The FBI recently arrested Juan Thompson in connection with eight bomb threats made against Jewish Community Centers. Thompson, a journalist previously fired from The Intercept for fabricating quotes, allegedly made the threats in his ex-girlfriend’s name to harass and intimidate her. Some on the right, who have scoffed at the idea that Trump’s rise has led to an increase in anti-Semitism, responded to the news of Thompson’s arrest with a certain amount of glee. Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for Townhall.com, sneered on twitter, “Let’s see if liberal media types report that, 1.#JuanThompson is a liberal media type 2. Trump was absolutely right about it being a hoax.”
The eight bomb threats Thompson is charged with are only a fraction of the more than 100 incidents reported by the JCC Association of North America. Thompson appears to be a copycat, mimicking someone else’s hatred. Right-wing pundits like Schlichter and National Review Online’s Kevin D. Williamson have argued that because Thompson wasn’t motivated by anti-Semitism, the wave of threats and desecration of Jewish cemeteries were “fake hate crimes” or a hoax. So it’s just a distraction pushed by leftists, not a real problem.
The truth, though, is that anti-Semitism doesn’t require individuals who participate in it to hate Jews, or even to care about Jews. Anti-Semitism is a way to structure hate and violence. Once the structure is in place, anyone can participate, whether they are personally invested or not. Prejudice doesn’t require intent. You don’t have to hate Jews to commit anti-Semitic acts.
Online harassment campaigns, such as GamerGate have illustrated this dynamic. GamerGate began in 2014 as an argument around sexism in video games and the video game community. It quickly escalated, and soon targets, such as feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian, who founded Feminist Frequency, were receiving a barrage of vile threats, such as “I’m going to come to your house and violently rape you in front of your family.” Some of the death threats were credible, forcing Sarkeesian to flee from her home.
Though many GamerGate threats were openly misogynist, not everyone who participated in the pile-ons was directly motivated by hatred of woman. One of the most disturbing threats, directed at software engineer and candidate for US Congress in Massachusetts Brianna Wu, was a violent video by Mainer Jan Rankowski, a self-described sketch comedian. The video showed Rankowski supposedly driving to Wu’s house to attack her. Rankowski later said he was just joking; he claimed to have been parodying gamergate, not participating in it.
In an email, though, Brianna Wu pointed out to the Forward that jokes are often a way to normalize prejudice. “Research shows that telling jokes denigrating marginalized groups can sway more neutral people against them,” she said. “Telling hateful jokes is an effective way to foster division.” Whatever Rankowski’s intention, the upshot of his “joke” was that he made a frightening death threat, which Wu had every reason to see as legitimate. Rankowski may not have had hate in his heart, but he still spread hate. Similarly, Juan Thompson may not have been trying to harm Jews in particular. His goal was to hurt his ex-girlfriend. The kids at Jewish Community Centers he allegedly called to threaten were terrorized as a kind of additional bonus.
From experience online, this extra bonus accidental terror isn’t really an accident. Part of how harassment works on the internet is through “dogpiling”; an individual or group points out a target, and everyone attacks. The idea, Sarkeesian wrote in a piece for Marie Claire, is to “overwhelm a target through sheer volume, clogging and choking online accounts with a cascade of disingenuous questions, insults, slurs, threats, and more.” Dogpiling works so well in part because it’s about the target, not about the participants’’ motives. You can take part in a dogpile of Anita Sarkeesian because you’re misogynist, or because you’re angry about what she said about videogames, or just because you’re not doing anything and think it would be funny. When harassers choose a target, they expect, and hope, to encourage others to join in for laughs, or out of boredom, or to advance their own agendas.
Mainstream media outlets often refer to Milo Yiannopolous, who frequently and gleefully trumpets bigoted statements, as a “provocateur,” and suggest that he doesn’t really mean the hateful things he says about women or black people. But whether he believes them or not is beside the point when he calls a black actress “barely literate” and cheers on people referring to her as a monkey. Attacks on marginalized people, Wu explains, are “meant to normalize the behavior. On the Internet, especially Reddit, hating women, Jewish people, transgender people and black people is entirely normal. It sends a social signal that the group deserves your derision. So, when other people mimic the behavior, [the bigots] win.”
The person, or people, responsible for the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers plan to frighten Jewish people. They also want to make terrorizing Jewish people into a normal, everyday occurrence. Harassment campaigns work in part to lower the barrier for entry to hate.
That’s part of why President Trump’s suggestion that the threats were hoaxes intended to damage him proved so dangerous. If the threats are just a hoax, why not prove they’re a hoax by calling in a hoax threat yourself? If hate isn’t serious, people who aren’t serious about hate can participate too.
Thompson is a known liar and, it appears, a misogynist harasser. He’s not, seemingly, an ideologically committed anti-Semite. But the fact that, at this moment in history, his misogynist lies were channeled into anti-Semitism is telling. Hating Jews is easier now in the United States than it was not long ago. The fact that Juan Thompson committed anti-Semitic acts without being personally anti-Semitic shouldn’t be a comfort to Jewish people. Quite the reverse.