Students and faculty from across the Five Colleges came to civil rights activist Eric K. Ward’s talk, “How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism” on Wednesday, Nov. 8, in Stirn Auditorium. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost and Dean of the Faculty and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Ward described the centrality of antisemitism to white nationalism, arguing that antisemitism provides the white nationalist movement with a grand narrative and overarching worldview that connects all other aspects of their bigotry.
Chief Equity and Inclusion Office Sheree Ohen began the talk by introducing Ward, noting his decades of experience working with community groups, human rights advocates, and political leaders to combat hate and advance racial justice. He is currently the executive vice president of Race Forward, a national nonprofit fighting for racial equity and authored “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism.”
Though the talk was scheduled before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack in Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza, Ward began by acknowledging the increased significance of his talk and the importance of effective leaders in the current moment.
“The white nationalist movement who is celebrating the divisions here in the U.S. in the human rights movement don’t bring Islamophobia, antisemitism, racism, or homophobia to our communities and to our campuses. They merely exploit the bigotry that already exists,” Ward said. “Serious leadership means leaning in, not being afraid to learn about other biases that may influence us.”
Ward then shared a story about one weekend in 1995, when he went undercover at the sixth annual Preparedness Expo, a hotbed for far-right militias, as part of his research on hate groups in the Pacific Northwest. Though Ward, who is Black, experienced anti-Black racism, it was also true that some at the conference saw the potential common enemy of both Black and white people: “the federal government, controlled by an international conspiracy.”
There was no need at the conference “to say who ran this conspiracy, because it was obvious to everyone in attendance.” For them, it was a Jewish plot.
The experience displays a key insight of Ward’s about the nature of white nationalism as such. It is “an authoritarian social movement committed to building a whites-only nation, and antisemitism forms its theoretical core.”
Ward made sure to differentiate white nationalism from white supremacy. White supremacy is “a system of social control and disparities formed to exploit indigenous populations, blacks, poor whites, immigrants, and women’s sexual reproduction,” he said. “It is done so to maintain the political, cultural, and economic social domination of those identified as white.”
With the successes of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, white supremacist ideology could not grapple with the systems of white power being successfully challenged by Black-led social movement.
“The arch-segregationists of that time, they had to ask themselves, ‘how did this happen?’” he said. “It must be, they said, in their eyes, some secret cabal, some mythological power, that must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes.”
From the challenges to white supremacy came the white nationalist movement. While white supremacy aimed to preserve an unequal system that oppressed people of color, white nationalists seek to create a new society free of non-whites, and see a Jewish plot to undermine the white race as their primary opponent.
Ward also traced how this association with the Jewish faith and grand conspiracies trace back more than a hundred years to “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a prominent antisemitic text that falsely purported to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to control the world’s institutions.
The strength of these tropes can be found today in the Great Replacement Theory, which claims that an international Jewish conspiracy aims to replace the white populations of Western countries with people of color.
Antisemitism does not exist in a vacuum, and intersects with the hatred of many other groups, Ward said. He pointed to several mass shootings, such as the Charleston church shooting targeting African-Americans, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting targeting Jews, and the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting targeting Hispanic people. Though affecting different groups, they were all linked by a common theoretical foundation.
“While many of us may look at these acts of violence as nothing more than tragic mass shootings, fueled by each respective killer’s hatred for either Blacks, Jews, or Latinos, the truth is, is that in each of those hate crimes, the killers carried a collective motivation that drove each violent act. And it’s called antisemitism,” Ward said. “In each of these horrific acts, each killer believed he was engaging in an existential war with the global Jewish plot that the white nationalist movement calls ‘The Great Replacement Theory.’”
Joline Fong ’26 attended not just the talk, but also a dinner discussion with Ward and other faculty the day prior as part of her special topics class.
While Fong had known about the importance of antisemitism prior, Ward’s talk recontextualized its significance.
“Antisemitism is not something that has always been at the forefront of my mind,” she said. “I didn’t realize how pervasive it is. I’ve considered antisemitism before, but I haven’t really seen it as the root of so many of these other problems. And he was able to draw those connections that I really had not considered before.”
Towards the end of his talk, Ward reminisced on the way he and his friends would ponder what-ifs as kids, with one prominent example being what they would have done in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Ward said he now had no doubt about the way he and everyone else in the room would have responded.
“The truth is, you would’ve shown up in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement the exact same way you’re going to show up when you walk out of this door tonight,” he said. “Make it serious. History will judge our generation for how we show up.”