Blog: Through Testimony

Words that Kill: The Genocidal Nature of Antisemitism

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 11:25am -- rob.kuznia

Contributor: Stephen Smith

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 11:25am

Let’s say a young man sprays "John loves Sally" onto a wall to celebrate his new love.  It may be a misdemeanor because it damages property, but otherwise is harmless graffiti. So too when John then sprays the symbol of his favorite white supremacist band.  But when he scrawls a swastika and "Death to the Jews" on the Jewish cemetery wall, it is a genocidal threat.

The slaying of innocent Jewish lives by Pittsburgh gunman Robert Bowers, who on Saturday turned his rhetoric about killing Jews into the actual killing of Jewish people, is the latest example of many centuries that evidence such behavior.  The history of antisemitism is strewn with the corpses of Jews who could not get out of the way when words turned to violence.  This is not a matter for the Jews alone; rather, the problem belongs to entire society in not recognizing the lethal potency of antisemitism.

Let us be clear: This is not just hate speech, these are explicit threats.  We need laws to allow intervention much earlier, or this will not be the last time we see Jewish people die in America because they are Jews.

We need no reminder that the Nazis were the masters of rhetoric.  No one should have been surprised when Hitler murdered the Jews, because the logical ramifications of everything that was written and said was the extermination of the Jews. The book "The Yellow Spot: The Extermination of Europe’s Jews" was published in 1936. It was clear to the authors four years before the Final Solution began that some kind of final solution was inevitable, based on what was being said.

There is legal precedence following the Rwandan genocide as determined by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda established by the United Nations Security Council.  Ferdinand Nahimana is serving time for running a radio station that incited hatred; Simon Bikindi is serving time for writing songs. Yes, a musician was given a life sentence by an international tribunal for song writing.  The only conclusion, words can and did kill.

Other legal precedence exists that outlaws Holocaust denial in several European countries.  The prevention of speech is not to do with fact checking history in the courts, that would rail against everything that free speech laws are made to protect, but because there is a fundamental recognition that speech that denies the Holocaust carries with it the inherent threat of the original crime itself.

In other words, the denial of the Holocaust contains a threat of a repetition.

As a newly minted citizen about to vote for the first time, I took an oath, learned the amendments and am proud to uphold it as a dutiful citizen. The First Amendment in particular gives us all great and wonderful freedoms. But how we interpret the Constitution and apply it in law is drawn by our legislators.  There is a difference between speech that is hurtful but not harmful, and speech that is demonstrably harmful in its own right. All too often, our narrow reading of harm requires a physical act to take place to determine whether the speech can be linked retroactively to the motive or intent of the violent party -- after the fact.

In February of 2015, a young man named Dylann Roof created a website to host his manifesto.

"We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet," he lamented. "Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me."

Four months later, Roof walked into a historically black church with a gun and opened fire, killing nine African American congregants.

Bowers, too, spewed hate on social media that now, with the benefit of hindsight, reads as a chilling red flag.

“It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!” he posted on Gab, a social-media platform popular amongst the alt-right. "Stop the Kikes then Worry about the Muslims."   

In the light of history, it is time to re-examine death threats based on race or religion.

Phrases such as "All the Jews must die" allegedly called out before the killing at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is now demonstrably harmful, and should be placed in a category of speech in its own right.  We know very well that anyone who says ‘death to the Jews’, is uttering an existential threat to actual Jewish lives based on substantial body of evidence.

It is time our law-makers struggle with the reality that antisemitism attacks our society and has proven itself to be a killer of Jewish people and others. It is the role of the law to do everything in its power to prevent such loss.

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Stephen Smith

Stephen D Smith is the Andrew J. and Erna Finci Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 53,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He also holds the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education and is an Adjunct Professor of Religion. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict.