When news broke that a Jewish person had been shot near a Los Angeles synagogue on Wednesday a week ago, the police statement said there was “no evidence” that the shooter had been targeting Jewish people. When another Jewish person was shot the next day, near the same synagogue, police repeated that these appeared to be separate incidents and that there was again no evidence that Jews were being targeted. Both victims were injured but survived.
When a single suspect in both shootings was arrested Friday, it turned out he has a long history of bombarding Jewish acquaintances and others with violent antisemitic threats.
There is nothing to be gained by having police or anyone else speculate on motives during or in the immediate aftermath of a crime. But if police are going to venture in that direction anyway, why err on the side of randomness? Denying the possibility of antisemitic intent until evidence makes it impossible to do so is a too-common response. It has happened around the world.
In 2015, two days after terrorists murdered 12 people at the offices of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, ISIS-affiliated extremists took hostages and murdered four people at a kosher supermarket in Paris. Then-U.S. president Barack Obama referred to the attack on an explicitly Jewish store as “a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who … randomly shoot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” There was, of course, nothing random about the “deli” that was chosen.
It happened again during an antisemitic attack in Jersey City, N.J., in December 2019, when six people were murdered. Police initially said they believed the kosher market was randomly chosen and there was no evidence of terrorism. Within hours, they acknowledged that the perpetrators had “targeted the location they attacked.”
In 2022, there was an 11-hour hostage-taking at a synagogue in Colleyville, Tex., in which there were thankfully no casualties but the perpetrator. A police spokesperson said immediately after the incident that the hostage-taker’s demands were “specifically focused on issues not connected to the Jewish community” and, two days later, officials amended this to “a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”
The reality was less oblique. The perpetrator chose that synagogue because it was closest to the federal penitentiary holding a terrorist he sought to free. He chose a synagogue because that would be the surest way to get his demands met since, as he told the hostages, the U.S. “only cares about Jewish lives” and because “Jews control the world.”
What is this instinct to deny that antisemitism is a cause of antisemitic violence until the evidence makes denial untenable?
In her book People Love Dead Jews, Dara Horn posits that efforts at Holocaust education in recent years may be having the opposite of the intended effect. Rather than making people sensitive to anti-Jewish ideas or crimes, it may set the bar too high. When a few people are murdered in Paris or shot in Los Angeles, after all, it’s not the Holocaust. If the only thing a person (or a society) knows about antisemitism is the Holocaust, then cases of hate crimes involving a couple of people are, well, nothing to get too concerned about.
There may be a denial not only of the magnitude, but of the very existence of the phenomenon itself. We are in a time of reckoning about race and racism. These issues are a central fact in our collective discourse. But antisemitism does not fit neatly into this narrative. When skin colour is the defining factor, white-passing Jews are excluded from the discourse and non-white Jews are made even more invisible than they too often already are. Moreover, the outcomes by which racism is measured are, to some extent, economic inequities. Proof of racism is seen in reduced economic outcomes: higher unemployment, lower household wealth, fewer opportunities. These are not, collectively, how antisemitism manifests. Ergo, in some eyes, this means antisemitism does not exist – or does not have the serious, quantifiable impacts other forms of racism have.
Antisemitic incidents, including violent crime, are at alarming levels, according to every survey and measure available. The least that law enforcement, media and ordinary people can do under the circumstances, when a Jewish individual or community is attacked, is avoid retrenching into a defensive position that defaults to the assumption that anything but antisemitism is at work.