Because They Hate: Hate Speech, Hate Crimes, and Antisemitism
August 9, 2023
Just over three years ago, on May 25, 2020, police officer Derek Chauvin killed African American George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for around nine minutes. In addition to state charges of murder and manslaughter, Chauvin was federally charged in 2021 with violations of Floyd’s civil rights. According to a copy of the indictment, Chauvin was charged with violating Floyd’s right to be free from an unreasonable seizure, which includes the right to be free from the use of excessive force by a police officer. Furthermore, the Department of Justice also charged Chauvin of violating the right not to be deprived of liberty without due process. This occurred when Chauvin was deliberately indifferent to Floyd’s medical needs.
While Chauvin was not charged with a hate crime, the case raises interesting questions concerning the nature of hate crimes. One can easily ask why Chauvin was not charged with a hate crime, being that he is considered white by American society, and Floyd was considered Black by American society. While both hate crimes and hate speech are considered interchangeable, they are different. In this article, we’ll take a look at both. And see how both are directed towards the Jewish community, including youth perspectives, in antisemitism. It has been said that antisemitism is a canary in the coal mine for hate generally, so paying attention to hate in the Jewish communities is important for everyone, especially racial, ethnic, and other minorities.
While hate speech is an expansive concept with several definitions, concisely, it can be defined as “expression that seeks to malign an individual for their immutable characteristics” (Ring, 2021, p. 18). This careful definition includes not only verbal statements but degrading symbols and images (18). Immutable characteristics include such types as race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, and disability. Hate speech can be understood at both the individual and structural levels. At the structural level, “hate speech represents a structural phenomenon in which those in power use verbal assaults and offensive imagery to maintain their preferred position in the existing social order.” An example of this would be so-called white people using the N-word to demean African Americans and thus reinforce white supremacy.
However, the goal of hate speech must be kept in mind in separating it out from other types of offensive speech. Merely saying that you hate someone’s shirt or you don’t like their personality is not hate speech. Hate speech is designed to malign a person for an immutable identity characteristic they hold. Furthermore, hate crimes also differ from hate speech. Let’s take a look at the distinction below.
Hate crimes are prejudicial criminal acts; such prejudice is motivated by the victim’s immutable characteristics, like the ones described above. Here, the importance of motivation is key. One reason Chauvin may not have been charged with a hate crime is because the motivation for his act was not based on George Floyd’s status as an African American. Indeed, according to an article from the Central Broadcasting Service (CBS), Chauvin seemed more motivated to exert his authority, based on video from onlookers during that day.
However, hate crimes have been tracked throughout the United States. On March 13 of this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) released the 2021 Hate Crime Statistics supplement, the most recent data on hate crimes throughout the United States. Most of the incidents by bias type occurred due to the offender’s race, ethnicity, or ancestry bias (64.5%). Crimes against persons (intimidation, simple assault, aggravated assault) formed the majority of crimes reported in the supplement (8,327 compared to 3,817 crimes against property and 267 crimes against society).
But even more compelling than the admittedly important statistics are the stories of hate crime victims. On May 15, 2022, 10 African American New Yorkers were killed by 18-year-old white supremacist Payton Gendron. Gendron planned the shooting, traveling around 200 miles from Conklin, NY, to Buffalo, NY. He had traveled to the city the day prior to the shooting for reconaissance at the Tops Friendly Market Store, located in a predominantly African American neighborhood in Buffalo. He told the authorities that he was targeting the Black community, according to a story from CNN. On June 15, 2022, the Justice Department charged Gendron with 26 counts of hate crimes and weapons violations.
While shootings seem likely to be the most memorable type of hate crime, there exists a wide variety in the backgrounds of hate crime offenders and their offenses, as described above. The University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Response to Terrorism (START) released a report in 2021 showcasing the results of the Bias Indicators and Actors Study (BIAS). This study showed motivations in hate crimes from 1990-2018. Reflecting the 2021 Hate Crimes Statistics Supplement, the report identified race, ethnicity, and nationality bias as the most prevalent across the years covered. In addition, the report also uncovered biases against religion and sexual orientation/gender identity. For example, 38.1% of the sampled individuals planned or committed mass casualty attacks against Jews, demonstrating an anti-Semitic bias.
Antisemitism, according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, is a “certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews.” Anti-semitism can be expressed both rhetorically (e.g., Holocaust denial) and physically. One example of this latter expression of antisemitism is the Tree of Life shooting that happened around five years ago on October 27, 2018. Robert Bowers killed eleven people in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania synagogue, which hosted three congregations of different branches of Judaism. Xenophobic and antisemitic, Bowers was charged with 63 crimes, including 11 counts of hate crimes resulting in death and 11 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death. His trial began May 31 of this year and is ongoing as of this writing.
Anti-semitism has a long history. By the fifth century, Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. Arising out of Judaism, its first followers were Jews who observed Jewish customs. However, differing beliefs on the nature of the Messiah led to conflict. The Church believed that Jews had killed Jesus Christ, and they also believed the devil was blinding the eyes of the Jews. This latter belief metamorphosed into the charge that Jews were agents of the devil. Church and state laws forbade Jews from owning land, joining public office, and pursuing certain occupations. In the Middle Ages, one sees the antecedents to antisemtic beliefs that are popular today: Jews were portrayed as usurers, finding a counterpart today in the antisemitic belief that Jews control the banks and are greedy; Jews were said to poison the wells of Europe and cause the Black Plague. This finds an analog today in beliefs about the Jewish people weakening American culture by supporting immigrant migration to the United States.
This latter belief implicates the connection between antisemitism and other forms of hate. Antisemitism can often lead to other forms of hate; for example, in the Holocaust, Hitler also killed homosexual individuals even though his identified purpose for the concentration camps was to eliminate Jewish people. Upwards of 100,000 men identified as homosexual were arrested, and many sent to the following concentration camps: Buchenwald, Dachau, Sachsenhuasen, Mauthausen, and Auschwitz. 55% of those sent to concentration camps died. Identified by a pink triangular badge, this group was treated worse than other groups arrested (except Jews), including Poles, Soviets, disabled people, and others.
Antisemitism, thus, is something everyone has an interest in eradicating. According to My Jewish Learning, steps on this road include involving oneself with local anti-hate groups, forming coalitions between Jewish and non-Jewish racial, cultural, and ethnic groups to oppose hate, and increasing contact between Jewish and non-Jewish individuals for a meaningful purpose.
While hate speech and hate crimes are disturbing in American society today, we know it is possible to take a stand against both. Will you?