On the last day of September, the antisemitic terrorist who in 2019 shot and killed Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded three others in a Poway, California, synagogue was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. One of the wounded was Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whose life Gilbert Kaye saved when she jumped in front of him and took the fatal bullet. After that, the terrorist turned his fire on the congregation, and 8-year-old Noya Dahan was also wounded. “He was aiming at the kids,” she stated to CNN.
This could have easily ended up a mass killing as bloody as the one in 2018, where 11 Jews were murdered at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Luckily, the Poway murderer’s semi-automatic rifle stopped firing after he’d “only” been able to get off 8-10 shots. The killer, whose name I will not type, had recently pled guilty at the sentencing hearing to both state murder charges and federal hate crime charges.
At the hearing, a number of family members and victims made statements. Their voices were powerful, and one of them called out the white nationalist hatred of Jews that motivated this terrorist. Some of the specific reasons behind that hatred may be different from what you’ve previously understood to be antisemitism.
Dr. Howard Kaye, who lost his wife of 32 years, spoke of her as “a superior person and a wonderful woman.” He described her accomplishments and her generosity, calling her a “daughter of charity.” Gilbert Kaye’s sister, Ellen Edwards, recalled breaking the horrible news to their 92-year-old father: “I’ll never forget the look on his face when we told him.” She then addressed the man who pulled the trigger: “We want you … to rot in prison and never walk a free man.” Noya Dahan’s uncle, Almog Peretz, was also wounded, and could not bring himself to appear in person. In a statement that was read in the courtroom, Peretz lamented that the terrorist had “killed both my body and my soul.” CNN reported that he continues to experience anxiety and panic attacks.
The final speaker was Hannah Kaye, the victim’s daughter and an eyewitness, who detailed the terrible moments that changed her family’s lives forever. “Suddenly, in an instant, the earth literally shifted,” she intoned, and the “taste of gunpowder entered my mouth.” She also spoke directly to the killer: “Your bullets will not wreck through my body today as they did my mother’s. She is here. She is alive within my words … You are unable to destroy the truth of my experience as much as you may want to.” Kaye added: “The voice of my mother is reclaimed within my own.” She also wanted to name and describe the evil behind the act, so that everyone would know “what white supremacist, bigoted, racist violence looks, smells, sounds, feels and, yes, even tastes like in America in the 21st century—two years ago and now.”
That white supremacist, racist evil is old, but there are elements of it that have evolved in ways that reflect the spirit and ideas animating a right wing profoundly shaped by Donald Trump. From the moment in the summer of 2015 that he began his campaign by fearmongering and race-baiting—calling the people coming across our border with Mexico “rapists,” “drug dealers,” and “murderers”—the twice-impeached former president has injected anxiety, fear, and hatred into the issue of immigration. In this, no other national figure has ever had a greater impact. While Trump himself did not connect this animosity directly to Jews, others who swallowed his bile did not hesitate to do so.
The white nationalist supremacists we’re talking about here don’t just hate Jews and immigrants of color. They hate Jews because they hate immigrants of color—whose entry into our country in large numbers they believe Jews are supporting as a means to destroy its erstwhile white Christian foundations. Of course, these white nationalists don’t consider Jews to be white either, but it’s their pro-immigration position that sparks the hatred we are talking about here.
A terrific explanatory piece by Zack Beauchamp at Vox analyzes this connection in great depth. The first time the connection became part of our public discourse in a major way was at the 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In so many ways, that event served as the launching pad for the worst of elements of the Trumpist right wing. We saw a bald display of pure white supremacist hate espoused by individuals who included, according to The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It, some “very fine people.”
Those goosestepping, tiki torch-carrying lovelies chanted “Jews will not replace us” as part of a wide array of antisemitic hate that oozed out of the entire bunch. Many people who heard that line, however, might have wondered exactly what it meant. How could Jews, a tiny group representing only 2.4% of the American population, replace white Christians? And what would that even mean? Beauchamp summarized it neatly enough when he said that “they believe that Jews are masterminding a plot to undermine white supremacy in America by bringing in literal boatloads of nonwhite migrants.” Huh? Yup.
Those not so fine people, with their not so fine ideas, reached even worse people, who then acted on them. The aforementioned Pittsburgh mass murderer posted some of his views before shooting up the Tree of Life synagogue. These included a condemnation of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which does pretty much what the name suggests. The killer didn’t look so kindly on their stated mission. “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he posted on Gab. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.” Please note that Trump had also characterized immigration as an “invasion.” He may not have pulled the trigger, but he damn sure fed the fire of hate that fueled the killer’s murderous rage.
The Poway shooter expressed very similar sentiments about Jews and immigrants, along with plenty of other classic antisemitic tropes, such as the lie that Jews killed Jesus Christ and thus all bear some collective responsibility that brands them as deserving of hate and violence. He specifically cited being inspired by the Pittsburgh terrorist, as well as by another white supremacist murderer, one who targeted and killed 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand. It’s important to note that the Poway terrorist, prior to attacking the synagogue, had one month earlier tried to burn down a mosque in nearby Escondido—another hate crime to which he admitted—and expressed hatred for Muslims as well as Jews.
Echoing the language from Pittsburgh, the Poway killer ranted on 8chan: “Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race. They act as a unit, and every Jew plays his part to enslave the other races around him—whether consciously or subconsciously.” He added: “[Latinos] and [Blacks] are useful puppets for the Jew in terms of replacing Whites.” This notion of the Jews as all-powerful puppetmasters is a long-standing antisemitic trope, given its most famous expression in 1903’s Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Here we have a reference to European or white genocide. This rancid concept—along with the notion of replacement, or, as others, including Tucker Carlson on his Fox News show just a month or so ago, have dubbed it, “The Great Replacement”—serve as the twin poles of a vicious cocktail of white supremacist hate and white racial paranoia that have drawn a significant amount of Jewish blood. Oh, and if you’re shocked that Florida (Congress)man Matt Gaetz also endorsed Carlson on this (or that other elected Republicans have been talking in similar terms), you really haven’t been paying attention.
These ideas are gaining widespread traction. A recent poll by the highly respected Public Religion and Research Institute (PRRI) asked whether respondents agreed that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background.” And 55% of Republicans said yes, as did 60% of conservatives. The poll didn’t ask how many blamed Jews for this supposedly dangerous demographic shift, but scapegoating Jews and blaming them for society’s ills is a long-standing tradition among antisemites—this one would just be a new twist on an old theme.
To bring it right up to the present, these antisemitic, right-wing white nationalist extremists are also bleating about The Great Replacement as part of their condemnation of the U.S. allowing in brave Afghans who worked with us over the past two decades. They don’t want those brown refugees (even worse—to these bigots—they’re Muslim) any more than they want brown people coming across the Rio Grande. Unsurprisingly, Carlson weighed in on this one as well, making up lies about “millions of foreign nationals whose identities we can’t confirm mov[ing] here … probably in your neighborhood.” Echoing the language of Trump, as well as the Pittsburgh killer, Fox News’ No. 1 host concluded: “First we invade, then we’re invaded.”
The strand of antisemitism that connects Jews to their support for immigrants—well, maybe not all immigrants, as Trump even admitted he’s okay with people coming from places like Norway—is far from the only kind, even on the right. In early October, Hitler Youth Kommandant—I mean Republican congressman Madison Cawthorn, a committed white Christian nationalist, made some incredibly antisemitic remarks that essentially reduced Biblical Jews to little more than a conduit for the spread of Christianity.
We’ve also seen more crude examples of antisemitism in recent days, such as the vandalization of the barracks at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the camp where the Nazis murdered almost 1 million Jews, in addition to 100,000 other victims. The vandals spray-painted Holocaust denial slogans and other antisemitic language on numerous buildings there.
Additionally, it’s important to note that not all antisemitic attacks come from the right. This late September incident in Los Angeles appears to echo the burst of antisemitic hate crimes from May that followed the recent fighting between Israel and Hamas.
Outside the U.S., an attack on a German synagogue planned for Yom Kippur in September was prevented by the authorities, thanks to a tip from another country’s intelligence services. North Rhine-Westphalia State Premier Armin Laschet stated that this plot was “Islamist motivated.” Much of the antisemitic hate and violence coming from sources that aren’t U.S. right wing appears to connect to Israel.
Nonetheless, for American Jews—who are by far the largest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel—it’s clear that the greater danger, and the much higher toll in terms of violence, comes from a right-wing, white supremacist antisemitism that connects to fear and hatred of the non-white immigrants whom Jews supposedly want to bring in to replace white Christians.
That connection might be one you hadn’t made before. Unfortunately, antisemitic terrorists—like the Poway synagogue killer—have been making it more and more throughout the Trump era. I wonder why.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)