The first things I learned about politics as a child included that we were drinking powdered milk so me and my brothers wouldn’t get leukemia from nuclear fallout like my friend Philip with the nasty dog, that whatever prosperity my parents had was because my grandparents were in labor unions and that people I thought were called the “Knotsies” had murdered our relatives in Europe.
So I was not shocked that some putz in Pittsburgh decided to be a one-man Einsatzgruppe and killed 11 Jews in a synagogue. I was bitterly fatalistic. In 1942, Einsatzgruppe B, one of the Nazi “special action” squads that followed the Wehrmacht east, burned 1,100 Jews alive inside a shul in Slonim, Belarus, including most of my grandfather’s family.
So what else is new? People have wanted to exterminate Jews for millennia, from Haman in ancient Persia to the drunken Russian mobs in the pogroms of 1905. I have lived virtually all my conscious life with the knowledge that there were people who would have loved to smash my newborn-baby self’s soft skull against a wall — with the attitude, as Colonel John Chivington said to justify his 1864 massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho children at Sand Creek, Colorado, that “nits make lice.”
The nexus for anti-semitism’s current resurgence is conspiracy theory.
Two things are distinctive about Jew-hating (a term I prefer to “anti-Semitism,” which was a late-19th-century euphemism intended to give it some pseudo-anthropological respectability). It’s far more exterminationist than most other varieties of racism; Latino immigrants face more insults and oppression than American Jews do, but people who hate them say “Send them back,” not “Hitler was right.” And it behaves like a lethal variant of herpes — a virus that is often dormant, but never goes away, and flares up episodically.
That persistence surprises some people. World War II forced Americans to start treating Jews like white people, as Adolf Hitler had shown the logical extreme of things like “restrictive covenants” that prohibited property from being sold or rented “by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race.” But it didn’t go away, from Richard Nixon’s Oval Office mutterings about how “the Jews are an irreligious, atheistic, immoral bunch of bastards” who “totally dominated” the media to the circa-1990 street peddlers with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in between the patchouli oil and The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman.
The nexus for its current resurgence is conspiracy theory. In the Internet era, bizarrely ludicrous ideas have become widespread; you no longer have to write away to an obscure post-office box to find them. A 2016 NBC News poll found 41 percent of Republican respondents believed that President Barack Obama — whose birth announcement was printed in both Honolulu newspapers in August 1961 — was not born in the United States, and only 27 percent accepted that he had been. “Birtherism” is an analogue of Holocaust denial, an obvious falsehood used as a “factual” argument to cover attitudes too blatantly racist to express in public.
The deeper conspiracy-theory worldview is that the world is secretly controlled by an infinitely powerful and infinitely evil cabal. The intellectual template for this comes directly from late-19th-century anti-Semitism, which responded to the rapacious power of robber-baron capitalism by blaming “international Jewish bankers.” Its blaming a despised ethnic-religious minority for systemic exploitation inspired the German social-democrat August Bebel to dub it “the socialism of fools.” That socialism of fools also set the intellectual template for the right-wing demagoguery commonly mislabeled “populism,” which draws mass support with tirades against “elites,” but intensifies the power of the rich while condemning demographic scapegoats.
Codified in the czarist-Russian forgery of The Protocols and later by Nazism, this anti-Semitism’s core myth is that Jews are using their control of finance and media for world domination, as well as manipulating rebellion by inferior races not smart enough to do it on their own. One far-right meme circulating recently is that according to The Protocols, one of their top tactics is undermining Western countries by flooding them with immigrants from inferior nations. That was the Pittsburgh putz’s imagined grievance.
Donald Trump has promoted a diluted version of that myth, with his claims that George Soros — the current avatar for the “international Jewish banker” villain — is financing the caravan of Honduran refugees wending its way through southern Mexico.
Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents at the border was both racist and proudly sadistic, two of the core elements of Nazism. But it was like a local Stage 1 cancer, not an aggressively metastasized Stage 4.
I fear we are entering Stage 2. There are millions of people who are proud to be racist sadists and trumpet any nonsense that backs their beliefs.
“In the cruel and terrible time in which our generation has been condemned to live on this earth, we must never make peace with evil,” wrote Vasily Grossman, the Russian-Jewish novelist who covered the battle of Stalingrad and was the first reporter to write about the Treblinka extermination camp. “We must never become indifferent to others or undemanding of ourselves.”
Photo (top): Fourteen Jewish protesters sit shiva outside the Metropolitan Republican Club at 122 E. 83rd Street on October 31 to honor the memory of the 11 Jews killed at a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. The protesters demanded that club members renounce white nationalism after previously hosting a white nationalist hate group that advocates political violence. Credit: Gili Getz