Antisemitism in Western Extremist Movements: Responding to the Threat
Antisemitism remains a pervasive challenge throughout the West, influencing a variety of violent and non-violent extremists across the political spectrum. In the United States, Jews are the targets of the majority of hate crimes committed against any religious group. While the extremists behind many of these attacks come from many movements, they are all united by a common antisemitic worldview. From Islamists to neo-Nazis and white supremacists, from black supremacists to far-left extremists, each has incorporated antisemitism and antisemitic tropes as key components of their ideologies, and as a means of mobilizing followers to perpetrate acts of violence.
On November 15, 2022 the Program on Extremism at George Washington University (PoE) and the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center (NCITE) co-hosted a virtual event to discuss modern manifestations of antisemitism across extremist movements in the West, and how policymakers can respond. The panel included:
- Samantha Vinograd, Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security;
- Dave Rich, Director of Policy for the Community Security Trust, Britain’s largest non-governmental entity protecting British Jews from antisemitism and related threats;
- Mitch Silber, Executive Director for the Community Security Initiative, which works on enhancing the physical security of the approximately 2,000 Jewish institutions in the New York area.
The panel was moderated by Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Research Director at the Program on Extremism
Our panelists offered sobering insight into how and why antisemitism animates extremism of all types in the West, and how intelligence, law enforcement, and civil society partners can best respond to the threat.
How and Why Does Antisemitism Animate Extremism of All Types in the West?
Four Strands of Antisemitism in Western Extremist Movements
Mitch Silber opened the conversation by identifying four key strands of antisemitism among Western extremist movements, all of which share common tropes. The first, white supremacist and neo-Nazi based antisemitism, leverages a combination of apocalypticism, race war, and replacement-related antisemitic conspiracies to radicalize and mobilize followers to violence. The second, Islamists, believe that Jewish people represent a transhistorical symbol of evil and a perpetual enemy. From the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaeda to the Islamic State and beyond, Islamists of all stripes leverage antisemitism in a variety of formats. Followers in the third strand, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement, hold that Jewish people have stolen the Israelite birthright from Africans, and therefore violence against Jews is legitimate. Finally, the fourth strand, anti-Zionist groups and their supporters, believe that Israel is an illegitimate state, and mobilize extremists to action oftentimes in response to major events and developments. These four strands provide the backbone of antisemitism in Western extremist movements today, and have provided inspiration for some of the most tragic attacks of our time.
Old Ideas, Repackaged
Antisemitic views and conspiracies are not new to Western societies, and can be traced from early Christian writings demonizing Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus, to the ostracizing of Jews during Europe’s Middle Ages and the Crusades, to milestone antisemitic texts like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and beyond. As Dave Rich explained, the deep history of antisemitic tropes and ideas in Western society explains their prevalence across the different strands identified by Silber, but they are constantly being reinvented and repackaged by actors to meet present needs, whether as a powerful political tool or to justify a violent extremist attack. Indeed, today’s lone actors–from Breivik to Tarrant to the recent spate of attackers–re-invent, respond, and contribute to this global subculture of violent online rhetoric that continues to encourage and inspire attacks on the basis of antisemitic beliefs, but which are rooted in conspiracies and beliefs that are hundreds of years old. These ideas have merely been repackaged to resonate with a newer and more diverse audience, and provide the “dynamism” that propels extremist violence.
Cross-fertilization of Antisemitic Ideas
Despite their opposing ideologies, violent extremists of competing stripes have increasingly found common ground in shared antisemitic beliefs. This cross-fertilization of antisemitic ideas across ideologies is being driven by the proliferation and mainstreaming of antisemitic conspiracy theories, which violent extremist movements and their supporters latch on to and incorporate to various ends. A number of recent global events, most notably the COVID-19 pandemic, have supercharged the popularity of antisemitic conspiracy theories, and offered extremists of all stripes quick explanations for overwhelming and at times unexplainable losses and challenges. In fact, some of the most influential conspiracy theories today scapegoat Jewish people for global problems, and have provided violent extremists who are otherwise ideologically divergent opportunities to share antisemitic tropes and even celebrate one another’s attacks on Jewish communities in the West.
Hate on Social Media Platforms
These dynamics are only exacerbated by social media platforms that continue to struggle with content moderation, particularly when it comes to antisemitism. The increasing availability and mainstreaming of antisemitism online is due in part to the algorithms driving online engagement, and in part to the still-burgeoning efforts of those responsible for content moderation to enforce policies. As Assistant Secretary Vinograd noted, the accessibility of antisemitic extremist content – including the tools and tactics undergirding violent attacks – represents a relatively recent yet massive shift in the information environment. Today, extremist content is much easier to find, intentionally or unintentionally, simply by opening an app as a result of algorithms designed to increase engagement. Without reform, antisemitic content is only likely to continue pervading online environments in many forms for the foreseeable future.
The Role of Critical Influencers
Perhaps even more importantly, as Assistant Secretary Vinograd noted in her remarks, norms matter, and the words of leaders and people with influence matters. Today’s critical influencers, whether they be political leaders or artists or athletes, are spreading antisemitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories openly and in mainstream discourse, which in turn can normalize fringe ideas and provide a nexus to violent action. Engaging with and calling out critical influencers can be challenging, too, and in some cases may only reinforce these individuals’ conspiratorial beliefs about Jewish control and manipulation of mainstream media and society. At the same time, the normalization of antisemitic beliefs cannot go unchallenged, and it is often other leaders and influencers who can have the most impact in supporting efforts to counter the mainstreaming of antisemitism.
Shorter “Flash-to-Bang” Windows
Underlying all of these dynamics is a sobering assessment put forth by Assistant Secretary Vinograd: the timeframe from violent extremist ideation to violent action has drastically shortened. As the radicalization and mobilization time frame shrinks, so, too, does the opportunity window to intervene. If families and communities notice concerning indicators–to include adoption of antisemitic beliefs and related ideologies–choosing to seek help at the last minute can lead to devastating outcomes, including failure to stop an attack before it happens. Families and communities rarely seek out federal law enforcement as the first response, and as a result other sectors of our societies are crucial to help identify and intervene early and effectively for those mobilizing to violence.
Responding to the Threat
As a result of these dynamics, a more strategic approach to prevention is necessary, one which acknowledges and addresses the critical role that antisemitism plays across violent extremist movements in the West, and which draws on a whole-of-society approach to respond to the threat.
The Role of the Federal Government
In the US, the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention, Programs, and Partnerships (CP3) is focused on building a “culture of prevention” to meet today’s challenges and those of tomorrow. The Department is prioritizing an approach based on early interventions, and as Assistant Secretary Vinograd noted, four elements are key to that approach. The first involves educating local communities and the public, and promoting help-seeking behavior, as families, friends, and others in local contexts are often the first to identify or notice concerning indicators. The second, sharing with partners, has led to fruitful discussions between DHS and partner agencies in countries like the UK, and is driving the development of cultures of prevention and adoption of best practices within countries that are still grappling with their response. The third element involves DHS and other federal government agencies working with their state-level partners to help develop prevention strategies at a more local level, and to prioritize prevention efforts before an attack hits their communities. The fourth element is equipping and empowering local communities, and providing them with the tools and resources they need. Among these are Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) grants, protective security advisors at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) who can provide security assessments site protection, and the Homeland Security Information Network (HSIN), which provides sensitive but unclassified information between government agencies at all levels and private sector partners.
The Role of Social Media Platforms
As noted by all of our panelists, social media platforms also have a key role to play in strengthening content moderation efforts, and preventing the diffusion and proliferation of antisemitic rhetoric on their sites. While the proliferation of antisemitic and other hateful content online is not solely responsible for mobilizing individuals to violence, the link between the adoption of ideas and violent extremism is both complex and well-studied. Moderation is necessary, but it also comes with its own challenges. In fact, when content moderation efforts ramp up on mainstream social media platforms, users tend to migrate to smaller platforms that offer greater operational security benefits like end-to-end encryption, shirk content moderation responsibility, and provide extremists ample opportunity to disseminate antisemitic materials, propaganda, and attacks instructional material. To support the broader adoption of content moderation policies, as well as the development and sharing of best practices, bodies like the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), as well as initiatives like the Global Network on Extremism and Technology (GNET), must continue to support research efforts and drive policy change. Partnerships with law enforcement must be based on sentiments of cooperation and early intervention in line with the culture of prevention outlined above.
The Role of Civil Society
Finally, civil society actors are vital to any successful prevention strategy, and organizations like those represented by our panelists (CSI and CST) must continue to be equipped and empowered. These organizations, as well as their partners in the research and academic community, can contribute meaningfully to existing government efforts if provided the proper space and access. Some of the best open source intelligence, analysis, and research is the product of civil society organizations working and sharing with local, state, and federal law enforcement partners. As recent events in New Jersey made evident, information sharing across sectors is crucial, and especially as “flash-to-bang” windows continue to shorten among individuals mobilizing to violence. In these contexts, civil society organizations provide the key bridge between local communities and their local, state, and federal government partners, helping to coordinate responses to urgent threats and accessing and implementing the resources noted by Assistant Secretary Vinograd. In fact, both Silber and Rich highlighted key anecdotes of their organizations receiving support from government partners, conducting open source analysis, providing security assessments and consultation to the hundreds of Jewish buildings in areas like New York, and helping to implement physical security when appropriate. Ultimately, these kinds of cross-sector partnerships offer a promising path forward to ensuring the safety and security of the Jewish people in an era of rampant antisemitism across extremist movements in the West.
Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Director of Policy
Community Security Trust (UK)
Community Security Initiative (US)
Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens (moderator)
Program on Extremism