There is a lot that we must admit we don’t know about James von Brunn, the white supremacist who (allegedly) shot a guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum yesterday. We don’t know his age: I variously read that he was 88, 89, or 90 years old. We don’t know if any of his self-mythologizing on websites—war veteran, painter, author—was true. The New York Daily News seems to have found an ex-wife, but the media can’t even agree if he is a “Von” or a “von” or “van.” That he is a mystery does not, however, mean that he won’t be pressed into service as a stereotype—a typical right-wing extremist, for example, or a typical anti-Semite. Already, one blogger has made von Brunn emblematic of a trend of increased right-wing violence, alongside the shooter of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller. It is especially tempting in the aftermath of an anti-Semite’s murder of a Jewish student at Wesleyan University, and of the foiled plot to bomb synagogues in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, to look for a simple causal explanation for them all, as if by naming this scourge we could control it.
But acting as if all anti-Semites are basically the same person, just slight variations on a theme, actually underestimates the power of anti-Semitism. Indeed, the power of this pathology lies in its ability to be pressed into service by all kinds of men and women, including people who would never speak to one another. Some anti-Semites are real dangers; others are misguided obsessives; others are just sad sacks. To ignore their diversity is to miss the historical significance of anti-Jewish bigotry.
Since January I have been working on a long investigation for Tablet (to run later this month) of the Holocaust denial movement, of which von Brunn is reported to be a proud member. But as I have seen close-up, it is so riven by internal divisions that it is hardly a “movement” at all. For example, Mark Weber, the director of the Institute for Historical Review, is nothing like von Brunn, from what I can tell of news reports describing the alleged D.C. shooter. Weber does not believe in race-mixing, thinks Jews are almost ineluctably disloyal to the countries in which they live, and has worked with some of the worst racists in America. But his temperament is not that of the paranoiac. Rather, he is something of a history buff gone wrong, an obsessive whose deep intelligence collects facts but can’t place them in any kind of context. The Jews fascinate him in an unhealthy way, but he doesn’t attribute to Jews magical powers to plan vast conspiracies and keep them secret. What’s more, in my interviews with him, Weber conceded to me that there may in fact have been gas chambers; he also wrote an article, discussed intelligently in the Forward last January, criticizing several famous Holocaust deniers for being stuck in the past. (Weber would prefer to stop talking about gas chambers and focus instead on the threat of Zionist influence on American foreign policy.) Many of his beliefs are loathsome and wrong, but Weber is not delusional and he is not violent. He is more comfortable with books than with guns.
For many years Weber was closely allied with Bradley Smith, the founder of a one-man shop called the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. Like Weber, Smith would never encourage violence, and he too sees himself as something of a litterateur. But while Weber has a master’s degree in history and is widely read, Smith is almost gleeful about his anti-intellectualism. Before becoming active in questioning the existence of Nazi gas chambers, Smith was active in the libertarian movement, and he was drawn to Holocaust denial because he believed questioning of the Holocaust was a taboo worth smashing. Smith sees himself as a free-speech zealot whose great contribution is to ask a question—were there gas chambers?—that most of us are too afraid to ask. And for what it’s worth, Smith has no problem with race-mixing: he lives in Mexico with his Mexican wife.
Smith, in turn, has no use for Willis Carto, who lost control of the Institute for Historical Review in a lawsuit in the early 1990s and went on to found The Barnes Review, perhaps the strangest publication I have ever read. Its purpose seems to be extreme historical revisionism, including Holocaust denial but also the defenses of the indefensible (Charles Lindbergh, Rudolf Hess) and a bizarre white man’s pseudo-populism (“Rediscovering the Forgotten White Ancestors Of Many American Indians”). Carto is where anti-Semitism and racism intersect with a mystical, LaRouche-like detachment from reality.
And then there are the outright Nazi sympathizers or Klansman types, those who may share elements of other, more cerebral forms of anti-Semitism but also have a visceral sense that the Jews are vermin. In the writings of James K. Warner, for example, one sees none of Weber’s almost admiring sense of the Jews as a cohesive people, nor any of Smith’s relish for testing the limits of free expression. In fact, reading Warner’s attack on Weber as a Mossad agent, alongside his theories about Scientologists and the CIA, one sees exactly the kind of undifferentiated, enraged stupidity that I imagine von Brunn possesses. It’s a zealotry far different from what I have found in Bradley Smith or Mark Weber.
It is tempting, of course, to say, “So what?” The world would be better off without any of it—the racial fear-mongering of Weber, the provocations of Smith, the trashy publications of Carto, the deranged bile of Warner—so why bother to waste too much effort in classification? First, we should be more sophisticated in our thinking; let’s do better than those who pervert truth for a living. Second, it’s smart and pragmatic to try to tell the maniacs from the misguided, the merely stupid, and those just seeking attention. It’s good policing, in other words.
Third, while von Brunn sounds mentally ill in a very obvious way, many anti-Semites and bigots have become what they are by exaggerating in themselves certain traits that are in all of us. Oddly, it would be comforting to imagine that von Brunn’s fellow anti-Semites are all like him, homicidal and deranged. At least we would know what we’re dealing with—and, better yet, we don’t have worry that we or anyone we know could ever be like that.
Finally, we need to recognize the multifarious nature of anti-Semitism. It is different from other bigotries—not worse or more harmful, just different, in historically significant ways. People who hate blacks or Hispanics don’t accuse them of plotting world conspiracies or controlling the Federal Reserve; nobody has accused Mormons of plotting to overthrow capitalism. But Jews are conceived as both money-hungry usurers and anti-American communists; as preening materialists and dirty, schnorring paupers; as genetically inferior but able to control the world through secret cabals. As Sartre famously remarked, if the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him. Anti-Semitism is not simple, for if it were, it would not be so useful.
Mark Oppenheimer, a Tablet contributing editor,is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. He is currently a lecturer at Yale University.