“And Then They Came For Me…”
Like many Americans, Santa Clara University’s Akiba Lerner is appalled by the hatred that propelled a gunman in Pittsburgh—shouting anti-Semitic slurs—as he opened fire inside a synagogue on the morning of October 27, killing 11 people at worship. Lerner, an associate professor of religious studies who focuses on modern Jewish thought, also sees with deepening concern how the potent brew of anti-immigrant rhetoric—mixed with extremist social media—can incite individuals to commit domestic terrorist attacks, which are on the rise. Hate crimes across the United States rose 17 percent in 2017, the third consecutive year of increases, with a 37 percent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, the FBI reported this week.
We talked with Lerner, who notes that as Americans, we feel like we’re in uncharted territory.
What were the first thoughts running through your mind when you heard about the shooting at the Pittsburgh synagogue?
It’s terrifying, and to be honest... it goes to the heart of the debates that have been happening within the American Jewish community ever since the Holocaust, of “Can it happen here?” Because historically, we have to remember that in addition to the racial and religious terrorism perpetrated by the Klan, the largest Nazi party—outside of Nazi Germany—was here in America. And there continues to be extensive neo-fascist online networks within this country that are at the forefront of disseminating anti-Semitic rhetoric that help foster the kind of conspiratorial mindset that inspired the shooter.
Gab.com, a social media site used by the gunman and popular among white nationalists and the alt-right, was temporarily taken off line, but the company has resurrected it. What is the legal debate here?
In many ways it feels like we are entering uncharted territory. On the other hand, this is reminiscent of the assault on our democratic culture we experienced with 9/11—where our commitment to an open society was used against us. We are again seeing this around freedom of speech: Do we curtail freedom of speech in order to protect ourselves when clearly, we have characters like (the Pittsburgh gunman) and others, who use freedom of speech as a way to incite hatred, directly leading to acts of murder? It’s very tricky. I mean, who gets to decide? Part of the lesson from 9/11 is that when faced with assault by religious and political fanatics, there can be an overreaction that can lead to further erosion of democratic values. On the other hand, the First Amendment permits regulation of dangerous speech, so we might be coming to a point in which we have to seriously debate curtailing the power of these clearly hate-driven media sources who are working to weaponize political discourse and disseminate messages on such a large scale that directly contribute to the murder of American citizens. The ability of foreign actors to manipulate our discourse also suggests we might have to consider taking steps to make sure the democratic public arena doesn’t wither because we’ve decided to privilege tolerance over decency, safety, and a civic commitment to discursive debate.
Some say these acts of violence by white supremacists echo the rise of totalitarianism in Europe in the 20th century. In what way?
When you look at the Weimar period (the German republic that existed from 1919 to Hitler’s accession to power in 1933), it was the weakness of those who were committed to a kind of liberal, democratic viewpoint to really stand up and fight—and not just with words. Part of the problem was that those in favor of liberal democratic values, when push came to shove, didn’t do enough to strongly push back against the fascists. The often recited poem by the German pastor Martin Niemoller that goes “then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew…then they came for me…” captures the impotence and unwillingness of his generation to do enough to confront fascism. These issues have to be resolved democratically through loyalty to our system of laws, political expression, and faith in the checks and balances of power set up by the Founding Fathers. This faith in America’s form of government is being tested right now, however, when checks on the executive branch of power are being removed.
What about this attack seems especially worrisome to you?
Part of what makes this all so different and scary from previous attacks is that there has been a lot of winking by our President towards folks who are spewing out this kind of rhetoric, so this is unprecedented. Given that Trump has Jewish grandkids, it’s simply weird how hard of a time he has with overtly condemning those who are promoting anti-Semitic narratives. While he called the Pittsburgh tragedy “a terrible, terrible thing,’’ he himself has helped to amplify these very narratives. Trump recently retweeted an unfounded rumor suggesting the Jewish philanthropist, George Soros, was secretly funding the migrant caravan; last year, he blamed “many sides’’ for the violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that culminated with a terrorist attack on a crowd of protesters, and the death of a civil rights activist. There has always been a fringe component in our politics, but the difference here is the way in which the megaphone of the presidency is being used to amplify and really give legitimacy to this now. And we are seeing the results, fascists are openly stating that they feel validated and emboldened by Trumpism.
What attracts some individuals to become white supremacists?
We need to address the larger economic and social issues that can contribute to the appeal of anti-democratic and anti-Semitic ideologies. Although we can’t simply blame capitalism for the complexity of issues that led the shooter to become so radicalized that he was willing to walk into a synagogue and shoot defenseless, elderly, and developmentally delayed worshipers, we have to also think about these larger structural issues. Right-wing ideology has historically served as a form of scapegoating and deflection for these larger, systemic problems of exploitation, inequality, and the pervasive sense of alienation that can lead people to look for totalizing answers for why they are hurting inside or feel disrespected.
Additionally, as the latest tragic mass shooting at a bar in Southern California demonstrates, we have to do something to curtail a gun culture and a gun lobby that has simply gotten out of control. Just to be clear, I’m not against gun ownership, but there have to be some common sense regulations, certainly on the same level that we regulate driving. At the same time, however, if we focus too much this or that tweaking of the law, we can also miss the larger picture—which is the breakdown of our democratic culture. These gunmen are a symptom of a much larger crisis that can’t simply be addressed through greater regulations.
What can Americans do to defeat racists and their violent acts?
I know this may sound simple, but we also need a greater civic commitment to affirming ourselves as agents for greater love, solidarity, education and hope. The Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim wrote a very powerful essay called “The Commandment to Hope” in 1967, in which he argued after the Holocaust, both the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the religious tradition of theodicy (justifying God’s ways in the face of evil) could not justify our ultimate hopes for a better world. Nevertheless, despair and nihilism aren’t viable options either. Therefore, according to Fackenheim, we have to see ourselves as commanded to hope. So, I find it very useful in these moments to think about that idea, because it basically comes down to an existential decision: Do you see yourself as obligated to affirm hope?