The Poway Synagogue Shooting: Anti-Semitism and Ideological Dogma

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Thursday, June 20, 2019


On April 27, a horrifying shooting took place in a small suburb outside of San Diego. This little town is called Poway, and it’s where I’ve spent the vast majority of my life. Upon hearing the news that a lone shooter opened fire inside the Chabad of Poway, killing one and injuring three others, I was heartbroken and disgusted. While the predictable partisan bickering ensued following the Chabad shooting, it was different this time— at least for me.

Poway is a quiet, quaint town with a great school district and plenty of unifying institutions, including sports leagues for all ages, a public library, a bowling alley, and numerous family-owned restaurants. My dad and I can’t get enough of the burritos at El Armando’s, a small Mexican food restaurant a couple miles from our home. I’ve lived in and around Poway since kindergarten. I went to high school at Rancho Bernardo High, a few miles from the Chabad of Poway.

Shortly after the shooting, I learned that the injured were in the emergency room at Palomar hospitala hospital we drove by each day on the way to my elementary school, in the same emergency room that I was in a few years back. This shooting hit close to home, to say the least.

It was strange to see “Poway” trending on Twitter and the President tweeting about our town. This was the kind of thing that happens somewhere else, not here. I’m sure many people have had similar thoughts following shootings in their hometowns, especially since these events are surreal and sickening.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past month or so wondering how this could have possibly happened in my backyard. How a 19-year-old nursing student—with a loving and supportive family by all accounts—who graduated from a nearby high school could have gunned down Jews in their place of worship on the final day of Passover.

The obvious place to start is anti-Semitism, given that the shooting specifically targeted a local synagogue. The recent rise in anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world is deeply concerning, although the hatred of Jews is certainly nothing new. Several thousand years of oppression may make anti-Semitism seem “normal,” but there’s also something unique to this form of hate.

I considered whether the shooter was just deeply mentally ill, incapacitating his ability to think and act rationally. After reading his manifesto, which I will not share the link to, I’m convinced that mental illness isn’t the scapegoat one may hope for following such appalling violence. Instead, the shooter wrote a long and contemplated essay that exposed his deep-seated malevolence.

He repeatedly discussed his hatred for Jews and his desire to murder them, while reiterating that he was acting in defense of the “European race.” He went as far as to blame Jews for pushing him to respond violently, a rhetorical tactic used by Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The perpetrator even had the audacity to invoke his supposed Chistianity as justification for his actions.

We don’t need to unpack the delusional incoherence of each of these points, but we must understand the salience of anti-Semitism.

One aspect of the uniqueness of anti-Semitism is that it arises from several sources. Islamists have a long abiding intolerance for Jews that dates back to the seventh century and the origins of Islam. Textual anti-Semitism laid out in the Quran and Hadith is similarly presented in contemporary documents, such as the Hamas Charter. However, it isn’t just fundamentalist Muslims who have deep and unrelenting condemnation for Jews, as the far left has also played a big role in anti-Semitism over the last few centuries.

Karl Marx’s On the Jewish Question is packed with animus for Jews, largely as a result of their economic success and commitment to maintaining Judaic customs. The modern far left has attempted to obfuscate its anti-Semitism under the guise of “anti-Zionism,” with the old tropes of Jews hypnotizing the world and using money to sway influence still persisting.

The third and final variant of anti-Semitism, under which the Poway Chabad shooting is classified, is far right anti-Semitism. The “alt-right” white nationalists who took to the streets in Charlottesville in 2017, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” share the same repulsive ideology as the Poway shooter. This brand of anti-Semitism features blood and soil nationalism, which inevitably includes derision for non-white people.

This brings me to the dangers of ideological dogma. I’m careful to include the “ideological” qualifier here, because I do think that certain dogmas are perfectly justifiable. For instance, I’m fairly dogmatic in my belief that slavery, rape, and murder are bad. Now this may seem obvious, because it should be, but each of these things have been widely accepted at some point in the past. Thankfully, we’ve achieved the moral progress and societal consensus that prevents us from having to continuously rehash whether or not these things are, in fact, wrong.

Unfortunately, most things aren’t quite that simple, so they must be discussed rigorously and reasonably if we are to attain similar progress. Ideological dogma prevents those conversations from getting off the ground, which is deeply dangerous— particularly in a pluralistic society.

One of the most common ways that people become ensconced in their ideological dogma is by secluding themselves, sometimes unintentionally, in an ideological bubble. This phenomenon is increasingly prevalent and concerning in a country that continues to polarize along political, cultural, and geographic lines. We often engage in self-sorting, which spans from the places we live, the food we eat, the news we consume, and the people we see. Modern society and social media have made it rather easy to only engage with people whom we agree with politically and share similar cultural preferences. While this may seem perfectly benign and even ideal as a method of avoiding awkward political disagreements, it’s contributing to the fracturing of our Republic. Furthermore, it’s making it more likely that radical ideas are able to proliferate— unchallenged—within isolated factions.

This occurs across the political spectrum with cosmopolitan, progressive elites laughing at the backwardness of right-wingers at their coastal cocktail parties. On the right, blue collar midwestern workers will proudly count themselves as Real Americans™ while scoffing at those lazy liberals who rely on welfare and food stamps rather than an honest living. I say this as a bit tongue-in-cheek, but the essence of it is true. Beyond that, ideological bubbles can become extremely dangerous, and this was the case with the Poway Chabad shooting. The shooter was frequently active on online websites where far right anti-Semites are known to communicate, such as 8chan.

Several people have asked me how a local nursing student with a loving family and likely a bright future could become so radicalized. Perhaps there is no easy, readily available answer, which may very well be the case. But I think the answer, at least in part, is the pervasiveness of bad ideas—particularly in radical echo chambers where no counterpoints are offered.

One thing I love about science and markets is the existence of a feedback loop, where an idea or product is constantly being analyzed and improved. Science relies largely on peer review and replication studies, while markets rely on the preferences of consumers combined with the innovation of producers. Both of these processes are absolutely vital for scientific and economic progress, and both depend on the feedback of many other people to find blind spots and underdeveloped ideas.

We have a shockingly difficult time with self-assessment, so we need others to analyze from the position of a neutral, objective outsider. Ideological dogma has no time for any such feedback, devolving to assumptions that haven’t been challenged by dissent.

The issue for groups devoted to their bad ideas entrenched in ideological dogma—such as the anti-Semitism of the far right—is that they own no funnels, nor do they have any interest in them. They’re content, as ideologues often are, in remaining immersed in their dogma, immune from any criticism. The tiki torch white nationalists are certain of their views that the European race is superior and that all of the world’s problems can be blamed on the Jews. They have also become angered by their sustained irrelevance, lashing out desperately to draw attention. As Jonah Goldberg recently wrote, “Other than anger, few things define a mob more than the collective feeling of certainty. Like a flood, it swamps decency and bursts through the levee of the law.”

Ideological dogma is dangerous, particularly when it manifests in barbaric actions like the Poway synagogue shooting. Vicious anti-Semitism has been around for several millenia, and its vengeful adherents are clearly committed to maintaining it in the present. We must continue to confront this dogma with reason, and evil with rectitude, relegating malicious ideas to the dustbin of history.

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Michael Huling

University of California, San Diego

Michael Huling is a senior studying political science and philosophy at the University of California, San Diego. He is an editor for Lone Conservative and the communications director for the Republican Party of San Diego County.

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