Notes on the Jersey City Shooting

I’ve held off on commenting on the recent anti-Semitic shooting in Jersey City, partly because I’m too overloaded with grading to comment intelligently, and partly because the facts are too sparse for comment. But confusions have already crept into mainstream reporting on the subject. Here is The New York Times.

Investigators also found a manifesto-style note inside the assailants’ van, the law enforcement official and another official familiar with the case said. The document, which was described as brief and “rambling,” suggested no clear motive for the shooting.

Investigators also found a live pipe bomb inside the vehicle, officials said on Wednesday.

Jersey City’s mayor, Steven Fulop, said that Mr. Anderson’s online posts included “favorable sentiment” toward anti-Semitic groups, shared on Facebook.

While the exact beliefs of the Black Hebrew Israelites vary among the groups associated with the movement, followers generally believe that the 12 tribes of Israel defined in the Old Testament are different ethnic groups, or nations, and that white people are not among them.

“They mostly trade in anti-Semitism,” said Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They view Jews as impostors.”

She added that the movement has not been known for committing mass acts of violence.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Mr. Grewal said he would not comment on the assailants’ motives.

“We are working to learn more about the shooters’ motivations, and whether anyone besides the two gunmen may have been involved,” Mr. Grewal said.

But Mr. Fulop, a grandson of Holocaust survivors, said he and other Jersey City officials had no doubt the attack was a hate crime.

“There is no question that this is a hate crime,” Mr. Fulop said. “And anti-Semitism should be called out aggressively and firmly — immediately — for what it is.”

Officials said they did not believe there was any ongoing security threat related to Tuesday’s events.

Exasperating. Three comments.

(1) Both the title of the piece and the header scream out, in bold print, that one of the shooters “had links to the Black Israelite movement.” You’d think that the text under the header would somehow bear this out–but in fact, not one sentence does. The closest we get is the first sentence, which cryptically mentions a “manifesto.” We’re given no clue as to the contents of this manifesto, much less evidence that it so much as mentioned the Black Israelites. No matter: a few sentences later, the Black Israelites come up. Why? What’s the evidence-based reason for bringing them up? The incautious reader is not supposed to ask that question. The cautious reader will grasp that no reason has been given. I guess bringing up the Black Israelites just seems like the thing to do.

Is there any evidence in the public domain to suggest that the shooters had “links” to the Black Israelite movement? As of eight hours ago, i.e., at the time when this story was updated, New Jersey’s Attorney General asserted that one of the shooters had “expressed an interest” in the Black Israelite movement (see the video below, five minutes in). That’s the sum total of the evidence, as of 8 pm on December 12th, of the shooters’ “links” to that movement. But as should be obvious, “expressing an interest in” is not a symmetrical relation: “A expressed an interest in B” doesn’t entail,or even begin to suggest, that B expressed an interest in A. Nor, if B is a group, does it suggest that A was a member of B. So “linked to” is a pretty uninformative relation, one that doesn’t necessarily implicate or involve the Black Israelites at all. From what I’ve read, prominent (or, well, in some circles prominent) Black Israelites have condemned the attack.

Just to be clear: I’m not a partisan or apologist for, much less a member of, the Black Israelite movement myself. As far as I can tell (I’ve run into them a couple of times in Washington Heights), they’re a bunch of street-corner preachers preaching some lunatic theology or other.* But derision for their theology (assuming it’s warranted) shouldn’t so automatically translate into a willingness to saddle them with complicity in murder and terrorism by way of the convenient word “link.” It’s one thing to “link” the shooters with murder. It’s another to link the group in which the shooters expressed an interest to the same. But it sure is easy to do.

(2) The article gives the impression that Grewal and Fulop disagree with one another. They don’t. The suggestion that they do is particularly puzzling in light of the fact that the article was updated at the time of the very press conference (see video above) in which Grewal commented on the assailants’ motives. He described their motives as “anti-Semitic and anti-law-enforcement.” So the sentence “But Mr. Fulop…” is not an exception to Grewal’s comments, as the “but” suggests. Fulop and Grewal both agree that the attack was motivated by anti-Semitic hatred, among other things. Tellingly, neither of them brings up Black Israelites, at least by name.

(3) I know next to nothing about the Black Israelite movement, so I can’t pass judgment on their beliefs, including whether or not they’re anti-Semitic. What strikes me, however, is the ease with which they’re described without adequate explanation as anti-Semitic in the excerpt above. Start with this:

While the exact beliefs of the Black Hebrew Israelites vary among the groups associated with the movement, followers generally believe that the 12 tribes of Israel defined in the Old Testament are different ethnic groups, or nations, and that white people are not among them.

Well, the Twelve Tribes of Israel as defined in the Old Testament did exclude some ethnic groups, didn’t they? They wouldn’t really have been tribes if they hadn’t. If the Twelve Tribes are themselves ethnically exclusive, and assertions of ethnic exclusivity of that kind aren’t regarded as obviously bigoted or racist–are they?–then setting aside the sheer silliness of their views, it’s not clear why the Black Israelites are anti-Semitic for claiming to be the true descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Silly perhaps, but not obviously anti-Semitic.

What we really seem to have here is a somewhat ludicrous struggle over ties of tribal kinship to an ancient people, not bigotry one way or the other. Plenty of contemporary Jews regard themselves as the true descendants of the biblical Israelites; Black Israelites regard themselves as true descendants. The first claim is more plausible than the second (I guess), but I don’t see how the relative plausibility of the first proves the racism of the second. The one claim of descent is no more or less racist than the other. Not that either set of claims is all that edifying. It’s a bit like watching a twenty-first century debate between Robert Filmer and one of his less gifted proteges. About as interesting as a car-wreck, and for much the same reasons.

Granted, it sounds terrible that the Black Israelites exclude white people from the Twelve Tribes. Having married or co-habited with my share of white people, I’m not one to exclude them from much of anything. But correct me if I’m wrong: do modern Zionists regard 21st century Palestinians as descendants of the Twelve Tribes? I’m inclined to think not. Because if they did, it’s a puzzle why a couple million of those happily-included “descendants of the Twelve Tribes of Israel” have spent the last 52 years under military occupation by a Jewish State–excluded from citizenship and equal liberty precisely because they aren’t properly descended from those Twelve Tribes. If Zionism bears “links” to Judaism and to Israel, and is an exclusivist ethno-nationality, how is it that much better than Black Israelism? It may not be as black, but it’s surely as exclusively ethno-nationalist.

I don’t mean to suggest that I know, conclusively, that the Black Israelite movement is not anti-Semitic. It may be, or parts of it may be; I don’t know, or claim to know. Most people don’t. But if most people don’t grasp the nature of a movement, it takes some doing to show that the movement is anti-Semitic. You can’t just pluck a few claims out of the air, consult someone at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and regard your work as done. That’s the basis for a rumor, not a credible accusation. By that method, you might as well equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. But that would be to forget that the Jersey City attack took place in the Greenville Section of Jersey City, home to the famously anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim sect of Orthodox Judaism.** And what sense would that make?

The last time Jersey City was in the national news was when Donald Trump claimed to have seen thousands of Arabs celebrating the 9/11 attacks there. That flying piece of bullshit arose because the “celebrating Arab” story was never quite nailed down by the press when rumors of it started to circulate. The lesson here is that rumor thrives on confusion and dies by the infliction of factual precision. One set of insane rumors was more than enough. Let’s try, for God’s sake, not to have another.


* Though often described as “aggressive,” I’ve never seen any aggression by them. From my admittedly brief encounters with them in Washington Heights, they mostly seem to stand around and gab.

**I don’t claim to know whether the direct victims of the attack were anti-Zionists or Satmar Hasidim, but given the composition of the Jersey City Orthodox community, insofar as the shooters were targeting the Jews of the Greenville neighborhood of Jersey City, they were, for all they knew, targeting anti-Zionist Jews on anti-Semitic grounds. Strange but true.

2 thoughts on “Notes on the Jersey City Shooting

  1. Pingback: How to Fight Anti-Semitism (and How Not To) | Policy of Truth

  2. Pingback: Notes on the Jersey City Shooting (2) | Policy of Truth

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