Four people were murdered on Tuesday, and two assailants killed, in an anti-Semitic attack on a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was one of the deadliest attacks against Jews on American soil in the history of the United States; if the perpetrators had succeeded in detonating a pipe bomb they had built, the carnage could have been even worse. And yet the shooting attracted remarkably little attention at first and even now barely seems to be penetrating the national conscience.
Perhaps that’s because, in the House of Representatives, the impeachment articles against President Donald Trump are nearing a vote. Or because William Barr, the attorney general, has launched a set of broadsides against the FBI. Or perhaps the relative silence about the Jersey City massacre is due to the fact that it does not fit a neat political narrative.
For many decades, American Jews felt much more secure about their place in the country than their brethren in many other parts of the world. It is not just that Jews in the United States were highly successful or that they occupied some very visible positions in politics, business, and entertainment. It was also that their presence had long since come to feel like a natural part of a multiethnic and multicultural mosaic. Unlike Jewish schools, museums, and temples in so many other countries, most Jewish institutions in America were not usually in need of special security forces to protect them.
But if Jews are in some respects one of the most successful minority groups in the country, this triumphalist story—call it the myth of the privileged minority—fails to capture the extent to which Jews have also been a special target for hatred, intimidation, and even outright violence. The horrifying attack last fall on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which a white supremacist murdered 11 people, should have driven home the extent of the threat faced by the country’s Jews. According to the FBI, it was hardly an aberration. In 2018, a staggering 58 percent of religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI targeted Jews.
In most important areas of American life, Jews now tend to face fewer disadvantages or forms of discrimination than members of many other ethnic or religious groups do. At the same time, they continue to attract the dedicated hatred of a small minority of the American population, and this does—especially if they can readily be identified as Jews—at times put them in serious physical danger.
This complexity defies how many powerful people—including a large number of left-leaning journalists and policy makers—perceive the world. For some, matters of racism or privilege are always and exclusively structural. A group either stands at the top or at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Since most American Jews are supposedly white (whatever that means), they are presumed to enjoy special privileges. As one of the founders of the Women’s March argued in a statement that, incredibly, was meant to address accusations of anti-Semitism in her movement, “White Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.”
A popular online resource called Dismantling Racism Works goes even further in denying the possibility that groups that enjoy economic or political power can be the victims of racism. “Racism,” it argues, summarizing a growing consensus in the field of critical race studies, “is different from racial prejudice, hatred, or discrimination.” Rather than being an attribute of individuals, it needs to involve “one group having the power to carry out systematic discrimination through the institutional policies and practices of the society and by shaping the cultural beliefs and values that support those racist policies and practices.”
In this mental schema, the identity of the Jersey City victims is a bit inconvenient. The identity of the perpetrators is as well.
At its most extreme, the exclusively structural view of racism not only entails the idea that those who supposedly stand at the top of the social hierarchy, such as Jews, are incapable of becoming the victims of racism; it also suggests that those who supposedly stand at the bottom of the social hierarchy, such as people of color, are incapable of being perpetrators of racism. Vice’s Manisha Krishnan made the point succinctly: “It is literally impossible to be racist to a white person.”
But according to press reports, the shooters in Jersey City belonged to a congregation of Black Hebrew Israelites—a label applied to a variety of largely separate groups, some of which have a long-standing history of racism against ethnic Jews—and had published a slew of anti-Semitic content online.
In short, the events in Jersey City are more complex than the exclusively structural theory of racism can accommodate. A particular racial or religious group can suffer from deep and persistent discrimination—and yet some individuals within that group can be dangerous racists who harbor violent bigotry against members of a group that, in other contexts, suffers fewer disadvantages.
Both of these facts are necessary to make sense of what happened in Jersey City on Tuesday. Yes, African Americans suffer from deep injustice in this country—and every American should regard it as his or her duty to remedy this. And yes, Jews suffer an elevated threat of deadly violence—and we must stand in solidarity with its victims even if the identity of their murderers scrambles ideological preconceptions.
If the debate about structural racism is highly complicated, the moral truth about Jersey City is nevertheless straightforward.