Opinion

When a White Supremacist Murdered Muslims, Jews Were Blamed. How Did That Happen?

Why was anger at the far right perpetrator's hate crime redirected at U.S. Jews, Chelsea Clinton and the Mossad? It’s all about the growing attraction of invariably anti-Semitic conspiracy theories across the political spectrum

File photo: Mourners arrive for a burial service of a victim from the March 15 mosque shootings at the Memorial Park Cemetery in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 21, 2019.
Vincent Thian/AP

While the deadly shooting of 50 Muslim worshippers at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand is a moment for many people to re-affirm religious and cultural diversity, others are using it as an opportunity to redirect hatred from Muslims towards Jews. A wide variety of voices are pushing conspiracy theories that place Israel or the "Jewish establishment" at the scene of this crime. That could prepare the grounds for future violence.

If New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s condemnation of racial hatred and her heartfelt consolation of mourners became a global symbol of solidarity, civic responsibility and tolerance, the climax was the radical expression of forgiveness by a survivor of the murderous gunman.

>> How the Dark Web Turns White Supremacists Into Terrorists >> After Christchurch and Pittsburgh, U.S. Jews and Muslims Need Each Other More Than Ever

At a public memorial attended by 20,000 people, Farid Ahmed, whose wife Husna was killed in the attacks, declared he can’t hate the perpetrator, his "human brother," and that was a position informed by his Islamic faith.

But just as the love was spreading, so was the hate. With the gunman forgiven by his victims, and his white supremacist motivation identified, now the search began for the "real" causes of this heinous act. It is here that many different voices found an age-old and predictable target: Jews.

At another memorial event in Auckland, "Love Aotearoa, Hate Racism," a prominent local Muslim leader Ahmed Bhamji, blamed the Jewish state, implying that they had deliberately targeted the six Palestinians who lost their lives in the attack. The supposedly daring truth-teller declared: "I am not afraid to say I feel Mossad is behind this." 

He went on: "And not only them. There are some business houses... Zionist business houses that are behind him...The investigations need to look at that angle. Where did he get the money to buy all those guns?"

One religious leader’s dramatic comments, even when backed by a crowd, does not make a trend, not least when his comments were condemned at the time and later denounced by the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand, who stated Bhamji "do[es] not represent" New Zealand’s Muslims.

But he wasn’t alone. Politically engaged journalists also quickly spun the long hand of Israel theme, providing it with "intellectual" dressing. In an article on Al Jazeera, the shooting was described as an act in Israel’s "global war on Palestinians," and opined that Israel was actively allying with white supremacists and pushing their "great replacement" theory.

The authors attempted to dismiss the obvious flaw in their argument - neo-Nazis hate Jews too - by noting, in passing, that "this theory in some places has also acquired anti-Semitic tinges."

Others on the leftist fringes went even further to inflate Israel’s nefarious ambitions, describing the shooting as a "false flag" operation - just like 9/11, the authors explain - on its part to advance its wider foreign policy goals. It was also, specifically, punishment for New Zealand’s "relatively even-handed [Mideast] foreign policy" which had "rattled the Zionists." 

These kinds of arguments clearly shift attention away from the gunman and his racist ideology, and cast the shooter as a passive marionette for the evil plans of a devious puppet master.

It was not long until figures associated with the U.S. Women's March jumped in with their own wild accusations. Co-leader Bob Bland shared a Facebook post by a social justice activist that placed moral responsibility for the attacks on the "American Jewish establishment," which has allegedly led a hate campaign against prominent U.S. Muslims. 

Screenshot of Bob Bland sharing a Facebook post accusing the 'American Jewish Establishment' of inciting the anti-Muslim hate that led to the Christchurch massacre
Facebook

"The same language and hate that folks spew against Sisters Linda Sarsour and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) killed 54 Muslims in New Zealand. You can’t stand in solidarity with the Muslim community and simultaneously disavow Muslim women for speaking their truths." Called out, Bland later apologized for her lack of "mindfulness."

There is clearly a link between racist rhetoric and incitement, and physical attacks. But there is no clear reason why prominent U.S. progressives would single out the Jewish minority, rather than the far more influential nationalist rhetoric of Fox News, the 'alt-right,’ and, of course, President Donald Trump. Jews, in fact, have loudly and vocally challenged the racist, xenophobic tropes increasingly used in right-wing U.S. public discourse. 

But in that Facebook post, it was crystal clear who bore the ethical stain for the New Zealand attacks: "American Jewish Establishment, I’m looking at you."

It wasn’t enough to cast the pall of suspicion of blame for New Zealand on Jews alone - but also their liberal defenders. 

Witness Chelsea Clinton’s encounter at a public vigil in New York City, by students who accused her of using words which "stoked the massacre." The daughter of former Secretary of State had sent a few generic tweets in relation to the Ilhan Omar debate, asking people to refrain from using "anti-Semitic language and tropes." 

The enraged students didn’t let up. To a supportive crowd, they told Clinton: "I want you to feel that deep inside: 49 people died because of the rhetoric you put out there."

But why the Jews?

The New Zealand mosque attacks are the clearest example possible of how Muslims are increasingly threatened by the far right’s deadly violence, accused - according to its "great replacement" theory - of infiltrating, overwhelming and conquering majority Christian societies. 

Yet as the sociologist Ruth Wodak shows, Muslims are only one part of the far-Right’s "overall Feindbild" or existential global enemy. For the far right, immigration is not caused by war, poverty, persecution, or the striving for a better life. Instead it is orchestrated by Jews, who seek to undermine Western civilization.

This same ideology motivated the gunman who shot dead Jewish worshippers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last fall, believing he was attacking the supposed orchestrators of an "invasion" of immigrant caravans.

Sadly, the Right is not alone in being gripped by warped ideologies like these. The Christchurch conspiracy theories show that people across the political spectrum believe that surface level events are only the expression of evil forces operating from behind the scenes. Those forces are invariably linked to Jews.

That conspiracy theory mindset is deeply rooted in the political culture of various Arab and Muslim societies, from Egypt to Turkey to Pakistan

And despite their proclaimed progressive values, it is also finding fertile ground on the Western left, in tandem with anti-Semitism becoming pervasive in European societies. Pushing an overly simplistic "anti-imperialist" worldview, they attack racism or capitalism on the surface, but target Jews, in various forms, seen as the real forces behind global politics: Israel, the Mossad, "Zionist businesses," or the "American Jewish Establishment."

But why do they too fall for this delusion? For the social theorist Moishe Postone, the answer lies in the attempt to explain contemporary social problems in terms of a division between a surface level of appearances – visible and accessible to us all - and a hidden, elite domain of evil power, which corrupts and controls society from behind the scenes. 

File photo: A woman looks at the floral tribute near the Linwood mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 21, 2019.
Vincent Thian/AP

In conspiracist thinking, the New Zealand gunman was the direct actor, but he had little agency himself. Rather, he was a pawn of more powerful forces, directing and financing his actions.

These puppet masters are the real agents in history, who have morally corrupted society with their prejudice, their money, and their quest for power, and they direct others as pawns in their proxy geopolitical race/racist war. Because their actions inevitably cause atrocities and suffering, they must be exposed and stripped of their power.

The violence perpetrated against Muslims in New Zealand was searing, shocking and horrific. It only deepens the tragedy that another minority group is entirely spuriously accused of effectively perpetrating the massacre. 

The gunman put his white supremacist motivations down on paper in a long manifesto, but his own words aren’t enough to sway "critically engaged" writers and demagogues who are convinced the Jews and the Jewish state, the "real" perpetrators of this – and, in their eyes, so many more global conflicts - have yet to be punished. 

Anti-Semitism’s long history is evidence enough of how flexibly it can adapt to – and be adopted by - different political and cultural contexts. The wider fight against racism and bigotry, not least the lethal Islamophobia which led to Christchurch, will be fundamentally compromised if those who fight it are comfortable with bigotry’s redirection towards Jews.

Robert Ogman is a journalist and lecturer on contemporary politics and social issues and lives in Germany. Twitter: @r_ogman