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01.10.11

Was the Arizona Shooter an Anti-Semite?

Jared Loughner may not be linked to the racist group American Renaissance, contrary to early reports, but Eric Alterman reports on whether he attacked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her proud Jewishness.

Jared Loughner may not be linked to the racist group American Renaissance, contrary to early reports, but Eric Alterman reports on whether he attacked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her proud Jewishness. Plus, full coverage of the Arizona shooting.

So Gabrielle Giffords was the proud “ first Jewish woman” ever to be elected to Congress from Arizona. According to—I say this with trepidation—Fox News, investigators are looking whether Jared Lee Loughner is somehow connected to American Renaissance, a right-wing racist organization that is apparently not so fond of Jews. Someone in the Department of Homeland Security may or may not have authored a memo wondering whether Loughner is “possibly linked” to the group.

It’s all a little unclear. The memo apparently claims that American Renaissance is “anti-government, anti-immigration, anti-ZOG (Zionist Occupational Government), anti-Semitic.” But the experts over at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project say the friendly folks at American Renaissance are more concerned with demonstrating, together with Charles Murray and his supporters, the inferiority of African-American intelligence and are “not into” Jews, per se.

And the American Renaissance folks claim on their website that they had nothing to do with Loughner, wouldn’t know him from Adam, and that he did not subscribe to their magazine, attend their conferences, visit their site, or send them a holiday card for Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa. (I added that last part.) They add, moreover, that “AR is not anti-government, anti-Semitic, or anti-ZOG, as is clear from the 20 years of back issues that are posted on our website. The expression ‘ZOG’ has never appeared in the pages of AR, and we have has always welcomed Jewish participation in our work.” What’s more, they say they have never even mentioned Giffords on their website, though perhaps a few articles excerpted by other anti-Semites might have. Jared Taylor, editor of American Renaissance, moreover, says he suspects that the memo did not originate with the Department of Homeland Security but rather with “local law enforcement.” (Yes, that is really how far to the right you have to be a right-winger who does not trust Fox News.)

Ironically, while Giffords considers herself a proud Jew, belonged to a shul, and was on a regional board of the ADL, she is nowhere near Jewish enough to be married by a rabbi in Israel, or even by an Orthodox or most conservative rabbis in the U.S. Her father’s own father was originally named Akiba Hornstein, before he changed his last name to “Giffords” to make it sound more Arizona-ish. His mother is a Christian Scientist. By strict Jewish law, which follows a matrilineal line, Giffords is not a Jew. (Though here in the U.S., and in many other nations, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis are now fine with patrilineality, so long as the individual in question self-identifies as Jewish and the couple promises to raise their children in the Mosaic faith.)

Giffords did make rather a big deal about her Jewishness. “If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it,” she liked to say during her campaign. “Jewish women, by our tradition and by the way we were raised, have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t, or can’t be done, and pull people together to be successful.” She was a strong supporter of Israel and credits a 2001 visit there with her desire to associate herself much more with the People of the Book.

Loughner had any number of potential inspirations, however murderously over the top his method of expressing his anger may have been.

But it’s foolish to generalize about exactly what motivated this nutcase, Loughner. Most of the anger directed at Giffords during the past few years was directed at her willingness to support Obama’s health-care reform plan and her unwillingness to embrace Arizona’s draconian laws to scapegoat Hispanics for the problem of border control.

The shooter might have seen Giffords’ district depicted in the crosshairs of a gun sight on Sarah Palin’s “targeted list,” as the congresswoman herself observed during the election. He might have thought Nevada Republican senatorial candidate Sharron Angle was speaking directly to him when she hinted not so subtly, that “Second Amendment remedies” might be necessary to redress the foolishness that liberals were visiting upon America.

Just as possibly, however, Loughner shared the kinds of views of Texas State Republican Executive Committee member John Cook, who, when faced with the prospect of a Jewish speaker of the state House, said, “We elected a House with Christian, conservative values. We now want a true Christian conservative running it.” Possibly, also, Loughner’s a Glenn Beck fan who heard anti-Semitic ravings against George Soros and other incitements to violence, and decided that it was his responsibility to take out the closest Jewish liberal he could find.

It might have been all of it and it might have been none of it. The fact is, given the level of mental instability exhibited by Loughner, we likely will never know. And it behooves the rest of us to pretend as if we do. (And seriously, if not even Abe Foxman is willing to play the anti-Semitism card, what right have the rest of us? It’s like Keith Richards telling everyone to sober up a bit.)

But we can be certain of a few things. First, we have plenty of crazies running around this country, and an uncomfortable number of them are armed. In fact, the semiautomatic pistol Loughner used to shoot 20 people had been banned under the Clinton crime bill—a bill that, more than anything, cost him his House majority in 1994 owing to the NRA’s campaign to ensure that the Loughners of the world had their pick of such weapons. Add to that a willingness in our culture to abide by all kinds of incitement to hatred, scapegoating of victims, the tossing around of wild conspiracy theories, and even to respect those who make money selling the stuff, well then, Loughner had any number of potential inspirations, however murderously over the top his method of expressing his anger may have been.

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available now.