In the wake of the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh that left 11 Jews dead, the Jewish community came together. Groups that are often at odds with each other found unity in mourning the slain. While the attack happened at a Conservative synagogue, the Orthodox community was just as vocal in its communal mourning.
There were calls for unity, prayer groups, Torah study groups, and more. Chabad rabbis flew in from other cities to lend support and condolensces. Orthodox communities joined other denominations to recite psalms for the dead. And in virtually all synagogues, the Shabbat sermons were in some way about the massacre.
The unity was truly heartwarming.
And yet, in the midst of all this unity, one thing has divided the Orthodox communities — and the right wing Jewish world more generally — from most other Jewish communities and organizations: the question of who was responsible for the deadly attack.
In liberal Jewish spaces, a consensus quite quickly formed finding blame in white nationalists, a group to which the shooter belonged. In the first sentence of a joint statement by the Reconstructionist movement’s two leading organizations, the shooter is identified as “a white nationalist domestic terrorist.” And in a call to action, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism encouraged its audience to “Urge Congress and the Administration to Condemn Anti-Semitism, White supremacy, and Bigotry.”
And it wasn’t just white nationalists. Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, specifically spoke about how President Trump and other leaders contributed to the rise in anti-Semitism and the mainstreaming of the far right in an interview on MSNBC shortly after the attack.
Not so the Orthodox.
Despite the genuine mourning and the idealism behind the calls for unity, Orthodox Jews have by and large refused to name white nationalism — or President Trump — as the culprits. While there have been general calls to stand up to extremism and anti-Semitism, none have named the ideology, the rhetoric, and the identity that led to the deadliest mass shooting targeting Jews in American history.
This refusal is not incidental. It stems from the fact that Orthodox Jews cannot see white nationalism for what it is, even when it is literally shooting them in the face, for the terrible reason that that its talking points have become mainstreamed in their communities, too.
The right wing and Orthodox Jewish worlds take their talking points from the secular right. And the secular right has become infected by white nationalist rhetoric, so much so that it has become impossible for the people who have adopted these views to recognize them, and to see the danger they present to their own community.
This article is not about blaming these communities, or, God forbid, holding them responsible for the tragic deaths. As I said above, the Orthodox community has movingly insisted upon all that unifies us as Jews in its mourning of the victims.
But this is a rallying call. For if the Jewish world cannot identify and unite against this particular form of anti-Semitism, we will remain vulnerable to it. And the danger is real. If white nationalism can infect parts of the Jewish world, imagine what that means for the world at large.
None of the major official Orthodox statements mentioned white nationalism in their condemnation of the Pittsburgh shooting. The Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox organizations in the United States, and the Rabbinical Council of America released a statement that did not mention the phrase white nationalism or even directly address the origins of the shooter’s radicalism. Rather, the statement blamed “anti-Semitic violence” in general.
This is typical of the response in the Orthodox world. The National Council of Young Israel, one of the largest networks of Orthodox synagogues, also released a statement that spoke of “anti-Semitism” while not mentioning white nationalism by name. It even went so far as to praise Trump for his “strong words of support.”
These statements reflect a larger silence in Orthodox communities that I found looking at the statements of their leaders, as well as the social media of right wing Orthodox people and those in the larger right wing Jewish world, and interviews I conducted with Orthodox Jews across America.
Even Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who is largely considered one of the most moderate voices in the Orthodox Jewish world, could not bring himself to utter more than words about anti-Semitism in his statement.
This refusal to call out white nationalism is not new. It’s been a consistent problem since Trump’s election. After the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white nationalists marched and chanted “Jews with not replace us” we got the same silence. The Chabad movement, usually quick to launch mitzvah campaigns after such tragedies, was remarkably — and consistently — silent. It took the Orthodox Union three days to release a statement, and when it did, it didn’t mention the president’s equivocation of neo-Nazis and left-wing activists. And organizations like Agudath Israel didn’t say a thing. Similarly, when a white nationalist killed a young gay Jew for being gay and Jewish, we got the same silence.
These organizations and the Orthodox Jews they represent aren’t being obstinate. They honestly cannot see white nationalism for what it is.
And because of this blindness, the Orthodox Jewish community has allowed the talking points of white nationalism to infect its discourse.
But how can Jews be white nationalists? I hear over and over. White nationalists are anti-Semites!
That’s true. It’s not the white nationalism of Richard Spencer or Robert Bowers that I’m talking about. But there’s a more general point of view that white nationalism rests upon that has infiltrated the Orthodox community.
For white nationalism’s motivating myth is not only built around the supremacy of whites. Rather, it is a paranoid fantasy in which the United States and all white-majority nations are being invaded by inferior non-whites, hence the phrase “white genocide.”
This xenophobic and racist myth has been mainstreamed by President Trump, from his comments about people coming to the US from “shithole countries” to the conspiracy theory that white South African farmers are subject to “large scale killing” (a conspiracy theory that originated in the white nationalist world).
Most recently, Trump disseminated a white supremacist conspiracy theory about a group of South American migrants headed to the U.S. known as a caravan. Trump decried the “onslaught of illegal aliens,” a rage first stoked on the neo-Nazi site Stormfront, then Breitbart Radio, then Laura Ingraham’s show, and then finally on Donald Trump’s Twitterfeed.
We have today informed the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that if they allow their citizens, or others, to journey through their borders and up to the United States, with the intention of entering our country illegally, all payments made to them will STOP (END)!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2018
It’s true that in addition to hatred of non-whites, white nationalists are rabid anti-Semites. As writer Erik Ward pointed out, according to the white nationalist worldview, it is the Jew, disguised as white but not truly white at all, whose conniving intellect orchestrates a vast conspiracy to destroy the west through this invasion. The Jews are, in other words, the reason for the potential downfall of the West.
But in this day and age, it’s no longer polite to blame Jews for things. Instead, the financier George Soros has become a convenient stand in, the publicly acceptable face of the conniving Jew controlling and manipulating the west.
Trump had no trouble blaming Soros for the caravan, just as Robert Bowers, who murdered 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, blamed Jews more generally for the caravan.
REPORTER: Do think somebody is funding the caravan?
TRUMP: “I wouldn’t be surprised, yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised.”
R: George Soros?
T: “I don’t know who, but I wouldn’t be surprised. A lot of people say yes.” pic.twitter.com/U1w9EYHcw6— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 31, 2018
In fact, the substitution of Soros for “the Jew” is proof of just how mainstream this concept has become.
And it’s also how Orthodox Jews came to swallow up an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, hook, line and sinker.
If you can blame Soros for society’s ills instead of Jews, there’s nothing to stop Republican Jews from believing the alien invasion theory, too.
For as white nationalist ideas have become more prevalent in the right wing world, so too have they become more prevalent in the right wing and Orthodox Jewish worlds.
The influencers of the Orthodox community are the right wing punditry class, from the news outlet Breitbart, whose Orthodox Jewish editor routinely publishes Soros conspiracies, to Dennis Prager, influential in Orthodox circles, who has referred to the left as “the termite of Western Civilization,” to Ben Shapiro, himself Orthodox, who dabbles in mainstreaming racism, whether he means to or not.
As Shapiro told his millions of followers after the president made his “shithole” comment, “To be fair to the president, some countries are really crappy.”
Thus it came to be that when the president spread the conspiracy theory about how South African farmers were subject to “large scale killing,” a “white genocide” conspiracy theory that was first shared by Tucker Carlson, Orthodox Jews stood by him, with prominent Orthodox social media figures propagating this theory to this day.
And even after it led to the deaths of 11 Jews, talking heads in the right wing Jewish world have continued to embrace the caravan conspiracy theory. Prager’s Facebook page has continued to repost the same frightening propaganda video even weeks after the Pittsburgh shooting, claiming that the migrants “are an invasion force that may include gang members and terrorists.”
And from the pundits, it trickles down to the Orthodox, where conspiracy theories about the caravan along with other “proof” our nation is being invaded by non-white outsiders are rampant.
Of course, it’s not everyone. While 71% of Orthodox Jews support Trump, that means that 29% don’t. I myself am part of a progressive Orthodox activist group with more than 2,000 members.
But the scary reality is that we who see the danger of white nationalism and are willing to publicly call it out are part of the minority. The mainstream of the Orthodox world, like the right in America more generally, have allowed these ideas to become a part of the generally accepted worldview.
A cursory look at Orthodox social media or time spent in Orthodox communities is enough to reveal this sad reality.
Because these talking points are entering our national discourse one by one, as opposed to all at once (a strategy explicitly employed by white nationalists), right wing Jews have remained unaware of the fact that they have assimilated a worldview that calls for their own demise.
But their blindness is putting them, and the rest of us, in danger.
The truth is, Jews have been targeted far more than we’ve been aware. White nationalism is always an assault on Jews, too. And when our media, our culture, and our leaders have trouble accurately assigning blame to white nationalists and their abettors, they are endangering Jews. This includes the Oklahoma City Bombing, the Charleston black church massacre, and the “lone wolf” attacks against Muslims.
In the same week that 11 Jews were killed in a synagogue, another white nationalist tried to walk into a black church in Louisville, Kentucky to commit a similar massacre. Unable to enter, he then went into a Kroger and shot two black people, afterwards telling a white bystander that he didn’t shoot him because, “Whites don’t kill whites.”
This man was motivated by the same hateful philosophy that resulted in the death of 11 Jews. In other words, when blacks were targeted in the Kroger shooting, so were Jews. Similarly, when 11 Jews were massacred in cold blood, this attack also targeted blacks. It was also an overt attack on refugees, in the murderer’s own words.
All of these white nationalist hate crimes are part of the same story, and all of them are about a larger goal: turning America into a white nationalist country.
This is not to say, God forbid, that Orthodox or right wing Jews should be blamed for the attacks. Rather, we all, liberal and conservative, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Israeli or in the Diaspora, should see this moment of pain, confusion, loss, and fear as an opportunity.
We can finally face a demon that doesn’t just endanger others, but endangers us.
In the way Jews once were able to come together around topics like the Holocaust or Soviet Jewry, we must come together now to fight the animating principles and beliefs of a movement that seeks to wipe us from the face of the earth, and which is getting increasing traction and strength.
My fellow Orthodox Jews have asked me to find the light in this tragedy. This is the light. It’s an opportunity to call out white nationalism in whatever form it exists, and to also stand up for other minorities and vulnerable communities.
Right now, it is an option. Next year, it may no longer be.
Elad Nehorai is the writer behind the blog Pop Chassid, the co-founder of the creative Jewish website Hevria, and one of the leaders of Torah Trumps Hate, a new Orthodox Jewish activist organization and community.