As most Davisites have learned by now, at least twice over the past two weekends, masked men displayed antisemitic banners from a highway overpass in Davis (see Davis Enterprise article for details).
The banners said, “Communism is Jewish” and “The Holocaust is an anti-white lie.”
Several local leaders issued responses. These responses, although all were well-meaning, miss the mark a bit. I want to try to explain why.
Chancellor Gary May said: “We are sickened that anyone would invest any time in such cowardly acts of hate and intimidation. They have no place here. We encourage our community to stand against antisemitism and racism.”
This isn’t false per se, but it’s incomplete. This isn’t just an act of hate. As I will explain further below, the banners replicate common tropes (repeatedly told stories) about Jewish people. Without calling out those tropes, many will not understand, or fully understand, what the issues are.
Chancellor May is correct that anti-Semitism and racism are connected, but he doesn’t say how. Again, more on this below.
Davis Mayor Lucas Frerichs tweeted, “I’m disturbed to see the photos of these banners being hung from a prominent overpass. Hate has no place in Davis, and a common denominator to Holocaust deniers is Anti-Semitism. As Mayor, I stand in support w/our Jewish community in Davis, UCD & beyond.”
Again, hate is invoked in this apparently well-meaning but incomplete statement. The assertation that “a common denominator to Holocaust deniers is Anti-Semitism” is so obviously a truism that it really doesn’t convey very much.
DJUSD Superintendent Matt Best likewise condemned the “acts of hate.”
Here’s the thing that all of these statements are missing: Holocaust denial has a specific context and a specific purpose. As this short video explains, Holocaust denial “a common anti-Semitic trope depicts Jews as “manipulative and powerful influences of world government and the media.” (You may have seen this trope elsewhere; if you haven’t, keep an eye out and you will surely come across it). In line with this trope, the claim is that Jews have “fabricated myths of their own suffering (such as the Holocaust) for their own benefit… Holocaust denial first began with the Nazi party itself, who declared that the concentration camps were a fabrication of the Allied forces to win public support against Germany.”
In other words, Holocaust denial isn’t just a historically false claim about one of the most well-documented events in human history. It is intended to foster distrust and doubt about Jewish people. And, of course, it tries to defang the “Never Again” vow; if the Holocaust had never occurred or underplayed (e.g., by citing a number much fewer than the actual 6 million killed) then the impetus to guard against its recurrence disappears or loses strength.
Of course, the banner doesn’t just proclaim that the Holocaust is a lie. It proclaims it to be an “anti-white” lie. This gets to Chancellor May’s point about racism. Many Jews are seen as white. But historically, Jews have also been seen as a distinct race; Hitler certainly portrayed them that way. When white supremacists march with Nazi flags and Confederate flags, when the KKK targets both Jews and Black people, the connection is clear. White supremacists target Black people and Jews alike – essentially, anyone who is not a straight Christian white male.
“Communism is Jewish” feeds into this connection as well. Another trope has Jews aiding and abetting people of other races against white people, something that “communists” purportedly do. Jews were prominent in the civil rights fights of the 1960s; today, the issue is immigration and the “Great Replacement Theory” that whites will be “replaced” by non-white immigrants (never mind the obvious point that whites are immigrants here who replaced the Indigenous populations).
Davis has an educated populace. Events like these can be turned into learning experiences that can help us to identify racist and anti-Semitic speech in all of its forms, including tropes not mentioned here and tropes specific to other races – e.g., there are a number of common Asian tropes as well. I fully admit that I am not the most knowledgeable person to speak on these issues; I write this only to start the conversation, not to position myself as an expert.
I hope those who are experts take the opportunity to speak up and that Davisites take the opportunity to listen.