In 1881, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, anti-Jewish pogroms broke out across Southwest Russia, mostly today’s Ukraine. Over 240 communities suffered attacks, many deadly. Among the causes, one factor stands out. Although the new Tsar certainly did not organize or even order the attacks (he was caught off guard by them, in fact), many if not most of the pogromchiks thought that he had. An explosive and exciting new media, cheap newspapers, had been feeding them anti-Semitic ideas and stoking their fear of Jews for some time, and in 1881 rumors spread that the Tsar was allowing this temporary breakdown in order to punish the Jews, whom he publicly blamed for the assassination. People knew of the Tsar’s anti-Semitic beliefs, they knew that he could censor the anti-Semites allied with him if he wanted to do so, and they drew the natural conclusion that violence was at least sanctioned, if not encouraged.
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The neighboring province of Galicia in the Austrian Empire was generally spared this level of violence, but a lesser known series of pogroms broke out in its Western districts seventeen years later, in the spring of 1898. As in 1881, rumors spread through the new press that their beloved Emperor Franz Joseph (equally beloved by the Jews, by the way) had sanctioned the outburst, which was stoked by a populist anti-Semitic party in connection with elections that year. They were wrong. The emperor not only denounced the pogroms, but quickly arrested thousands of its perpetrators, many of whom spent time in jail, and martial law was imposed to restore order.
These stories share two things in common. First, we see the impact of mass media and especially of anti-Semitic rhetoric to inspire acts of violence, even when that rhetoric is divorced from any direct calls to act violently. (Similarly, the long-term impact of political anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria – a product of the 1870s and 1880s – was not the ascendancy of those parties at the time, but rather how the normalization of this hateful rhetoric allowed for their climb to power decades later.)
Second, we see the difference between one leader (Tsar Alexander III) who – while seemingly opposed to mass violence – stoked anti-Jewish hatred and responded to the violence with more anti-Semitic vitriol, and another (Franz Joseph) who deplored anti-Semitism and acted swiftly to quell the violence and protect his subjects. In the latter case alone, the violence was quickly snuffed out and did not return until Russia occupied the province in 1914.
Since Trump’s election, incidents of racial, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic violence have exploded in America. Muslim women’s hijabs are being ripped off and others are afraid to wear them in public. Swastikas have been spray-painted in many places. The n-word is being shouted at African-Americans, or left in hate notes. A restaurant manager literally took back the free meal for a black veteran when a Trump supporter questioned how a black man could have served as he claimed. Even school children are being terrorized – physically, verbally and via bone-chilling graffiti. In nearly all of these cases, there are references to Trump, to the wall, to the impending deportation of Muslims and Latinos, or to the reinstitution of black servitude in light of Trump’s victory.
History matters. As one Trump voter pointed out to me, these attacks are being carried out by a small minority of Trump supporters. Moreover, Trump himself has not publicly urged his minions to carry out this type of vigilante violence, notwithstanding his glorification of individual acts of violence at several rallies. But that misses the point. These vigilantes feel empowered by a president-elect that has campaigned on xenophobic fear of Muslims, Latinos and African-Americans, and expressed views that judge women based on their bodies, which belong ultimately to men. (The fact that some members of those racial minorities voted for him, incidentally, does not change that fact, any more than Trump’s Jewish family clearly didn’t turn off the neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites who swoon for him and helped mightily to get out the vote.)
Today’s new media – the echo chamber led by Stephen Bannon (Breitbart), Alex Jones (Infowars) and other leaders of the alt right – has fed them a narrative of hatred and fear against these groups, including Jews. These men are a part of Trump’s team. Bannon was a campaign manager and Jones, who only a month ago declared a “Jewish mafia” controlled the U.S., has been praised and quoted by Trump on countless occasions. Jones claims that Trump had called to thank him after the election. Bannon, to vociferous criticism, has been appointed Trump’s chief advisor and strategist in the new Administration, equal in rank to the Chief of Staff. Other white supremacists are frequently retweeted. And just recently Trump reaffirmed his belief that the “Central Park Five” were guilty, despite their exoneration based on DNA evidence. Those perpetrating hate crimes now have good reason to believe that white supremacy will be strengthened, that it has been publicly validated, and that the forces of law and order will not punish them for these acts.
It is possible (although evidence suggests otherwise) that Trump does not feel this animosity, or that he doesn’t feel it deeply. I don’t believe he is an anti-Semite, for example, despite his use of overt anti-Semitic imagery at several points in his campaign. He used it to rally that base to achieve power, and perhaps he used racist dog whistles (and worse) for the same purpose. If so, now is the time to show it.
To do this, he needs to act as Franz Joseph and not as the Tsar: to quell and not to incite. He must publicly condemn these attacks, he must disassociate himself with open racists and anti-Semites, and once in power instruct the forces of law and order, and not in its Nixonian, racist-rallying sense, to arrest and prosecute the criminals robustly. He will also need to rescind Bannon's appointment, which has been hailed by the alt right as proof of their ascendancy. If he does not, then the excuse that these vigilantes are only a tiny minority of his followers is meaningless, and he and all members of his political community share in culpability.
Joshua Shanes is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.