By Lindsay Schubiner, Director of Programs
While the world watched in horror at the devastating Hamas terrorist attack on Israelis on October 7 and remains horrified by the mounting civilian casualties in Gaza and the hostage crisis — white nationalists in the United States and around the world took notice as well.
And they saw an opportunity.
In the last month, we’ve seen an alarming escalation in hate violence and dangerous speech in the U.S., a wave of antisemitism and Islamophobia online and offline. This escalation of antisemitism and Islamophobia — both in rhetoric and physical violence — while fueled by the crisis in the Middle East, is also the result of the sinister phenomenon of white nationalist and anti-democracy organizing in the U.S.
In my work at Western States Center, an organization that monitors and counters American white nationalist and anti-democracy movements, we’ve learned from tracking social media and in-person protests to spot the evolving narratives and tactics of these groups as they emerge.
The latest trend has been white nationalist attempts to appropriate pro-Palestinian movements with the goal of mainstreaming antisemitism and increasing domestic conflict.
This reflects a core strategy of today’s white nationalist movement, which regularly attaches its exclusionary ideology to current events, seeking relevance and recruitment of new supporters. Among this group are what we call “accelerationists” these are extremist actors who seek to sow chaos and violence to hasten the downfall of democratic society and rebuild it according to white nationalist ideals.
It’s a strategy that has worked before to mainstream bigoted narratives. White nationalists effectively inserted themselves into the political fray at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, relying in no small part on antisemitic tropes such as false conspiracy theories that the pandemic was a Jewish plot.
They experienced a huge boost in the spread of their messages online, which seeped into broader anti-democracy movements such as those protesting public health measures.
Similar effects are already starting to appear, with overt antisemitism increasingly reflected in language used by more mainstream anti-democracy actors. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk is part of this trend. While he has flirted with antisemitism in the past, his statements in the context of the crisis are part of a pattern of escalation: he recently blamed “Jewish dollars” for funding “cultural Marxist ideas.” White nationalists embraced and celebrated the comments.
These efforts to exploit pro-Palestinian organizing do not necessarily reflect any deeper ideological alignment. Just a few days into the crisis, white nationalist Nick Fuentes admitted as much — he expressed apathy about the region, but argued that supporting Palestinians is a strategic opportunity, saying on his America First show that if Israel’s action in Gaza “is going to rally international support against them, then once again this becomes a situation where the enemy of my enemy becomes our friend.”
The internet has always been a place for extremist communities to test out their violent rhetoric before deploying it in person. While historically limited to small corners of the web, the past few years have seen an acceleration in the mainstreaming of white nationalist ideologies and the testing of white nationalist messaging and recruitment tactics.
As the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism reported in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, there was a 500% increase in antisemitic and anti-Muslim attacks on unregulated social platforms popular among white nationalists like Gab and 4chan.
As this strategy has percolated on online forums, podcasts, and social media, white nationalists have deployed this approach to a handful of in-person events across the country.
Mike Peinovich, one of the organizers of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, brought 40 white nationalists to the White House to protest Israel’s actions.
Using classic antisemitic tropes, he made his case to attendees, “We Americans have been snookered into supporting [Israel] by Jewish control of our banks, our media, and our politicians, but we have to say enough and rise up as a people.”
White nationalist “active clubs” traveled to Missoula, Montana, attempted to join a rally for a ceasefire in Gaza, and then engaged in intimidation at the International Rescue Committee offices and Har Shalom synagogue. Similarly, white nationalist actions that use the current political moment to spread antisemitism have been reported in Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
Thankfully, their offline efforts have largely failed. In Missoula, rally organizers rejected their attempts to join and swiftly released a statement denouncing white nationalism and antisemitism. Peinovich’s rally was dwarfed by, and not integrated into, the much larger pro-Palestinian rally in D.C. at the same time.
As Ben Lorber of Political Research Associates recently wrote in a guide for organizers of protests, “White nationalists’ incendiary slogans and rhetoric aim to inject antisemitism into solidarity protests to further their own agenda to fuel conflict, threatening the physical safety and political demands of demonstrators.”
At the same time, white nationalist promotion of anti-Muslim bigotry has not slowed, with many white nationalists decrying the possibility of Palestinian refugees resettling in Europe and North America and encouraging others not to support Palestinians who they claim “hate” white people.
“It’s a pity both sides can’t lose,” said the moderator of a white nationalist Telegram channel. Elected officials, media outlets, and others with a platform have joined in, amplifying anti-Muslim fearmongering.
And as we’ve warned about bigoted rhetoric time and time again, the stakes are life and death.
A man in Illinois killed a six-year-old Palestinian American boy named Wadea Al Fayoume while allegedly yelling “you Muslims must die.” He reportedly had been influenced by right wing radio coverage of the war. Antisemitic death threats sparked a wave of fear on Cornell’s campus, and a Jewish man, Paul Kessler, was killed in Los Angeles following an altercation at a pro-Palestinian protest. New incidents of antisemitic and anti-Muslim threats and vandalism are being reported almost daily.
For those of us seeking to find a way forward that is free of bigotry and values all human life, it’s critical to understand white nationalist strategies for what they are — both a wedge designed to keep us from seeing each other’s humanity and an accelerant to spread hate. We can mourn the loss of life, reject all hatred and bigotry, engage in principled organizing, and do so without leaving any openings for white nationalists to exploit.
Originally published in Haaretz November 21, 2023