Last week a middle-aged man named Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered eleven people. Just days afterwards, a Jewish cemetery in Rochester, New York, was vandalized and the words “Kill Jews” were found scrawled on the walls of a Brooklyn synagogue.
Since then, the news cycle has been awash with discussions of anti-Semitism, but there’s something peculiar about the way that it often gets described by our politicians and pundits. The problem is exemplified by Kellyanne Conway’s comment, on the Fox News channel’s Fox and Friends program, that the Pittsburgh atrocity expressed a growing hostility to religion in American life. She went on to say “remember, these people were gunned down in their place of worship, as were the people in South Carolina several years ago.”
This was a very odd thing to say. When Dylann Roof walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston and extinguished the lives of nine African Americans engaged in Bible study there, nobody thought of it as an attack on religion. That would have been absurd. The vicious mass murder in South Carolina was obviously motivated by beliefs about race.
It’s certainly possible that Conway gave her story a religious spin to appeal to conservative Christians in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, or to deflect blame from the xenophobic atmosphere created by her boss’ inflammatory rhetoric. Perhaps that’s also why Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, in an address in Boston, "This was not just an attack on the Jewish faith. It was attack on all people of faith, and it was an attack on America's values of protecting those of faith. It cannot, it will not, be tolerated." But there’s obviously more to it than this, because comments of this sort aren’t limited to representatives of the Trump regime.
Robert Jones, head of the Pittsburgh FBI office, said Bowers “targeted [the victims] simply because of their faith.” And he’s far from being the only one, as several evenings’ viewing CNN made abundantly clear to me. Everyone and their uncle seemed to think that the Jewish congregation was assaulted because of their faith.
It’s true that, prior to the modern era, violence against Jews was often religiously motivated, and urged on by the toxic fulminations of Christian clergymen. For example, The Roman Catholic St. Chrysostom wrote, in his First Homily Against the Jews, written in the late fourth century, that:
Jews are dogs, stiff-necked, gluttonous, drunkards. They are beasts unfit for work… The Jews had fallen into a condition lower than the vilest animals… The synagogue is worse than a brothel and a drinking shop; it is a den of scoundrels, a temple of demons, the cavern of devils, a criminal assembly of the assassins of Christ…. I hate the Jews, because they violate the Law… It is the duty of all Christians to hate the Jews.
Not to be outdone by his Catholic forbear, Martin Luther asked in his 1543 rant On the Jews and Their Lies “What shall we do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?” and then answered his own question.
First, their synagogues should be set on fire… Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed… Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught… Fifthly, travelling privileges must be absolutely forbidden to Jews… If however we are afraid that they might harm us personally… then let us settle with them for that which they have extorted usuriously from us, and after having divided it up fairly, let us drive them out of the country for all time.
Scholars refer to the sort of sectarian of hate that was spewed by the likes of Chrysostom and Luther anti-Judaism to distinguish it from anti-Semitism. Anti-Judaism is about religion, but anti-Semitism is about race.
Now, race is a philosophically contentious subject. Some philosophers think that race maps on to genuine biological differences—that it’s biologically real—but most believe that races are social inventions, and that they’re socially real. Finally, there are people like me—a small minority in the philososphere—who think that races are entirely fictional, but also hold that the belief that races exist is a real illusion with serious consequences. People who think that race is real mistake a fiction for a fact.
It’s precisely because beliefs about race are consequential for human lives that we philosophers should engage with assumptions about that are current in the wider world outside of academia. It’s fine to have heated arguments—as philosophers are wont to do—about how we ought to think about race, but all those fine words and split hairs amount to very little if we remain aloof from how people actually think about race and how they go on to embody these thoughts in actions.
Many Americans seem have a hard time grasping the idea of Jews as a race because they think of race mainly in terms of the color of a person’s skin. But skin tone and other easily identifiable physical features have only an indirect conceptual relationship with race. The notion of passing—the idea that a person can be outwardly indistinguishable from members of a certain race while not really belonging to that race—shows us that even in the color-obsessed United States, a person’s appearance doesn’t determine what race they are. In the popular imagination, the relation between a person’s race and their appearance is similar to the relation between a flu infection and flu symptoms—it’s a relation of cause and effect. And just as you can be infected with a flu virus without displaying the tell-tale signs, you can be a member of a race without this being apparent to the casual observer. Like an illness, race can by asymptomatic.
Looked at in this way, there’s no contradiction in saying that although most Jews look White, they aren’t really White. The Nazis certainly believed that Jews are a vile and inferior race that was hell-bent on wrecking German civilization, and believed—like American proponents of the one-drop rule—that race is located in a person’s blood rather than in the externalities of how they look and behave. That’s why a person could be a devout German Christian and still end up in Auschwitz if they had the wrong sort of pedigree. And even though average Americans don’t seem to think of Jews as a race, those at the ever-growing far-right extreme—the White nationalists and neo-Nazis—certainly do. When the mob of angry tiki-torchers marched through Charlottesville last year, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” they weren’t incensed about anyone’s religious orientation.
Was the attack in Pittsburgh an example of anti-Judaism or anti-Semitism? Was it mainly about religion, or was it mainly about race?
The answer is easily ascertained. All we have to do is to attend to the shooter’s own words. Just minutes before the fateful moment when Bowers barged into the synagogue brandishing a AR-15 assault rifle and equipped with three Glock .357 handguns, he wrote on social media, "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in." And once the mayhem was over, he told a police officer “They're committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews."
If you’re acquainted with the White nationalist semantic landscape, the meaning of these statements is transparent. The expression “my people” is used in these circles to refer to White people, and reference to slaughter in the first statement and to genocide in the second alludes to the notion of White genocide—the idea that people of color are busy subjugating and exterminating the White race, and that this project is masterminded by Jews. Bowers clearly took himself to be a foot-soldier in the struggle against the Jewish plot against the White race. And it’s obvious that if he believed that Jews are White, the notion that they are busy orchestrating the extermination of the White race would be bizarre-to-unintelligible.
Oddly enough, then, Kellyanne Conway turns out to have been correct when she included the murder in Pittsburgh in the same category as the murder Charleston, but she was wrong about why the two belong together. Neither of these hideous events were attacks on religion. Both were acts of racist terror.