One September weekend in 1995, a few thousand people met at a convention center in Seattle to prepare for an apocalyptic standoff with the federal government. At the expo, you could sign up to defend yourself from the coming “political and economic collapse,” stock up on beef jerky, learn strategies for tax evasion, and browse titles by writers like Eustace Mullins, whose White nationalist classics include The Secrets of the Federal Reserve, published in 1952, and a work from 1967, The Biological Jew.
The sixth annual Preparedness Expo attracted national attention because it served as a clearinghouse for the militia movement, a decentralized right-wing movement of armed, local, anti-government paramilitaries that had recently sparked its most notorious act of terror, the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by White nationalists Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. A series of speakers told expo attendees the real story: the attack had been perpetrated by the government itself as an excuse to take citizens’ guns away.
White nationalists argue that Whites are a biologically defined people and that, once the White revolutionary spirit awakens, they will take down the federal government, remove people of color, and build a state (maybe or maybe not still called the United States of America, depending on who you ask) of their own. Not a lot of Black folks show up at gatherings like the Preparedness Expo, one site in an extensive right-wing counterculture in which White nationalism is a constant, explosive presence. As a Black man, I am regarded by White nationalists as a subhuman, dangerous beast.
In the 1990s, I was the field organizer for the Northwest Coalition Against Malicious Harassment, a six-state coalition working to reduce hate crimes and violence in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States region. We did a lot of primary research, often undercover. A cardinal rule of organizing is that you can’t ask people to do anything you haven’t done yourself; so I spent that weekend as I spent many—among people plotting to remove me from their ethnostate.
It helped that, despite its blood-curdling anti-Black racism, at least some factions of the White nationalist movement saw me as a potential ally against their true archenemy: Jews. At the expo that year, a guy warily asked me about myself. I told him that I had come on behalf of a few brothers in the city. We needed to resist the federal government and we were there to get educated. I said I hoped he wouldn’t take it personally, but I didn’t shake hands with White people. He smiled; he totally understood. “Brother McLamb,” he concurred, “says we have to start building broad coalitions.” So together we went to hear Jack McLamb, a retired Phoenix cop who ran an organization called Police Against the New World Order, make a case for temporary alliances with “the Blacks, the Mexicans, the Orientals” against the real enemy, the federal government controlled by an international conspiracy. He didn’t have to say who ran this conspiracy because it was obvious to all in attendance—just as it is obvious to you.
From the time I documented my first White nationalist rally in 1990 until today, the movement has made its way from the margins of American political life to its center. I’ve moved from doing anti-racist organizing in small northwestern communities to fighting for inclusive democracy on a national level, as the Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Justice program officer at the Ford Foundation until recently, and now as the executive director at Western States Center. Yet if I had to give a basic definition of the movement—something I’ve often been asked to do, formally and informally, by folks who’ve spent less time hanging out with Nazis than I have—my response today would not be much different than it was when I began to do this work nearly thirty years ago. American White nationalism, which emerged in the wake of the 1960s civil rights struggle and descends from White supremacism, is a revolutionary social movement committed to building a Whites-only nation, and anti-Semitism forms its theoretical core.
That last part—anti-Semitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism—bears repeating. Let me explain.
The meteoric rise of White nationalism within national discourse over the course of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and freshman administration—through Trump’s barely coded speech at fascist-style rallies, his support from the internet-based “Alt Right,” and his placement of White nationalist popularizers in top positions—has produced a shock wave of revelation for people across a wide swath of the political spectrum. This shock, in turn, has been a source of frustration within communities of color and leftist circles, where White liberals are often accused of having kept their heads in the sand while more vulnerable populations sounded the alarm about the toll of economic crisis, mass incarceration, police violence, deportation, environmental devastation, and—despite and in reaction to the election of Barack Obama—the unending blare of everyday hate. This is an understandable reaction. It’s one I’ve often shared. But the fact that many of us have long recognized that the country we live in is not the one we are told exists doesn’t mean we always understand the one that does.
Within social and economic justice movements committed to equality, we have not yet collectively come to terms with the centrality of anti-Semitism to White nationalist ideology. Until we do we will fail to understand this virulent form of racism that is rapidly growing in the U.S. today.
To recognize that anti-Semitism is not a sideshow to racism within White nationalist thought is important for at least two reasons. First, it allows us to identify the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear. White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s, which supposedly dispossessed White people of their very nation. The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology. White supremacism—inscribed de jure by the Jim Crow regime and upheld de facto outside the South—had been the law of the land, and a Black-led social movement had toppled the political regime that supported it. How could that have possibly happened? Some secret cabal, some mythological power, must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing White people, rendering them racially unconscious. What is this arch-nemesis of the White race, whose machinations have prevented the natural and inevitable imposition of white supremacy? It is, of course, the Jews.
Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for anti-Semites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils. At the turn of the 20th century, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion—a forgery, first circulated by Czarist secret police in Russia in 1903, that purports to represent the minutes of a meeting of the international Jewish conspiracy—established the blueprint of anti-Semitic ideology in its modern form. It did this by recasting the shape-shifting, money-grubbing caricature of the Jew from an anti-religious caricature to a racialized one. Upper-class Jews in Europe might have been assimilating and changing their names, but under the new regime of anti-Semitic thought, even a Jew who wholeheartedly converted to Christianity would still be a Jew.
In 1920, Henry Ford brought the Protocols to the United States, printing half a million copies of an adaptation called The International Jew, and the text has had a presence in American life ever since. (Walmart stocked copies on its shelves and for a time refused calls to take them down—in 2004.) But it is over the past 50 years, not coincidentally the first period in U.S. history in which most American Jews began or were permitted to regard themselves as White, that anti-Semitism has become integral to the architecture of American racism.
Because modern anti-Semitic ideology traffics in fantasies of invisible power, it thrives precisely when its target would seem to be least vulnerable. Thus, in places where Jews were most assimilated—France at the time of the Dreyfus affair, Germany before Hitler came to power—they have functioned as a magic bullet to account for unaccountable contradictions at moments of national crisis. White supremacism through the collapse of Jim Crow was a conservative movement centered on a state-sanctioned anti-Blackness that sought to maintain a racist status quo. The White nationalist movement that evolved from it in the 1970s was a revolutionary movement that saw itself as the vanguard of a new, whites-only state. This latter movement, then and now, positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on anti-Semitism.
This brings me to the second reason that White nationalist anti-Semitism must not be dismissed: at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played. The bible for generations of White nationalists is The Turner Diaries, a 1978 dystopian novel by the White supremacist leader William Pierce, published under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The novel takes place in a near-future in which Jews have unleashed Blacks and other undesirables into the center of American public life, and follows the triumph of a clandestine White supremacist organization that snaps into revolutionary action, blowing up both Israel and New York City. Its narrator, a soldier in the White revolutionary army, insists that “trying to distinguish the ‘good’ Jews from the bad ones” is as absurd as the way “some of our thicker-skulled ‘good ol’ boys’ still insist on trying, separating the ‘good niggers’ from the rest of their race.”
Contemporary anti-Semitism, then, does not just enable racism, it also is racism, for in the White nationalist imaginary Jews are a race—the race—that presents a direct, existential threat to Whiteness. Moreover, if anti-Semitism exists in glaring form at the extreme edge of political discourse, it does not exist in a vacuum; as with every form of hateful ideology, what is explicit on the margins is implicit in the center, in ways we have not yet begun to unpack. This means the notion that Jews long ago and uncontestably became White folks in the United States—became, in effect, post-racial—is a myth that we must dispel. By insisting that Jews are “white,” and that anti-Semitism is a fringe prejudice, we are unwittingly aiding the white nationalist movement, by shielding their core beliefs from view, and protecting them from direct attack.
When folks ask me, skeptically, where the anti-Semitism in the White nationalist movement lies, it can feel like being asked to point out a large elephant in a small room. From the outset of my research on White nationalism all those years ago, it was clear that anti-Semitism in the movement is everywhere, and it is not hidden. “Life is uglier and uglier these days, more and more Jewish,” William Pierce wrote in The Turner Diaries. “No matter how long it takes us and no matter to what lengths we must go, we’ll demand a final settlement of the account between our two races,” the narrator promises at the book’s conclusion. “If the Organization survives this contest, no Jew will—anywhere. We’ll go to the uttermost ends of the earth to hunt down the last of Satan’s spawn.”
White nationalism is a fractious countercultural social movement, and its factions often disagree with each other about basic questions of theory and practice. But while the movement does not take a single, unified position on the Jewish question, rabid anti-Semitism has been a throughline from the Posse Comitatus, which set itself against “anti-Christ Jewry”; to David Duke’s refurbished Ku Klux Klan, which abandoned anti-Catholicism in the 1970s in order to focus on “Jewish supremacism”; to the neo-Nazi group The Order, inspired by The Turner Diaries, which in the mid-1980s went on a rampage of robberies and synagogue bombings in Washington state and murdered the Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg in Denver; to evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson who denounced anti-Semitism but used its popularity among their followers to promote an implicitly White supremacist “Christian nationalism”; to the contemporary alt-right named by White nationalist Richard Spencer, which has brought anti-semitic thought and imagery to new audiences on the internet—and now to the White House.
I’ve been terrorized by structural racism and White nationalist activism all my life. Contrary to a popular image of White nationalists living exclusively off the grid, far from people of color—who are imagined to live exclusively in urban centers—White nationalists are in fact our neighbors. As a kid in Southern California and as a young adult in Oregon, deep in a West Coast punk scene that in some ways looked a lot like the United States in 2017, they were literally my neighbors. Because I grew up Black in a city and a scene where people of color were under attack by White nationalists, the immediacy of the movement’s threat and its hatred of dark-skinned people like my family and friends is something I have always known. I thought I understood what motivated them, and I thought their motivation always looked like me.
What I learned when I got to Oregon, as I began to log untold hours trying to understand White nationalists and their ideas, was that anti-Semitism was the lynchpin of the White nationalist belief system. That within this ideological matrix, Jews—despite and indeed because of the fact that they often read as White—are a different, unassimilable, enemy race that must be exposed, defeated, and ultimately eliminated. Anti-Semitism, I discovered, is a particular and potent form of racism so central to White supremacy that Black people would not win our freedom without tearing it down.
Long Beach, California is planted on the line that locals call the Orange Curtain, the border between the working-class and immigrant neighborhoods of southern Los Angeles County and the White conservative suburbs of Orange County. By the time my mom and I moved down from L.A. in 1976, when I was in sixth grade, this endless sprawl of White flight was increasingly interrupted by people of color looking for affordable housing in safe neighborhoods. The civil rights and radical social movements of the 1960s and early Seventies had already been smashed or self-destructed. White nationalism, on the other hand, was part of the scenery.
Anti-Semitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.
Just down the street from one of our Long Beach apartments was an outpost of the John Birch Society, the foremost right-wing anticommunist organization during the Cold War—now having a Trump-era revival—which officially disavowed White supremacism and anti-Semitism but fought the civil rights movement and described the communist menace as an international cabal. I was bussed to school in middle-class suburbs through the fanciest neighborhoods I’d ever seen, where White people rolled down their car windows to call us monkeys or tell us to go back to Africa. At school, White kids initialed SWP on their desks: Supreme White Power. One of our local celebrities was Wally George, a public access television star whose show, “The Hot Seat,” was a forerunner to the hate radio of shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh. As teenagers we’d get stoned and watch his show for laughs. But there was fear, too, beneath the laughter. Neo-Nazis, a kid on the bus told us one morning, were marching in a nearby park. I’ve avoided that park to this day.
The L.A. punk scene of the late 1970s brought me into constant, unavoidable contact with proto-White nationalist youth. The scene was utopian and dystopian, thrilling and violent, gave me friends for life—Black, White, and Filipino, U.S.-born and undocumented—and it killed some of them. The scene attracted the brightest minds and burgeoning sociopaths from across lines of race and class. Chaos broke out at shows and kids formed gangs. There were racist and anti-racist skinheads. Someone wearing a swastika armband might be a neo-Nazi or might just be fucking around. The cops stationed outside shows terrorized everyone present. We didn’t expect to make it far into adulthood and we had fun, until the war on drugs intensified and we knew it was a war on us.
When I was 21, working minimum-wage jobs and playing in a garage band called Sloppy 2nds, some friends announced they’d be starting college at the University of Oregon and asked me to come with them. When I imagined anything north of San Francisco and south of Seattle, all I conjured were endless stands of trees. I said no. But working one night shift, pumping gas at the Union 76 station, the Specials song “Do Nothing” came on—“Nothing ever change, oh no/Nothing ever change”—and I knew that if I didn’t leave southern California I would die soon. So I moved with a multiracial group of L.A. punks to the remote college town of Eugene, Oregon and we bunkered down in a house we called Camp Iceberg because we never turned on the heat. Sloppy 2nds disbanded. When it later reformed without me, it became Sublime, the most famous Long Beach band of all time.
White liberals have long imagined Oregon as a kind of haven. Portland has now largely replaced San Francisco as the destination of choice for White youth with West Coast dreams of alternative living. But it is also where the White liberal imagination becomes a libertarian one: implicitly, it imagines a place free of people of color and therefore pregnant with the possibility of social harmony. But Oregon’s Whiteness—and, particularly, its non-Blackness—was the product of deliberate, violent exclusion; founded by White supremacists before the Civil War, the state boasted by the 1920s the largest Klan membership west of the Mississippi. Klan campaigns often chose Catholics as their immediate targets, because Blacks were not allowed to reside in Oregon until 1926.
The White nationalist movement that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century grew across the country. But it was Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming that neo-Nazis in the 1980s carved out as the territorial boundaries of their future Whites-only state, a region that self-identified “Aryans” from around the country began to colonize with White national sovereignty as their goal. “Ourselves alone willing,” declared White nationalist leader and Aryan Nations organizer Robert Miles, “we shall begin to form the new nation even while in the suffocating embrace of the ZOG.” In White nationalist parlance, the United States is the ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government. It was in the Northwest that the nascent militia movement—notorious in the 1990s after standoffs between White nationalist compounds and the FBI in Ruby Ridge, Idaho and Waco, Texas—declared war on their country loudly enough they could no longer be ignored.
Ironically, then, if I had moved to Oregon to get away from the unpromising life expectancy for a Black male punk in southern California, the people who had decimated urban life in my home state had gotten there first. In 1978, California’s White conservative voters passed the infamous Proposition 13, which cut taxes and slashed social services, turning the state into a laboratory for the Reagan revolution. Poverty and drug crime increased, and the same White folks who had gutted Californian cities in their flight to the suburbs after World War II now fled up the coast. I arrived in liberal Eugene in 1986, walked into workplace after workplace, and despite my resume, my smile, and my charm—funny, but no one was hiring. I didn’t understand Oregon yet; I thought it was just me.
Meanwhile, the clashes between racist and anti-racist skinheads that had made life in Long Beach dangerous were a fact of life in Oregon as well, and often took place beyond the reach of the law. As part of their nation-building project in the Pacific Northwest, White supremacists were establishing their own common law courts, their own religions, and their own paramilitaries. They attacked and sometimes killed cops, and the local authorities, cowed, turned a blind eye. So when gangs of neo-Nazi punks terrorized people of color and other vulnerable groups in Portland, it was coalitions of the communities under attack that struck back and eventually beat them off the streets.
I began to fight white nationalism because my world, my scene, my friends, and my music were under neo-Nazi attack. The great postpunk band Fugazi was on a national tour, and an unwanted audience of neo-Nazis had begun turning up at their shows. Fugazi would stop playing, give the neo-Nazis five dollars, and refuse to start up again until they left. A venue in Eugene cancelled a scheduled appearance when rumors spread that skinheads were planning to disrupt the show, and the community erupted in anger. By that time, I was a student and an activist. I had stumbled into student of color politics while attending community college and now co-directed the Black Student Union and Students Against Apartheid at the University of Oregon. I spent a semester in France and while I was away, a 28-year-old Ethiopian international student named Mulugeta Seraw was beaten to death by White supremacists on a Portland street. I returned to a community deeply shaken and in mourning.
It was in the wake of the cancelled show that I founded an organization, Communities Against Hate, in the way these things often happen: no one else wanted to do it. We created a zine titled The Race Mixer (“Miscegenation At Its Finest”), reporting on the activity of hate groups in the Northwest; during the standoff at Ruby Ridge, we stood outside the Portland City Hall dressed as Klan members to warn against the spread of the militia movement. Two years later, in Eugene, Communities Against Hate got Fugazi to come back and play.
At a time when many larger social justice organizations refused to take White nationalism seriously, regional groups like Communities Against Hate, Coalition for Human Dignity, Montana Human Rights Network, Rural Organizing Project, and dozens of others did much of the groundwork documenting its theories, strategies, and warring currents. That’s why in 1990, for instance, anti-racist activists were itching to get our hands on a copy of Vigilantes of Christendom, a self-published book by a writer named Richard Kelly Hoskins influential on the Christian Identity circuit. (I scored a copy by marching into a book vending tent at a White supremacist rally and marketing it to passersby as a life-changing volume I had read at the behest of a White friend.) Hoskins’s book appropriated the Old Testament story of Phineas, a prominent Israelite who marries outside the faith and is punished for his transgression by a rogue member of the tribe who kills him and his bride with a spear. Historically unpopular within the rabbinic tradition for appearing to endorse this lawless act, Hoskins’s work celebrated the tale. To join the Priesthood, he wrote, an Aryan must act as a latter-day Phineas by perpetrating lone-wolf attacks against inferior races and their White apologists.
The Phineas Priesthood does not, in an organizational sense, appear to actually exist. But for decades, domestic terrorists—like Eric Rudolph, a Christian Identity acolyte who killed people in a string of bombing attacks at Southern gay bars, abortion clinics, and the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta—have allegedly seen themselves as Phineas Priests. Like the Phineas Priesthood, one small formation that might stand in for the whole, contemporary White nationalism has no clear center. Yet it does have a deadly commitment to revolutionary violence against racial others, and to the state apparatus perceived to do their bidding. And like the Priesthood, it rests upon a tortuous racial cosmology in which Jews form a monstrous, all-powerful cabal that uses subhuman others, including Blacks and immigrants, as pawns to destroy White nationhood.
Over years of speaking about White nationalism in the 1990s and early 2000s in the Northwest and then the Midwest and South, I have found that audiences—whether white or of color, at synagogues or churches, universities or police trainings—generally had personal relationships to white nationalism that, at least in one basic sense, was like my own. They knew the scope and seriousness of the movement from personal experience, and—if they didn’t take this for granted to begin with—they were not shocked to discover its anti-Semitic emphasis.
The resistance I have encountered when I address anti-Semitism has primarily come since I moved to the Northeast less than a decade ago—and it comes from the most established progressive anti-racist leaders, organizations, coalitions, and foundations around the country. It is here that an often well-meaning but counterproductive thicket of discourse has grown up insisting that Jews—of Ashkenazi descent, at least—are uncontestably White, and that to challenge this is to deny the workings of White privilege. In other words, when I’m asked, “Where is the anti-Semitism?,” what I am often really being asked, by both left-wing anti-racism activists and by Jewish groups, is, “Why should we be talking about anti-Semitism at all?”
And indeed—why? Why, when the president of the United States appears bent on removing as many dark-skinned immigrants from the United States as he can, and when men who look like me are shot in the street or tortured to death in prison with impunity? Why, when the leadership of some mainstream Jewish communal organizations level false charges of anti-Semitism in order to silence critique—whether by Jews or non-Jews—of specific Israeli government policies? Why, when Jews are safe and claims to the contrary can serve to justify rather than to challenge racial and other oppressions?
I can answer this question as I have been doing and will continue to do: anti-Semitism fuels White nationalism, a genocidal movement now enthroned in the highest seats of American power. Fighting anti-Semitism cuts off that fuel for the sake of all marginalized communities under siege from the Trump regime and the social movement that helped raise it up. To refuse to deal with any ideology of domination is to abet it.
Contemporary social justice movements are quite clear that to refuse anti-racism is an act of racism; to refuse feminism is an act of sexism. To refuse opposition to anti-Semitism, likewise, is an act of anti-Semitism. Arguably, not much more should need to be said than that. But I suspect that much more does need to be said. To the hovering question, why should we be talking about anti-Semitism, I reply, what is it we are afraid we will find out if we do? What historic and contemporary conflicts will be laid bare? And if we recognize that White privilege really is privilege, what will it mean for Jewish anti-racists to give up the fantasy that they ever really had it to begin with?
It has long been the case that at moments when the left has suffered another devastating and seemingly inexplicable political loss, my phone rings more often; now that the White nationalist movement has come to national power, it is ringing off the hook. We do not yet know where Trump’s coalition will land on the question of White nationalism. That Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner is Jewish should not in itself be of comfort; there were some Jews who worked with Hitler, and some Blacks in the Confederate army. But it is important to note that the White nationalist faction of the administration appears to have lost some significant ground. In other words, we do not yet have a fully activated White nationalist administration. (If we did, we’d know.)
At the same time, the fact that this remains an open question at all likely invites more than a few ostensibly “White” Jews to contemplate the provisional nature of their Whiteness, their privilege. Privilege, after all, is not the same as power. Privilege can be revoked. A central insistence of anti-racist thought over the past several decades is that, as with any social category produced by regimes of power, you don’t choose race, power chooses it for you; it names you. The public and private discussions I’ve been having—within and outside the Jewish community—suggest a hunger to understand anti-Semitism the likes of which I have never witnessed before.
I developed an analysis of anti-Semitism not because I wanted to smash White supremacy, but because I wanted to be free. If we acknowledge that White nationalism clearly and forcefully names Jews as non-white, and did so in the very fiber of its emergence as a post-civil rights right-wing revolutionary movement, then we will all be forced to recognize our own ignorance about the country we thought we lived in. It is time for us to have that conversation.
Adapted from “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Supremacy” by Eric K. Ward. The article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Public Eye magazine published by Political Research Associates. Printed with permission.
Eric Ward is the Executive Director at Western States Center.