Why Fighting Anti-Semitism Goes Hand-in-Hand With Fighting Racism

August 17th 2017

Willie Burnley Jr.

Hatred and bigotry rattled Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend after a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee was scheduled to come down. Members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), neo-Nazis, and other white supremacist groups clashed with counterprotesters in the small college town. The deadly event, which included mob-beatings and one death involving an allegedly intentional car attack, was also the clearest sign yet that anti-Semitism was rising with a new wave of white nationalist activity, as chants of “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil” ― a translation of the Nazi’s ethnonational philosophy of “Blut und Boden” ― could be heard in the streets. 



The signs, of course, had always been there.

Throughout the year, anti-Semitic hate crimes have occurred across the country, including vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and at least one family whose Hanukkah menorah was twisted into a swastika

In the month following the presidential election, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) tracked nearly 1,100 bias-related incidents of harassment or intimidation, 37 percent of which directly or indirectly referenced then president-elect Donald Trump, whose campaign rhetoric is thought to have empowered white nationalist groups. Of those Trump-referencing incidents tallied by the SPLC, 23 percent involved swastikas.

When the KKK, neo-Nazis, and various far-right groups arrived in Charlottesville, they were largely united in a white nationalism that was racist and anti-Semitic. While Trump eventually condemned the KKK and neo-Nazis, he was criticized in his lateness in doing so and for reiterating that there were many sides in the wrong at Charlottesville.



For many Jewish-Americans, Charlottesville was a wake up call. 

“There’s a huge urge in the Jewish community to pretend that things are okay and that cooperating with the status quo will keep us safe," Sarah O’Connor, an organizer with the Boston chapter of the Jewish anti-racist and anti-Israeli-occupation organization IfNotNow (INN), said in an interview with ATTN:. "It is clearly not true and doesn’t work that way for all members of the Jewish community, particularly Jews who can’t pass as upper-middle class and white and assimilated. It also does its part to prop up white supremacy, which is really, really bad for non-Jews."

O’Connor was upset, but not shocked, to see coverage of the racist chants in Charlottesville. White supremacy was on the rise, she said, and could only be fought by people uniting together against both racism and anti-Semitism in spite of their fears or social position.

"The complex ways that people are showing up for each other or not showing up for each other show how racism and anti-Semitism are set up to make [people] play out each against each other and not fight white supremacy in a unified way," she said. 

When O'Connor was a mentor for young children, she experienced how much anti-Semitism was related to the fear of losing control. 

Students in her classroom were convinced that the infamous Illuminati was made up of Jewish people who commanded the media, government, and other centers of power, unaware that she was Jewish. The discomfort she felt was barrier between them, which is ultimately what makes divisive systems more powerful. The insidious myth of a secret Jewish plot for total domination isn't a new concept. It was popularized in America due to “The Protocols” or “The International Jew,” a book brought to the U.S. in the 1920s by Henry Ford. It portrayed a fictional meeting of Jewish people that were planning to take over the world, according to activist and scholar Erik K. Ward.

Ward has studied white nationalism for over four decades and thinks that anti-Semitism is the animating force of white nationalist ideology. He wrote of their point of view:

“The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology. White supremacism — inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South — had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could a race of inferiors have unseated this power structure through organizing alone? ... Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes.”

For white nationalists, anti-Semitism is an underlying force that empowers other racist beliefs.

Lina Morales, education chair of Jewish Voices for Peace’s Boston branch, told ATTN: that she has also been confronted with the idea that society’s liberalization was a scheme by Jewish people rather than a natural pursuit from oppressed groups.

That dynamic still holds, she said, and allows people — white nationalists and others — to believe that when marginalized groups are seeking more rights, they are actually trying to strip power or rights from the dominant group. In the ideology of many white nationalists, this is largely possible because Jewish people are pulling the levers of power behind the scenes. 

"The current power structure in the United States is something I would call anti-Semitic,” Morales said, differentiating between Washington elites who she believed wanted Jewish people to assimilate into oppressive systems and far-rightists. Anti-Semitism was rising among the latter, she said, due to a combination of anxiety around rising wealth and income inequalities as well as changing demographics that threaten the continued majority-status of white people in the United States.

Morales did note, however, that perspectives about what white supremacy looked like they were generally changing.

“I feel like a change that I’ve seen in my lifetime is that we’re trying to understand that white supremacy as not just limited to Nazis or Nazi flags, or even just people in power, but as a societal problem,” Morales said.

In this light, the echoes of anti-Semitic violence were never far away as O’Connor learned what was happening in Virginia.



Monday evening, some 630-odd miles northeast of Charlottesville, a 17-year-old was arrested after he threw a rock through a panel of glass in Boston’s Holocaust memorial. For O’Connor, it was not a coincidence that the vandalism had happened while the events in Charlottesville dominated the news and days before a scheduled “Free Speech Rally” of potentially far-rightists was set to descend upon Boston.

That night, O’Connor and other INN members began organizing a vigil at the Holocaust memorial that would bring together around 300 people the next day. I attended the vigil where hundreds huddled together, at times joined in song and silence, as the organizers from INN spoke of the need to struggle against together white supremacy.



For those speaking at the vigil, fighting against anti-Semitism was one way in which to disrupt white supremacy and thereby weaken other racist beliefs. While they made clear that white nationalists and neo-Nazis were terrifying reminders of a history of oppression that Jewish people have faced, the speakers made the point that anti-Semitic oppression was also connected to the oppression of black, Latinx, and LGBT people, and that fighting for all was the surest way to protect oneself.