A police line outside Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Reuters, 2018.

To My Fellow White Jews: On White Supremacy, Fascism, and Survival

In the wake of the massacre of eleven American Jews this past Saturday, a number of writers have come forward with the claim that we should not “politicize” their deaths — as though the murder of Jews by someone who tweeted about ‘kikes’ could somehow lack an explicit, unwavering, deadly political framework. We absolutely must have the space to mourn. But it would be the height of disrespect to turn our faces away, throw up our hands, and say this was “simply a tragedy.” If we do not, in the words of Angela Davis, seek to ‘grasp things at the root’, we do the dead the greatest dishonor imaginable. Because if we turn our faces from the grim reality of what happened and why, it will absolutely happen again. Tactics, once tried, will be adopted by others; we know too well that individuals who murder us are soon followed by more organized forces. Complacency kills. And if we are going to refuse complacency, we need to assess the conditions in this country that have led to the confluence of antisemitism, white supremacy, anti-blackness and the global rise of militarized fascism.

These conditions begin at home: it is impossible to talk about the present shape of white supremacy in America without acknowledging that Donald Trump has openly advocated for, condoned and implicitly encouraged it from the most public platform in America. This is not new information, but it is vital to understanding Pittsburgh. It is that national platform that legitimized and emboldened Robert Bowers — an avowed white supremacist who subscribed deeply to conspiracy theories about the connections between Jews and immigration to the U.S.. Bowers was particularly obsessed with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the idea that Jews have a plan to erase white Anglo-Saxons through assisting immigration. Right-wing columnist Shmuley Boteach claimed that because Bowers criticized Trump in his antisemitic tweets, Trump clearly did not assist in creating the conditions that led to the massacre. Bowers stated on the social media platform Gab that “Trump is surrounded by kikes,” and that “there is no #MAGA as long as there is a kike infestation.” But, while Trump may not be antisemitic enough for the shooter, he is no doubt implicated in the spread of antisemitism in the United States and the emboldening of white supremacists nationwide.

What evidence do we have of Trump’s antisemitism? He has tweeted a wide variety of antisemitic propaganda, including that George Soros was behind a movement against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A major component of his support base includes Richard Spencer, David Duke, and the Stormfront outlet, and their followers — legions of online commentators who share the most archetypal antisemitic caricatures of Jews as rats, scheming moneygrubbers, and shadow puppeteers of governments and media. Many of these figures do espouse views more boldly white supremacist than Trump’s, but he has historically legitimized those views by welcoming their support. His total failure to condemn the August 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, and recent statement that he is “a nationalist” speak volumes. Seen in this context, especially against his voter base, “nationalist” implicitly means “white nationalist.” This rhetoric around antisemitism and white nationalism has instead normalized white supremacy such that yet-more-virulent antisemites like Bowers, who feel Trump doesn’t go far enough, are publicly emboldened and empowered to go kill people.

Another component, and part of what has permitted the person in the highest elected office of this nation to espouse these ideas, is Trump’s unwavering support for Israel’s far-right government. That support sits uneasily but tellingly alongside his wide fanbase of white supremacists — some of whom have expressed support for Israel at the same time as being openly antisemitic, ideas that might at first seem incompatible. Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump have repeatedly each lauded the other for the rhetoric of “wall-building” against Arab Palestinians and Central American and Muslim immigrants, respectively. They likewise repeatedly praise other nationalist leaders with authoritarian policies and xenophobic stances; Trump highlighted Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte’s blood-soaked war on drugs; Duterte has vowed only to buy militarized weapons from Israel, where there are few restrictions. Ukrainian neo-Nazi security forces are likewise equipped with Israeli weaponry. Trump and Netanyahu have both praised fair-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, shortly after brutal raids of Brazilian universities that positioned antifascist organizing as opposing Bolsonaro’s election.

What Trump and Netanyahu have in common, then, is that they are both intent on building states that take xenophobic stances on immigration and borders, encourage militarized policing in the enforcement of border security, are fueled by ultraconservative religious elements, and focus on the expansion of business and colonial settlement-building projects. In service of these goals, they have adopted concurrent national identity projects. These projects implicitly emphasize the first-class treatment of white or light-skinned people over their darker-skinned counterparts. They proclaim the value of Ashkenazi and European-descended Israelis over Jews of Color, Palestinians and Arabs broadly, and of U.S. citizens over “immigrants” — importantly, always a stand in for “immigrants of color.” White immigrants have never been a focus of Trump’s immigration criticisms; Jews of Ashkenazi descent from America and Europe are actively recruited for Israeli immigration. Indeed, this discrepancy is highlighted by Israeli’s sterilization of immigrating Ethiopian Jews making aliyah, deportations of Sudanese refugees, and a legion of abuses against Palestinians and Arabs. Jewishness alone is not the deciding factor for full status in Israel, but proximity to whiteness.

It is not the case, as both Robert Bower’s tweets and Trump’s apologists implicitly claim, that Trump loves Jews. Rather, Trump loves Israel. What’s more, that the broadly-implemented hasbara program encouraging Jewish immigration to Israel does not mean that all Jews are equally welcome to partake in Netanyahu’s national project, built as it is on an ethnonationalist framework. Trump’s praise of the Israeli project — and Netanyahu’s reciprocity — has created a dangerous cover for a white supremacist politic to grow in the fertile ground of nationalism. Fascists and their conspirators wave their love of Israel, red-herring-like, as positive insulation from accusations of antisemitism. But Trump and Netanyahu demonstrate that one can love the Israeli ethnostate while treating Jews, whether American Jewry in the U.S. or Ethiopian immigrants in Israel, not merely as incidental but to be actively disposed of.

Given this landscape, it is unsurprising that Trump’s proposed solution for American synagogues was that they implement heavier security. There are a variety of reasons why this is not only not a viable option, but actively dangerous. Much like American police, security guards are often not capable of stopping violence, and their presence can actually increase its incidence. But much more importantly, like American police forces, security guards are routinely responsible for the deaths and physical abuse of people of color, in shopping malls, department stores, and schools. The fact that Trump’s suggestion and solution is to implement greater institutionalized security is actively part of the white supremacist project. It both increases policing — endangering Black and Brown people, Jewish or not, in our communities — and encourages us to join him in avoiding the root causes of white supremacy and allowing them to grow. Trump’s security recommendation invites us to lean twofold into the project of whiteness, to appeal to the idea that more police and a greater degree of militarization will save us. Yet these selfsame phenomena are part and parcel with the nationalist project that is actively advancing the white supremacy that is killing us. It does not serve our survival or our morality.

White and white-passing American Jews, this brings us to the question of survival. We are now presented with a tipping point, remembering that our fellow Jews of Color have never had the opportunity to make such a choice. We have to be serious and clear about the opportunities whiteness affords us. We have an ethical imperative to protect others from racism and xenophobia, but we are also vulnerable to the false promise whiteness makes us: that those of us who have been in most ways inducted thereto can enjoy its privileges unchecked. We cannot. If white supremacy reaches its logical conclusion, we will absolutely not survive. Ours has always been a privilege with vulnerabilities, and its failures are written in our blood. If we are silent, we are complicit in our own extermination, and complicit in the murders of our Black and Brown, friends, family and community members all along the way. Our quietness or refusal to engage with the political will not protect us or anyone else from the logical conclusion of white supremacy.

What, then, is to be done? If we are going to prevent ourselves from leaning into our own demise, it starts by rejecting fascism, by naming that white supremacy is intimately linked with authoritarian governance in the U.S., Israel, and elsewhere. It starts by being real and honest about the ways that racism and nationalism gain safe harbor in our own communities. If we are to reject white supremacy and whiteness, it starts not by disidentifying verbally (“I don’t think of myself as white”) but by dismantling racist policies and practices (“I am enjoying some privileges that people of color don’t, but that unfair system ultimately aims to kill us all.”) Black and Brown people, Jews and non-Jews alike, are fighting related battles to which many of us are late or absent, and it is high time we join. We cannot ignore white supremacy because Trump, Netanyahu, or the Israeli state project supposedly love Jews, because the projects they are engaged with will ultimately lead to our demise. If we do not guard against complacency, if we do not listen to and lift up the people who, like us, are targets, there will be no one left to mourn.