(CNN) — An alleged threat to assassinate Jewish government leaders in Michigan mirrors two of the most dangerous and interrelated threats in American politics and society: an alarming spike in anti-Semitism and escalating threats against elected officials.
Police last month arrested a man accused of posting a Twitter threat to “execute the death penalty” against anyone who is Jewish in the Wolverine State government. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said Thursday she was one of the targets.
This is the latest example of a growing trend of harassment and attacks targeting Jewish people at a time when extremists, who may once have been isolated, are finding validation and incentives to act through social media. Just a few years ago, top US officials would lament rising anti-Semitism in Europe and wonder if the lessons of the Holocaust were being forgotten: now it is a growing and pernicious feature of American life, threatening the safety and peace of mind of millions of citizens who extremists want to be banned as outsiders in their own country.
In certain circles of political and social media—sometimes fueled by celebrities—anti-Semitic rhetoric that was once taboo seems to be making its way into accepted discourse, alongside conspiracy theories like QAnon. It is no coincidence that assaults, vandalism and harassment targeting Jewish communities and individuals in the United States have reached an all-time high.
And the consequences go much deeper than this inhumanity. History shows that anti-Semitism, which appeals to unhinged conspiracy theorists, is often an early warning sign or a symptom of growing threats to democracy. The latest wave of incidents targeting Jewish Americans coincides with unprecedented attacks on the integrity of elections and the officials who conduct them. It comes as right-wing commentators muse on the “Great Replacement Theory,” which argues that outsiders come to America to overwhelm the majority white population — a fantasy that has its roots in anti-Semitism but is now often applied to migrants.
“Unfortunately, whether in Michigan or other parts of the country, we are seeing the confluence of anti-government theories, Covid theories and other conspiracy theories combined with anti-Semitism, and we are seeing how this is driving people to action,” said Oren Segal, vice president of president. chairman of the Center for Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said Thursday on CNN.
“It works not only in spaces online, but also in the fantasies and imaginations of people who are willing to then take action.”
Violence as a political tool
This is an era where political brutality is not just a theoretical possibility. Former President Donald Trump’s lies and incitement spilled over after the 2020 presidential election, when the U.S. Capitol riot revealed in chilling fashion that some Americans view violence as a legitimate means of expressing their political grievances. The brutal lies about stolen elections, the currency that electoral deniers have on the right, and the endless propaganda on conservative television create a festering pool of anger that affects those tempted to act on their own anti-democratic grievances.
The alleged threats against specifically Jewish officials in Michigan are just the most recent and high-profile example of a rising tide of anti-Semitism. Last month, San Francisco police arrested a man who allegedly made political statements and fired apparently blank bullets at a synagogue. Days earlier, a man allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in New Jersey. In December, a 63-year-old man was attacked in New York’s Central Park in what police called an anti-Semitic attack. These were just the latest in a series of anti-Semitic incidents, including inflammatory tweets from Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, with whom Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago in November along with white supremacist Nick Fuentes. Also last year, protesters were spotted giving the Nazi salute and holding banners targeting Jews on a bridge in Los Angeles. Shocking anti-Semitic messages were also projected onto buildings in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 2018, a mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people stunned the nation. The previous year, white supremacists converged in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” in a march about which then-President Donald Trump was ambiguous. Dozens of other incidents failed to make national headlines but had a devastating and terrifying impact on the American Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League found in its latest available annual figures that a total of 2,717 anti-Semitic incidents were reported in 2021 – a 34% increase from the 2,026 incidents reported the previous year.
In the new Michigan case, the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center told the FBI’s Detroit office that a person with the Twitter handle “tempered_reason” said he was heading to Michigan and “threatened to execute the death penalty on anyone who is Jewish in the Michigan government.” Any attempt to “subdue” him would “be met with deadly force in self-defense,” the user said.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe said Thursday that the details of the alleged threats against Nessel and other officials underline the rising risks of political attacks motivated by anti-Semitism and extremism.
“This is right in the wheelhouse of what the FBI and the Director are doing [Chris] Wray told us. That … the most dangerous, the most concerning threat they face on the counter-terrorism side, and that is the threat from domestic violence extremists,” McCabe said on “CNN Newsroom”. Animus, they are motivated by anti-Semitic sentiment, by anti-immigrant sentiment, sometimes accused of political grievances and then motivated to act violently themselves.”
The dangers to democracy of political intimidation
Even without the anti-Semitic dimension, the alleged threats against Nessel and other officials are another example of Michigan’s problem with political hatred and extremism, though the state is far from alone in exposing its officials to harassment.
In December, a federal judge sentenced one of the convicted ringleaders of a separate plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to nearly 20 years in prison. The man’s lawyers argued that he had gone down a “conspiracy rabbit hole” during long solo drives as a truck driver. Another Democratic state official involved in the election administration, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, has said armed protesters showed up outside her home in late 2020 to denounce her as a “traitor” when Trump spread lies about a stolen election in the critical swing state was pushing. .
Outside of Michigan, two Georgia election officials last year testified before the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021 uprising, how verbal attacks on them by Trump and his aides had devastated their lives, with one saying, “I don’t feel anywhere safe.” In January, a Republican former candidate for the New Mexico legislature — who police said alleged voter fraud — was arrested on suspicion of orchestrating shootings that damaged the homes of democratically elected leaders. And Paul Pelosi, the husband of former Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, is still recovering from an attack in late October, allegedly by a hammer-wielding man who told police that Democrats had committed crimes against Trump, in which he used rhetoric popular with the ex-president’s supporters.
Democrats are not the only victims of extremism. In 2017, Republican Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is now the House Majority Leader, was seriously injured in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice by a man claiming to be a supporter of Bernie Sanders. And last year, police arrested a man near Brett Kavanaugh’s home and charged him with the attempted murder of the conservative Supreme Court justice.
And just on Thursday, New Hampshire woman Katelyn Jones, 25, pleaded guilty to sending a series of threatening text messages to a Michigan County election official after the 2020 election. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted in July said the Ministry of Justice.
Each case is different, and individuals act as they see fit, however they may be swayed by heated political rhetoric. Politicians often use this to make it plausible that their words have caused violence. But the Jan. 6 House committee aired a video of Trump supporters the day of the riot saying they were inspired by his false allegations of election fraud. And a poll conducted by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland in January 2022 found that 34% of Americans — and 41% of Republicans — believe violent action against the government is sometimes justified.
There is also no denying that anti-Semitic attacks and violence and threats against government officials are occurring at a time when the ex-president and his supporters have been making false claims about stolen elections, which have been amplified by powerful media organizations such as Fox News, even when — as court filings this week proved — the network’s leaders knew those claims were lies.
This week, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also has a record of distributing anti-Semitic material, appeared at an election integrity rally and denounced Gabriel Sterling, a Peach state Republican election official who opposed Trump’s baseless claims that he had won the swing state in 2020. Greene fired off a barrage of claims and conspiracies to the cameras, almost all of which were false.
“She came in late. She sat next to me on purpose because she wanted to get her hits on social media,” Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
Behavior such as that commonly seen by Greene and Trump risks damaging grassroots democracy as it sometimes has dangerous consequences for local government officials like Michigan’s Nessel, who are critical to ensuring that Americans can vote.
“It’s happening in almost every state. It’s happening to everyday people,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Who is willing to take these jobs?” she asked, before warning: “Our democracy is only as good as the people we elect, and we can only elect the people who are willing to run. And polls show that people will step back if they have to adding to a stressful job that doesn’t pay particularly well and puts them in the literal target of their fellow citizens.”