The family of Steven Johns, the security guard at the Holocaust museum who was killed by a fanatic anti-Semite and racist on Wednesday, deserves a thorough investigation into their beloved’s murder. So does the family of Dr. George Tiller, killed by a fanatic anti-abortion activist two weeks ago. In both cases, it is pretty clear what motivated the killers, a pure hatred, and in both cases, pundits are trying to see the murders as part of a wider political reality. They must tread carefully however.
Michael Gerson this morning writes about the virulent anti-Semitic mail he got after a column he posted on Holocaust denial that came out, coincidentally, the day that Johns was shot. He seems surprised by the virulence of those who see Jewish conspiracies everywhere and who continue to doubt the Holocaust happened. He notes that the Internet "allows these obsessions to gather in fetid pools….The Internet has helped to create communities of malice." True enough, but anti-Semitism existed and thrived before Guttenberg’s printing press too.
The danger the Internet poses is the ease with which one community of haters, say, anti-Semites, can connect with another group of haters, say, racists. Hitler, of course, hated both Jews and blacks and Mr. von Brunn evidently did also. Mr. von Brunn also had some loopy thoughts about the Federal Reserve, where he was arrested after trying to make a citizens’ arrest of the Fed’s Board. We do not know how von Brunn came by his hatreds, but it is undoubtedly true that the Internet facilitates the gathering of information, true or false, benign or malignant, and of connecting people with similar interests.
Gerson asks, "Why the Jews?" I confess I was surprised in 2004 when, working on a campaign for a Democratic candidate, I encountered the anti-Semitism of the Left. It emerged usually out of a critique of the Iraq War and seeing that war as the fault of neo-conservatives, many of whom are Jewish. You would be listening to a person give a perfectly cogent and permissible criticism of U.S. policy and all of a sudden, you would hear, "But, the Jews…." Not, "But, Israel…." although sometimes that was where it started. Not all criticisms of Israel are made by anti-Semites, of course, but all critics of Israel have an obligation to be mindful of their intellectual surroundings.
I had been raised in a traditional liberal family that was pro-union, pro-health care and pro-Israel. I associated anti-Semitism in this country with Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin and abroad I saw it tied in with the Lefebvrists and their ancestors, who instigated the Dreyfuss Affair and attacked Pope Leo XIII for his failure to see that Jews were behind the Third Republic. On a visit to Poland to meet relatives, I encountered the still prevalent anti-Semitism in the land of my forefathers, a land that hosted the largest crematoria.
Gerson quotes Sara Bloomfield, the director of the Holocaust Museum: "Anti-Semitism has existed with and without Christianity. With and without the right wing. With and without the left wing. With and without democracy. With and without economic problems. With and without globalization. With and without a Jewish homeland."
For those who seek to lay the murder of Mr. Johns at the feet of conservative political movements, these words of Ms. Bloomfield should give pause. For those who seek to lay the blame for the murder of Dr. Tiller at the feet of those who use inflammatory rhetoric, these words should give them pause. We must resist and condemn hateful speech because it is hateful, not because it will necessarily lead an unbalanced person to get their gun. Were Dr. Tiller and Mr. Johns still walking the earth, it would still be wrong to indulge anti-Semitic hatreds or to de-humanize those who disagree with us on abortion.
And, for those who blame Israel and its policies for giving rise to anti-Semitism, remember that pogrom is not an Arab word and that Edgardo Mortara was kidnapped by a Pope not a Palestinian.