Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism
John T. Earnest came to a small synagogue in a small California city of 50,000 with a rifle and big dreams of killing Jews. In a manifesto posted on 8chan, he boasted, "I would die a thousand times over".
The Neo-Nazi wannabe killer listed Adolf Hitler as his inspiration. "My act will inspire others to take a stand as well,” he wrote in his manifesto. “And when this revolution starts gaining traction (if I am not killed) I expect to be freed from prison and continue the fight.”
Inside, an elderly Rabbi, a 60-year old woman, an 9-year-old girl, and other Jewish worshipers celebrating the final day of Passover showed him the true meaning of courage.
The older congregants in the sanctuary of Chabad of Poway, the city’s sole Orthodox Jewish synagogue, were reciting Yizkor, the prayer for deceased loved ones, an occasion that can summon even the most secular Jew to the synagogue, while the younger children were playing in the synagogue’s hall.
Had Earnest opened fire in the sanctuary, many of the congregants asking the Lord to embrace their parents and grandparents, and unite their souls with those of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all of their forefathers, would have joined them in death. But instead, the Neo-Nazi was drawn after the Rabbi and the congregation’s children who embodied the innocence and goodness he was driven to destroy.
The Neo-Nazi stopped in the lobby and opened fire on Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein and the children.
Rabbi Goldstein rushed to get the children out of the hall. He was wounded, and lost his right index finger, but kept saving the children. Lori Gilbert Kaye, a 60-year-old longtime congregant, jumped in to stop a bullet meant for the Rabbi and was killed. Her husband, a doctor, would fight to keep her alive.
Almog Peretz, an Israeli tourist who had faced Islamic terror at home, grabbed more children and rushed them to safety. He was shot in the leg, but that didn’t stop Peretz who recalled being under fire in Israel.
His brother-in-law, Israel Dahan, flipped over a table to shield the children. His daughter, 9-year-old, Noya Dahan, was hit by in the leg. But the 9-year-old girl later insisted on sharing a photo of herself smiling from the hospital.
Shimon Abitbul, an Israeli grandpa visiting his family, covered his grandson with his body.
Earnest had come in vowing to kill as many Jews as he could. He had boasted of his bravery and of his willingness to die. “Fear is the only thing holding you back,” he had bragged.
But in the face of their courage, he faltered. His rifle jammed. An Iraq War vet congregant rushed at him. And he ran for it.
The Neo-Nazi had brought a soundtrack including the Pokemon theme song and a track from a Halo video game to inspire him. His intended victims had brought their faith in God.
He had expected to break them. Instead their determination broke him.
An off duty Border Patrol officer who was a member of the congregation fired at him as he ran. The shots missed the killer, but struck his car. While the congregants waited for the police, Rabbi Goldstein, his bloody fingers wrapped in a prayer shawl, delivered a sermon encouraging his congregants to be brave. Earnest, afraid that he might be shot by police, called 911, left the car, raised his hands and surrendered.
The attack on Chabad of Poway did not happen in a vacuum. The Chassidic Jewish group has been a mecca for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including claims that they served as the interface between Putin and Trump. That claim didn’t appear in some fringe publication, but in a popular Politico article.
Earnest’s manifesto had expressed hatred not just for Jews, but for Trump as, “Zionist, Jew-loving”. Those were the same sentiments featured in an anti-Semitic cartoon in the New York Times of President Trump wearing a Jewish skullcap and being led around by a long-nosed dog with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s face in another convergence of alt-left and alt-right anti-Semitism.
The quiet city where a Neo-Nazi gunman opened fire is over 2,700 miles away from the headquarters of the New York Times and Politico, but anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have a ubiquitous appeal for socialist fanatics, whether their role model is Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. The events thousands of miles apart showed how compelling anti-Semitism is for the urban newspaper editor and the deranged thug, for their shared dreams of a racial war that will fracture America into the broken horror of their utopia.
To Politico and to the gunman, a small synagogue in a small city was an outpost of the hidden empire of the Jewish conspiracy. To the alt-left media, a Chabad Rabbi might be the hidden link between Republicans and Moscow. To alt-righters like Earnest, it was a chain in a conspiracy of usury and war. To the New York Times, Politico and the Neo-Nazi killer, President Trump was just a dupe of the Jews.
In a fractured society, anti-Semitism is a language shared by a Neo-Nazi like John Earnest and an Islamist like Rep. Omar and the leftists in the mainstream media. Jewish conspiracy theories are ancient, but are still kept alive by diverse fanatics who use them to make sense out of a chaotic multicultural landscape.
The world of the alt-left and the alt-right, of Islamists, Nazis and Marxists, makes so much sense if you assume that a tiny minority of a few million can be blamed for everything that stands in their way.
The New York Times wants people to believe that there would be peace in the Middle East if it weren’t for the Jews. Politico wanted its readers to believe that Trump would be in jail if it weren’t for the Jews. And John Earnest believed that he would have a girlfriend and a satisfying life if it weren’t for the Jews.
Why the Jews?
John Earnest’s rantings give us part of the answer. The 19-year-old who had spent his life playing video games wanted to be a hero. But he didn’t want to join the military or the police. Nor did he want to follow through on becoming a nursing student and doing the hard work of taking care of people.
Instead, he loaded up a video game soundtrack and went after the easiest and softest target in the area.
The vast conspiracy theories about the Jews would allow him to play a hero by opening fire with a rifle on elderly congregants and children. He imagined that this act of terror would turn inspire others.
But the heroism of anti-Semitism isn’t just celebrated on 8chan.
Every media attack on Israel is treated as an act of courage. After three generations of ceaselessly attacking Israel, the New York Times recently ran an op-ed titled, Time to Break the Silence on Palestine. Media critics of Israel claim that they’re a beleaguered minority constantly being silenced and muzzled, when theirs are the only voices we hear from anymore. Like Earnest, they too want to be heroes.
It takes no courage to shoot elderly people with a gun. Or to run another anti-Semitic hit piece against people who are almost as unarmed. But such is the courage that the alt-left and the alt-right celebrate.
Anyone can be an anti-Semite. The material is familiar and simple. And so anyone can be a hero.
Anti-Semitism is the last refuge of cowards. It’s the laziest hatred that requires the least creativity. The alt-left revived anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism. The alt-right dressed it up in hipster irony, in anime and video game references. But all they’ve done is slap a little fresh paint on a beat-up old car.
John Earnest was a coward. Not just because he ran when his weapon jammed and he feared facing down the grandparents and parents of the children he had just tried to murder without a gun in hand.
He was a coward because he blamed his problems on the oldest, worn-out bigotry on the books. Instead of finding the courage to live a meaningful life, he took away his own options with a murderous fantasy. But the even bigger cowards are to be found in an alt-right internet culture that egged him on for laughs. His true counterparts are the Islamic terrorists who, instead of building working societies, plot acts of mass murder in revenge for the historical conspiracy theories they blame for everything.
“You know, with the loss of my index finger, it’s going to be a scar for the rest of my life – to both – to remind us of literally how vulnerable we are, but also how brave we need to be. Everyone needs to be a hero. Everyone needs to step up and do something in the face of terror,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
A meaningful life is made up of bravery built on vulnerability.
Victimhood culture tells its victims that their vulnerability is a crime committed against them by a conspiracy of Jews, infidels, or racists that must be met with grievance and violence. Like Earnest, they believe that they are doomed. Their only salvation can come from destroying the lives of others.
And that is cowardice.
John Earnest didn’t really hate Jews. He hated himself. He tried to kill what he hated about himself by killing Jews. His failure is not unique. Earnest admired Hitler who tried to kill what he hated about Germany by killing Jews. His counterparts on the alt-left consist of socialists who tried to kill the flaws in Communism by killing Jews, and the Islamists who tried to do the same for the flaws in the Caliphate.
Other peoples, including, most recently Christians in Sri Lanka, can be substituted for Jews.
No amount of dead Jews would have saved Earnest from seeing the emptiness in the mirror. Just as no amount of dead Israelis will reconcile the contradictions of Islam and rebuild the Caliphate. Hitler and Stalin couldn’t make socialism work no matter how many Jews they killed. And no matter how many Jewish children he drowned, an ancient Pharaoh could never escape the fact that he wasn’t a god.
The Jews whom John Earnest came to kill had a secret. But it did not involve international finance, war or global conspiracies. It was a story of redemption for a man about to damn himself forever.
The end of Passover marks the splitting of the sea. As the waters parted, the Jewish slaves fled into the depths, expecting death, as the Egyptian armies closed on them. In the hall of Chabad of Poway, a few Jews fled, bleeding, with children in their arms, expecting death. Instead, miraculously, they were saved.
And Pharaoh watched, unbelieving, as suddenly a higher power made Its presence known in this world.