Francine Graham and David Anderson drove their van on Dec. 10 to the JC Kosher Supermarket in the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City and shot and killed everyone they saw. Three weeks later, Grafton Thomas drove to Monsey, N. Y., with a machete, walked into a rabbi’s house and viciously slashed five people who were gathered around a menorah, celebrating Hanukkah.
Graham, Anderson and Thomas’s hatred of Jews came from a variety of sources. Graham and Anderson had expressed interest in the Black Hebrew Israelites Movement, but according to the authorities they acted alone and not as representatives of the group. In contrast, according to the FBI, Thomas appears to be a follower of Nazi doctrine, writing about Hitler and drawing swastikas in his personal journals.
Despite no initial evidence that their personal identities as people of color had relevance to the underlying causes for their hatred, voices from the far left immediately made their race a focal point of discussion in the aftermath of their anti-Semitic hate crimes.
On the one hand, they attempted to mitigate the viciousness of the murderers. By portraying them as victims of deeply embedded societal racial tensions and by dogmatically insisting that anti-Semitism emanates only from white supremacists on the far right, they sought to render the murderers in Jersey City and Monsey incapable of being agents of anti-Semitic violence at all. On the other hand, they dismissed the brutal murder of Jews as incidental and insignificant in comparison to the generalized suffering of people of color.
After the murders in Jersey City, for example, Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’Ruah wrote, “It’s true that the people who have been attacking Orthodox Jews are not white nationalists, but they’re not writing left-wing manifestos about Jews. (Jersey City attackers were black nationalists, part of an extremist group & not lefties)” and “the horrible attacks on Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn & elsewhere likely relate to long-term tensions & don’t fall easily into left/right category. Not parallel to white nationalists whose beliefs are based on antisemitism.”
Similarly, the day after Thomas attacked a group of innocent Jews celebrating Hanukkah, Jewish Voice for Peace sent an email to its constituents suggesting that much of our concern should be focused on communities of color. It read, “We cannot allow our pain and fear to be weaponized against another community,” and “we must be ready to defend against the rise of white supremacist antisemitism, racism and Islamophobia in the U.S. and across the globe.”
Through these two types of racialized reactions, leftist organizations and leftist leaders are conveying some deeply disturbing messages, both about Jews and about people of color. First, they are relativizing hate—being willing to disregard the terrorizing of innocent Jews given the social identity of their executioners. Second, they are disregarding the individualism and self-determination of the individual murderers, portraying them instead as representatives of some predetermined social group who are victims of an ironclad, predetermined social structure.
As I listen to their equivocations about murdered Jews and about violent criminals, I am reminded of my days as a professor at the University of Maryland, when I required my students to visit an exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, called “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust.” The exhibit documented the ways in which “in countries across Europe, tens of thousands of ordinary people actively collaborated with German perpetrators of the Holocaust” and how other “supported or tolerated the crimes.”
In the same course, I required my students to watch the powerful John Singleton movie “Boyz n the Hood,” which depicts the ways in which a group of young black men in South Central Los Angeles navigate the racism and violence that permeate their lives. The poignant film profiles the lives of several characters, some who choose to pursue an education and others who choose a life of violent crime.
Individual human beings are never without choice, and to suggest otherwise is paternalistic and racist. The Nazis rose to power because—among many other factors—most Germans willingly turned in their neighbors. But as the exhibit mentioned above also shows us, a few Germans made the choice to help their fellow Jews, like the German civil servant who chose not to stamp a red “J” in the passports of his Jewish neighbors and who—through that small act—saved their lives. And within America’s urban communities that may indeed be plagued by remnants of institutional and structural racism, individuals possess choice and self-determination and are not, in fact, predestined for lives of violent crime.
Graham, Anderson and Thomas chose to murder innocent Jews. And because all three were people of color, we know that white supremacists are no longer the only violent anti-Semites in America.
All political and organizational leaders who are genuinely invested in the safety and well-being of American Jews must recognize that violent anti-Semitism has metastasized across racial, geographic and socio-economic borders, investigate all sources of this dangerous hatred, and weed it out in all of its mutated forms.
Those who choose not to acknowledge this significant and frightening development, and who continue to make excuses for the offenders, will be duly noted as contributors to the dehumanizing of innocent Jews. History will show them to be indifferent accomplices to the sanitizing of hatred and to continued violence against the Jewish people.
As we watch them make their choice, I recall the words of Eli Wiesel in “One Generation After”: “I find it easier to identify immorality than morality. I know that to do nothing, to remain silent, to participate in oppressive actions has the stench of immorality.”
Melissa Landa is a former professor of education at the University of Maryland with a background in cross-cultural competence and anti-bias education. She is the founding director of Alliance for Israel, a Maryland-based nonprofit that opposes BDS activity in schools and communities, and that provides education about Israel’s multi-ethnic society.