So it has come to this: White supremacists “remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.”
That is the evaluation of the Donald Trump-era Department of Homeland Security, coming less than three months before the siege at the Capitol. It remains true in the Joe Biden era. And that threat has come home, quite literally, to Massachusetts.
A recent Anti-Defamation League study found that there were eight white supremacist events in this state last year, more than double the incidents from the previous year. The Patriot Front, which is one of the most prominent white supremacist groups in the country, was responsible for the majority of white supremacist propaganda distributed here last year.
White supremacy extremism is principally a threat to visible minorities – and a threat to civil society and domestic peace. But increasingly it is clear that it also is a threat to Jews; the Patriot Front, for example, conflated the toxic mix of anti-Semitism and racism. Jews have been at the forefront of the battle against both, making this an especially poignant characteristic of this movement – and an especially important moment of vigilance.
“Anti-Semitism has been a core element of white supremacy through the whole modern era,” said Kathy Blee, co-director for the Collaboratory Against Hate, a research and action center that the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University established a few weeks ago. “Racial hatred may be front and center in white supremacy, but anti-Semitism has always been a driving part of the movement. These people believe minorities have power in this society because of the maneuvering of Jews.’’
That underlines the part that conspiracy theories play in the white supremacy movement. Students of anti-Semitism know that conspiratorial thinking always has been the engine behind the hatred of Jews, particularly the idea that Jewish elites are the hidden force behind (pick one, or more) banking, the arts, the press, entertainment, homosexuality, and Communism.
The oxygen of white supremacist movements often is the notion that they possess the “hidden secrets” of the way the world works, and they attract and retain adherents by revealing those hidden “truths.” The Patriot Front, for example, argues that it knows and understands the secret Jewish plot for world domination.
One of these white supremacy movements goes by the name of Christian Identity, which has nothing to do with Christianity but which in recent years has developed appeal among neo-Confederates. It peddles what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a “unique anti-Semitic and racist theology.’’ Groups like these argue that Jews are part of a lineage of Satan, a concept of anti-Semitism that differs substantially from the European strand, which generally holds that Jews merely do the bidding of Satan.
The Christian Identity movement may be stagnating – the SPLC puts the number of their groups nationwide at 11, the same as the year before – but the general threat nationwide is not.
One group active in New England is the Nationalist Social Club, which began in eastern Massachusetts and whose members, according to the ADL, “see themselves as soldiers at war with a hostile, Jewish-controlled system that is deliberately plotting the extinction of the white race.” Last June, the members of the club joined a State House rally with Nazi symbolism and as recently as last Sept. 11, it argued that the Israeli intelligence unit Mossad was behind the terrorist attacks of 2001.
“These groups target lots of people,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of ADL New England. “They’re anti-immigrant, they are anti-Semitic, and they are racist at the same time. They don’t distinguish between Jews on the left and Jews on the right. They hate all Jews. When you look at their xenophobia, they hate all immigrants. They don’t draw distinctions. The targeting of blame and the stereotyping of the ‘other’ is utterly consistent.”
What are Jews to do?
“One of the things I learned at Sunday School in Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City is that we are part of the bigger humanity,” said former Republican Representative Mickey Edwards, who now teaches at Princeton after stints at Harvard Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “We have always been a people who knew what it was like to be oppressed just because of our identity.
“That means we have a relationship and a duty to also stand up against other people being treated the same way,” he continued. “Our experience is not directly related to Asian-Americans and African-Americans, but it is not unrelated. Where it is related in not in numbers, and not in the specific ways people are oppressed, but in the commonality about being oppressed.’’
In that light, perhaps the last sentence of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” written 59 years ago this month, might provide inspiration and guidance:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
David M. Shribman, who teaches American politics at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.