Tree of Life Massacre Has Roots in Religious Hatred

October 30, 2018
Tree of Life Memorial

In the deadliest incident of anti-Semitic violence in U.S. history, 46 year-old Robert Bowers allegedly shot dead 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh during morning Shabbat services on Saturday, October 27. During a gunfight with police, Bowers reportedly declared that he wanted “to kill Jews.”

In responding to criticism that Bowers was in part inspired by President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway blamed the attacks on the “anti-religiosity” of news organizations and late night comedians. According to HDS’s Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History Kevin Madigan, however, Bower’s alleged attack was anti-Semitic, not anti-religious, and his bigotry has deep roots in Christianity’s past.

HDS: According to the New York Times, Robert Bowers wrote in his biography on Gab, a social network popular with white nationalists, that “Jews are the children of Satan.” Some might see this simply as the ravings of an unhinged mind, but the demonization of Jews has deep roots in Christian history, doesn’t it?

Kevin Madigan: Very deep indeed. So deep it can be found in its most sacred texts. John 8:44, for example, identifies the entire community, because of its supposed murderousness and mendacity, as children of Satan:

“You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

The fourth- and fifth-century bishop, Chrysostom, characterized synagogues as houses of the Devil. Over time, and especially in caricatures of Jews in the Middle Ages, they became associated pictorially with the Devil. Many medieval and early modern Judensau (“Jew-pig”) images have a devil, or a rabbi in league with the Devil, superintending the whole disgusting operation. This cemented them, in popular and elite imagination as allied with Satan. In the twentieth century, fascist states diabolized their Jewish populations. Jews have also been depicted as minions of the Antichrist.

HDS: According to New York magazine, Bowers also wrote that Jews were financially supporting the Honduran migrant caravan, which he saw as an invasion, and referred to Jews as an “infestation.” Where do these tropes come from?

Madigan: They go back deep into Christian history, when after the second Jewish revolt in roughly 60 years (the first was the Jewish Xn-War [66-70], which Mark refers to, and at the end of which soldiers held out for three years against the Romans at Masada), the so-called Bar-Kochba revolt (132-35 CE), the Romans “permanently” exiled Jews from their homeland. (Though as those scare quotes indicate, Jews did continue to live there, even in antiquity.) Augustine (354-430) influentially interpreted them as descendants of Cain, who, because of murder, were condemned to wandering, in servitude and misery, under gentile rulers. They thus lived as, we might say, resident aliens at the pleasure of Christian princes and kings, or under Islamic rule, until the establishment of the State of Israel. For many, it was a small step from resident alien to “parasite,” “bloodsucker” (these are probably a reference, too, to the despicable role of moneylenders, into which they were entirely forced) or similar terms—and then to “invaders.”

The depiction of Jews as vermin or as an infestation occurs in the wake of the racialization of antisemitism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The most infamous such depiction occurs in Nazi propaganda films, sponsored by Josef Goebbels, where Jews are depicted as swarming rats (as in Der Ewige JudeThe Eternal Jew). Himmler talked of Jews as “lice” who would need, ipso facto, to be exterminated.

HDS: Bowers also picked up on right-wing talking points about “globalists” and George Soros. What do you hear when people use those terms? Are there echoes in history?

Madigan: One could write an entire book on this trope. Maybe the best way into it is to remember the forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It depicts a global conspiracy, an “international conspiracy,” of Jewish leaders/bankers attempting to subvert, socially and economically, Christian societies; reduce non-Jews to slavery, assassinate monarchs, manipulate the stock market, spread dangerous ideas like liberty, equality, etc. Hitler invoked it early in his career, as, in the U.S., did the carmaker Henry Ford, who published a book called The International Jew. Even the Nazis, who knew the text was a fraud (it was proved so in 1921 by a British journalist), referred to the “internal truth” of the text—rather like allegorizing a biblical text you suspect of lacking historicity. The text, while having been banned from some bookstores (Barnes and Nobles had it on its shelves in the early 2000s, until public protest forced its removal), is widely available online and is used by many groups, from Holocaust deniers to Muslim extremists, to Communists and neo-Nazis and others. The term also plays on fears of a global world order and the suspicion, often stoked from above, that Jews are (contrary to historical experience and study) not loyal citizens of any country, conducting business ubiquitously, “cosmopolitan,” connected to communities all over the world. We today would call this a “dog whistle.”

HDS: Finally, President Trump proudly referred to himself recently as a nationalist. What is the significance of that term—and its use by someone so prominent and powerful? What’s the danger, particularly in light of the Tree of Life attack?

Madigan: I think when the President uses that term, he means to suggest that he intends to maximize the self-interest of the United States, as in “America First.” He may or may not be aware of the multiple significations of that term, which, among other dangerous things, might imply or be inferred to mean:  immigrants and strangers are not welcome here; “we” (the country) can only win if others lose (zero-sum thinking). One danger, realized this past weekend, is that people, like the man who attacked the Tree of Life synagogue, can interpret this to mean that those perceived to be strangers or “cosmopolitans” ought to be exiled—or murdered.

—by Paul Massari