A white supremacist in Kansas went on a shooting spree targeting Jews. He killed three people, but none of them were Jewish.
This tells us a good deal about right-wing racism in the United States. Frazier Miller, a 73-year old, twenty year army veteran, was a leading figure among white supremacists. When he lived in North Carolina, he headed the White Patriot Party, the local KKK chapter. He even ran for the Senate in Missouri as recently as 2010, after having failed to secure much support in a couple of other races in Missouri and North Carolina.
Miller can be heard in his own words demonstrating amply the stereotype of the ignorant, white racist. For many in the US, he is a relic from the past, one which is dying out in the 21st century. Unfortunately, despite the decline of white supremacist ideology over the past century, reports of its death are greatly exaggerated. In fact, the diversity of hate groups in the United States makes their ongoing activity somewhat more subtle and easy for the public to miss. This stands in contrast to Europe where fewer but considerably larger white supremacist groups are visibly rising to power in a number of countries.
There are good reasons why we might become complacent about anti-Semitism and about white supremacy. Racism in the United States has receded as a political force, though few are naïve enough to think it has disappeared. Jews have established a solid place in US culture, but there are also real causes for concern.
Bigotry in general and anti-Semitism in particular have historically flourished during times of economic crisis. Despite positive indicators on Wall Street and in other national measures, most US citizens are continuing to see their economic situation decline, whether it is the poor getting poorer or the middle class struggling more to make ends meet. In Europe, we’ve seen the results of declining economies and rising xenophobia in the escalation of radical right-wing, fascist political parties. It’s been milder in the United States, but classical conservatives of the Eisenhower/Goldwater/Nixon type have lost the Republican party to radical right-wing forces. While those forces have not manifested anything like the overt racism of some of the far-right parties in Europe, their anti-immigrant language is similar and, in general, they have made radical right-wingers feel more at home than they have been for a long time in a major US party.
Miller is representative of the pure form of anti-Semitic ideology, and it is also the enduring form. Connections between anti-Semitism and the Israel-Palestine conflict globally, and especially with the Israel lobby here in the US have garnered a lot of focus in recent years. In that regard, there is a sort of anti-Semitic duality. On one hand, Israel and its supporters have tried to paint supporters of the Palestinian cause as anti-Semitic by definition, and some have even mixed this tactic with their own Islamophoba to paint an image of a so-called “new anti-Semitism.” Yet, on the other hand, some actual anti-Semites, most notably David Duke, have tried to cloak their hatred of Jews as anti-Zionism.
Both of these are not just morally wrong, but also factually so. In Europe, for example, where some of the ugliest incidents of violence against Jews have indeed been perpetrated by Muslims immigrants, the far-right campaign of hate melds anti-Muslim xenophobia with classical anti-Semitism. As Miller makes clear, white supremacists in the US target Jews first and then they move on to anyone else they can find.
So, what does all of this mean? Anti-Semitism matters, even today when it is at a historically low level, especially in the West. It remains a manifestation of hate that galvanizes a host of bigotries. At the same time, anti-Semitism is not the main reason Israeli policies are opposed, or the reason Israel is held to and is recognized in much of the world as failing to live up to Western standards of human rights. If there is one concept that influences public thinking in the United States that has to change, it’s the notion that criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism.
But that is not going to change as long as advocates for a change in US policy toward Israel fail to recognize the very real concerns of anti-Semitism. It is far too easy, and even glib, for people to look at the current condition of Jews in the US and say that anti-Semitism is no longer a threat. That belief was prevalent in the Europe of the 1920s and in 15th century Iberia, but events on the ground didn’t work out that way. There are powerful indications that this belief is flawed today, too.
Distorting the notion of anti-Semitism, both by hyping it and minimizing it, hurts all the wrong people. Hyping the claim that all criticism of Israel is rooted in anti-Semitic bias hurts the Palestinian cause, most obviously, but also Jews, because it not only elides the real victims of anti-Semitism and subsumes them to another agenda, it also creates a mindset among Jews all over the world that reinforces our view (I am Jewish) of ourselves as eternal victims; permanent others.
Anti-Semitism in general must be put in its proper perspective, neither minimized nor hyped. Part of that process involves understanding the Jewish drive for self-determination even while we insist that such a need does not justify dispossessing and occupying another people. Being willing to stand up to both anti-Semitism and to the propaganda that tries to use the long and tragic history of Jewish suffering for political ends comprises the other part. And, when it comes to US policy, there should be zero tolerance for any sort of bigotry. As we saw in Overland Park this week, the victims of anti-Semitic hate don’t have to be Jewish. Frazier Glenn Miller killed three Christians while targeting Jews. It’s too easy to simply pass him off as just another lunatic with a gun.