Although I write now mostly about contemporary U.S. politics, my PhD research and my first book focused on the ideas of an Austrian Jewish rabbi, politician, and journalist named Joseph Samuel Bloch. In discussing how Jews often faced anti-Semitic violence from all sides in pre-World War I, multiethnic Austria-Hungary, in particular when two Christian ethnic groups struggled against each other for power in a given region, Bloch mentioned a “well-known” saying that translates as “You beat my Jews, I’ll beat yours.” The phrase has appeared in other sources as well (in one written a couple of decades later, the words are spoken by Stalin to Hitler, who laughs in response).
The parallels between what European Jews dealt with back then and anti-Semitism in the U.S. and the West more broadly today aren’t exact: Israel, which didn’t exist yet, wasn’t a factor then, and the issues of Jewish linguistic and cultural integration into various ethnic groups aren’t a factor now. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking about that specific phrase this week, given the run of recent incidents of anti-Semitic hate and violence on a number of different fronts.
From the realm of statistics, there was the report from the Anti-Defamation League that documented a near-tripling of the number of victims of anti-Semitic violence from 21 in 2017 to 59 in 2018, a statistic made even worse by the 11 people murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh among those 59 victims. Overall incidents in 2018 remained near their new, post-Trump high. Speaking globally, in 2018 more Jews were murdered in anti-Semitic attacks than in any single year “in decades.”
In my hometown of New York City, things are getting even worse this year, as the first quarter of 2019 showed an 82% jump in anti-Semitic hate crimes compared to 2018.
American Jewry lost its first victim of 2019 one week ago, when Lori Gilbert Kaye gave her life to save her rabbi from the right-wing, white nationalist terrorist who stormed the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. The Poway killer shared with his compatriot from Pittsburgh a belief, commonly held among right-wing white nationalists, that Jews are somehow plotting to swarm America with non-white immigrants in order to overwhelm white Christians. The Poway killer wrote: “[Latinos] and [blacks] are useful puppets for the Jew in terms of replacing Whites.” Finally, this is also the context of the chant white nationalists repeated in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” That group, according to Donald Trump, included some “very fine people”—a statement which he defended once again in late April. Oh, and this weekend he retweeted a well-known white nationalist, Lauren Southern, who is among the people most responsible for spreading the paranoid fantasy about “white genocide” that motivated the Poway terrorist.
Another potential anti-Semitic terrorist attack in Southern California was thwarted last week when law enforcement arrested the extremist, who was planning to detonate a bomb and unleash “mass casualties.” This terrorist was a former U.S. soldier and Muslim convert seeking “retribution” for the murder of Muslims, in particular the terrorist murder of 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 13. According to U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna, “[He] said that he wanted to kill Jews as they walk to synagogue. At other times he said he wanted to kill and target police officers, attack a military facility or attack crowds at the Santa Monica Pier.”
A report released last week from Tel Aviv University’s Kantor Center explained that anti-Semitism worldwide has ceased to be “confined to the activity of the far-left, far-right and radical Islamists triangle,” and instead has broken into the mainstream, into “public forums, debates and discussions … manifested in all media channels, most notably the social networks.” The latter in particular has seen a “surge in online calls for the killing of Jews, for the extermination of Jews worldwide, and images of Jews being killed.” The report describes a “sense of emergency” spreading among Jews all over the world.
Separate from actual, physical violence, there was the anti-Semitic cartoon—which centered on a criticism of the relationship between Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump—published a little more than a week ago by The New York Times in its international versions. The cartoonist himself further revealed his true colors by complaining that the real problem here was not his cartoon but the criticism of it engineered by—you guessed it—“the Jewish propaganda machine.”
The Times did apologize and has taken steps to ensure that something like this does not happen again. The NYT editorial board wrote:
The Times published an appalling political cartoon in the opinion pages of its international print edition late last week. It portrayed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as a dog wearing a Star of David on a collar. He was leading President Trump, drawn as a blind man wearing a skullcap.
[snip] the appearance of such an obviously bigoted cartoon in a mainstream publication is evidence of a profound danger — not only of anti-Semitism but of numbness to its creep, to the insidious way this ancient, enduring prejudice is once again working itself into public view and common conversation.
It’s been a hell of a past 10 days for Jews, to say the least. I want to reiterate something I said last month when discussing the matter of anti-Semitism and Rep. Ilhan Omar’s remarks, something that has also been emphasized in the various reports on anti-Semitism in the U.S.: namely, that the greatest danger by far that Jews face comes from right-wing, white supremacist, racist anti-Semites. As one pundit wrote: “The New York Times Fuels More anti-Semitism Than Trump and Republicans? That's Bullshit.”
Separate from that reality, what really got me thinking this week about the old saying that provides the title of this post was the two California terrorists. As I mentioned above, the white nationalist in Poway targeted Jews because of his right-wing racism and his delusional fear of “white genocide.” He also repeatedly stated that he was inspired by the “white genocide” theories of the Christchurch terrorist. Zack Beauchamp at Vox noted: “the Poway shooter saw attacks on mosques and synagogues as two sides of the same coin.”
The other terrorist (you’ll notice I haven’t been mentioning their names)—the one who was arrested before he carried out his deadly plot—targeted Jews, among others, because he wanted revenge for the Muslims killed by white nationalist terrorists. He apparently saw Jews as somehow connected to those right-wing terrorists. When I read that, and realized the cyclical nature of each side taking aim at Jews, I immediately thought: it’s just like in the old saying. Two groups are fighting against each other and each sees Jews as the ally of their enemy—an enemy that must be destroyed.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (forthcoming on May 21).