The most frustrating aspect of the Yom Kippur assault on a synagogue in Halle, Germany, by a neo-Nazi thug is that we’ve seen all this before.
By that I don’t mean that nearly 81 years after Kristallnacht, Germans who hate Jews are still attacking them in their places of worship.
It’s that what happened on Yom Kippur was just the latest evidence that there is a rising tide of anti-Semitism sweeping across that globe. It has been expressed in hate speech, routine random violence and intimidation on the streets of European cities, as well as efforts to demonize the State of Israel and its Jewish supporters by a bizarre alliance of leftist elites and Islamist immigrants from the Middle East. Throw in the not-insignificant efforts to revive far-right neo-Nazi groups in European countries where such elements have been marginalized since the Holocaust, and you have a toxic mix in which Jews have become an all-purpose object of hatred from a wide variety of sources.
The Halle synagogue assault, in which two people were killed outside the building after the gunman failed to get through the bolted door, shows that neo-Nazis are capable of taking the next and sadly logical step from creating a hateful environment for Jews to planned attempts at mass murder. The fact that the local German police refused the synagogue’s request for security is a shocking instance of that nation’s indifference to the reality of contemporary Jew-hatred, despite all that we’ve heard about Germans being educated about their horrifying past.
It was, after all, only five months ago that a German official shocked many people around the world by recommending that Jews stop wearing jewelry or visible symbols like kipahs when walking on the streets of his nation. While that suggestion was roundly denounced by many Jews, including Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, as giving into hate, it was both well-intended and a recognition of reality. More than seven decades after the Holocaust, some Germans resent Jews for reminding them of their country’s sordid history of genocide. Others see them as symbols of Zionism. Still others, like the killers in this incident, seem to have lumped them in with other things they hate, like feminism and Muslim immigrants, and see Jews as part of a nefarious plot to “replace” white Europe.
A thorough examination of the ideology of neo-Nazi killers is necessary in order to understand the spread of that particularly noxious variant of vile prejudice. But the problem with this exercise is that like so much else about the debate anti-Semitism in our time, the discussion gets bogged down in political arguments and ideological axes to grind that the result is more confusion, not greater clarity.
The response from some pundits on the left—most prominently, Haaretz columnist and author Anshel Pfeffer—was to warn that those in Israel or elsewhere who chose to view this latest attack in Germany as essentially targeting just Jews are wrong. Pfeffer correctly pointed out that the only two casualties in Halle were non-Jews, even if that was not the intention. But he goes further than that and argues that neo-Nazis aren’t solely focused on hating Jews; rather, Jews are just prominent examples of the types of individuals they hate on a list of other peoples.
There is some truth in this assertion, as the otherwise incompetent Halle terrorist who broadcast his crime live on the Internet said that he was also against feminists, gays and Muslim immigrants. After failing to shoot his way into the synagogue, he attacked a nearby kebab shop, where he murdered one of the customers in cold blood.
Pfeffer argues that the point of neo-Nazi “replacement” theory is that Jews are guilty because for bringing liberal values into the world. And such extremists cast a wide net for the objects of their frustration and bile. But the point of this argument isn’t so much to accurately describe the German killers or those responsible for other atrocities, like the one at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the Walmart in El Paso or the mosques in New Zealand as it is to cast an equally wide net when attempting to find someone to blame for encouraging the murderers. According to Pfeffer’s argument, we’d do better to look to the debate about immigration in the United States and the stands on that issue by President Donald Trump than to the history of anti-Semitism.
And on that score, he’s not only wrong, but also fundamentally misconstrues the nature of anti-Semitism.
Haters of the Jewish people always seize on some excuse to justify singling out the tiny nation for oppression, prejudice and/or violence. Some hate Jews because they are rich. Some hate them because they are poor. Some hate because Jews assimilate into society and some because they stand apart. Some target Jews because they are perceived as enemies of the existing order and others because they see them as the people pulling the strings of the economic and political elites they fear and despise.
The notion that Jews are responsible for liberal values that right-wing extremists despise is mistaken because trying to pin that abhorrence on a limited set of issues—be they economic, relating to immigration, about religion or Israel or anything else—always falls short of explaining the origins and the depth of such antipathy towards Jews.
It is emotionally satisfying for some on the left to try to link neo-Nazis to Trump or to pretend that their efforts are disconnected from traditional anti-Semitism. But these are dots that don’t connect—and not just because these haters are opposed to Trump, and his making an ally of the Jews and Israel. When you drill down into neo-Nazi thinking, you don’t find a set of arguments about immigration or even Muslims, let alone feminists or the LGBT community. Much like an examination of the classic text of modern anti-Semitism—The Protocols of the Elders of Zion—all you get is the same set of inchoate catch-all conspiracy theories that have always been at the heart of anti-Semitism.
Embracing these theories isn’t merely overthinking the problem; it’s a distraction from the need to address Jew-hatred in all its current deadly forms, including anti-Zionism and hate being generated by Islamists. The emphasis post-Halle mustn’t be more of the same skewed analysis that looks to attribute all evil to political opponents. What is needed is a concerted effort to root out anti-Semitism in its many guises, and to defend Jews and their institutions from attack. Anything else would be a colossal and immoral error.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.