What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How the Tree of Life shooting reflects American anti-Semitism

President Trump called Saturday’s synagogue shooting anti-Semitic and “an assault on humanity.” But a chorus of voices argues that the president himself has fostered a national atmosphere of hatred. William Brangham speaks with Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, and historian Deborah Lipstadt about social media's role as an amplifier and politicians who "embolden" violence.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The massacre at the synagogue in Pittsburgh has again revealed the ugly anti-Semitism that still exists in the United States.

    As William Brangham reports, it's also caused many to look at the political rhetoric that some argue stokes these beliefs and perpetuates centuries-old myths about Jewish people.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The hearts of all Americans are filled with grief.

  • William Brangham:

    On Saturday, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting in Pittsburgh, President Trump plainly called out the attack for what it was.

  • President Donald Trump:

    This evil anti-Semitic attack is an assault on all of us. It's an assault on humanity. It will require all of us working together to extract the hateful poison of anti-Semitism from our world.

  • William Brangham:

    But as the families from the Tree of Life Synagogue grieve their loss, a chorus of voices are coming forward, saying that today's political rhetoric has given toxic fuel to racist and anti-Semitic views in America.

    Some of those voices, like the former head of the Pittsburgh synagogue, have pointed at President Trump himself.

  • Lynnette Lederman:

    I do not welcome the president to my city.

  • Question:

    Why not?

  • Lynnette Lederman:

    Because he's a purveyor of hate speech.

  • William Brangham:

    Perhaps the clearest example, critics say, was the president's reaction to the white nationalist protest in Charlottesville last year.

    Remember, this was a protest against the removal of a Confederate statue, but this is also what they chanted.

  • Protesters:

    Jews will not replace us!

  • William Brangham:

    When violence erupted the next day and a counterprotester was killed, President Trump said there were — quote — "very fine people" on both sides of that protest.

    Others argue the president has stoked anti-Semitism stereotypes about Jews controlling the world, like in this campaign ad.

  • President Donald Trump:

    For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests.

  • William Brangham:

    Where famous Jewish Americans like billionaire George Soros and then Fed Reserve Chair Janet Yellen are stand-ins for global special interests.

    Or when the president's tweeted this image of Hillary Clinton with what looked to many like a Jewish star on a background of money. It was later replaced with a circle.

    The president and his supporters have long rejected any accusation of anti-Semitism, pointing out that his daughter Ivanka converted to Judaism when she married Jared Kushner.

    And in 2017, after a series of phone threats and vandalism against Jewish community centers, the president called out anti-Semitism by name. They also note that President Trump has been a staunch supporter of Israel and of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

    But others point to a recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks and harassment, up 57 percent in one year, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and say this is no coincidence. They say this upwelling of hatred is attributable in part to an increasing demonization of Jewish people.

    George Soros has been a particular target of late. The billionaire hedge fund manager has, for years, given millions to liberal causes and organizations, but recently he's been falsely accused of many conspiracies.

    President Trump alleged Soros was paying protesters who rallied against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The president and others falsely accused Soros of funding the migrant caravan from Central America, which the president likened to an invasion.

    Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted that Soros, along with two other wealthy Jewish Americans, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, were trying to buy this election. He later deleted the tweet.

    Soros, of course, was one of those who was sent a pipe bomb last week.

  • Narrator:

    Radical George Soros, Wall Street's biggest banks.

  • William Brangham:

    But he's still being vilified in Republican attack ads running in Michigan, Minnesota and elsewhere.

    So, is this just political rhetoric, or does it create an atmosphere that leads to real-world violence?

    We explore that question with Deborah Lipstadt. She is a professor of modern Jewish history at Emory University. And she's the author of several books, including one coming out soon called "Anti-Semitism: Here and Now." And Jonathan Greenblatt is the head of the Anti-Defamation League, one of the nation's leading groups that tracks hate speech and acts of anti-Semitism around the world.

    Welcome to you both.

    Jonathan Greenblatt, I'd like to start with you first.

    We are still learning about the depths of hatred of the Pittsburgh suspect, but your report, as I mentioned earlier, has documented in one year a nearly 60 percent spike in anti-Semitic attacks and harassment.

    Broadly speaking, what were you documenting, and why do you think this is happening?

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    So, at the ADL, we have been fighting hate for over 100 years and tracking anti-Semitic incidents in the United States since the late 1970s.

    And in the past year, we saw an increase, as you said, of 57 percent. That was a year-on-year spike, the largest we have ever seen, and it included acts of harassment, vandalism, and violence.

    I would attribute it to a few factors, number one, absolutely the political environment. We know that the white supremacists feel emboldened when their language ends up literally on the lips of our leaders and their rhetoric is retweeted.

    The president has been doing this for some time, and we have called it out from during his candidacy and more recently when he's been in the White House. You have seen other political leaders, as you mentioned in the open, fear-monger about George Soros and Jewish financiers.

    So, extremists feel emboldened. And we know because they are telling us in their tweets and on their Facebook pages.

    The second issue is social media. So, technology has contributed to the acceleration and amplification of intolerance in the United States. Previously, people with these extremist, radical views couldn't get a hearing, but today they can be heard all around the world with a simple click or a tweet.

  • William Brangham:

    Deborah Lipstadt, you have said that Donald Trump and this other heated political rhetoric didn't cause this spike in anti-Semitism, but you said that it lit a fire underneath it. What do you mean by that?

  • Deborah Lipstadt:

    Precisely. They didn't create it.

    I think we began to see this uptick in white nationalism and white supremacy during the Obama administration, many people reacting to having a man of African descent as our president.

    But it became legitimized, emboldened, as Jonathan said, during the campaign, both with the events in Charlottesville, which you referred to in your opening piece, when Melania Trump was profiled in "G.Q." magazine, and the author, a Jewish — a reporter who was Jewish was vilified on social media in a horrible way.

    And President Trump was asked, do you have any message for your followers?

    It would have been a perfect moment to say, you may disagree with what the reporter wrote, but there is no room in our campaign for anti-Semitism, for attacks, for racism, for white supremacy. He said, I have nothing to say to them.

    We have seen that kind of thing over and over. It's what I call wink-wink, nod-nod, dog whistle. They understand the message they're getting. Whether he intends that to be the message or not, that's the message that's being sent. That's the message that's being received.

    And without that kind of message, there wouldn't have been both events. I believe there wouldn't — it's less likely there would have been those events that we saw Saturday at Squirrel Hill.

  • William Brangham:

    Jonathan Greenblatt, would you agree that, the rhetoric directly contributes? Because if the president and his supporters and anyone who is doing what Deborah refers to as dog whistle calls, if they all went silent, the hatred and the bigotry that is anti-Semitism would still exist, wouldn't it?

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    Well, of course. Anti-Semitism is often called the oldest hatred.

    It's been a persistent problem for centuries, some would argue even millennia. But the issue is this. And we know this from the words of the white supremacists themselves, the David Dukes, the Richard Spencers, the Andrew Anglins.

    These individuals, with their poisonous prejudice, they have celebrated online when they have seen terms like America first or globalist or more recently nationalist end up literally in the talking points of candidates and officials themselves.

    And I do want to say something. And this is important: This is not political. After Charlottesville, we saw leaders from the Republican Party and the Democratic Party call this out.

    However, this demands not just saying something in response to an incident, but rather it's the climate leaders create every single day, and we need people in positions of authority across the board.

    Keep in mind, the 57 percent increase included a 90 percent increase of acts of anti-Semitism on college campuses. So whether you're the president of a university or the president of the United States, people in positions of authority need to shut this down as soon as they hear it.

  • William Brangham:

    Deborah Lipstadt, Jonathan mentioned earlier the role that social media plays. And we certainly saw that this particular suspect in Pittsburgh was very active on a social media site called Gab that was a — seemingly a haven of anti-Semites and racists.

    What role do you think social media plays? Does it just amplify existing prejudices, or is it something more?

  • Deborah Lipstadt:

    I think it amplifies existing prejudices, and it also connects people.

    I write about and I have written about and been sued by Holocaust deniers. It used to be, when you wanted to send denial material, it would be sent in brown paper or envelopes with a P.O. Box return address.

    Now you just put something up on social media, and one of these anti-Semites, racists, homophobes, whoever they may be, finds another. So it's both an amplification and a connection. And I think that is exceptionally dangerous.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Jonathan Greenblatt, what do we do with regards to curtailing that kind of online hatred? Because, as we have seen, if Facebook or Twitter crack down on it, they simply congregate somewhere else.

    I wonder what is worse. Is it better if they're hidden in the corners on Web sites that we don't really know about, or is it better if it's out in the open and we can be aware of it?

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    Well, look, at the ADL, we are fierce advocates for the First Amendment.

    And I think freedom of speech is an important, precious privilege guaranteed by our Constitution. But freedom of speech isn't the freedom to slander people. And the freedom of expression isn't the freedom to incite violence against Jews or any other minority.

    The ADL, we opened a center in Silicon Valley last year to work directly with the companies, because we need Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, we need them engaged in this fight, because in order to improve their products, we need to reimagine the algorithms.

    And they are doing work. They are making progress. However, there is more to be done. And I think it's much better for all of us if the haters and the bigots can exercise their free speech, but in a place where our children, right, where vulnerable populations isn't exposed to it.

  • William Brangham:

    Deborah Lipstadt, in the last few moments that we have, I wonder, if you were talking to policy-makers today, what would you urge them to do? How would you counsel them to stamp out this racism?

  • Deborah Lipstadt:

    I would urge them to speak out. As Jonathan said, I would urge them to speak out, to speak out forcefully and directly.

    I'm generally a pretty optimistic person, despite spending all my time in the sewers of prejudice and hatred, studying it and writing about it. I think the depressing thing is, this Pandora's box has been open wide.

    And even were the president were to change his rhetoric, were the social media sites were to begin to monitor it, it's going to be a long time before we can even begin to slightly close that box. The hate is out there. The racism is out there.

    Two African-Americans were shot and killed on Thursday a week ago just because they were black. The man went to a church looking to kill blacks, and he couldn't find them, so he went to the supermarket.

    We had the pipe bombs also by a hater, and then we had this tragedy in Pittsburgh. It's out there. It's going to take a lot of work by a lot of people to stop it.

    One more last thing, and that is, it also calls for us personally, at Thanksgiving dinner, if you have an uncle or a young cousin, whomever it might be, and they say something about Jews, about Muslims, about blacks, about homophobes, and you don't like it, don't be silent.

    You may not change their mind, but you have got to send young people, the young people at the table a message: We don't agree with this, and this kind of talk is not acceptable.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Deborah Lipstadt, Jonathan Greenblatt, thank you both very much.

  • Deborah Lipstadt:

    You're welcome. Thank you.

  • Jonathan Greenblatt:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment