Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

The unmentioned motive in Parkland: anti-Semitism

Nikolas Cruz was led into a Broward County courtroom last month before being arraigned on charges related to the Parkland, Fla., school massacre.
Amy Beth Bennett/Pool/File
Nikolas Cruz was led into a Broward County courtroom last month before being arraigned on charges related to the Parkland, Fla., school massacre.

NEARLY EIGHT WEEKS AGO, a gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Unlike previous mass shootings, the Parkland massacre sparked a long overdue and much-needed national debate about guns. It also led to a wave of gun control activism. Marches in Washington and across the country, organized, in part, by the survivors of the shooting, were attended by hundreds of thousands of Americans demanding stronger gun laws.

But one thing has strangely been missing from the post-Parkland debate: that the shooting had all the makings of an anti-Semitic hate crime.

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While we still don’t know the full story about why Nikolas Cruz entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas with an AR-15 rifle and gunned down 17 people, there is disturbing evidence that suggests Cruz was driven, in good part, by animus toward Jews.

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On online chat rooms, Cruz regularly made vile anti-Semitic statements, even saying of his birth mother, “My real mom was a Jew. I am glad I never met her.” Cruz’s hatred of Jews apparently stemmed from a belief that “they wanted to destroy the world.”

To be sure, Cruz was an equal-opportunity bigot. According to a report by CNN on a private Instagram group of which Cruz was a member, he “talked about killing Mexicans, keeping black people in chains and cutting their necks.” Cruz also wrote hateful words about women and LGBT Americans.

But Cruz also allegedly decorated his backpack with swastikas and, according to multiple news reports, the Nazi symbol was scrawled or etched on ammunition magazines left behind at the scene of the shooting.

While the Broward County Sherriff’s office would not confirm or deny to me the veracity of the swastika story, if true it could speak directly to the motivation for the massacre. Cruz’s anti-Semitism stands out, in part, because of his victims – six of those killed were Jewish. While it’s true that Marjory Stoneman had a disproportionate percentage of Jewish students, we don’t know if Cruz targeted the school that he used to attend because of that fact.

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In addition, no direct evidence has emerged as of yet that Cruz targeted Jewish students. Nonetheless, it’s odd that there has been so little on focus on the links between a killer scrawling swastikas on his ammunition and more than a third of his victims being Jews.

Imagine, if a third of Cruz’s victims had been Mexican immigrants and he’d regularly made racist statements about both immigrants and those of Hispanic descent? If this were the case, we’d almost certainly be inundated with analysis about the links between hateful rhetoric toward immigrants and the shooting. At the very least, we would expect many commentators, particularly those on the left who are focused on social justice and civil rights issues, to explore these connections. Yet, by and large, the possible links between Cruz’s anti-Semitism and the identity of his victims have been ignored.

If this shooting was an isolated incident of anti-Semitism, this lack of focus might be understandable. But the Parkland massacre comes at a time when, according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic hate crimes were up 60 percent in 2017 from the previous year. That’s the largest one-year jump in the nearly four decades since the ADL began tracking such information.

It also comes at a time when the president of the United States refused to condemn neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville who chanted, as they marched, “Jews will not replace us.”

Why is no one talking about this mass shooting as a potential hate crime? Why has there not been a larger conversation about Cruz’s anti-Semitic behavior?

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I would posit that it is consistent with a larger and disturbing trend of apathy toward anti-Semitism in America, particularly on the political left.

Part of this, undoubtedly, is reflective of the fact that Jews don’t face nearly the same level of discrimination as people of color. For many Americans, Jews are seen as “white” — and not a minority that has historically faced discrimination, and far worse, in Western societies. Some of it is likely tied to Israel, and a sentiment on the left that to complain about anti-Semitism is to voice the talking points of Israel’s right-wing defenders. I’ll have more to say on this issue tomorrow — but this rising tide of indifference, particularly on the left, needs to be addressed. This is not a problem that can be addressed by Jewish groups alone — it will rely on the active engagement of other civil rights groups. Right now, that’s not happening. Indeed, dating back to 2016 and a presidential campaign in which Donald Trump regularly utilized anti-Semitic dog whistles, few prominent civil rights groups have taken a strong stance on this issue. But, if history (particularly 2,000 years of Jewish history) teaches us anything, it’s that the problem of anti-Semitism will not go away on its own.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.