Jewish Texans see surge in antisemitism as a precursor to fascism

Extremism experts and historians sound alarms as politicians, media personalities and celebrities amplify antisemitic conspiracies that have historically led to the killing of Jews.

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click to enlarge Outside of the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin on Nov. 1, 2021. Late the night before, a fire was set at the synagogue. Franklin Barrett Sechriest, then a student at Texas State University in San Marcos, was charged in the incident. - Texas Tribune / Michael Gonzalez
Texas Tribune / Michael Gonzalez
Outside of the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin on Nov. 1, 2021. Late the night before, a fire was set at the synagogue. Franklin Barrett Sechriest, then a student at Texas State University in San Marcos, was charged in the incident.
As other kids in Austin recovered from trick-or-treating on Halloween last year, Sarah Adelman worried about white supremacists, her mom and their synagogue. After a series of antisemitic incidents around Central Texas, someone set fire to Congregation Beth Israel, where Sarah’s mother, Lori, is a leader.

“It made me sad and really scared,” 10-year-old Sarah said last week. “It made me nervous for my mom.”

The arson was part of an ongoing wave of antisemitic incidents that grew last year to its highest number in four decades. It came three years after a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and was followed months later by a hostage situation at a North Texas synagogue. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League tracked 2,717 anti-Jewish incidents — a 34% increase since 2020 and the highest number since the group began tracking antisemitism in 1979. It hasn’t slowed: This year is on pace to eclipse that record.

“It’s been one hit after another,” Adelman said.

Yet an even deeper, darker worry compounds those concerns in a community acutely aware of how antisemitism, disinformation and conspiracy theories normalize the kind of hate speech and violent incidents that foment persecution — and can escalate to genocide.

For years, extremism experts and historians have sounded alarms about rising antisemitism and what they say are clear warning signs of emerging fascism and extremist violence. Their warnings have only grown more dire as influential American politicians, media personalities and celebrities routinely amplify antisemitic conspiracies that have historically led to the killing of Jews.

“This is part and parcel of a broader resurgence of white supremacy,” said David Michael Smith, a former college professor and longtime anti-fascist activist in Texas.

Echoes of such extremism, experts say, can be seen at school board meetings and legislative hearings in Texas and across the country, as officials pull anti-hate educational materials from classrooms and limit how racism in the country’s history is taught. Meanwhile, easy access to the internet radicalizes a new generation of extremists. And some segments of Americans are growing more accepting of ideologies such as Christian Nationalism, which claims America’s founding was God-ordained, and its institutions should thus favor Christianity.

Across the state and country, neo-Nazis and white supremacists pepper neighborhoods and freeway overpasses with anti-semitic banners and flyers. They threaten Jewish families, deface Jewish homes and vandalize synagogues. And, in online communities, they celebrate mass shootings, stoke violence and openly plot to kill.

Experts and Jewish Texans say countless more hate incidents have undoubtedly gone unreported out of fear of retaliation as antisemitism is increasingly normalized across the country and world. As violence rises each year, Jewish communities secure their synagogues, worship in worry and have difficult conversations with innocent kids.

“We have to regularly have conversations with children about people wanting to hurt us,” Adelman said. “It’s terrifying, but what choice do we have? We’re not going to just hide.”

Centuries-old origins

Scratch the surface of virtually any modern-day conspiracy theory, and you’re almost certain to encounter some form of antisemitism. QAnon borrows heavily from deadly, historic claims that Jews were stealing and sacrificing Christian children. And while commonly used terms such as “cabal” or “globalist” may not explicitly reference religion, they reinforce dangerous, centuries-old conspiracy theories of international Jewish dominance and meddling.

click to enlarge A man carries a flag with the letter “Q,” signifying the QAnon conspiracy, at a “Trump Train” event in San Antonio on Nov. 1, 2020.
A man carries a flag with the letter “Q,” signifying the QAnon conspiracy, at a “Trump Train” event in San Antonio on Nov. 1, 2020.

“Jews know that antisemitism is never far behind these conspiracies,” said Oren Segal, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League. “So all of this makes people feel particularly vulnerable.”

Antisemitic conspiracies were increasingly popularized in the early 1900s after the publication in Russia of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a falsified document that purported to be the notes of a concerted Jewish effort aimed at global domination. Top Nazi leaders pushed the theory heavily, as did Americans such as Henry Ford, a virulent antisemite who published versions of “the Protocols” in his newspapers. That old theory, coupled with biblical misreadings that blame Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, has given unchecked license to those who want to commit violence, experts say.

“This notion of the diabolical Jew, in partnership with the devil for the purposes of evil, has not died out,” said Alvin Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University. “It goes back over many centuries: The Jews are guilty — that’s the charge. The question then is, ‘Precisely what are the Jews guilty of?’ And the answer can be everything under the sun, depending on who is making the accusations.”

This, he said, makes antisemitism an especially pernicious and influential strand of hate because it undergirds so many other conspiracy theories and extremist ideologies that expand to also target other historically marginalized groups.

“It ought not be treated just as a matter of antisemitism. Because if you look at neo-Nazi literature, it’s not just antisemitic — it’s anti-Black, anti-gay, anti-Asian, anti-trans,” said Smith, the anti-fascist activist.

Dr. Günther Jikeli, an Indiana University researcher of antisemitic hate crimes, said many white supremacist movements are predicated on the baseless and debunked conspiracy theory that Jews use people of color and other marginalized communities as pawns in a supposed effort to take power from white, often Christian, populations.

He said that helps answer a paradox at the core of white supremacist worldviews such as “great replacement theory” and “white genocide,” which often purport that migration, interracial marriage and homosexuality are intentional attempts at undermining white people.

He explained the cognitive dissonance as such: “If white people are superior, then how come white people are threatened by non-white people who are inferior?"

“Well, they explain it by blaming the Jews,” he said.

Extremism experts have for years warned of the heightened dangers of linking Jewish figures such as George Soros to racist, xenophobic or homophobic language that perpetuates “us vs. them” mentalities or paints immigrants as “invaders.” Gov. Greg Abbott has deployed such language when discussing the surge in migrants crossing the Texas-Mexico border. He faced criticism for using that rhetoric in a fundraising letter sent one day before a gunman targeted and fatally shot Hispanics at an El Paso Walmart in 2019. Abbott later apologized and said “mistakes were made.” But he’s since revived his use of “invasion” language when discussing the border.

click to enlarge A police unit at the back entrance to the El Paso Walmart where a gunman opened fire on back-to-school shoppers on Aug. 3, 2019, killing 23. - Texas Tribune / Ivan Pierre Aguirre
Texas Tribune / Ivan Pierre Aguirre
A police unit at the back entrance to the El Paso Walmart where a gunman opened fire on back-to-school shoppers on Aug. 3, 2019, killing 23.

Before Franklin Barrett Sechriest allegedly set fire to Austin’s Congregation Beth Israel on Halloween 2021, he reportedly railed against Black people and immigrants.

“No invader is innocent,” Sechriest, a former National Guard member, reportedly wrote in his diary.


Fluid boundaries

Current American discourse is rife with the kind of antisemitism that experts say stokes violence.

Last month, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has increasingly promoted ideas at the core of “great replacement theory” to millions of nightly viewers, aired parts of an interview with influential hip hop artist Ye, formerly known as Kanye West. Ye’s statements acted as dog whistles to trained extremist ears. Emboldened, neo-Nazi groups began dropping “Kanye was right about the Jews” banners in major American cities. As antisemitism flourished online and in the media, an online security analyst in Manhattan tipped off law enforcement about a looming plot to shoot up a nearby synagogue.

Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump questioned the patriotism of Jewish Americans last month, pitting them against his evangelical Christian supporters. On his social media platform Truth Social, Trump suggested Jews have dual loyalties to America and Israel and warned them “to get their act together and appreciate what they have in Israel - Before it is too late!” And Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving shared a conspiracy film that falsely alleged Jews were heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Experts say Jewish Americans find themselves in a Catch-22 when faced with such rhetoric.

“If they shut up and say nothing, it’ll just encourage more antisemitism,” said Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. “But if they voice their displeasure and there are consequences,” they give oxygen to the false notion of coordinated, Jewish dominance that has historically led to violence.

Irving was suspended by his team for his comments, and Ye was suspended from social media and lost a partnership with Adidas. Yet Irving’s first game back from suspension was preceded by a march of Black Hebrew Israelites, an extremist group that, among other things, claims Jews are the spawns of Satan. And, last week, it was reported that Ye had met with Trump — and brought with him Nick Fuentes, a livestreamer and avowed Christian nationalist who has denied the Holocaust and been open about his desire to expel Jews from the United States.

Fuentes has sought for years to mainstream antisemitism, racism and extremism by aligning himself with conservative figures and elected officials — including members of Congress. And he has celebrated what he sees as a looming wave of escalating violence.

“When it comes to the Jews, here’s a silver lining: It tends to go from zero to 60 ... .” Fuentes has said. “It never starts with burning all the Talmuds. ... What comes out of this is going to be a lot uglier and a lot worse for them than anything that’s being said on this show.”

Experts agree. They say such rhetoric has helped to normalize antisemitic, racist and hate-filled speech online that often leads to violence. Jikeli, the Indiana researcher of antisemitic hate crimes, said social media and online forums have significantly increased the likelihood of lone-wolf acts of violence that are inspired by one another in quick succession — the “stochastic” type of terrorism that often follows school shootings or bomb threats.

Countless gunmen accused of recent mass shootings — from the El Paso WalMart to a Wisconsin Sikh Temple to New Zealand mosques — have preempted their atrocities with antisemitic screeds or manifestos that have then circulated on darker corners of the web and advanced antisemitic conspiracy theories such as “great replacement theory.” Others have livestreamed their attacks as hate-filled online fans watch gleefully — which Jikeli said can both desensitize masses and inspire future attackers to try and one-up one another.

“What we’ve seen when we’ve looked at hate crimes is that there is a little wave of people who feel emboldened or feel they could do something similar,” he said. “So it just adds to a climate where it gets normalized. And the boundaries between online and offline are very fluid.”


Genocides start with words

For more than two decades, David Michael Smith has stood toe-to-toe with Texas neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Smith is a leader of Houston United Front Against Fascism and for years has helped monitor, protest and expose some of the most violent extremist groups in the country — from the Ku Klux Klan to Atomwaffen Division, a now-disbanded neo-Nazi group with ties to southeast Texas that sought to bring on a race war through violence.

But recently, it’s sometimes felt like a losing battle. He felt as much outside a recent drag event at a Katy church. There, he saw neo-Nazis and white supremacists intermingled with suburban parents, anti-trans Christians and run-of-the-mill conservative voters who were protesting the event. The Republican Party of Texas has highlighted similar events.

For the first time in recent memory, Smith said, antifascist activists were outnumbered.

“They are emboldened,” he said of the white supremacists and extremists interspersed in the crowd that day. “They are only separated by a few warm bodies from the far-right Catholics and Protestants, and that’s concerning.”

Last year, after a string of hate incidents in Austin — including graffiti on the parking spots of LGBTQ and Jewish high school students — a group of self-described “equally pissed-off Jews” decided to act. The six women said they initially expected more action from law enforcement and local officials. Then, video began to spread of an Austin Police Department officer fist-bumping a neo-Nazi who was hanging a “vax the Jews” banner near a large Jewish Community Center and numerous synagogues. The department has since said the officer was caught off guard and attempting to deescalate the situation.

“We were just getting so angry and felt like something needed to happen,” said Mariette Hummel. “And we wanted to be more than just angry. We worried that young people who were already on the path toward extremism might see it, and it would end in violence.

“And in a way, it did,” she continued.

Days later, on Halloween, white supremacists continued to target Jewish communities in the area, and a fire was set at Lori Adelman’s synagogue. It only confirmed what the women already knew well: that violence is never far behind words — and silence is not an option.

Thus was born ATXKind, and a “Rally for Kindness” that brought hundreds to the Texas Capitol last year to protest antisemitism, homophobia and racism. The group’s founders say that a key goal is to band together local, vulnerable communities, understanding that they are much stronger when they work together.

Experts on extremism say solidarity is crucial to combating antisemitism, racism, homophobia and transphobia at the same time. They note that a key goal of extremist groups is to drive wedges between marginalized groups as they terrorize communities, recruit and slowly normalize a broader climate of fear.

“Regular people like us need our moment, too,” said Julie Fleming, a co-founder of ATXKind. “We need a time and a space to say, ‘No, we are not going to put up with this.’”

click to enlarge Members of ATXKind meet at Austin City Hall on Nov. 17. - Texas Tribune / Azul Sordo
Texas Tribune / Azul Sordo
Members of ATXKind meet at Austin City Hall on Nov. 17.

Earlier this month, the Austin City Council passed an ordinance that overhauled the city’s hate crime reporting system in part due to the group’s efforts. Local officials say that much more needs to be done, that they cannot stamp out extremism without help from state and federal actors, including through more investment in mental health care and anti-hate curriculum.

“It’s not just about antisemitism,” said Austin Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter. “We don’t want this hate in our community in any form, and we need to make sure there are systems in place for everybody.”

It’s a lesson that Rozalie Jerome, a 65-year-old Kingwood resident and president of the Holocaust Remembrance Association, has spent most of her life teaching to others. The child of two Holocaust survivors, Jerome has become a student of fascist regimes and the ideologies of hate that often predate their rise. Like countless others, Jerome increasingly sees early shades of looming horror in America today — including across the Houston area, where white supremacists have increasingly dropped propaganda in Jewish neighborhoods.

“I know that genocides start with words,” she said. “And so we have to be vigilant. ​​We have to pay attention to words.”

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