October 27, 2020
IntelBrief: 2 Years after the Tree of Life Attack, Continuing to Push Back Against Hate
On October 27, 2018—two years ago today—a lone gunman motivated by anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and a mélange of far-right extremist beliefs murdered eleven innocent worshippers and injured many others at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The attack was a painful reminder of the rampant anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism that still permeates American society. The murderer in the Tree of Life attack was obsessed with a range of far-right extremist beliefs, and spent a considerable amount of time consuming and spreading racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant postings on social media, in turn, helping to radicalize others. The attacker held strong anti-government beliefs and, according to both former co-workers and his social media postings, frequently ranted against immigrants, ‘globalists,’ and George Soros, whom he believed was funding an ‘immigrant caravan,’ a baseless conspiracy commonly amplified by right-wing television programs and talk radio personalities.
As devastating as it was, the Tree of Life synagogue attack was far from an isolated incident—anti-Semitic incidents, including physical attacks, have been on the rise in both the United States and Europe over the past several years. Perhaps not coincidentally, the spike in anti-Semitism has been occurring against the backdrop of a lack of education regarding the Holocaust. Now more than ever, people are seeking out conspiracy theories online and ‘learning’ about historical events through memes and in encrypted chat rooms where anti-Semitic tropes are peddled with increasing regularity. Earlier this month, Facebook took the unprecedented step of banning posts related to the denial or distortion of the Holocaust. This is the latest in a series of steps by social media and tech companies, many of which should have been taken years ago, to remove mis- and dis-information and conspiracy theories from their respective platforms. In some cases, individuals searching for information about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany will be redirected to authoritative sources on those subjects.
The United States is entering a period in the week leading up to Election Day where the risks of violence are exceptionally high. The country is polarized like at no time in recent memory, and several plots targeting politicians have been foiled over the course of the past few weeks, including a plot by anti-government militias to kidnap and harm Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of Michigan. Even though not all far-right extremists are explicitly anti-Semitic, there exists significant overlap between the ideologies propagated by anti-government militias, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and other elements of the far-right, including conspiracy theorists like QAnon. Each of these movements, to a greater or lesser degree, rails against globalists and a shadowy cabal of elites responsible for controlling everything, from politics to finance. They label this global conspiracy the ‘Zionist Occupied Government,’ or ZOG for shorthand, perpetuating anti-Semitism and encouraging attacks against Jewish institutions and individuals.
For the past eight months, with the world on lockdown resulting from quarantines and stay-at-home measures related to the coronavirus pandemic, more people have been online. Accordingly, there has been a concerted push by far-right extremists, especially white supremacists and neo-Nazis, to promote their beliefs and recruit new, often younger, members into these movements. Given the relentless media cycle of what seems to be bad news, coupled with around the clock coverage of the 2020 Presidential election, many people are experiencing news fatigue. However, it is critical that states, local governments, civil society organizations and everyday citizens come together to push back against the proliferation of hate, which is often spread in insidious and subtle ways. The city of Pittsburgh and Jewish communities across the world were reeling in the aftermath of the Tree of Life attack, but have come together to promote education, tolerance, and the importance of diversity and inclusivity. These are important steps in taking an explicit and unambiguous stand against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and racism, thus allowing communities to begin the process of healing, while simultaneously discrediting the odious narrative pushed by far-right extremists.