A Year After the Tree of Life Shooting, Anti-Semitism and Anti-Immigrant Racism Thrive


One year ago this Sunday, a White nationalist stepped into a Pittsburgh synagogue and killed 11 Jewish worshippers. Before his shooting, Robert Bowers made clear in a social media post that he believed killing Jews would help block non-White immigrants from entering the United States and ensure the survival of his White race.

Last week, White nationalist Patrick Crusius pleaded not guilty to killing 22 mostly Latinx people in an August 3 mass shooting at an El Paso, Texas, Walmart. Before the attack, the 21-year-old posted a manifesto online, which said the shooting was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and was inspired by the “great replacement.”

As a Mexican American and as an American Jew, we see the threat of White nationalism affecting our communities firsthand. And as researchers at the social justice think tank Political Research Associates, we spend our days analyzing the strategy and rhetoric of these anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant movements across the right wing.

Anti-Semitism is also central to White nationalism.

Our research has shown us that it’s not just isolated White nationalist shooters or fringe neo-Nazis with tiki torches who rail against immigrant “invasion” and “replacement” and frame Jews as conspiratorial manipulators. In the era of Trump, these views also animate the rhetoric and policy of mainstream right-wing leaders. PRA’s new report, “Taking Aim at Multiracial Democracy: Antisemitism, White Nationalism, and Anti-Immigrant Racism in the Era of Trump,” traces the interconnections between anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, from White nationalists to the White House.

White nationalist shooters like Bowers and Crusius imagine that immigrants of color and forces of multiculturalism pose an existential threat to the identity and demographic cohesion of the White race, an imagined crisis they call “White genocide” or “the great replacement.” In their eyes, the only way to preserve a future for “the White race” is to establish a homogenous ethnostate where Whites are the demographic majority, and from which non-Whites must be purged. Dogmatic opposition to any and all non-White immigration is central to this worldview.

Anti-Semitism is also central to White nationalism.

According to White nationalists, for more than a century, Jews have covertly worked to loosen U.S. immigration policies and engineer a slew of progressive forces, including the civil rights and feminist movements. White nationalists believe that the goal of Jews is to gradually corrode the demographic, cultural, and ideological pillars upholding traditional White U.S. civilization. “The organized Jewish community,” wrote Greg Johnson, publisher of the White nationalist periodical Counter-Currents, “is the principal enemy—not the sole enemy, but the principal enemy—of every attempt to halt and reverse white extinction.”

Over the past year, White nationalist shooters like Bowers and Crusius have attacked Jewish, Latinx, and Muslim communities, while several more planned attacks have been thwarted. These White nationalists seem to believe they are blocking “great replacement” and protecting the White race from extinction. They encourage others by sharing their ideas and tactics with the broader White nationalist movement online before ultimately carrying out each attack independently, enacting a strategy of “leaderless resistance” championed by White nationalist leaders for decades. Their movement enjoys an expanding base of potential support, aided by misogynist ideas that have also deeply influenced White power shooters. Without appropriate interventions, we can expect these attacks to continue and to escalate.

These ideas weren’t solely propagated through a violent White nationalist fringe. Right-wing elected officials and Fox News anchors regularly threaten that an “invasion” of non-White immigrants is causing “massive demographic changes” in America, and insinuate that a hidden Jewish conspiracy lurks behind this threat. This rhetoric is deployed in different ways, putting all of our communities in danger.

Members of the Jewish community gather in front of the Tree of Life Synagogue for Shabbat on Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. Photo by Justin Merriman/Washington Post/Getty Images.

Iowa Republican congressman Steve King uses the great replacement theory to justify attacks on bodily autonomy and support abortion bans, while attacking immigrants. “If we continue to abort our babies and import a replacement for them in the form of young violent men, we are supplanting our culture, our civilization,” King said. Increasingly, right-wing elected officials such as President Trump, and U.S. Representatives Matt Shea, Chuck Grassley, Matt Gaetz, Josh Hawley, and others traffic in thinly veiled anti-Semitic memes.

Mainstream media can also be complicit in normalizing racial animus and deploying White nationalist rhetoric.

Right-wing politicians blame the so-called “immigrant invasion” on a conspiracy of “globalist elites”—an increasingly prevalent anti-Semitic trope, evoking a shadowy cabal behind progressive causes and political and financial institutions. They funnel much of their rhetoric toward liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros, with the implication that Jews—as a people—are all somehow “globalist elites.” By the time of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, a conspiracy that Soros was seeking to undermine American sovereignty by funding a “migrant caravan” had been championed for over a week by right-wing politicians and Fox News anchors, and had reached hundreds of millions on social media, boosted by this mainstream exposure.

Mainstream media can also be complicit in normalizing racial animus and deploying White nationalist rhetoric. Fox News anchors such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham regularly broadcast “great replacement” and “White genocide” rhetoric to millions on their prime-time shows, earning the praise of David Duke and other white nationalists. Diatribes against Soros and “globalists” appear regularly as well.

Ostensibly centrist and liberal publications can also be complicit. A few weeks before the mass shooting in El Paso, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens decried Spanish being spoken at a Democratic debate and wrote that the party “makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.” Similar points were made in Crusius’ manifesto. Whether intentional or not, Stephens softened the edges of the great replacement conspiracy theory in the pages of the New York Times.

The organized anti-immigrant movement helps normalize the toxic stew of xenophobia and anti-Semitism as well. Anti-immigrant groups like the Center for Immigration Studies and the Federation for American Immigration Reform were once thought of as political fringe groups, founded by a White nationalist who advocated for eugenics. These organizations have worked tirelessly to normalize their rhetoric and gain political power. Now in Trump’s America, the deeply harmful anti-immigrant policies these groups spent decades advocating for are coming to fruition—and former leaders of these anti-immigrant organizations now hold key positions in federal immigration agencies.

We must organize together for policies that advance racial and economic justice.

Not surprisingly, FAIR and CIS have dabbled in anti-Semitic rhetoric as well. Days after the Pittsburgh shooting, CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian promoted the conspiracy that Soros was funding the migrant caravan. In 2016, FAIR sued the Obama administration seeking records of its collaboration with “open-borders globalist, George Soros” and featured an exposé at its annual Board of Advisers conference of Soros’ “big money network to destroy U.S. borders.” Other prominent anti-immigrant pundits have also trafficked in anti-Semitism, including Michelle Malkin, who argued in a September 2019 appearance on Fox that “global financiers” including Soros are “colluding to undermine American sovereignty” by “sabotaging our will when it comes to enforcing strictly immigration law.”

In these ways, right-wing elected officials, media pundits, and social movements fuse anti-Semitism with anti-immigrant racism to mobilize millions behind an exclusionary nationalist agenda. Millions are trained to view immigrants not as human beings seeking a better life, but as pawns of subversive elites, weaponized to undermine American sovereignty and identity.

Many are led to embrace inhuman anti-immigrant policies, believing they’re joining in illusory revolt against “globalist elites.” This conspiracism fans the flames of ultranationalism, demonizing immigrants and Jews as absolute Others of the “America First” project who must be expelled to preserve national identity, traditional values, and “Western civilization.”

Memorial offerings outside of the Tree Of Life Synagogue on Aug. 7, 2019, in Pittsburgh. Photo by Jeff Swensen/ The Washington Post/Getty Images.

When right-wing leaders—including elected officials and the president of the United States—voice anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories, it grants these ideas legitimacy and a massive public forum, helping to create a climate that encourages White nationalist attacks on Jews, immigrants, Indigenous people, and Black and Brown people. Because of this mainstreaming, anti-Semitism has become a potent force in mainstream right-wing U.S. politics, and will likely escalate as we approach the 2020 elections. Non-White immigrants, Muslims, Black folks, other people of color, Jews, and women will also continue to be principal targets of White nationalist violence.

To honor the memories of those killed in Pittsburgh and El Paso, we must organize together for policies that advance racial and economic justice, and build safety through solidarity by showing up for each other—not only when our communities are attacked by ICE raids, exclusionary policy, or White nationalist violence, but also and critically as we’re developing our own alternative vision for multiracial and feminist democracy. This looks like resisting attempts to divide us, and requires engaging with our differences. Through our shared understanding of the Right—in both mainstream and White nationalist versions—we can overcome the tactics used to exclude, incarcerate, disenfranchise, criminalize, and scapegoat our communities and silence our allies. For it is the very communities targeted by White nationalism that can, through deep solidarity and the practice of building collective power, form the cornerstone of a reconstructed “We, the people.”

If we are to defend the safety and deepen the vibrancy of our communities, we must understand how anti-Semitism, racism, and anti-immigrant rhetoric work together to create a cohesive ideology—and we must interrupt this totalizing, conspiratorial narrative with a bold, expansive vision of real, inclusive, feminist, multiracial democracy that allows all of us to thrive.

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Ben Lorber works at Political Research Associates as a Research Analyst focusing on anti-Semitism and White nationalism. He lives in Boston, MA.
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Tina Vasquez is an award-winning journalist focusing on racial injustice and the intersection of immigration and reproductive justice. Formerly, she was a senior reporter covering immigration at Rewire.News. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, NPR, and the New York Review of Books. She is based in North Carolina.
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