The Path From Irresponsible Rhetoric to Real World Violence
Why would a man fly across the Atlantic Ocean to take a rabbi and three congregants hostage in a small Texas synagogue? What would propel another individual to grab an AR-15 assault rifle and three handguns, drive to Pittsburgh, and start shooting at its Tree of Life synagogue one Sabbath day?
These are questions that weigh heavily on the Jewish community, and indeed all marginalized communities that have suffered from violent hate crimes. As we have these past few weeks since the hostage crisis in Colleyville, the Jewish community wonders if these attacks — as well as the countless less violent instances of graffiti on doors and slurs on social media posts — are one-offs or warnings.
And while we don’t know what drives any single individual to desecrate a cemetery, spit at an old man in a kippah, or bully a Jewish classmate, we know what feeds this hate: inflammatory language that traffics in old-age stereotypes. It may rack up “likes” on social media and seem like harmless fun, but in fact it generates very real consequences.
The Colleyville gunman, for instance, believed that “Jews control everything,” and that President Biden would intervene and free an Islamist terrorist affiliated with Al Qaeda because the commander in chief, too, is controlled by the Jews. This notion of Jewish power is an antisemitic trope that is centuries old, yet its echoes are heard today across the political spectrum.
Just recently, the once far-left, now far-right polemicist Glenn Greenwald raised the specter of ADL secretly working with PayPal as part of a sinister plot to “banish people from the financial system… if you harbor an ideology that ADL dislikes.” Not only is ADL far from secretive about its work, but his charges vastly overstate the influence we (or any single organization) actually have. But in Greenwald’s world, irrationality reigns and his audience is left with a clear sense of a sweeping, diabolical scheme engineered by Jews.
We also see many engaged in ugly Holocaust distortion as people routinely diminish the genocide of European Jewry to try to score cheap political points. Individuals liken themselves to victims of systematic genocide simply because they are asked to abide by COVID19 precautions. It’s an offensive comparison but one that seems to be on the rise — so much so that it is being regularly echoed by political leaders. We’ve heard it from the Chair of the Oklahoma GOP, a Washington State lawmaker, and even multiple members of Congress, like Rep. Warren Davidson did just last month.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene is a repeat offender who also propagated a wild story around Jewish space lasers rooted in the classic antisemitic conspiracy theory about Jewish power. Months later, she made a Holocaust comparison that drew bipartisan ire and led to an apology. Stunningly, fellow Rep. Paul Gosar — who is no stranger to white supremacists himself — chastised her for apologizing. Let’s be clear: all of this contributes to an environment where ignorance prevails and where antisemitism can thrive.
And no one party has a monopoly as anti-Jewish animus can take many forms. Last week, at a public event in Texas, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was less overt in invoking a sinister plot but still claimed that “Palestine is basically a banned word. It’s censored. No one talks about it.” This is demonstrably false, with arguments over the future of Israel and the Palestinian people receiving constant media coverage, significant academic study, and constant political debate. But the Congresswoman’s claim begs the question that often has a familiar answer: who, exactly, is behind this supposed mass censoring and has such power over all of media?
At a later event, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez turned her attention to a less subtle claim stating, “I don’t believe that a child should be in a cage on our border, and I don’t believe a child should be in a cage in the West Bank,” even though this charge was spun out of whole cloth. She provided absolutely no evidence whatsoever to buttress this bizarre assertion and would not be able to find any because it is manifestly false.
That Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and I have different positions when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US-Israel relationship is not a surprise. Indeed, fact-based debates and dialogue are always welcome. But demonizing the Jewish state in this manner, or by blithely referring to it as an “apartheid” state as some other members of Congress routinely do, are little more than a more politically palatable way of articulating age-old antisemitic tropes.
Such biased and incendiary language leads to hateful actions. It prompts some so-called activists to blame all evils on the Jewish state, to demonize Jewish groups like Hillel and ADL (we are “enemies”) and to suggest that good people should beware “Zionist synagogues” (translation: just about all of them). It prompts some to offer bizarre rationalizations when Jews are brutalized in high-profile public attacks while far more simply opt to ignore the hate and harassment that takes place every single day. None of this is normal. All of it adds fuel to a fire that is already burning out of control. It is deeply irresponsible at best, intentionally slanderous at worst.
I believe, perhaps naively, that most people who use these terms have no intent to incite violence and are not antisemitic. However, all of us — and especially those in positions of leadership — need to be sensitive to the words we use and the symbols we invoke.
We live in a time when many prefer to exaggerate rather than educate, to inflame rather than inform. That might drive clicks, but it also diminishes trust. As the Jewish people know all too well, such irrationality driven by people who seek popularity invariably creates consequences, sometimes with deadly results because, as some grimly have noted, it always starts with words.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is author of “It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable — And How We Can Stop It.”