Four years ago, on October 27, 2018, the country and the world saw the traumatic consequences that the spread of antisemitic hate speech can have on a community, when eleven worshippers were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the deadliest hate crime committed against American Jews.
The gunman, who is still awaiting trial, was radicalized online and proclaimed on his social media that his hatred of Jews stemmed from his anti-immigrant fervor and what he felt was an imminent immigrant invasion caused by Jews in America. Just the year before this deadly assault, white power advocates marched in Charlottesville, VA, with the chant, “Jews will not replace us,” alluding to the Great Replacement conspiracy theory. In the four years that have followed the attack at Tree of Life, these antisemetic narratives have become even more commonplace and so has the vitriol aimed at Jews. This is witnessed by the rise of incidents targeting Jews in America. In 2021, ADL reported 2,717 antisemitic incidents, representing a 34% increase from incidents tabulated in 2020 and the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.
The latest example of an influencer using their megaphone to spread Jewish conspiracy theories is rapper Kanye West, and while this should rightly disgust us and justify our moral indignation; this rhetoric has an especially troubling undertone in the work of hate and violence prevention. Originally on November 6th 2018, following a deadly 72 Hours in America which saw three hate filled crimes — the killing of two African Americans in a Kroger grocery store by a 51-year-old white man; suspicious packages and bombs sent to liberal media outlets, supporters, and politicians by a 56-year-old white man; and the horrific murder of 11 congregants in a hate crime at Tree of Life by a 46-year-old white man — I penned an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Independent that highlighted “stochastic terrorism,” the use of mass, public communication, usually against an individual or group which incites or inspires acts of terrorism which are statistically probable but seem to happen at random.”
Over the years, the understanding of this little known term but well utilized strategy to incite violence against marginalized groups has been gaining traction. The difficulty now has become the balancing of First Amendment freedoms and the public safety concerns of individuals and groups targeted by these vilifying narratives. This gap between protecting freedoms and protecting lives was exploited in 2018 to spread paranoid propagandas against women, immigrants, communities of color, Muslims, LGBTQI and more. This is the same gap that may ultimately provide the justification to the next potential gunman out there to take matters into their own hands and harm others because they feel like an individual or group represents a threat to their existence.
This is the same gap that Kanye is dangerously exploiting as he spreads and echoes disinformation about the Jewish community, simply because he has delusionally deemed an entire population a threat to his own existence. The groupthink narratives of dehumanization have become so common that we aren’t even talking about public safety anymore. That is, not until someone commits violence and attributes it to something that they heard from an influential voice they trusted. Now, Kanye West, a pop icon and influencer has declared “Defcon 3 on Jewish people” and proclaimed his allegiance to the white power movement with “White Lives Matter” as a fashion statement.
What can we do?
Instead of amplifying Kanye’s antisemitism, let's be like the Pittsburgh community. Let’s remember the eleven lives lost, let’s pay our respects by really delving into understanding the Jewish experience with a sense of educational vigor that requires more than just listening to the next influencer share their disgruntled heart. The Holocaust of six million Jews was also a time where stochastic fear was made commonplace and eventually darkened the hearts and souls of millions who became bystanders to mass murder. We are seeing this strategy again. Except now we have weapons of mass destruction and media of mass destruction rushing us to a perilous state of humanity.
We can fight hate with action: Be Like Pittsburgh
Where neighbors showed up with a massive shield of love and support. White, black, Muslim and Christian alike filled sports stadiums, high-school gyms, churches, parks and surrounded synagogues with circles of support and safety. Their message was clear, we are stronger than hate. In the four years that followed, the Jewish community — including survivors and families of the fallen — have helped lead their city in a quest to counter the hate that caused this attack on their community. As they worked to heal, instead of folding in, the Jewish community reached out, over and over to build bridges and strengthen already woven ties with the rest of the community.
Their city leaders tried to curb gun violence with a ban on the use of assault weapons in the city. They probed at the dangers of hate speech and how to counter it, mindful of the increasingly volatile dynamic between protecting free speech and the rampant spread of lies. When the attacks on Asians ramped up, the Jewish community reached out to support Asian businesses and community members. Students have planted trees, dedicated games and participated in teach-ins about antisemitism and racism. The city of Pittsburgh ramped up its welcoming program for immigrants, and volunteers gathered from across the city to make blankets for refugees on a day of service.
When a football player spread antisemitic tropes on his Twitter feed, a Pittsburgh Steeler called him out and gathered other athletes from the Pirates and WNBA for “athletes against antisemitism.” These are all things that our film team at Not in Our Town has directly witnessed and documented with the community of Pittsburgh. None of this is referenced to by influencers like Kanye, but this is also why grassroots voices of journalism are so important.
So, what do we do in the face of hate, when a man with a megaphone calls for “def con 3 on Jewish people"? We interrupt and stop the spread of these dangerous lies. We call out the antisemitism and racism the divides us. We make our towns more like Pittsburgh in the aftermath of violence…We work together to be stronger than hate!