Deborah Lipstadt: ‘Far-right antisemitism isn’t just an American phenomenon’
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Deborah Lipstadt: ‘Far-right antisemitism isn’t just an American phenomenon’

In this extract from Antisemitism in America, published in The Jewish Quarterly, the acclaimed scholar examines the rise of far-right extremism in the United States

Acclaimed academic Deborah Lipstadt
Acclaimed academic Deborah Lipstadt

On 6 January 2021, supporters of President Donald Trump launched an insurrection at the United States Capitol.

Their avowed purpose was to halt Congress’s certification of the election of Joseph Biden as president – a ceremonial formality that is, according to the United States Constitution, part of the peaceful transfer of power.

The notion that the senators and representatives taking part in the ceremony could change the outcome of the election, as was claimed by a variety of leaders including the then president, was a falsehood.

That falsehood was based on yet another falsehood: the claim – rejected by more than sixty courts and close to one hundred judges – that President Trump won the election, that it had been “stolen” from him.

Some in Congress supported this claim, noting that “many people have questions” and “people have doubts”.

As I watched the modus operandi inherent in this drawn-out process – the election denial had begun in early November – I was reminded of the modus operandi of Holocaust deniers, who skew and distort a set of legitimate facts and, in so doing, render them lies.

On occasion they invent facts, and in other instances they change dates or the sequence of events, thereby falsifying their meaning.

In both cases, the falsifications and inventions are cited by one denier and then another in a merry-go-round of tautological legitimation.

Sometimes the denial is expressed tentatively, yet it is no less dangerous. I have described this form of denial as the “yes-but” syndrome: Yes, of course there was a Holocaust, but I’ve heard that gas chambers were impossible. Yes, Trump may have lost, but the election was not fair.

There is a parallel between the “methodology” of these two types of denial – though, I stress, certainly not between the events themselves.

For the deniers to believe their version they must ignore reams of documentation and evidence, and countless witnesses.

Protestors, some of whom were QAnon believers, storm Capitol Hill

To return to January 6th, one thing that captured people’s attention were the displays of overt antisemitism.

Some of the insurrectionists wore “Camp Auschwitz” apparel. At least one had “Staff” printed on the back of his shirt. Another had been previously photographed in a shirt that read “6MWE”, which stands for “6 Million Wasn’t Enough”.

The online communiques exchanged by some organisers and participants made frequent reference to “globalists” and to George Soros, a Jew and billionaire financier.

Both are “code” for Jews and Jewish interests – a code that most people have no trouble breaking. Many openly proclaimed their allegiance to QAnon, an online group with a decidedly antisemitic cast.

T-shirt of protestor says ‘Camp Auschwitz’, worn by Robert Keith Packer (Screenshot from video by ITV News)

There were also multiple examples of Christian nationalism, an ideology that proclaims America is a Christian nation in which only Christians – and preferably white Christians – should prevail.

According to these nationalists, America is under attack from “globalists” (again) and “non-believers”.

This assault shocked and surprised many people. It was unprecedented. (The Capitol had been attacked previously, but that was in 1812 by the British, not a swarm of American citizens.)

I was not, however, surprised by either the insurrection or the antisemitism that was part of it. Rather than an ex nihilo event, it constituted a link in the growing chain of far-right extremist violence.

During recent years, the United States – as well as much of Europe – has witnessed a decided growth in and sophistication of far-right white-power movements.

Now that they have emerged more fully into the daylight, it is important that we recognise how the racism and antisemitism within them are inextricably linked.

White power’s blend of racism and antisemitism

Racism and white supremacy are fundamental to these extremist right-wing movements.

They are open, direct and unashamed about this. Note, for example, the presence of the Confederate flag at many of their gatherings, including on Capitol Hill.

They freely proclaim their “white power”, “white supremacist” or “white nationalist” agenda.

However, there is another defining component shared by these movements. I speak, of course, of antisemitism.

Simply put, antisemitism is the foundation stone that allows them to “logically” attack, deride and demean people of colour.

In his critically important essay “Skin in the Game” (2017), Eric Ward, who, as an academic and a Black man, has confronted white power and racism on both scholarly and personal levels, observes: “Antisemitism is the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia – as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.”

In many quarters, particularly at the liberal end of the spectrum, there is an inclination to ignore this antisemitism or to treat it as a “sidebar” or ancillary element of white power rather than something fundamental to it.

Many, in fact, not only ignore it, but lash out at Jews who call attention to it. Jews who pointed out the strong presence of antisemitism at the Unite the Right (UTR) rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 were accused by some – though certainly not all – critics on the left of “centring themselves”.

Far-right protestors and anti-fascist demonstrators clash in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017

According to these critics, Jews were not under attack. Bernie Sanders, himself the son of Jewish migrants from Poland, condemned the rally’s neo-Nazism, racism and violence, but did not mention antisemitism.

Police also failed to grasp that these far-right groups constituted a threat to Jews’ wellbeing.

Despite being asked by the local synagogue, the Charlottesville police refused to provide it with protection even though services were scheduled for Friday night and Saturday morning. Police resources were certainly strapped, but their failure to guard the synagogue indicated that they did not consider Jews an imminent target, even after the chants of “Jews will not replace us” at the Friday-night march.

They also failed to fulfil a promise to station a patrol in the vicinity to keep watch.

On Saturday morning, armed marchers positioned themselves outside the synagogue, prompting members, worshipping inside, to end the service early and sneak out the back door.

One of the congregants recalled: “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’.”

The president of the synagogue, Alan Zimmerman, said the Jews who came to worship had been left to “their own devices”. This is not a debate about whether it is antisemitism or racism that is “more central” to the ideology of white power groups. It is to argue that one cannot understand this pernicious movement unless one understands that both of these prejudices are part of a great whole.

The one place that the antisemitic right and the antisemitic left differ in their structural approach to antisemitism is in the realm of “race”, as I’ve discussed in my book Antisemitism Here and Now (2019).

Whereas the antisemitic right contends that Jews are not white and are, in fact, engaged in a war on the white “race”, the antisemitic left contends that Jews are white and wealthy (incorrectly assuming that all Jews are “white” and all Jews are wealthy).

Ipso facto, Jews are powerful and privileged and cannot be victims of prejudice, and any claims of antisemitism they bring against the left are therefore false and possibly a foil for hiding their own wrongs.

Lipstadt cites Jeremy Corbyn and the British Labour Party in her exploration of left antisemitism

There is another element to this iteration of left antisemitism. They claim that as individuals who are deeply committed to fighting all forms of prejudice and discrimination, it is impossible for them to harbour hatred of Jews.

Consequently, Jews cannot be victims and cannot be perpetrators, and so all charges brought against the left for any expressions of antisemitism must be false.

This belief was evident in Jeremy Corbyn and those around him in the British Labour Party, though is certainly not limited to him.

Eugenics is to biology what flat-earth theory is to earth science

The far right takes a decidedly different approach. In the mid-nineteenth century, a new element was added to the traditional panoply of antisemitic charges. It presented itself in the pseudo-science of race or “eugenics”, which is to biology what flat-earth theory is to earth science.

According to eugenicists, a pure-white nation would always prevail over a “yellow” or “black” nation.

Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau (1816–1882), the founder of this movement, contended that the different races were of “unequal” value.

The rise and fall of nations and even civilisations was determined by their race. The only cultures that produced anything of value were “Aryan”.

This concept of “racial nationalism” took particularly strong root in nineteenth-century Germany, with the notion that Germans were possessed of “tall, strong and beautiful bodies … with enormous blue eyes filled with the spirit of restraint and loyalty”.

Eventually, it became the foundation for Nazism’s Aryan “myth” and its racial antisemitism.

This science of race had a strong presence in America and was the basis of discrimination in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century against those considered to be non-WASPs (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants).

The purveyors of this pseudo-scientific theory contended that Jews, despite looking white, were a “race”, and biologically different from whites. Therefore, even if a Jew converted she remained a Jew.

While this pseudo-science was discredited by the middle of the twentieth century, after the world witnessed what Nazism had wrought, it has enjoyed a resurgence among white supremacists, whose ideology is rooted in “white replacement/genocide” theory.

Racist stickers put up by a group of white supremacists at Aston University, Birmingham in 2018. Photo credit: West Midlands Police/PA Wire

The theory builds on the antisemitic theme that Jews are engaged in a plot to destroy “white Christian” civilisation.

The theory gained popularity within the white-power movement in the 1990s in the United States, when David Lane, an avowed white supremacist, wrote tracts such as “The White Genocide Manifesto”, in which he described his fears about “a Zionist conspiracy to … exterminate the white race”.

His phrase “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children” is commonly cited by white supremacist groups, who refer to it canonically as the “Fourteen Words”.

According to this theory, the Jews’ accomplices or lackeys are an array of people of colour, among them Muslims and African Americans.

To avoid a catastrophic takeover engineered by Jews, whites must band together, arm themselves and go on the offensive.

It has even deeper roots in The Turner Diaries (1978), an overtly racist and antisemitic tract by William Pierce, that depicts Jews as manipulating Blacks to do their handiwork in their fight against genuine Americans.

Adherents to this theory rely on both the pseudo-science of eugenics and the iconic antisemitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It claims to “prove” that Jews were engaged in a vast conspiratorial plot to subvert Christian culture by sabotaging European society.

This fear of replacement by the Jew is a central feature of contemporary antisemitism, promulgated by Richard Spencer, among others.

Richard Spencer speaking on Israeli Channel 2 in 2017

Spencer, a far-right leader, is clean-cut, well dressed, nicely coifed and looks more like a Wall Street banker than a white supremacist. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, he was hailed as the new face of the far right.

Though he currently claims to have fallen on hard times, his words still reverberate. He published an article on his internet magazine, AltRight.com, after the Charlottesville rally in 2017 saying: “Will you let them replace you? Will you just roll over and let them run roughshod over White culture and White people? Or will you join us?”

Another white supremacist, Robert Azzmador Ray, wrote in the publication he operates, Daily Stormer: “Our country is being usurped by a foreign tribe, called the Jews.”

Those adhering to this ideology argue that Jews pose a specific danger because, while they are not white, they can “pass” as white.

This view is also deeply embedded in the Christian Identity movement, which depicts Jews as the arch enemy because of their intention to vanquish Aryans “through economic enslavement, colored immigration and race mixing”, as British historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke puts it.

When these racialists speak of creating a white ethno-state for European whites, it is a state without Jews.

The Christian Identity movement also argues that whites are the lost tribes of Israel and that Jews, together with people of colour, are the descendants of Satan and animals.

According to the far-right antisemite, people of colour are not adept enough to engineer such a massive takeover of white Christian society on their own. There must be someone manipulating them. And that someone is the Jew.

For white supremacists, the Jew is as “non-white” as a black person and, therefore, poses an existential threat to the white person.

The Traditionalist Worker Party, a group with strong neo-Nazi leanings, published an article titled “Whites Aren’t Committing Suicide, They’re Being Murdered”, which argues that Jews are a “deadly threat to my people, my civilization, and even my individual well-being”, and likens Jewish media to “artillery softening up white defense”.

Jeff Schoep, the former leader of the National Socialist Movement (NSM), one of the largest and most prominent neo-Nazi groups in the United States, wrote a letter to a fellow member stating that Jews were conducting “a full-scale engagement to wipe out the White Resistance, and herd us like (goyim) cattle so the Talmudic following Zionist Jews and their willing puppets can rule over us”.

Finally, a central tenet of antisemitic ideology is that Jews are dirty and degenerate, and spreaders of disease.

In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews were held responsible for the spread of the plague. In the iconic Nazi antisemitic film, The Eternal Jew, Jews are depicted as rats spreading disease across Europe.


A poster for the iconic Nazi antisemitic film, The Eternal Jew

More recently, this tenet is encompassed by Spencer’s belief that Jews are “dirty and disgusting and they’re filthy”. This adoption and adaptation by the far right of traditional antisemitic tropes is an example of how the outer shell in which Jew-hatred is encased may change, but the fundamental ideology remains the same as it has for millennia.

Swastikas and lightning bolts

Symbols further an ideology, and function as a “shorthand” for creating group solidarity and cohesion. Recognising them is crucial, especially since far-right groups that adhere to concepts of neo-Nazism often try to camouflage that fact.

Some, for instance, have discovered that the swastika, which is so easily recognised and associated with Nazism, can also be a liability.

In 2016, the NSM officially “retired” the swastika. According to their announcement, they did so in an effort to “best launch our Party into the mainstream, and out of the so-called fringes”. They said they were engaging in this “re-branding” in order to effectively “reach the masses”.

Another widely used symbol is the black sun (schwarze Sonne or Sonnerad). Its origin is the ancient sun wheel symbols used by pagan groups such as the Norse and Germanic tribes.

The symbol began to circulate among far-right German groups in the 1990s, based on the marble mosaic inlay in the Wewelsburg Castle in Germany. This is where SS chief Heinrich Himmler, whom Hitler designated as his successor, created the SS’s spiritual centre and home.

Other Nazi symbols currently in use by white supremacists include the Othala rune, the SS lightning bolts, the Iron Cross and the Stahlhelm helmet.

This preponderance of Nazi-related symbols is indicative of the deep-seated ideological adherence of these groups to the Third Reich’s worldview.

As some of these individuals and groups “clean up” their acts and try to make themselves more acceptable to mainstream audiences, they increasingly rely on those symbols that are only obliquely identified with Nazism.

However, though the outer accoutrements might change, the inner ideology remains the same.

Charlottesville, 2017

In the summer of 2017, a significant event took place in Charlottesville, Virginia, home to the University of Virginia. For the first time in American history, the far right organised a march and a rally that would bring together all the various organisations, leaders, media outlets and others associated with it.

In other words, this was not an event sponsored by one group to which others were invited. It was an attempt to bring together all these groups with their shared ideologies of racism, antisemitism and Christian nationalism and make them a potent political force.

During the weekend of 11–12 August, the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville repeatedly expressed their admiration for Hitler. (Instead of naming Hitler, because this will get them booted from social media sites, they use the number “88”: “H” being the eighth letter in the alphabet, “88” refers to “HH”, or “Heil Hitler”.)

Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park holding Nazi, Confederate, and Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag

One organiser said that if he met Hitler today, he would tell him: “Thank you for your sacrifice, and I hope we have honored you in some small way by carrying on the fight.” Another carried a banner declaring that “Hitler did nothing wrong”.

The swastika was evident at Charlottesville, but with a twist. Some groups at the gathering displayed the “national flag of Kekistan”, which mimics a Nazi swastika flag.

In it, the alt-right “Kek” slogan replaces the swastika in the centre, and the red is replaced by green. This flag was also present at the January 6th insurrection.

Another symbol visible at Charlottesville was tiki torches. The use of fire, and torches specifically, has long been prominent in the history of white supremacy.

As Edna Friedberg, a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, noted, “The Nazis were masters of propaganda who regularly used torchlight spectacles to create drama and show force … Hitler himself made repeated references to torches as symbols of national and racial revolution in his book Mein Kampf.

Writing about Charlottesville, she concluded: “The torches carried during a nighttime march in a university town … deliberately echo the smoke of these earlier, racist, and murderous eras.”

In contrast to the swastika, the fasces, which have become synonymous with the Italian fascist party, are becoming more ubiquitous. Fasces, from the Latin word fascis, is a bound bundle of wooden rods, and can be found on American monuments, including at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

However, as the United States National Parks Service notes, there is a stark difference between the meaning of the symbol when used by Italian fascists, for whom it represented nationalism, totalitarianism and imperialism, and when used by the United States, for whom it represents “strength through unity”, or, as the Great Seal of the United States proclaims, E pluribus unum (Out of many, one).

At Charlottesville, the man who was convicted of driving a car into a field of protesters was photographed at the rally carrying a shield with the fasces symbol on it.

The expression “Sieg Heil”, commonly known as the “Hitler greeting”, was mandatory for civilians in Nazi Germany.

Post-war Germany made its use illegal. It is also outlawed in Austria, Poland and Slovakia, and in many other countries it is categorised as hate speech. It was ubiquitous at Charlottesville.

The UTR participants chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and soil (Blut und Boden)”, a shorthand manner of positing that the genuine citizens are those with pure blood and who are intimately connected to the “soil” – Jews are interlopers.

“Kike” was commonly heard: one of the organisers carried a banner that stated, “Gas the kikes, race war now”; another composed a song called “Gassing Kikes and Trannies”, and claimed that he had been persecuted and was “in jail for gassing kikes and trannies”. Finally, the white supremacists at the march also invoked the Nazi concentration camps as a rallying cry, Auschwitz in particular. The Daily Stormer proclaimed: “Next stop Charlottesville. Final stop: Auschwitz.”

The enduring appeal of antisemitism

As the rhetoric, symbolism and thought present at Charlottesville make clear, antisemitism is the ideological foundation stone of the far right’s racism. Sadly, in the years since Charlottesville, the extreme right has grown in strength and audacity, as the insurrection on Capitol Hill so clearly demonstrated.

Those who adhere to this ideology were – and are – convinced that they were being given a “dog whistle” or a green light by President Trump to engage in extremist activity. In short, they felt empowered. And while this is most evident in the United States, it is not unique to it.

However, it is important to recognise that in much of the Western world, antisemitism emanates from both the right and the left.

Antisemitism from the left has been evident, for example, in the British Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership and on university campuses in both North America and the United Kingdom.

Often this antisemitism is couched within expressions of overt hostility to and degradation of Israel. That, of course, is not to suggest that hostility towards Israel or criticism, however severe, of its policies automatically constitutes antisemitism. It does not. But sometimes it does.

Such was the case when, in 2016, the former mayor of London Ken Livingstone tried to link Zionism with Nazism, thereby discrediting the former through its putative link to the latter.

In 2016, Ken Livingstone tried to link Zionism with Nazism

He offered multiple historical canards in order to do so. Consider, for example, Livingstone’s pronouncement that Hitler’s “policy was originally to send all of Germany’s Jews to Israel and there were private meetings between the Zionist movement and Hitler’s government which were kept confidential, they only became apparent after the war, when they were having a dialogue to do this”.

Hitler’s policy was not to send all Jews to Israel. There was no Israel then. His policy was to terrorise them into leaving Germany.

There was one set of negotiations between German Zionists and the Nazis in 1933 to facilitate Jews being able to extricate a small portion of their funds from Germany.

While there are legitimate grounds to debate the wisdom of this agreement – and many Jews did at the time – it was neither “confidential” nor ongoing and hardly constituted collaboration.

Ultimately, the tropes and stereotypes on which the antisemite relies are the same, irrespective of the end of the political spectrum from which the hatred emanates.

They can be grouped into three subsets: Jews are financially powerful; Jews are “clever” in a pernicious fashion; and Jews have political power beyond their number.

Finally, bringing this all together as a conspiratorial plot, the antisemite charges that Jews use that wealth, brain power and political leverage to advance their interests to the detriment of non-Jews.

I have focused on far-right antisemitism in America, but it is important to avoid the delusion that this is strictly an American phenomenon.

In the spring of 2020, Germany’s Minister of the Interior, Horst Seehofer, noted regarding antisemitism that currently “the biggest threat is still the threat from the right”.

In other European countries, for example France, most antisemitic incidents emanate from other sources, such as Islamist extremists.

However, what is happening in the United States should not be ignored. The spread of far-right ideologies across the Atlantic is likely, and to some extent is already happening.

As that occurs, it is crucial to recognise that it is antisemitism that gives pseudo-intellectual heft and legitimacy to the racial hatred.

As we study these developments on the far right, we must fully acknowledge the symbiotic relationship between these forms of animus. Only then will we be able to understand this phenomenon and, even more importantly, combat it.

This is an edited extract of Deborah E. Lipstadt’s essay ‘White insurrections: Antisemitism in America’ in the relaunch issue of The Jewish Quarterly, The Return of History: New Populism, Old Hatreds out now.  

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