White genocide: The conspiracy theory behind the Tree of Life shooting

Observatorio de violencia y terrorismo de extrema derecha: octubre 2021
Actividad yihadista en el Magreb y el Sahel, noviembre 2021

Documento OIET 9/2021


A menorah is installed outside the Tree of Life Synagogue to remember the victims (Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo)


On October 27th, 2018, a white supremacist terrorist attack took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The event, known as the Tree of Life shooting, had a death toll of eleven people killed and seven injured, and constituted the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. Inspired by the white genocide conspiracy theory of antisemitic nature, the perpetrator, Robert Bowers, stated that the reason behind the attacks was that: “he wanted all Jews to die.” This attack is not the only of its kind, however: the use of violence justified through this conspiracy theory has been a repeated element in other terrorist attacks, such as El Paso and Christchurch. Rather than a disease, this conspiracy theory proves to be, in practical terms, a symptom of a more significant problem.


What happened?

On Saturday 27th of October, Robert Bowers entered the Synagogue during morning services armed with an assault rifle and other guns. Once inside the place of worship, he opened fire, shooting indiscriminately into the crowd while shouting anti-Semitic slurs. When the perpetrator tried to leave the site, he faced police officers and got arrested. As a result, four police officers were injured, and so did the attacker after the confrontation. The total duration of the incident lasted around 20 minutes. In relation to the charges, the terrorist faces 63 federal and 36 state criminal counts; however, none are related to terrorism. Notably, three years after the attack, there is still no date for the trial.


White genocide

There are evidences to suggest that the attack was motivated by the white genocide conspiracy theory. In general terms, the logic behind this theory revolves around the belief in a conspiracy whose purpose is the extermination of the white race. People who adhere to this conspiracy theory claim that there is a deliberate plan of action to promote the mixing of races, thus causing the extinction of white people through forced assimilation, arguing that there is an upcoming structural genocide. According to the white genocide conspiracy theory, the Jewish community is the mastermind and the leading promoter of this plot. However, other groups are also held responsible, such as black people, Hispanics, or Muslims, although they are viewed as pawns rather than architects behind the operation. This conspiracy theory is one of the core elements of white supremacism and serves as a convergence point with several extremist groups and ideologies, such as neo-fascists (including neo-Nazis), islamophobes, white nationalists and anti-Semites. Thus, this conspiracy theory is shared by both ethnic nationalists and racial nationalists. Nevertheless, it is relevant to clarify that the supremacist perspective of the white race is only present with neo-Nazis and white supremacists, due to their perspective on the supremacy of the white race and hate towards the Jewish, while white nationalists do not share this element.

This conspiracy theory is not new or exclusive to the United States. It has been widespread among extremist and radical groups in Europe, most notably France. For this reason, the conspiracy theory has undergone a series of adaptations and changes. The modern version traces its roots in postwar times. However, the most recent adaptation comes from Renaud Camus: his book “The Great Replacement” has become the most famous text regarding this conspiracy theory. In this piece, the author argues that a process of “reverse colonisation” is undergoing in all Western countries, thus facing an “Ethnic and civilisational substitution”. This idea, standing above the others, gave rise to the Identitarian movement in Europe and the Alt-right in the United States, stating that they were protecting Western civilisation from the alleged invasion. Likewise, the main distinction between the great replacement and white genocide is the antisemitic nature, being the latter the one with this element, although the first is highly Islamophobic.

The former modern version has been widely used among mainstream media, politicians and marches: during the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, the chants “Jews will not replace us” were present, and several far-right politicians have endorsed this conspiracy theory. Illustratively, this antisemitic element of the conspiracy theory has been mostly present in the United States, inasmuch as other countries have embraced this vision to a far lesser extent.

The first element of this conspiracy theory is based on the perceived threat to the white race of being annihilated. Seemingly, it has both external and internal threats, therefore clearly delimiting the in-group and the outgroup. In this scenario, the internal threat comes from those who “betray” the race, such as people from the political left or people who willingly mix with other races. The external threats would then be targeted to the immigrants and the Jewish community. Thirdly, this perception of an outgroup as a threat presents a dangerous scenario because the immigrants are seen as hostile and threatening, thus creating a feeling of danger and anxiety to the adherents of this conspiracy theory. Following this mindset, members’ perception of danger makes them feel like they are compelled to act upon this threat, attacking those held responsible.

Following the former reasonings, it can be argued that the main motivation behind the attack was based on the white genocide conspiracy theory. In the first place, the attacker targeted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), an American Jewish organisation that provides humanitarian aid to refugees responsible for the assistance to the Central American migrant caravans; thus, holding clear anti-Semitic grounds. Furthermore, the week before the attacks, the Tree of life Synagogue held an event by HIAS, a decision that Bowers saw as a confirmation on his beliefs and what apparently came to be the main reason to take action against them. In his last message, he posted: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people…I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”


Analysis of the profile

The perpetrator, aged 46, shows common elements among right-wing extremists: a gradual process of online self-radicalisation, acting on his own and living in isolation. Moreover, he was a high school dropout; however, he was not unemployed as he worked as a commercial driver in the trucking industry. Additionally, the radicalisation process appeared to be gradual, as family and friends exposed that they lost contact with him in 2007, and he was not married or had any children. Likewise, his relatives commented that he was paranoid and delusional, blaming the United Nations for creating a global government, thus, showing a trend in the belief in other conspiracy theories. Among all the features key to identifying a growing radicalization process, an element stands out: in some of his posts, he stated that he did not vote for Trump and was critical of his government. However, his critics are mainly based on the favourable position of his administration towards Israel and its relationship with the Jewish diaspora. Therefore, a key element in his profile is that the perpetrator exposed his hatred towards the Jewish community on online forums, revealingly on Gab, a social network used mainly by far-right extremists. This platform has been known for its allowance of hate speech and has served as a haven for extremists. Although the platform claims they are promoting and safeguarding free speech, this statement has been widely criticised. A relevant element in this social network is that antisemitism has been a prominent topic in several discussions. As a consequence of the attacks, the site was shut down momentarily, being blamed for the exposure and dissemination of hate speech, but it returned on November 4th, a week after the attacks.

In his posts, Bowers blamed the Jewish community for helping the migrant caravans in Central America and claimed too many Jewish people surrounded the then President Donald Trump. Additionally, he referred to the migrant caravans as invaders and regarded them as violent. Alongside his hateful posts, he frequently posted pictures with his guns and rifles: he had 21 guns registered under his name, which were acquired legally. Relevant to this analysis is that seventeen days before the attack, Bowers had exposed his target by posting a web page from HIAS listing the services held on behalf of refugees. The pinpointing of a target prior to an attack is characteristic of terrorists that act alone. In his last post, published just minutes before the shooting, he simply ended with “(I) am going in.”

In addition to the white genocide conspiracy theory, his posts show revealed his adhesion to the antisemitic elements of the Christian Identity movement, proving that his motivations were antisemitic in nature. Conclusively, it is argued that his actions can be considered terrorism since they were motivated by an ideology targeting a specific group in order to intimidate and coerce them, and he can be classified as a white supremacist terrorist.


The use of the conspiracy theory on mainstream politics and media

This theory has won several adherents in the past decade and has been introduced into the mainstream political conversation. An example of this has been recently presented in the presidential debates in France, being upheld by both Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemour. However, the latter has been the keenest on using the theory in his discourse. Likewise, this conspiracy theory has been adopted in their discourses by several far-right parties in Europe, in countries like Spain, Hungary and the Netherlands. This trend is worrisome as it has been exposed that this conspiracy theory has inspired several right-wing terrorist attacks, and as such, its use and introduction to mainstream politics and media could lead to further radicalisation among extremist individuals and groups.