The attack on a Pittsburgh synagogue this past October was a rude awakening for many Americans, who were unaware of such virulent anti-Semitism in the U.S. It’s been over a month since Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people there. Even as that particular event begins to feel more remote, the reminder that overt acts of anti-Semitism and hate exist in the US still feels very present.
YR Media’s Oliver Riskin-Kutz spoke with Lecia Brooks, the outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, about the current trends in hate and anti-Semitism, and what we can do to reverse them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
ORK: This shooting took many by surprise. Prior to the shooting, had anti-Semitism already been on the rise in America?
LB: The SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center) has been tracking an increase in the number of anti-Semitic hate incidents and crimes for the past two years — but there’s been an increase for about 10 years, in this country and globally. This attack is not an anomaly, except in that it was a mass murder.
Anti-Semitic acts are usually verbal rhetoric, like the trope of Jews being responsible for anything that goes wrong, as we’re seeing now with the migrant caravan. But we’ve seen an increase in acts too: bomb threats being called into over 100 Jewish day schools two years ago, the desecration of Jewish cemeteries that started immediately after that and still continues, up through [recently] when a group at a junior prom in Wisconsin took a photo doing a Hitler salute. And people are saying that [an incident like the prom photo] really doesn’t matter, when of course it does.
ORK: What effect does the Internet have on the spread of anti-Semitism? Are people recruited over the Internet?
LB: The Internet is great at spreading information. Unfortunately, still too many people believe that everything they read on the Internet is true. Google search algorithms are such that if you were to search for proof that Jews control everything, or are behind a “white genocide,” all you’d need to do is [type in] that affirmative statement and you’d get information that only validates what you already thought.
Bowers was a frequent poster on a site called Gab. There are also other sites, like the Daily Stormer or Stormfront, places where people can feed their racism and anti-Semitism and find people who think like them. Research shows that people who visit these websites tend to feel marginalized — people who already believe that an increase in populations of color and immigrant populations is putting them on the losing end of society.
ORK: What is the SPLC doing to fight this rise in anti-Semitism?
LB: The SPLC is educating policymakers, influencers, and educators about the existence of white supremacy and anti-Semitism. With our research and publishing, we hope to shine a light on these bad actors and show folks that there is indeed a connection between white supremacy and anti-Semitism. People don’t necessarily link them, but with the massacre at the Tree of Life, people are beginning to see the connection.
Anti-Semitism is connected to other kinds of hate. We identified 954 hate groups in 2017, of which at least 85% are white supremacist. And white supremacist groups are also anti-Semitic, because they’re in a tradition of Aryan purity, meaning Jews are not white in their mind. We want people to rise up against that and push back against normalizing biased, bigoted, and anti-Semitic thoughts and actions. That’s why we publish.
ORK: What effect has the Trump presidency had on the rise of anti-Semitism and hate?
LB: The President entered his 2016 campaign on a platform of hate. He began by demonizing Mexicans, and then Muslims. “Make America Great Again” was and continues to be read, as “Make America White Again.” I’m not saying that the President has expressed anti-Semitic thoughts, but he doesn’t speak out against them.
In the Tree of Life example, he didn’t take a strong stand against the terrible act. He also promotes a white nationalist agenda with his-anti immigrant and anti-Muslim policies, which tends to fuel far extreme-right and white nationalist movements. They feel like they have a leader in the White House. He needs to reject that, but he does not. The desires of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements are being actualized by policies that come out of the federal government.
ORK: Do you think any recent changes in national politics, like the House of Representatives turning blue, could have an effect on this rise?
LB: Any administration should have a check on power. It’s not good for our democracy to have all three branches of government controlled by one party or one leader. There’s been no check on Trump’s policies to date.
We hope that will change when the new Congress is sworn in. It may provide a cover for those in the Republican Party who wanted to speak but didn’t, for fear of being marginalized by the president. I feel confident that the newly elected officials will begin to speak out, and demand that the president speak out more against the rise in hate and extremism in our country.
ORK: What can ordinary citizens do to help check the rise of hate?
LB: Each of us has a responsibility to speak out against hate, bias and bigotry. The hateful rhetoric that we hear every day becomes normal when we allow it to. We’ve all seen stories of hateful acts carried out against Latinx people, or Jews, or Muslims. We have to speak loudly and firmly against these acts. For all our criticism and critique of President Trump, it really is up to us to push back against the hate and reject it.