When Rabbi Matt Rosenberg went to a speech presented by one of the country’s leading white nationalists, he hoped to make a statement about the power of Judaism. During a question-and-answer session after the talk, Rosenberg, who heads Hillel at Texas A&M, asked Richard Spencer, the self-styled ambassador of the “alt-right,” whether the two could sit down and study together.
“My tradition teaches a message of radical inclusion and love,” Rosenberg said. “Will you sit town and learn Torah with me, and learn love?”
“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer asked, a smile spreading across his face. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?”
Rosenberg fell silent. Spencer did not. He went on, saying the Jewish people have prevailed because they resist assimilation — and he respected that.
“Jews exist precisely because you did not assimilate,” he said. “I respect that about you. I want my people to have that same sense of themselves.” The two men were speaking about different Jewish paradigms: Jews as nation versus Jews as citizens of the world. One of them Spencer praised; the other he sneered at.
To be sure, the “alt-right,” a contemporary label preferred by white separatists, traffics in xenophobia and nativism of all sorts, including anti-Semitism. Jews are hardly its only, or most prominent, target, but the specter of imagined Jewish control, in which Jews seek to undermine white civilization, is a constant boogeyman.
Yet messages like Spencer’s at Texas A&M reveal another layer of this latest brand of white nationalism. Spencer says his dream of building a “white ethnostate” is “very similar to how Jews conceive of Israel.” He even describes his vision as something like “white Zionism.”
Spencer’s complicated relationship with Jews is illustrative. In the sprawling and divided world of the “alt-right” there are multiple factions. All groups imagine whites as an embattled group, whose white power and control is under threat from non-whites. But they are divided on the next part: Are Jews an enemy to the white nation, a model to emulate, or some combination?
In a glossy promotional video for Spencer’s organization, the National Policy Institute, a pro-Israel march flashes across the screen as Spencer reads aloud, “At a time when every other people is asserting its own [identity]… are we ready to become who we are?”
‘Jesus Christ Was A Jewish Klansman.’
Spencer isn’t the first white separatist to hold seemingly contradictory views on the Jews. Earlier white supremacists like the Ku Klux Klan had a similar love-hate relationship; Spencer and his cohort are building on these foundations.
In a 1926 tract on “religious and patriotic ideals,” one KKK-affiliated minister praised Jews as “a wonderful people,” particularly the way in which they have maintained the “purity of their racial blood, refusing to intermarry with other races.”
The minister, a Texan named W. C. Wright, called Jesus Christ a Klansman — because he “belonged to the oldest Klan in existence, the Jewish theocracy.”
In Wright’s imagination, Jesus promoted a type of Jewish supremacy — just as the KKK fought for white supremacy. “Jews have been Klannish since the days of Abraham,” Wright wrote.
Even an Imperial Wizard of the KKK’s heyday had praise, of sorts, for Jews. Alabama-born Hiram Wesley Evans, who presided over the KKK in the 1920s, called Jews “healthy, morally alert, energetic, loyal and reverent.”
But there always has been — and still is — a flipside to this admiration of the Jews.
In 1923 address titled “The Menace of Modern Immigration,” Evans called Jews “alien and inassimilable,” a breed of people who demonstrated an “evil influence.”
“There [was] admiration but also a nervousness about what Jews mean for larger national culture,” Kelly J. Baker, author of “Gospel According to the Klan,” told the Forward. “They were saying: ‘We can admire that they have not assimilated, that they have stayed separate — and immediately follow it, ‘But I think they are primarily evil.’”
‘I Began Rethinking Everything.’
Years ago, before his David Duke affiliations, “Hail Trump” Nazi salutes and rise to fame amid the campaign of Donald Trump, Spencer attended elite private schools in Dallas. Some of his classmates and friends were Jewish.
“The Jews were the kids that told me Santa Claus wasn’t real. They were kind of nerdy and little different,” Spencer said. “I didn’t have any major problems with them.”
Spencer didn’t reflect too much on Jewishness or on race at all.
He was a dedicated student, and in 2005, Spencer entered a doctoral program at Duke University, studying European intellectual history.
But he dropped out, his website reads, “to pursue a life of thought-crime.”
He had flirted with far-right ideology, but in the next years he would make a more dramatic shift. “I knew there was something wrong with the world,” Spencer told the Forward. “I began rethinking everything.”
In 2010 he founded a website called AlternativeRight.com and around the same time took the helm at the NPI think-tank, which is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of people of European descent in the United States.”
Among his influences he cites Jared Taylor, the white nationalist editor of the website American Renaissance, which describes itself as the “premier race-realist site” on the internet. An early mentor of Spencer’s, Paul Gottfried, the inventor of the term “alternative right,” is Jewish and is a graduate of Yeshiva University.
Taylor describes himself as a “white advocate,” but he has made clear that he has no problem working with Jews; one time, he even banned discussion of the so-called “Jewish question” from online forums associated with American Renaissance.
And Spencer has said he respects some Jewish nationalists, including the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I would say, if I were to have a beer with Netanyahu I bet we would agree on everything. I think we would see eye to eye,” Spencer said. “If I had a beer with Jon Stewart, he would be horrified and I would be annoyed.”
Spencer’s “white ethnostate” is his long-term goal. It’s just a dream, he says, and he’s not sure how to get there. But he evokes the success of the Zionist project. His white “homeland,” he said, would be “very similar to how Jews conceive of Israel.”
Theodor Herzl conceived of his Jewish state as a solution to the imperiled condition of Jews in the Diaspora. Herzl and his cohort feared that something catastrophic was on the horizon. The horrors of the Holocaust — millions of Jews murdered by the Nazis — were the heinous culmination of European anti-Semitism. The mass killing helped galvanize support for the Jewish national project in the Middle East.
Israel’s founding document, its Declaration of Independence, while declaring the country a Jewish state, also made a “striking embrace of all peoples and religions,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
“It would be difficult to square that with the notion of a white nation,” Sarna said. “That is the very opposite of what the white nationalists want.”
For “alt-right” members who see Zionism in a positive light of sorts, it may have little to do with the country of Israel itself.
“For a lot of people, Israel is a Rorschach test,” Sarna said. “What they see in Israel tells us more about them than it does about Israel.”
Spencer compares himself to pre-state Zionist thinkers, seeing his role as a dreamer — not necessarily as someone who would build his whites-only nation, but one who would lay conceptual groundwork for a state.
“A similar thing could be said of Jews. Jews were imagining Zionism there is a Jewish state in the Middle East,” Spencer said in a radio interview with the website Reveal. “You have to dream it before you build it.” he said, trying his hand at a very Herzlian-sounding mantra.
There “is often talk about ‘Zionism’ as being a horrible evil that intends to take over the world,” author Brett Stevens wrote in August on the website Alternative-right.blogpost.com, “forgetting that Zionism is an assertion of Nationalism — the idea that Jews need their own state, and all Jews belong there, where they can control their destiny and live according to their ways.”
‘There Are Two Alt-Rights.’
Still, Spencer’s admiration for Jews is mixed with repulsion — particularly the belief that Jews have played a negative and outsize role in the decline of white civilization. And this attitude can be found across the contemporary white nationalist camp, which is beset with internecine disputes.
He calls the so-called “Jewish question” (or “JQ,” in contemporary “alt-right” lingo) among the most “complicated and difficult” topics for white nationalists. The term “Jewish question” of course is best known for its use in Nazi Germany, where leaders gathered on the shores of Lake Wannsee outside Berlin to plan the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”
He sees some liberal Jews, like the Texan rabbi, as “duplicitous,” presenting their case in “gooey, universalistic” terms. “I think it is easy to understand black crime, illegal immigrants, that’s in your face,” Spencer said. “But the Jewish question is extremely complicated.”
Indeed, the question of just how the “alt-right” should relate to Jews is a frequent fault line among Spencer’s followers and fellow travelers.
In December, the divergent views of the “alt-right” on Jews came to a head after online personality Tim Treadstone (better known as “Baked Alaska”) was booted from an upcoming “alt-right” inauguration event called the Deploraball after a series of tweets he wrote about the media being “run in majority by Jewish people.”
“Alt-right” personality Mike Cernovich, the event’s organizer, was worried that Treadstone’s anti-Semitism would undermine the growing political influence of the “alt-right” after Trump’s win. “No Nazi salutes, no JQ bullshit,” Cernovich wrote privately to Treadstone, scolding him and removing him from the event bill shortly thereafter. Paul Joseph Watson, an editor of the conspiracist website Infowars, which is also associated with the “alt-right,” described the “two ‘alt-rights.’”
One likes to wear Trump hats, “create memes & have fun,” he wrote in a public Facebook post. “The other faction likes to fester in dark corners of subreddits and obsess about Jews, racial superiority and Adolf Hitler.”
‘At The End Of The Day, We Are Very Different.’
The most fiercely anti-Jew faction of the “alt-right” may be best personified in Andrew Anglin, who runs the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer.
In the ongoing battle for the trajectory of the “alt-right” movement, Anglin has offered his views bluntly: “The goal is to ethnically cleanse white nations of nonwhites and establish an authoritarian government. Many people also believe that the Jews should be exterminated.”
And unlike Spencer, Anglin has no admiration for Israel or Zionism. He cheers terrorist attacks against Israelis, laments the special U.S.-Israel relationship and sees in that relationship an expression of ultimate Jewish power. Anglin’s website has billed itself as the “The World’s Most Visited ‘Alt-Right’ Website” and features stories on alleged Jewish world control and black-on-white crime. Anglin has mounted numerous online campaigns — dubbed “troll storms” — against Jewish public figures. (The attacks have provocative titles, like “Operation: Jew Wife” or “Operation: Filthy Jew Bitch.”)
Anglin’s most recent campaign calls for an armed march against local Jews in Whitefish, Montana, where Spencer lives part time. Montana is among the country’s whitest states and has a minuscule Jewish population; however, the Whitefish area is a Jewish hub of sorts, home to a community of more than 100 families and individuals.
Anglin’s anti-Jewish campaign is in response to local activism against white nationalism and Spencer in particular. But Anglin sees Spencer and his family as the true victims: the Jews, the persecutors.
“The Jewish relationship to the goyim in this country has for decades resembled a man lying on the ground and being kicked in the head. Well, the goyim are standing up,” Anglin — who said he no longer speaks with any Jew on the telephone — wrote in an email to the Forward.
Spencer and Anglin agree on a lot. Spencer imagines the Whitefish Jews as people who have “set up left-wing organizations on their behalf,” perpetually “alien” to the world they live in. Spencer said he appreciates Anglin’s support.
But Spencer has also called for the Whitefish fiasco to “come to an end.”
In his Forward interview, Spencer said he hoped to spend the next weeks around Washington, possibly working on a short documentary. He had no plans to be in Whitefish for the march, building his own movement.
While Anglin rants against Jewish control in rural Montana, Spencer wants to build his “white Zionism” in D.C.
Within the broad category of the “alt-right,” you have people who have “genocidal views and people who have views of admiration, both of which are based on stereotypes,” said Chip Berlet, an independent researcher of white supremacy.
“In the minds of some people, Jews are either exceptionally talented or in league with Satan,” Berlet said. “It’s a love-hate relationship.”
“Clearly there has been a Jewish role in white dispossession,” Spencer said in his Forward interview, echoing Anglin and others. “But the ‘alt-right’ can learn something from Jewish history.”
How, exactly? “We can build networks that are national and international,” Spencer said.
Then he added, “We can also be a bit duplicitous.”
Sam Kestenbaum is a contributing editor and former staff writer for the Forward. Before this, he worked for The New York Times and newsrooms in Sana, Ramallah and Beijing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @skestenbaum and on Instagram at @skestenbaum.