On Saturday, a white supremacist attacked the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, murdering eleven people, specifically targeting the elderly and the infirm. In the aftermath of the attack, two separate narratives emerged regarding anti-Semitism. The first acknowledged the different nature of anti-Semitism; the second attempted to obscure that nature. The first narrative argued that anti-Semitism is a special sort of evil: a shapeshifting evil tied inextricably with conspiratorial thinking, an evil dedicated to the proposition that a shadowy cabal of ethnically tainted or religiously motivated villains have been manipulating the levers of power. The second narrative argued that anti-Semitism is merely a special phylum of a broader kingdom: It’s a mere form of generalized bigotry, springing from the same sources as other forms of bigotry.
The first story was told, interestingly enough, by President Trump — a man whose failure to properly condemn the alt-right supposedly provided the backdrop to the attack. (Suffice it to say that while Trump’s behavior with regard to the alt-right in 2016 and 2017 was deeply scurrilous, no serious evidence exists that Trump is an anti-Semite; white-supremacist attacks on Jewish targets have long predated Trump; the shooter in this case didn’t like Trump because he felt Trump was insufficiently anti-Semitic.) Trump explained, “We must stand with our Jewish brothers and sisters to defeat anti-Semitism and vanquish the forces of hate. That’s what it is. Through the centuries, the Jews have endured terrible persecution. . . . Those seeking their destruction, we will seek their destruction.”
The second story was told, in tweet-form, by President Obama. Obama stated: “We grieve for the Americans murdered in Pittsburgh. All of us have to fight the rise of anti-Semitism and hateful rhetoric against those who look, love, or pray differently. And we have to stop making it so easy for those who want to harm the innocent to get their hands on a gun.”
Why are these two different narratives important? Because they say something about America, and they say something about how best to fight anti-Semitism.