasy. Just as Willie Sutton was said to rob banks because “that’s where the money is,” this assailant took Jews hostage because that’s where the power was (or so he thought). The F.B.I.’s moral idiocy — there are no other words for it — in denying the specifically antisemitic nature of the attack lies in the idea that he could have imagined himself choosing just about any means to achieve his end, like taking hostages at the nearest church or convenience store. Similarly, the focus on his mental health evades the central fact that, crazy or not, his malice was not random. He aimed his gun at Jews.
The fantasy about Jewish power may seem outlandish, but it’s far more pervasive than many think — which gets to the point of people participating in antisemitism even when they aren’t knowingly perpetrating it.
Who, for instance, is most responsible for devising the war in Iraq? If your first-pass answer is “Wolfowitz, Feith, Abrams and Perle,” you might ask yourself why you are naming second- and third-tier Bush administration officials, all of them Jewish, when all the top decision makers — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice — are Christians. (If your response to this is that Wolfowitz et al. were the ones who pulled the strings, then you’re an antisemite.)
Or take another example: if you think the reason Israel gets so much support in Congress is the money and influence of the pro-Israel lobby, you might be surprised to learn that that lobby ranks 20th on the most recent list of congressional donors, giving away a paltry $4.5 million compared with the $95 million that retiree interest groups donated. “All about the Benjamins” it is not, no matter what Representative Ilhan Omar might suppose.
But there’s a larger context here, which has to do with prevailing assumptions about power itself.
A moral conviction of our time, especially prevalent on the cultural left, is that the powerful are presumptively bad while the powerless are presumptively good. These categories aren’t just political. They are also social, economic, ethnic and racial. It’s why so many conversations today revolve around the concept of “privilege” — a striking redefinition of success that removes the presumption of merit from those who have it and the stigma of failure from those who don’t.
Stephens: There is a hesitation about identifying antisemitism coming from the left, or from non-white people, especially when it claims to be directed at Israel (Photo: Shutterstock, Wirestock Creators)
It’s also the likeliest reason there was so much obvious hesitancy to describe the attack in Texas as antisemitic. Unlike the Pittsburgh shooter or the “Jews will not replace us” crowd at Charlottesville — white, right-wing, mostly Christian and therefore “privileged” — the Texas assailant was a British Muslim of Pakistani descent. Not white. Not privileged. Not right-wing. In the binary narrative of the powerful versus the powerless, his naked antisemitism just doesn’t compute: Powerless people are supposed to be victims, not murderous bigots. If he had ranted against Israel for oppressing Palestinians, it might have made more sense. And if he had donned a MAGA hat, we would certainly have had a much fuller exploration of his antisemitism, without time wasted exploring his other motives or state of mind.
For American Jews, this small silence about what happened last week should be profoundly worrisome, and not just as a matter of a journalistic lapse. It’s bad enough that the Jewish state, which gained what power it has because its neighbors threatened it with extinction, is still treated by so many as a global pariah — its sympathizers abroad risking social or professional ostracism by mere association. It’s bad enough, too, that the foul antisemitism of the right, yoked to its old themes of nativism, protectionism, nationalism and isolationism, is erupting into the public square like a burst sewage pipe.
Now American Jews find ourselves at perhaps the most successful period in our history, at a moment when much of the progressive left has decreed that privilege is a sin and that those who hold power should be stripped of it. Anyone with a long view of Jewish history should know how quickly economic and social privilege can turn to political and personal ruin, even — or especially — in countries where it might seem unthinkable.
There’s much to be thankful for about how things ended last week in Texas, and about the outpouring of love and support, across faiths, for a little Jewish community. But the wise counsel for Jews is to be grateful for last week’s good luck, while taking it as a warning that our luck in America may run out.
Why So Many People Still Don’t Understand Anti-Semitism
Unlike many other bigotries, anti-Semitism is not merely a social prejudice; it is a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.
By Yair Rosenberg
The Atlantic, Jan. 19, 2022
Most people do not understand that antisemitism is more than a prejudice, but a conspiracy theory about how the world works – and as such, represents a threat to democracy itself. (Photo: A katz, Shutterstock)
Most people do not realize that Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population. This means simply finding them takes a lot of effort. But every year in Western countries, including America, Jews are the No. 1 target of anti-religious hate crimes. Anti-Semites are many things, but they aren’t lazy. They’re animated by one of the most durable and deadly conspiracy theories in human history.
This past Saturday in Texas, another one found his mark. According to the latest news reports, Malik Faisal Akram traversed an ocean to accomplish his task, flying from the United Kingdom to America in late December. On January 15, he took Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel hostage for more than 11 hours. When it was all over, Akram was dead and his captives were not. The hostages escaped after their rabbi engineered a distraction, drawing on security training he had received from the Anti-Defamation League and other communal organizations. Something else most people don’t realize is that many rabbis need and receive security training.
Speaking about Jews as symbols is always uncomfortable, and that’s especially the case when bullet holes are still fresh in the sanctuary. But the sad fact is, that’s why the Texas congregants were attacked in the first place: because Jews play a sinister symbolic role in the imagination of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence.
After Akram pulled a gun on the congregation, he demanded to speak to the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue, who he claimed could authorize the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an attempted murder sentence in a Fort Worth facility near Beth Israel.
Obviously, this is not how the prison system works. “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told The Forward. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”
I happen to know Angela Buchdahl, the rabbi of that New York synagogue, and I think she would make an excellent chief rabbi of America. But no such position exists. Jews are a famously fractious lot who can rarely agree on anything, let alone their religious leadership. We do not spend our days huddled in smoke-filled rooms plotting world domination while Jared Kushner plays dreidel in the back with Noam Chomsky and George Soros sneaks the last latke.
The notion that such a minuscule and unmanageable minority secretly controls the world is comical, which may be why so many responsible people still do not take the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory seriously, or even understand how it works. In the moments after the Texas crisis, the FBI made an official statement declaring that the assailant was “particularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” Of course, the gunman did not travel thousands of miles to terrorize some Mormons. He sought out a synagogue and took it hostage over his grievances, believing that Jews alone could resolve them. That’s targeting Jews, and there’s a word for that.
The FBI later corrected its misstep, but the episode reflects the general ignorance about anti-Semitism even among people of goodwill. Unlike many other bigotries, anti-Semitism is not merely a social prejudice; it is a conspiracy theory about how the world operates. This addled outlook is what united the Texas gunman, a Muslim, with the 2018 shooter at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a white supremacist who sought to stanch the flow of Muslims into America. It is a worldview shared by Louis Farrakhan, the Black hate preacher, and David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard. And it is a political orientation that has been expressed by the self-styled Christian conservative leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran’s Islamic theocracy.
The fevered fantasy of Jewish domination is incredibly malleable, which makes it incredibly attractive. If Jews are responsible for every perceived problem, then people with entirely opposite ideals can adopt it. And thanks to centuries of material blaming the world’s ills on the world’s Jews, conspiracy theorists seeking a scapegoat for their sorrows inevitably discover that the invisible hand of their oppressor belongs to an invisible Jew.
At the same time, because this expression of anti-Jewish prejudice is so different from other forms of bigotry, many people don’t recognize it. As in Texas, law-enforcement officials overlook it. Social-media companies ignore it. Anti-racism activists—who understand racism as prejudice wielded by the powerful—cannot grasp it, because anti-Semitism constructs its Jewish targets as the privileged and powerful. And political partisans, more concerned with pinning the problem on their opponents, spend their time parsing the identity of anti-Semitic individuals, rather than countering the ideas that animate them.
In short, although many people say they are against anti-Semitism today, they don’t understand the nature of what they oppose. And that’s part of why anti-Semitism abides.
Bard College scholar Walter Russell Mead: “People who think ‘the Jews’ run everything lose the ability to rationally address problems” (Photo: Wikimedia Commons | Licence details, Creator: Stephan Roehl)
This ignorant status quo has proved deadly for Jews, and that alone should be enough for our society to take it seriously. But it has disastrous consequences for non-Jews as well. This is because people who embrace conspiracy theories to explain their problems lose the ability to rationally solve them. As Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead has put it:
People who think “the Jews” run the banks lose the ability to understand, much less to operate financial systems. People who think “the Jews” dominate business through hidden structures can’t build or long maintain a successful modern economy. People who think “the Jews” dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, to diagnose social evils and to organize effectively for positive change.
For an example, just look at what happened in Texas. An anti-Semitic gunman took a synagogue hostage in the false hope that its parishioners could somehow free a federal prisoner. That prisoner herself was sentenced to 86 years in jail after she tried to fire her Jewish lawyers at trial, demanded that Jews be excluded from the jury, and declared that her guilty verdict came “from Israel and not from America.” One hateful person after another was destroyed by their own delusions. And such debilitating delusions can reverberate outward.
“Anti-Semitism has real impact beyond just hate crimes,” the civil-rights activist Eric Ward once told me. “It distorts our understanding of how the actual world works. It isolates us. It alienates us from our communities, from our neighbors, and from participating in governance. It kills, but it also kills our society.”
Neither Mead nor Ward is Jewish. The former is a noted white historian and the son of a southern priest; the latter is a Black activist who fights white nationalism. Yet despite coming from different places, both have devoted much of their work to combatting anti-Jewish prejudice, and for the same reason: It threatens democracy itself.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t just bigotry toward the Jewish community,” Ward explains. “It is actually utilizing bigotry toward the Jewish community in order to deconstruct democratic practices, and it does so by framing democracy as a conspiracy rather than a tool of empowerment or a functional tool of governance.” In other words, the more people buy into anti-Semitism and its understanding of the world, the more they lose faith in democracy.
Numerous historical case studies attest to anti-Semitism undermining its adherents at a large scale, from the defeat of the Nazis, who spurned scientific advances simply because they were discovered by Jews, to European countries that hobbled themselves for centuries by expelling their Jewish populations.
“The rise of anti-Semitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure,” Mead writes. “It is a leading indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and of a diminished capacity to understand the modern world and to thrive in it.”
Seen in this light, one attack on one synagogue is not just a hate-crime statistic. It is also a warning. The mindset of a madman in Texas might seem alien to us today. But if we do not find a way to confront the conspiratorial currents that threaten to overtake our society, we may find ourselves hostage to the very ideas that animated him.
Yair Rosenberg is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Deep Shtetl.