“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
According to authorities and the 63 indictments he faces, Robert Bowers — a 46-year-old White man with a history of racist, anti-Semitic online comments — posted these words on the message board site Gab before entering the Tree of Life Synagogue armed with two handguns and a rifle and murdering 11 people.
It was the deadliest attack on Jews in the history of the United States. The brutality of it stunned the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, an historic Jewish community in Pittsburgh. Communities across the country stood vigil to honor those lost.
As journalists sifted through the toxic online footprint Bowers created over the years, others searched for meaning in the alleged gunman’s last online statement before the attack. What optics? Whose slaughter? And what could someone like 97-year-old Rose Mallinger have to do with it?
Jonathan Weisman, Washington editor of the New York Times, did not have to ask.
“I knew exactly what he was talking about. This is all part of the mythos,” Weisman said.
Weisman was forcibly introduced to the hateful corners of the Internet in which Bowers and many like him spend their time during the 2016 presidential election. It began when he tweeted out a quote from an article penned by Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and received an unusual reply.
“Hello (((Weisman)))” tweeted “CyberTrump.”
What followed was a barrage of abuse on Twitter, Weisman’s inbox, his voicemail. He had been “belled,” the name for the three-parentheses convention invented by the alt-right to connote “Jewish.” In 2017, young, White men fueled by the same bigotry would march through the University of Virginia Campus with tiki torches shouting “Jews will not replace us.” Eighteen months later, Bowers opened fire.
In his book, “(((Semitism))): Being Jewish in the Age of Trump,” Weisman describes his initiation into the twisted memes and insider language of the alt-right and the role that President Donald Trump’s rise to power played in emboldening those forces.
Perhaps more profoundly, however, Weisman explores what it means to be Jewish today from the lens of action, issuing a call for the divided American Jewish community to take up the cause of justice and take an active role in repairing a broken world.
Ashley Archibald: What you see as the thesis of this book?
Jonathan Weisman: The rise of White nationalism in the United States has been building up for quite some time. The White nationalist movement as we see it now really started in 2007, 2008, but it received a cause with Trumpism. And the rise of Donald Trump has given new life and new breath to White nationalism and its authoritarian bigotry.
It’s not just a manifestation of Donald Trump. This is a global movement, and the global movement is only gaining steam. A bigoted authoritarian just won the presidency in Brazil, it’s gaining power in Austria, Italy, the Philippines. When I look at what’s going to happen next in France, I’m afraid that’s the next shoe.
It feels frightening, and it feels like it’s time that we start connecting the dots to say we’re facing a real crisis in global democratic cause.
So, when I started writing the book, obviously that wasn’t the trigger. The trigger was me personally trying to reflect. But as I started working on it, I felt that people weren’t recognizing that there is a imminent danger that authoritarianism is presenting. It’s difficult as an editor of the New York Times to speak out in activist terms, so I have to keep it more observational. I feel like I am within my right to talk about what I’ve seen.
AA: What was that experience like, getting those messages and then looking for that information and background?
JW: At first you start seeing Holocaust imagery, anti-Semitic imagery, violence aimed at you and you just miss it because it’s just the internet — there are a lot of stupid things on the internet. But what scared me about it was the organizational principles. It was not just that some random people discovered me. It was that I was targeted and other people were targeted, and there was an organization behind it.
It was like being swarmed. It’s still happening. Recently a reporter for the New York Times magazine, Emily Bazelon, was attacked. She wrote a piece for the New York Times magazine on White privilege and how Whites are more and more recognizing what their privilege means. As soon as I saw that I knew she was in for it because in White nationalist parlance, Jews aren’t White, and Emily, who is a friend of mine, is Jewish. So, I knew that the attacks would come at her because she was not only renouncing White privilege, but she was claiming to be White when Jews aren’t White.
In fact she was swarmed, and she was doxxed and she had pictures of her house put on the internet as like an invitation to go get her. These are dangerous phenomenon because as we saw in Pittsburgh, it’s not a far leap to go from sending nasty messages on the internet to getting an AR-15 and shooting up a (synagogue?) 8:35 ish.
It’s the confluence of a very violent culture and a new cause that relishes violence.
AA: Is that cause what you were getting at when you referenced Richard Spencer referencing Francis Fukyama’s essay “The End of History”?
JW: When [Spencer] talks about disproving the “The End of History”, he’s trying to rally a White nationalist movement to claim a place in history, to reclaim history.
When Francis Fukuyama wrote his essay, “The End of History,” the notion was that pluralism and tolerance and democracy had won and that was the end of that dialectic. The Richard Spencers of the world, who actually are not stupid people, they are trying to rally the cause.
AA: How do these groups come together? The Patriot Prayers of the world, the Proud Boys of the world who say, “We can’t be White nationalists, we have Brown people.” It’s almost like there are gateway groups.
JW: You start cavorting in these circles you are going to come into contact with much more violent elements, and they are out there. As Zoe Quinn, who is one of the victims of the Gamer Gate* saga said, if you’re facedown in the gutter, you’re going to suck in some filth. And there’s a lot of filth to suck in.
That’s what’s actually kind of scary, because it used to be the bigots of the world had their own little ghettos. They talked to themselves, they had newsletters and their websites like the Daily Stormer or Stormfront. And then they actually learned how to get their ideology out into places that other people would run into it. So now it’s not just the Daily Stormer that is preaching this kind of hate. You can go into chatrooms or Youtube and see racism and anti-Semitic comments or chatter.
That’s by design.
*Gamergate was a concerted online attack on game designer Zoe Quinn in 2014.
AA: They seem like they have a specific way of doing it, of being coy about it.
JW: Exactly. They like to think of themselves as ironic. They’re not serious Klansmen or Neo Nazis. They have a kind of a patois. They have a whole vocabulary that you have to be in the know. And it’s supposed to be funny. It’s supposed to be sly and only the initiated understand the whole red pills and blue pills and da goyim know.
There are all of these phrases that they use.
I remember there was a pro-Trump rally In Huntington Beach, California and it turned into a melee because anti-Trump people came, pro-Trump people came and literally started fighting on the beach. I remember looking at pictures of this fight in Huntington Beach and there was a guy who was holding up a sign that said “Da Goyim Know”.
Only a student of the alt-right would have any idea what that meant. “Da goyim know” means there’s a worldwide conspiracy of Jews and if the goyim learn about it, they’ll want to shut it down. The whole phrase is “Da goyim know, shut it down.” It means nothing to anybody that would just have seen that sign, but by holding that sign up, that guy was showing we’re here and all of you who know what this sign means know we’re all part of one fraternity.
AA: So, how does it feel to be an all-powerful member of this ruling cabal?
JW: You know it’s funny because Jews are always confronted with the fact that Jews run Hollywood, Jews run media, Jews run this and then you are shown all of the Jews who are in fact in powerful positions. But we’re not a particularly organized people. We’re not in cahoots.
The funny thing about writing this book is how fractured the Jewish community of the United States is now. The idea that we’re all united to rule the world is crazy because we’re all mostly fighting amongst ourselves. So much energy arguing with Jews since this book came out. That, to me, is demoralizing.
AA: What are they arguing about?
JW: There are a lot of conservative Jews who think that I got it all wrong, that the threat out there is not rightwing anti-Semitism or rightwing bigotry but it’s leftwing bigotry and leftwing anti-Semitism. That the Democratic party is going to go the way of the European left.
I devote a chapter in my book that says American Jews spend way too much time arguing about Israel and we need to pay more attention to our own environment and own country, and I go places and get a lot of pushback on that.
There has been so much energy defending or arguing about Israel and I would argue that one of the reasons that Jews — but not just Jews, Americans in general — didn’t really see this movement coming is because we’re not paying enough attention to our own community.
AA: You flagged the rise of the alt-right around 2007 to 2008. Is that because of the financial collapse?
JW: It was because of the Iraq War. The alt-right is a term because it’s the “alternative right.” It emerged as a response to really George Bush’s military foreign ventures. Richard Spencer and his movement was a reaction primarily to what the Republican party had become. And part of their anti-Semitism was looking at the power of the neoconservatives who were in the Bush administration pushing interventionist foreign policy. So Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith — these are all Jewish members of the Bush administration who were involved in the Iraq War. To them, anti-Semitism and trying to regain control of the conservative agenda were all connected.
AA: Is that why they connected so much with Trump’s message?
JW: Absolutely. “America First” pretty much sums up what White nationalists believe.
AA: You referred to Trump as “the ultimate dumb vessel” in the book, and they’ve definitely filled him. At the same time, there was a line in there about how he was going to “cleanse America.” Members of the online alt-right sometimes refer to him as the Emperor God King, or something like that.
At what point is this more irony, or are they true believers? It’s hard to look at him and say that guy, he’s going to “cleanse America.”
JW: I think that it is irony. They’re not mocking him, but obviously they don’t literally believe he’s the emperor. But it’s funny because during the 2016 campaign, a lot of the images that were shot at me were of this image… well some of them were Donald Trump in Nazi regalia, but some of them were Donald Trump dressed as Napoleon or as a king in fur and things like that. There seems to be, in that world, a desire for a sovereign. They see democracy as too messy and too pluralistic. They want a strongman.
AA: That imagery has jumped into the mainstream in a real way. Ben Garrison’s cartoons have Donald Trump as somehow a super-fit dude dealing with puny Democrats.
JW: I saw a painting of Trump as a football player stiffarming. Are you kidding me? It is funny because it is hard to see that they could possibly actually believe it. But that kind of image of Trump as this macho guy beating his opponents and vanquishing them, they come up so much that you’ve got to think that obviously there is a lot of wish fulfillment and projection. But that is what they want. They want him to be that guy.
AA: How do you have Jewish people like Stephen Miller, Ivanka and Jared working side by side, at least for a time, with Seb Gorkas and Steve Bannon?
JW: I don’t actually find that weird. As I talk about in the book, I break down the Jewish community into the tribalists versus the internationalists. The tribalists are focused on Israel, focused on Jews as a nation, as a people. A lot of them tend to be pretty bigoted.
There are a lot of orthodox Jews out there who are pretty bigoted who are pretty insular and to them everything is subordinate to defending Israel. As long Trump is doing everything the Israeli government wants of him, how can you possibly call him anti-Semitic? They’ll say he’s the most pro-Jewish president ever. But their version their definition of pro-Jewish is pro-Israel. It’s not even pro-Israel, it’s pro-Likkud*. It doesn’t really surprise me.
American Judaism has in some sense developed into its own religion. It is progressive, it is focused on welcoming the stranger, repairing the world around it. But orthodox Judaism is really like orthodox Judaism everywhere else. It’s more focused on the rituals of Judaism and the laws. And the commandments to bow to pray to Zion. Those two religions are in some ways diverged and Jared Kushner is of the second camp, not the first.
[There was a show that] had Michael J. Fox and it was a Reagan era television show. It had this kind of hippy family, West Coast family and Michael J. Fox was a conservative Reagan Republican in the middle of this. And he was the radical because he checked his parents’ liberalism… The rejectionist. And that’s who Stephen Miller is. To me, he’s actually a type.
*Likkud is the conservative party in Israel and is currently in power.
AA: You were talking about your experience online. Describe “belling.”
JW: I was mystified at the sheer volume of attacks that were coming my way. Most of them were on Twitter but they started migrating into Facebook and I started getting emails and voicemails and I was wondering how in the world do this many people know who Jonathan Weisman is? It was weird. The volume and the speed at which it snowballed. And only a little bit later did I find out that the three parentheses that started showing up around my name were more than just a marker. The three parentheses says “Jewish.” There was a piece of software — it is still out there — called the Coincidence Detector.
If you had it plugged into your Google searches, you could search for three parentheses. Google searches don’t generally pick up punctuation marks. But with the Coincidence Detector you could search for three parentheses.
It is amazing. The American Defamation League did a whole report on Jewish journalists targeted during the 2016 campaign, and we were talking about billions of impressions on Twitter, just on Twitter, from these three parentheses. I was in the top 10 list of all of the people who were targeted. I came in number five.
The number one person who was targeted was Ben Shapiro, because Ben Shapiro is considered apostate. He is Jewish, he had worked for Breitbart and then he had left Breitbart because it was anti-Semitic and I guess that was considered the worst sin of all because he had been part of the fraternity and denounced it.
Note: The ADL report found that between August 2015 and August 2016, more than 2.6 million Tweets were directed at “belled” people in the media creating 10 billion impressions. An impression is an instance when a given tweet appears in someone’s timeline, but does not mean the timeline’s owner saw the tweet.
AA: You talk about antifa and the “censorious actions” of people on college campuses that attempt to shut the alt-right down. Why don’t you trust that approach?
JW: I don’t want to cede the first amendment cause to the far right. They love that. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers on this, because there are times when it is best to ignore and there are times where it shouldn’t be [ignored]. Generally speaking, I think when a Richard Spencer or a provocateur shows up at a college campus, that person only wants to cause a riot, to cause mayhem. The worst thing that can happen to a Richard Spencer is if he showed up and nobody paid attention to him.
If it’s in the public sphere, like Unite the Right [in Charlottesville], or Unite the Right 2 rally trying to get together in Washington, D.C. and it was like two dozen neo-Nazis confronting like 5,000 anti-bigotry protesters, that was great. That was fantastic because it was a show of strength in a public setting and I think a show of force from, I don’t want to say from the left, because this isn’t a left right thing, but from Americans who believe in pluralism and in multiculturalism. I think that is positive. But I don’t think that when a figure from the alt right is clearly trying to provoke, giving that person what he or she wants just seems counterproductive.
The trick is to know which is which, which is a provocation or which is an attempt to show force.
AA: When someone does a provocation like that, they’re looking for headlines, they’re looking for media coverage. There has been a lot of criticism of the New York Times for giving them that anyway — I’m thinking specifically of the article called [‘A Voice of Hate in America’].
JW: I understand why people didn’t like that article, but I felt it was just a great read. I really did. I thought it was interesting. Sometimes there is room in journalism for storytelling, and that was Richard Fausset trying to tell a story. Trying to introduce you to a character. I didn’t quite understand the violent response to that. I mean, I understand that we are not supposed to give too much oxygen to the movement. But there are two sides to that. If you ignore it, people won’t know what’s going on.
When Robert Bowers shot up all of those people, shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh, he said — I can’t remember the line — “I’ve had enough I’m moving in.” All of his writings were about White genocide and the Jewish orchestration of White genocide.
I knew exactly what he was talking about. This is all part of the mythos. It’s also where “Jews will not replace us” comes from, that Jews are the orchestrators of White genocide because while Jews do not have the numbers themselves to replace White people, they are the puppet masters who are moving the Brown and Black-skinned people. I knew exactly what Robert Bowers was talking about. But most people were shocked and puzzled.
When people talk to me, they ask me, “What did that mean in Charlottesville when they were chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’?” and I try to explain it because people need to have at least some cursory understanding of the ideology that can lead to this kind of violence.
AA: That article had sort of a “Banality of Evil” feel to me, it felt worthwhile to say these could be your neighbors, you need to be aware. Certainly, there are aspects of the anti-fascist movement that say, “That’s what we do all day,” and if you follow the right people, you see photos of Nazis, neo-Nazis, people they claim to be neo-Nazis, their personal information, this is where they work call their bosses.
JW: You’re right, but Antifa is as mysterious to most Americans as the alt-right. People don’t know what Antifa is up to until they show up clad in black to confront Nazis. They’re as shocking and mysterious as an alt-right rally. People don’t know what these things are. They should, people should know what’s going on. Awareness is part of living in a democracy.
AA: Where do we go from here? How can the left or the left and the pluralistic right or however you want to frame that, how can they move forward in a reasonable way that can make a difference?
JW: One of the biggest problems Jews have is that a lot of Jews are kept out of the anti-bigotry coalition because of Israel. You must renounce the belief in the Jewish state before you can even be part of this coalition. I’m not particularly Zionist, so I can understand that a Palestinian rights group does not want to march next to a Zionist organization because even though the Palestinian Rights group might be in this instance standing up against intolerance in the US, their core issue might be Palestinian rights and a home state. But there has to be a time and a forum where bigotry in the United States is the focus and ancillary issues can be set aside.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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