From Pittsburgh to Christchurch: Why we must fight Islamophobia and anti Semitism together

Vigil for victims of synagogue shooting, Pittsburgh, USA - 29 Oct 2018

Left: Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch. Right: Tree of Life synagogue, Pittsburgh.

By Ani White.

Fightback plans to release a pamphlet on Fighting Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism. To buy a copy for $20, please get in touch at fightback.australasia@gmail.com. Subscribers will also receive a copy, you can subscribe by PayPal or credit card here.

On the 27th of October 2018, a fascist terrorist killed 11 attendants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, USA. Five months later, on March 15th of this year, another fascist killed 50 worshippers at the Al Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.

It should now go without saying that both attacks reflected an international upsurge of the far right. Despite targeting different faiths in different countries, both attackers were motivated by transnational far right ideas fuelled by mainstream dog-whistles, and incubated in ugly corners of the internet. Both posted their plans on niche online forums just before carrying them out.

However, the links between the attacks are more intricate than this simple observation. After the Christchurch shooting, the Tree of Life synagogue released the following statement on their website:

We stand beside our Muslim brothers and sisters and mourn alongside the families and friends who have lost loved ones in this unconscionable act of violence. We will continue to work towards a day when all people on this planet can live together in peace and mutual respect.”1

The group also established a gofundme to support the Muslim community in Christchurch, raising over $60,000 at the time of writing.2 In the wake of the Pittsburgh attack, Muslim organisations raised over $200,000 for the victims.3

The Tree of Life synagogue’s solidarity with Christchurch Muslims was a continuation of a long-standing policy. In fact, their support for Muslims and refugees played a role in motivating the choice to target Tree of Life. The shooter posed the following statement to white supremacist-friendly social media site Gab:

HIAS likes to bring invaders that kill our people.

I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.

Screw your optics, I’m going in.4

The post refers to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which helps resettle refugees in Pittsburgh. Although the HIAS was founded to help Jewish refugees, in the 2000s the group expanded to help refugees from all backgrounds. Seven days before the shooting, the HIAS led Jewish groups in a ‘Refugee Shabat.’5 After the attack, HIAS senior vice president Melanie Nezer released a statement saying: “[T]here’s no denying that this is a devastating moment… But I don’t think it lessens our resolve. If anything, it makes us feel more strongly that we need to stand up for what’s right.”6

As pointed out in a Vox article at the time, an old conspiracy theory about Jews populating ‘white’ countries with refugees and immigrants motivated the attack:

The obsession that appears to have tipped the gunman over the edge was a conspiracy theory insinuating that the migrant caravan currently making its way through southern Mexico, and which President Donald Trump and conservative media have treated as an existential threat to the United States, is a Jewish plot.

His response was an attack that was both anti-Semitic — an attack on Jews and Jewish values — and characteristic of Trump-era xenophobia, which is generally expressed toward Muslims and Latinos.7

In other words, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism fed eachother in motivating the attack. This contrasts with accounts that Israel’s crimes motivate the rise of anti-Semitism: the far-right’s Islamophobia undermines such an explanation. In fact some on the far right have come to support Israel as a bastion against Islam, in spite of their continuing anti-Semitism.

It’s essential that we have a sharp analysis of the far right. Unfortunately, many left-wing responses to the situation are grossly inadequate. After the Pittsburgh shooting, a branch of the UK Labour Party voted down a motion to condemn the Pittsburgh shooting and anti-Semitism in general.8 At best this reflects a fight over the definition of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, prioritising factional battles over the principle of opposing violent anti-Semitism everywhere. At worst, the decision reflects genuine anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. The most convicing way to discredit accusations of anti-Semitism is to not behave anti-Semitically. A dispute over what constitutes anti-Semitism may be legitimate, but not a dispute over whether to condemn anti-Semitism.

Conversely, Israeli reactions to the Pittsburgh shooting were also inadequate. First of all, Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi David Lau refused to recognise the Tree of Life synagogue as a synagogue, since it does not follow Orthodox Judaism.9 Secondly, Israeli officials refused to condemn Trump for fuelling racial hatred, reflecting a recent tendency to actually befriend racists and anti-Semites outside Israel. Finally, Israeli opposition leader Avi Gabbay said the attack should motivate Jews to immigrate to Israel rather than staying in the USA.10 An article in Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, suggested that “American Jews may never forgive Israel for its reaction to the Pittsburgh massacre.”11

In part, these inadequate responses reflect a strategic perspective of Zionism (note: modern political Zionism can be most usefully defined as support for a Jewish state, on Palestinian land). For Zionist leaders, there is no point in fighting anti-Semitism in the diaspora, rather Jewish people must migrate to Israel. In this account, the colonisation of Palestine is the only way to ensure Jewish safety. In this sense, anti-Semitism in the diaspora fuels Zionism, as Israeli leaders take advantage of anti-Semitic attacks to call for escape to Israel. It’s often pointed out that Israeli propagandists weaponise accusations of anti-Semitism to discredit legitimate criticism, but their refusal to fight genuine anti-Semitism in the diaspora is a subtler strategy. Combating anti-Semitism in the diaspora is therefore essential to undermining the Zionist colonial project.

The need to fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together is not only ethical, it is practical, as they reinforce eachother. The solidarity between Pittsburgh and Christchurch, in the face of attacks that seek to divide, is a model for all who seek liberation. The Jewish diaspora slogan “wherever we live, that is our homeland” must be demonstrated in practice, by ensuring Jewish and Muslim communities are safe and welcome everywhere.

See also

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