Studies of genocide show that those who kill their neighbors must dehumanize them before such attacks are widely accepted. In America, white Americans had been dehumanizing blacks and unleashing violence on black bodies for 300 years before the rise of the re-formed Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, when the organized targeting of Jews by hate movements began. The small population of Jews who lived in America throughout the 17th, 18th, and most of the 19th centuries did so in an environment of relative tolerance, backed by the assurance of the letter written by President George Washington, a slave owner, to the Hebrew Congregations of Rhode Island, stating that “the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Yet while American Jews avoided direct attack by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 1930s, anti-Semitism itself was beginning to change as a small group of anti-Semitic radicals within the Klan moved from passivity to aggression, giving rise to a native-born American anti-Semitic movement whose radical ideology helped inspire the murder of 11 congregants at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Auto tycoon Henry Ford played a key role in this transformation. Through his widely circulated Dearborn Independent, Ford popularized alarming slurs against the Jewish people, borrowing from the fraudulent and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion to accuse Jews of a secret, global financial conspiracy to undermine the United States and the western world.
At the same time, a man who helped publish Ford’s periodical, William J. Cameron, became interested in and promoted a school of pseudoscientific anthropological thought that repositioned Jews in the history of Judeo-Christianity. Cameron argued that the 10 missing groups from the lost tribes of the House of Israel (Israel’s Northern Kingdom), upon being overcome by the Assyrians, fled to the Caucasus, and populated that region. The remaining two tribes of Israel, the so-called House of Judah, eventually migrated to and settled in Europe. The latter were the true chosen people: Anglo-Europeans. European Jews, those who had been immigrating to America in droves in the three decades before, were in fact descendants of Mongol-Turkic Khazars.
This strange stew of white supremacy, anti-Jewish conspiracy baiting, and racialized anthropology—which began overseas as British-Israelism, and morphed in the United States into Anglo-Israelism—is central to the white nationalist ideology that continues to pursue and enact violence against Jewish targets. It is an ideology that, even if he may not realize it, helped fuel Robert Bowers’ rage against Jews.
America’s own homegrown anti-Semitic movement was codified by West Coast seminarians toward the end of WWII, and was branded as Christian Identity by the late 1960s. While adherents of this movement often shared sympathies with the Ku Klux Klan, and some were even members, they also embraced the idea of a worldwide Jewish conspiracy and the notion that White Europeans were the true chosen people. Yet they faced a problem in trying to get normative Christian doctrines to accommodate these ideas. Even if they could situate Jews in another geographic location, Christ would still include Jews as people capable of salvation.
Christian Identity (CI) believers wanted to go one step beyond those Christians who, in the past, had persecuted Jews for supposedly rejecting Jesus. If Jews were as devious and immoral as these men believed, if they were to become an enemy that even Jesus could not forgive and love, then Jews must not be human at all.
The seminarians “solved” their theological dilemma through an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Book of Genesis and the creation story. They argued Eve engaged in a sexual relationship not only with Adam (producing Seth, the seed line for white Christians), but with the serpent, the physical manifestation of Satan himself. This second relationship produced Cain, and the seed line for those who proclaim to be Jews in the modern day, but who are, in fact, impostors. In the Christian Identity interpretation of the Bible, Noah’s flood only wiped out part of the world’s population. The surviving demonic offspring of Satan (Jews) included the Pharisees who torment Jesus as well as the “so-called” Jews who had settled in Asia. Jesus, his disciples, and the earliest Christians, meanwhile, were descendants of the real chosen people from the bloodline of Seth who (per their speculative anthropology) formed the House of Judah and who become Anglo-Europeans; those Palestinian Jews who rejected Christ in his lifetime, and the Mongol-Turkic Khazars, were literally impostors who could not and would not have accepted Christ. Instead, impostor Jews were and are engaged in a secret, centuries-long, cosmic conspiracy against white Europeans, manipulating people of color (subhuman “mud people” in Christian Identity theology) against whites. God would defeat that conspiracy in the Battle of Armageddon, a literal race war.
One strain of CI thought, popularized by radio evangelist Wesley Swift (one of CI’s founding seminarians) from his outpost in Hollywood, argued that devotees must help initiate and wage this holy race war. Swift’s charismatic radio sermons attracted hundreds of thousands of listeners and reached CI followers across the country through a network of white supremacists who distributed his audiotapes. Those sermons routinely combined theological exegesis with commentary on current events; frequently they described a Jewish-run global conspiracy (Marxist in nature) that hijacked the U.S. government and manipulated blacks in the civil rights movement. As Swift’s influence grew in the 1960s, he also increasingly became fixated on astrological signs of the impending End Times. Provocative violence, the kind that could accelerate Armageddon, became that much more important.
Some of the men who became Swift’s most active followers in the 1960s were part of one of the earliest documented anti-Semitic terrorist groups in the United States, the Columbians. With WWII just having ended, the Columbians, who were headquartered in Atlanta, harassed blacks and Jews, vandalized their property, and spread anti-Semitic propaganda. When law enforcement raided their headquarters in 1947, they found a stockpile of weapons, and vague plans to use provocative violence to ignite a sectarian war.
Several Columbians went on to become active in anti-Semitic and racist violence. One of the youngest members, Ed Fields, joined his friend, Nazi sympathizer and fellow Georgian J.B. Stoner, in creating the Christian Anti-Jewish Party in the 1950s. When they failed to attract enough members, they reorganized their group as the less outwardly hostile National States Rights Party (NSRP). While presenting an image of being just another politically minded anti-integration group, the NSRP matched their disdain for blacks with a fierce antagonism towards Jews. Nearly every senior member of the NSRP was a devotee of Wesley Swift.
Federal and local authorities fingered J.B. Stoner as the mastermind of a wave of bombings against mostly Jewish but also black targets from 1957-1958. Largely forgotten now, these coordinated attacks included the bombing of Hebrew Benevolent Congregation (better known as The Temple) in Atlanta, and gained national attention, eliciting strong rebukes from President Dwight Eisenhower. The handful of men arrested for the crime inculpated Stoner, but then recanted, once Stoner’s friend and fellow lawyer, KKK Grand Wizard James Venable, became their lead attorney. By 1965, the California attorney general, Thomas Lynch, identified the NSRP as one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the nation.
The next great wave of anti-Jewish violence in America occurred a decade later, again under the inspiration of Christian Identity and Rev. Wesley Swift. This time, a secret team of terrorists, under the authority of Mississippi KKK Grand Wizard Sam Bowers (no known relation to Robert), spent months bombing Jewish and black targets in the Magnolia State, including the Temple Beth-Israel, one of the South’s oldest Jewish institutions. The Anti-Defamation League eventually contributed the money that law enforcement used to pay informants who lured Bowers’ hit squad into a deadly sting.
The lull in anti-Jewish violence between the two waves of temple bombings can largely be attributed, again, to the different dispositions among Southern whites toward anti-black and anti-Semitic violence. Stoner and Bowers both tried, at various times, to redirect KKK groups toward anti-Jewish attacks. Both failed, and Stoner was even kicked out of the KKK for his violent strain of anti-Semitism. This is not because the Klan had become more egalitarian; like other white supremacist groups, they prominently featured anti-Jewish tropes in their rhetoric. But to risk criminal prosecution by going after Jews, when they could instead visit violence upon blacks with relative impunity, seemed out of place at a time when civil rights activists sought to undermine the so-called Southern way of life.
So Bowers and Stoner, and other CI devotees, changed tactics. Rather than use obscure biblical passages to try and convince rank-and-file Klansmen and supremacists to join their violent cause against Jews, they infiltrated and became leaders of right-wing groups without telegraphing their true intentions. “The typical Mississippi redneck doesn’t have sense enough to know what he is doing,” Bowers once told an FBI informant, “I have to use him for my own cause and direct his every action to fit my plan.”
If they could harness the anger of whites against blacks, they reasoned, they could incite the same holy race war through indirect means. Wesley Swift assured them that Jewish manipulation lay behind the civil rights movement anyway. And Swift was promising, in a climate of increased social upheaval, that Armageddon was around the corner.
Some CI-influenced groups did attempt to target Jews in the mid-1960s but with little actual success. The Minutemen, a forerunner to the militia groups of the 1990s, sponsored several near-miss attacks, including raids on three leftist Jewish camp retreats. Police caught the would-be attackers with an arsenal of weapons that would impress the Army Rangers. Such stockpiles of weapons were common and consistent with the CI idea that a holy war was imminent. “Kooks they are, but harmless they are not …,” one law enforcement official told reporters. “It’s only due to their incompetence, and not any lack of motivation, that they haven’t left a trail of corpses in their wake.”
While many of the Minutemen may simply have been anti-government extremists, the leadership of the group consisted overwhelmingly of Swift’s top aides and associates. Consistent with this, the Minutemen’s anti-government propaganda almost always implied that a secret Jewish cabal ran Washington, D.C. in the interest of global communism. Following Swift’s death, devotees of Christian Identity became more open and brazen about their beliefs as the promise of a large if unwitting following dwindled, after the failure to push back the civil rights movement led to a steep decline in KKK membership. Christian Identity leaders then launched groups like the Posse Comitatus, the Aryan Nations, and others, whose names are still familiar today.
By the late 1980s, a prominent terrorism expert, Bruce Hoffman, argued that every significant right-wing terrorist group in the nation fell under the influence of Christian Identity ideology. Hoffman wrote this after a decade of high-profile acts of domestic terrorism. The Order, a group that included a number of Christian Identity believers, plotted domestic assassinations, murdered Jewish radio host Alan Berg, and attempted to counterfeit U.S. currency in hopes of destabilizing the U.S. financial system. The Covenant Sword and Arm of the Lord engaged in a number of low-level, sometimes bungled acts of terrorism; they were also arrested with chemicals that they hoped to use to poison the New York City and Washington, D.C. water systems. In both instances, near-siege-like raids became necessary to subdue the groups.
Law enforcement deserves substantial credit for undermining the anti-Semitic, racist Christian Identity terrorist groups of the 1980s and ’90s. Although their efforts sometimes led to unintended consequences, the FBI infiltrated these groups for decades, often turning member against member, and capitalizing on the inherent paranoia within each group to destroy them from within. The net effect was to push these groups into smaller and smaller units, from large group to cell-based and finally, to lone wolf.
By the 1990s, lone wolf Christian Identity terrorism became so common that a guidebook, Richard Kelly Hoskin’s The Vigilantes of Christendom, helped launch what can best be described as a terroristic ethos of self-radicalization within the ideological framework of the Christian Identity movement. So-called Phineas Priests operated on their own, but under the influence of Hoskin’s teachings; lone wolves attacked abortion clinics, gays and, of course Jews. In an echo of this weekend’s mass shooting, Buford Furrow, an apparent “member” of the Phineas Priesthood, opened fire with an assault-style weapon at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in 1999, badly wounding five people.
That same year the FBI published a warning, entitled the Meggido Project, about the threat of domestic terrorism with a new millennium approaching. Noting that Christian Identity was the “most unifying theology for a number of … diverse” white supremacist groups, the bureau asserted that “Christian Identity adherents believe that God will use his chosen race as his weapons to battle the forces of evil. Christian Identity followers believe they are among those chosen by God to wage this battle during Armageddon and they will be the last line of defense for the white race and Christian America.”
The same report also identified the group that would become the next great threat to Jews and people of color: radical Odinists, who embrace a more “muscular” supremacist ideology that they believe to be rooted not in Christianity but in the religion of the Vikings. As CI loses its allure, more and more supremacists have been turning to these ideas. Robert Glenn Frazier, the lone wolf former militia leader who used a shotgun to murder three people outside a Kansas City Jewish community center and retirement community in 2014, was a believer in this form of Odinism. Although his victims turned out to be Methodists, his intent was to mass murder Jews. Frazier’s anti-Semitic bona fides trace back to his time assisting members of the Order when they were on the run (and against whom, he later testified). Back at that time, he published a letter vowing that his militia group would “begin the race war and it will spread gloriously throughout the nation.”
Radical Odinism’s resemblance to Christian Identity in its anti-Jewish and racist aspirations is not accidental. A Christian Identity minister, James Warner, provided the raw materials to some of its earliest founders. To the extent that drawing distinctions between the two supremacist theologies is important, one needs to pay close attention to biblical references. Christian Identity believers deploy a host of selectively chosen, out-of-context passages to justify their wholesale revisionist view of God’s relationship to mankind. Rarely does one find, for instance, a mainstream Christian cleric placing a great deal of weight in John 8:44. “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” Jesus tells a group of Jews in that verse. ”He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” By citing the passage on its own, CI followers elide a set of inconvenient facts: that Jesus was specifically directing his “you belong to … the devil” remarks to a subgroup of Jews, the Pharisees; that he had been challenged by the Pharisees as he was preaching to another group of Jews at the Temple courts; and that he had just promised those other Jews the possibility of salvation if they followed his message. But taken literally and on its own, John 8:44 could justify the premise that “Jews are Satan’s children,” which undergirds Christian Identity theology.
Indeed, that is exactly how Robert Bowers used the passage on social media before he walked into the Tree of Life temple, opened fire with his AR-15 rifle, and killed Daniel Stein, 71; Joyce Feinberg, 75; Richard Gottfried, 65; Rose Mallinger, 97; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66; brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal 54; husband and wife Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86; Melvin Wax, 88; and Irving Younger, 69. He wanted to kill more, he shouted to police, he wanted to kill “all Jews.”
In 1999, the year of the Meggido Report, Buford Furrow was one of only several supremacists who attacked Jewish targets. In September of 1999 The New York Times ran a headline : “Synagogues, Responding to Violence, Add Security as High Holy Days Near.” The article described a “year of high-profile anti-Semitic violence.” That year, the FBI recorded 1,289 reported anti-Semitic incidents, the highest number on record before 2017. Yet law enforcement, the Jewish community, and the country as a whole did not give in to fear. If we continue to be brave, without becoming complacent about the dangers posed by white supremacists, we can hope that what we are seeing now is another bad moment in a resurgence of hatred whose direction has thankfully proven so far to be cyclical rather than linear and uncontained.
To read more Tablet coverage of the Pittsburgh massacre, click here.