On April 28, a 19-year-old gunman walked into a synagogue in Poway, Calif., with a semiautomatic weapon and killed a woman. He also injured the rabbi, another congregant and a young girl. The killer posted a manifesto online expressing hatred for Jews and admiration for the attack on Muslims at prayer in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, which killed 50 people. The latest violence came exactly six months after the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, which killed 11.
Attacks on Jews at prayer in the United States have fortunately been rare until recently (the Pittsburgh attack was the worst act of anti-Semitic violence in American history). While an attack on a synagogue strikes particularly close to home, it’s clear that it is part of a more widespread global phenomenon. On April 21, there was an organized attack on churches in Sri Lanka that killed over 200 people. This attack was claimed by ISIS, which published a photo of the attackers.
In the Middle East, attacks on worshippers are sadly much more common. In January, a policeman was killed in Egypt while defusing a bomb left near a Coptic church. In Iraq, there have been numerous deadly attacks on places of worship this century, both before and after the American invasion. Six worshippers were killed at a synagogue in Jerusalem in 2014. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 and injured over 100 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
What motivates people to stage attacks on places of worship? In the case of the attack in California, the perpetrator seems to have believed that Jews are at war with whites. He had similar beliefs about Muslims and appears to be connected to a recent attempt to firebomb a mosque. The spread of false and hateful ideas about Jews and Muslims motivates susceptible individuals to take action. In this respect, the attack on the synagogue in California is similar to the 2017 attack on a mosque in Quebec City, in which six worshippers were killed.
While lone attackers can be radicalized by exposure to hateful ideas online, or by falling under the influence of other extremists, organized violence like the attacks in Sri Lanka require resources, planning and money. Whether the attack is carried out by a lone wolf or an organized terrorist group, the question of motivation remains: why do people invest resources in radicalizing others and what can be done to prevent it?
History teaches us that charismatic leaders can harness anger and hatred to break down an existing social order and grab power for themselves. Once in power, they use hatred to keep people loyal to the regime. In Germany, the Nazis promoted hatred toward Jews as part of a strategy to impose a totalitarian regime. In Iran, hatred toward non-Muslims was exploited to rally the population and impose a theocratic regime. ISIS exploited Sunni anger and hatred to spread a reign of terror through Syria and Iraq. Hamas exploits hatred toward Jews to maintain power in Gaza, in spite of the widespread misery caused by its rule.
The short answer to why people attack Jews, Muslims, Christians and others in their places of worship is that they do it in response to hateful ideas, which portray the worshippers as some kind of threat. Such ideas are often disseminated in order to disrupt the existing social order and create the opportunity for disaffected and hateful people to seize power. As such, attacks on Jews, as well as on Christians and Muslims, should be seen as a warning sign that the peace and order of our society is at risk. For the sake of our own safety, as well as that of our fellow citizens, we must resist the spread of hatred wherever we encounter it.