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Increasing threat from extremists on the right
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Increasing threat from extremists on the right

Reaction to two new reports suggest fault lines on assessing danger from both sides

Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Getty Images
Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Getty Images

The debate about the threat to Jews of right-wing extremism in an increasingly nationalistic age intensified this week, rippling from New Jersey to Jerusalem in the wake of two new reports from both sides of the Atlantic.

The new surveys, released on or just prior to this week’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration, spell out the reach of such extremism, from Pittsburgh and Parkland to Paris and Berlin, and reveal Jews to be in the crosshairs of white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Just days after an Anti-Defamation League report found that nearly all murders committed by identified extremists last year were carried out by “right-wing extremists,” a survey by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs cites an alarming rise in anti-Semitism around the world, calling the “far right” largely responsible.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu played down the ministry’s findings about right-wing extremism, pointing instead to the threat posed by extremists on the left and Islamists.

The juxtaposition of the prime minister’s comments with the two new reports echo the debate here between critics and supporters of President Donald Trump; the former claim that Trump’s pattern of rhetoric and tweets has fanned the flames of extremism on the right, while the latter deny this and point to growing intolerance and anti-Israel sentiment on the left.

Experts are treading carefully on what is rocky terrain.

“The ADL report illustrates a trend about which I have been concerned for a couple of years — anti-Semitism of the far right,” Deborah Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, told NJJN in an email interview. “It’s there and it’s real.”

Lipstadt, author of a new book, “Antisemitism Here and Now” (Schocken), said, “Many people, certainly in the Jewish community, have focused on the anti-Semitism on the left, e.g., BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel], Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party factions, etc. And they are right to do so. It may be more institutionalized on the left, more woven into organizations and political efforts. But on the right it is violent and it is dangerous.”

As if to illustrate the danger to Israel from the left, the U.S. Senate is poised to vote this week on the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act, legislation that would give state and local governments the right to divest assets from companies that take part in the BDS movement. Republicans have already labeled freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) an “anti-Semite” for her support of BDS. Critics of the bill say it tramples on political speech.

The ADL report, “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2018,” states that “Every single extremist killing — from Pittsburgh to Parkland — had a link to right-wing extremism.”

“The white supremacist attack in Pittsburgh should serve as a wake-up call to everyone about the deadly consequences of hateful rhetoric,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the ADL’s CEO. “It’s time for our nation’s leaders to appropriately recognize the severity of the threat and to devote the necessary resources to address the scourge of right-wing extremism.”

According to the ADL study — the latest of its annual tracking of murders “perpetrated by all types of extremists” — domestic extremists in the U.S. “killed at least 50 people … a sharp increase from the 37 extremist-related murders documented in 2017. The 50 deaths make 2018 the fourth-deadliest year on record for domestic extremist-related killings since 1970.”

According to the report, “Domestic Islamic Extremism” accounted for only 2 percent of last year’s murders at the hands of extremists, while the figure for white supremacists was 78 percent.

The only extremist killing in 2018 linked with an Islamist was committed by Corey Johnson, already a long-time white supremacist at age 17, who told investigators, after he killed one person and injured two in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on March 12, that he had embraced the Muslim faith. “The fact that only one person was killed by a domestic Islamist extremist in the U.S. in 2018 should not be taken as an indication that the threat posed by this form of extremism has diminished,” the report cautioned. “A number of domestic Islamist extremists were arrested in 2018 for a variety of crimes, from terrorist plots to providing material support to terrorism.”

No murders attributed to left-wing extremists — to whom many conservative experts and defenders of the president have pointed as dangerous because of liberals’ growing support for so-called intersectionality and decreasing support for Israel — were reported in the ADL survey.

“Left-wing extremists have not been particularly violent over the past 20 years, and most of the violence that has emerged from that quarter has been directed at property rather than people,” the report states.

The ADL’s findings “are very similar” to those of a soon-to-be-released study by the California-based Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, said Brian Levin, its director. His study of hate crimes in the 24 largest metropolitan areas in the country show a disproportionate number committed by extreme right-wingers.

While not directly challenging the findings of the ADL’s study, Levin questioned its scope, which focused on murders rather than a wider variety of acts, such as vandalism, hate speech, and online incitement. (The ADL does publish an annual audit of such acts.) “There’s more to the story — you can’t measure anti-Semitism [just] by counting the number of murders,” he said.

According to the report issued by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, attacks against Jews and Jewish targets increased in 2018, resulting in the highest number of fatalities since the attacks on the Argentinian-Jewish community in 1992 and 1995.

Citing increases of hate crimes against Jews in the U.S., France, and England, the report attributed most of the violence to the far right. And it noted a significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents in Germany in the first six months of 2018 (893 in all), compared to the same period in 2017.

The ministry’s report also highlighted a growing level of cooperation between the far left and Islamist extremists, “whose interests are seemingly incompatible, but who cooperate against Israel and Jews.”

Netanyahu, speaking at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, downplayed the findings about the right-wing threat. “Anti-Semitism from the right is not a new phenomenon” in Europe, the focus of the ministry’s study, he said. “What is new in Europe is the combination of Islamic anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the extreme left, which includes anti-Zionism.”

It’s an argument that has its share of supporters.

David Hirsh, a lecturer in sociology at the University of London and author of “Contemporary Left Antisemitism” (Routledge), told NJJN that anti-Semitic hate — often in the guise of anti-Zionism — “is growing into the mainstream on the left” both in Europe and the U.S.

Writing in a recent essay on Religion News Service, the Hollywood, Fla.-based Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin suggested that “in some ways, the anti-Semitism of the Left might actually be more dangerous, and more insidious, than that of the Right.… the anti-Semitism of the left is rarely violent.… It does not come in the form of bullets fired in synagogues … The violence is verbal, and often comes in the form of intellectual argument.

“The problem?” he wrote: “As we have seen. Hateful ideologies and hateful words have a way of metastasizing into violent acts.”

For veteran anti-Semitism watcher Abraham Foxman, who headed the ADL for a generation and who has cited centuries-old anti-Semitic strains in this country, while Jews are not necessarily the main target of right-wing groups, they are the chief religious target. Such groups “have been latent.”

But, he said, the current polemic and political atmosphere here has emboldened some extremists, and a ubiquitous internet focuses attention on anti-Semitic incidents while making it easier for purveyors of hate to spread their message. “We know there are millions of anti-Semites in this country.”

But Foxman did not discount the threat from the left. “Unfortunately, it’s both,” he said. “The threat to Jews comes from both political stripes, from the right and from the left.” 

Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.

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