For me, the event landed a bit differently: I felt all mourning and no shock. That’s because in 2005, fresh out of college, I took on a research project that changed my life. I was a student activist facing what felt like an insurmountable task — to offer a mirror to leftist social justice movements about the tricky, highly sensitive question of how to recognize and respond to anti-Semitism in our ranks.
When I started my research, charges of anti-Semitism were already so politicized in campus debates over Israel and Palestine that leftist activists tended to suspect the sincerity of anyone who raised it. To complicate matters, they tended to have a clearer understanding of oppression that limited people’s opportunities, like racism and classism. From this perspective, anti-Semitism, as terrible as it was, seemed like a thing of the past. If so many Jews in the United States today were white and financially stable, could they really be a group that needed advocacy? Hoping to help the left integrate a better understanding of anti-Semitism, I set out to understand it better myself: not just how it played out in history, but also what it looked like in the present, here and abroad, and across the political spectrum.
What I learned left me sobered. Anti-Semitism thrives under conditions of social discontent and instability. It paints an imagined picture of Jews — whether it’s the Jewish people as a whole, a nefarious Jewish figure, a shadowy cabal or the Jewish state — as holding unique power, able to influence world events more than normal people can. Although modern anti-Semitism as we know it today grew out of right-wing movements, it has a knack for flexibility. Because it looks less like victim-blaming than like a critique of power, it can make its way into unexpected conversations and coalitions, and out of the mouths of well-meaning people.
Anti-Semitism finds a niche across the political spectrum because of the explanatory power it carries. In periods of social upheaval — when inequality no longer feels tolerable, or when groups of people who once felt safe from inequality worry that they are losing their grip — people ask what is causing their problems. Anti-Semitism offers an answer: It’s the Jews.
For the accused shooter in Pittsburgh, this apparently took the form of one particular conspiracy theory: the one in which the Jews are conspiring to undermine white society. Tree of Life members had spent a recent Shabbat promoting compassion for refugees. Anti-Semitism meant their killer couldn’t picture Jews as regular people — people who remembered the powerlessness of being refugees and wanted no one else to have to suffer that way. Instead, the accused shooter was sure Jews were plotting behind the scenes, subverting borders and using immigrants to pose a genocidal threat to white people.
Over the years, this particular variant of anti-Semitism has taken many forms, like the idea that the civil rights movement was secretly directed by Jews — an idea that, of course, depends on deeply rooted denial of black intellect and resistance. But it’s only one of many conspiracies attributed to Jews. Whether it’s controlling banks, wars or the media, the core of modern anti-Semitism is the conspiracy itself.
This customizable conspiracy theory makes anti-Semitism useful for propping up unjust power structures. After all, when “the Jews” explain any lack of power that ordinary people feel, those people are less likely to unite to change the power structure itself. While the first reason that social justice movements should stand up against anti-Semitism is that Jews deserve to live free of fear, the second reason is this: As long as there’s a decoy explanation for what ails society, any social movement will have a hard time organizing to win real change.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, I wasn’t one of those who saw a Hillary Clinton win as a safe bet. White voters on the right were expressing clear anxiety about challenges to their traditional position of power. The thing about whiteness that makes losing it so unbearable is that it has insulated white people from the full brunt of inequality. In our world, very few people’s lives count for as much as profit does. But whiteness has helped white people — including many Jewish people in the postwar United States — to avoid facing that reality. Whiteness doesn’t just give people physical protection from the daily violence and exploitation against black, brown and indigenous people; it gives white people a way to believe that they have value, even in an economy where that is less and less true.
As I watched white voters gear up for 2016, I didn’t like the odds of what was coming. I feared for the physical safety of my black, Muslim and immigrant friends, and I was pretty sure that Jews would also become a target. My research had prepared me for the rise in brutal anti-Semitic rhetoric that the campaign and election unleashed and for the violence I knew would follow. With a heavy heart, I had been expecting an event like Pittsburgh long before it finally came.
Two things are clear to me. First, we can only get through this together. Jews can only survive this with our many allies from other targeted groups fighting at our sides — and we need to realize that anyone who targets our allies is no real friend of ours. Second, no top-down solution will be enough to fix this. Anti-Semitism is a decentralized ideology, freely available online to all. So are untraceable guns and the online communities where recruits learn to point them at us.
Luckily, one of the best ways to fight anti-Semitism is also free and accessible to all. It’s one of the simplest tools we have, and it can preempt attacks: We need to talk openly about how inequality works.
Anti-Semitism has staying power because it offers an explanation of why the world is so broken. It says the roots of inequality are hidden, and suggests they can be found. This is so attractive because a lot of inequality doesn’t get spoken about. Sometimes that’s by design — like when tax havens cover up massive private wealth, depriving our societies of more robust social services. Sometimes that’s out of social convention, since many of us, especially people with wealth, are raised to think of money and how we get it as a personal subject, impolite to discuss.
That’s why some of the best tools I’ve seen to fight anti-Semitism weren’t about Jews at all. They were movies, podcasts and face-to-face conversations that brought these questions out in the open. They spoke in simple terms about how our economy and other systems of inequality really work — which meant listeners who felt frustrated, angry or without power didn’t have to go looking for a secret cause.
I know that many of my gentile friends have asked themselves, “Would I have spoken up during the Holocaust?” — just as Jews like me have grown up looking at gentile friends in our lives and asking ourselves, “Would they have hidden me?”
Speaking up inside a fascist state carries unthinkable risk. We are more fortunate. We live in a time when all of us can stand in the way of anti-Semitism, just by educating ourselves about economics and power, and by taking the time, patience and humility to share what we learn with people in our families and communities.
On the day of the Tree of Life killings, my first feeling was wildly irrational. Because I had been expecting the worst for some time, I felt a gratitude no human being should ever have to feel: that the men and women whose lives were cut short at Tree of Life had been able to live relatively long, full years; that they had had a chance, if too short, to experience joys which many of our people throughout history did not survive to experience. When reports circulated that the shooting had interrupted a baby naming, I imagined a baby shielded by Jewish elders, being gifted with a possibility to live on and make it to a future where things like this don’t happen anymore. These are thoughts no person should have to have; mental silver linings to which the mind could only contort in an obscenely tarnished world.
Pittsburgh leaves us all thinking about how we can oppose anti-Semitism. But anti-Semitism doesn’t just come from hatred or ignorance — it’s a predictable effect of structural inequality. If we want to save lives, we need to stop pretending that this teetering structure can keep balancing like this forever. For all of our safety, let’s start having real conversations about what’s broken, and what it will take to make the world whole.