The theme of the 24th annual Joseph and Rebecca Meyerhoff Lecture in Judaic Studies was soberingly timely.
The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania hosted “Tracing the History of a Toxic Present: Antisemitism and Resurgent Ethnonationalism” on Nov. 19, just a few days after the FBI reported a 14% rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019.
This year’s lecture was delivered by Alexandra Minna Stern, the Carroll Smith-Rosenberg Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture and Women’s and Gender Studies and Associate Dean for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. She is the author of the books “Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America” and the “Proud Boys and the White Ethnostate.” The latter was published in 2019 and uses historical analysis, feminist studies and critical race studies to deconstruct white nationalism.
She acknowledged the urgency of her topic at the beginning of her talk.
“2020 has seen the emergence and the resurgence en masse of far right actors across the United States and really across the world,” she said. “According to the recent Department of Homeland Security threat assessment report, which was issued earlier this month, 2019 was the most lethal year for white supremacist violence in the country since 1995. And you may remember that was the year of the Oklahoma City bombing.”
She added that white supremacist extremists have conducted more lethal attacks in the United States than any other movement since 2018, attacks responsible for the deaths of 39 people. These statistics are matched by a rise in hate crimes.
Steven Weitzman, director of the Katz Center, introduced the event with a brief summary of the organization’s 2020 fellowship program.
“Our fellowship program this year has been focused on America’s Jewish questions, and our fellows have been aiming to develop new perspectives on the Jewish American experience and on America itself,” he said.
During her talk, Stern explained that the wave of white supremacy and extremism is distinguished by the fact that it has become increasingly visible in mainstream culture through conspiracy theories and social media. She traced this phenomenon to right-wing movements in France in 1968, which focused on influencing culture rather than on existing political parties.
Many on the American far-right believe the Republican party and conservative movements have sold out to Jewish interests, so they seek to influence hearts and minds rather than relying on traditional political organizing.
Stern wrote her latest book because she has studied the history of eugenics and was interested in how it influenced contemporary far-right movements. She argued that the white ethnostate idealized by white nationalists is a eugenic project, and Jews are perceived to threaten that project by encouraging immigration, interracial marriage and the breakdown of gender norms.
“Jews are seen as the group most responsible for the loss of the white American Dream. Nineteen-fifties America has vanished and will never come back in large part due to Jews and Jewish organizations,” Stern said.
She identified specific points in history that American white supremacists look to for support of their views.
“Jews are blamed over and over again for the passage of the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, which is seen as the point of demographic no return, as well as the Voting Rights Act to enfranchise African Americans,” she said. These developments would also set the stage for women’s liberation and gay pride movements in the ’70s.
During her research, Stern found that anti-Semitism sits at the core of far-right ideologies and feeds into racism and xenophobia. Israel is begrudgingly admired and perceived as an ethnostate, yet resented for its Jewish population. Jews are also viewed as the nefarious force behind the destabilization of gender and vilified for promoting non-heterosexuality, women’s rights and transgender rights.
“Many people are surprised when I really foreground transphobia as a key element of white nationalism, but one of the reasons why it’s so central to white nationalism is because it is the ultimate destabilizer of essential gender norms,” Stern said.
Stern illustrated her points with slides featuring hateful memes and images posted by extremists on Twitter and far-right social media platforms. Many of them accused Jews of destroying a 1950s-era white utopian society. Some lauded Hitler youth groups and Nazi propaganda. Stern said these images were widely distributed online and she had collected an extensive library of them during her research.
“It does seem that we’re moving into a kind of new era defined by polarization, instability and disruption, and the rise of the far right, who act in a range of different political and social capacities, is a reflection of that,” she said.