On Saturday, a synagogue in Poway, California, was attacked when a man with a gun burst in during the Sabbath service and started shooting, killing one person and wounding three. The violence raises disturbing questions about whether the Jewish community in America is still safe from anti-Semitic violence — especially coming as it does six months after 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
But the tragedy in the San Diego suburb has also become political fodder in the ongoing polemics about anti-Semitism on the right and the left.
There seems to be little doubt that the gunman, identified as San Diego nursing student John Earnest, came from the extreme right. Less than a half-hour before the shooting, a white supremacist manifesto in his name was posted online. One of its main themes is that Jews are trying to subvert white American and European culture by promoting nonwhite immigration. This conspiracy theory is an obsession of the white nationalist alt-right; it was also invoked by Robert Bowers, the Pittsburgh shooting suspect, whom the manifesto cited as an inspiration (along with the man accused in the New Zealand mosque shootings).
Yet in online conversations after the shooting, quite a few conservatives focused on what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), in a tweet, labeled “the anti-Semitic Left.” Cruz and some other Republicans pointed fingers at Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the progressive Democrat who has been under fire for anti-Israel comments that arguably employ anti-Semitic tropes. Omar has suggested that pro-Israel Americans are loyal to another country and that political support for Israel is bought with money.
Others also drew attention to a widely criticized cartoon that appeared the day before the shooting in the international print edition of The New York Times. The syndicated cartoon depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a guide dog with a Star of David dog tag, held on a leash by a blind, yarmulke-wearing Donald Trump — an image disturbingly similar to caricatures of crafty Jews manipulating the powerful. The Times has apologized and said the cartoon was anti-Semitic and published a harsh rebuke by its columnist Bret Stephens.
The cartoon controversy illustrates the fact that anti-Israel animus and anti-Semitism are often enmeshed. But the Poway gunman was not inspired by the Times cartoons or by Omar, who is Muslim.
Republicans, even some who are critical of Trump, have often reacted with indignation to suggestions that his rhetoric has contributed to inflaming anti-Semitism and white nationalism in this country. Trump has denounced anti-Jewish hatred (though he has often waffled in condemnations of the white supremacist far right), and the manifesto attributed to Earnest slams him as a “Zionist.” Yet Trump-style nativist, conspiracy-obsessed populism has, at least on the fringes, undeniable links to anti-Semitism. Trump’s own claims that Jewish billionaire George Soros funds migration to Western countries, including the caravan of asylum-seekers who journeyed to the U.S. border last year, have arguably fed into the Jewish conspiracy theory embraced by Bowers and Earnest.
Anti-Semitism on the left should not be ignored, but it also shouldn’t be used to deflect from the problem on the right. The danger is at both ends: Anti-Semitism cloaked in criticism of Israel is more “respectable” and insidious while the far-right, white supremacist variety is more likely to be violent. Until we confront both kinds of bigotry, and until conservatives and progressives do some soul-searching about anti-Semitism enablers in their ranks, the problem will get worse.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.