Why We Need To See Leftist Anti-Semitism As A Conspiracy Theory
The Anti-Defamation League publishes an annual report on incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States. Last year, 2017, saw a 67% rise in anti-Jewish hate speech, harassment, vandalism and violence.
This is a disheartening measure of a terrible phenomenon. Yet the report has garnered little attention. Some public comments hint at why. In a video for Jewish Voice for Peace, the antiracism campaigner Linda Sarsour addressed the issue. “I want to make the distinction that while anti-Semitism is something that impacts Jewish Americans, it’s different than anti-black racism or Islamophobia because it’s not systemic... Of course, you may experience vandalism or an attack on a synagogue, or maybe on an individual level… but it’s not systemic, and we need to make that distinction.”
Underlying this pervasive point of view is the notion that Jews, who are often conflated with whites, should “check their privilege,” because anti-Semitism just isn’t as bad as other forms of racism. On campus, where ADL notes an acute rise in antiJewish hostility, alarmed Jewish students are sidelined for being white and middle class, and the Holocaust is trivialized as “white on white crime.”
This erasure of anti-Semitism isn’t simply callous; it exposes a huge moral failure at the heart of the modern left. Under the enveloping paradigm of “intersectionality,” everyone is granularly defined by their various identities — everyone, that is, except white Jews, whose Jewishness is often overwritten by their skin color. This erasure is deeply hazardous, inasmuch as
AntiSemitism is a poor man’s revolution. And so long as it doesn’t present as a far-right or ‘alt-right’ cartoon, it will often fly under our radar.
the fight against racism happens by and large in sectors where the left perspective dominates — the academy, pop culture and much of the news media.
But this failure of the left is less a result of malice than of unconscious wiring. The left is doomed to erase anti-Semitism because it’s illequipped to understand it.
For in a key sense, regular racism — against blacks and Latinos, for example — is the opposite of anti-Semitism. While both derive from xenophobia, regular racism comes from white people believing they are superior to people of color. But the hatred of Jews stems from the belief that Jews are a cabal with supernatural powers. Where the white racist regards blacks as inferior, the anti-Semite imagines that Jews have preternatural power to defeat humankind.
Anti-Semitism differs from most forms of racism in that it purports to “punch up” against a secret society of oppressors, which makes it easy to disguise as a politics of emancipation. If Jews have power, then punching up at Jews is a form of speaking truth to power.
In other words, it is because anti-Semitism pretends to strike at power that the left cannot see it, and is doomed to erase — and even reproduce — its tropes.
At its most trivial, a conspiracy theory is the idea that a circumstance or event can be explained by the influence of an evil secret society with the power to affect large-scale outcomes. Conspiracy theories also reflect a worldview in which reality is the product of a timeless and cosmic struggle between good and evil. These kinds of dualistic narratives are enticing to groups that view themselves to be under existential duress, and, as religious historian Elaine Pagels has shown, this has profoundly shaped Western culture. Jews under Roman occupation, and early Christians under Jewish ostracism and gentile persecution, developed theologies of the oppressed in which the devil and his demonic host squared off with God and his angels.
To manage everyday problems, people often turned to magic. The church did not look fondly on this competing system of knowledge. It reasoned that insofar as magic was believed to work, it must draw upon the pow-
er of demons. Unfortunately, Jews had also been associated with sorcery since antiquity. This closed a circle, linking magic, Jews and the devil in the Christian mind.
The crude theology of the cosmic showdown between God and the devil, along with the stereotype of an anti-human, demonic collaborator, and a life-and-death struggle over the forbidden knowledge of magic and heresy, fused to ignite the infamous persecutions of the European Middle Ages. These included the witch trials, the inquisitions of heretics, and the perennial persecution of Jews as child- murdering, blood-feasting, well-poisoning sorcerers and agents of Satan.
When Europe entered the modern era, Jews shed this company. Industrialization, urban migration, democracy and the flourishing of science weakened the otherworldly framework many used to understand the world. Witches and heretics faded in relevance.
But the Jews survived, though the role they played in the gentile imagination changed to reflect the times.
As they were emancipated, Jews loomed as direct competition in economic and political life. As the preeminent historian of anti-Semitism, Robert Wistrich, writes, “Alongside the dominant cultural matrix of latenineteenth-century nationalism, volkisch racism, and imperialism,” a new “populist social dimension” recast Jews as collaborators with the secular demons of laissezfaire capitalism and liberal democracy. Thus, as the center of civilization shifted from church and king to the nation state, antiSemitism, at least outwardly, lost its religious focus. Foes of the Jews cast them as diabolical puppeteers who controlled the state; antiSemites in power libeled them as seditious parasites who undermined it. This was the milieu that produced the foundational document of political conspiracy, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” — a detailed outline of how the Jews would enslave and exploit humankind. First circulated in the Russian Empire, it was then exported by charlatans and military officers and spread throughout the world. Effectively the first “fake news,” the pamphlet still flourishes today, especially in Arab and Muslim countries.
While a quintessentially modern document, “The Protocols” owes a debt to medieval thought. Murder, greed, warmongering, enslavement, false consciousness, opposition to the truth and betrayal of the good are all explicit.
The Nazis furnish the best testament to the lethal power of this sinister little book. Look how indebted to it Joseph Goebbels revealed them to be:
Jewry has so deeply infected the AngloSaxon states both spiritually and politically that they no longer have the ability to see or accept the danger. It conceals itself as Bolshevism in the Soviet Union, and plutocratic-capitalism in the Anglo-Saxon states. The Jewish race has always been an expert at mimicry, that is, the systematic ability to fade into its surroundings. We know that from our own past. They put their host peoples to sleep, they drug them, paralyzing their ability to defend themselves against the life-threatening danger from Jewry.
Conspiracy theories are far from dead. Rather, they’ve mutated to address the realities of the day. And they’re not just about Jews, either.
Today’s conspiracist blends the mindset of the medieval magician with the viciousness of the inquisitor. The old fears about crop fouling and well poisoning, for example, are now directed at genetically modified organisms and at fluoride in the water. The idea that doctors and sorcerers were one and the same surfaces in paranoia about AIDS and vaccines. And flatearthers rehearse astrological debates about the cosmos. But the Jews remain a primary target.
And it’s anti-Semitism’s source in conspiracy theory that renders it so different from non-conspiracist forms of racism, like anti-blackness.
As with most racism, anti-black bias constructs an underclass to be exploited or avoided. It positions blacks as inferior to whites, and charges them with stereotypes that signal weakness: They are libeled as lazy, stupid, lustful, criminal and animalistic.
The conspiracy theory of anti-Semitism turns this on its head. The Jew becomes a magical creature: brilliant, cunning, greedy, stealthy, wealthy and powerful beyond measure. AntiSemitism imagines a diabolic overclass to be exposed and resisted.
Take it from the experts. In Article Twenty-Two of its charter, Hamas
The idea at the center of the long history of Jewish persecution is a conspiracy theory: that a cabal of international Jews conspires to destroy mankind.
describes the preternatural power of the worldwide Jewish cabal:
With their money, [the Jews] took control of the world media, news agencies, the press, publishing houses, broadcasting stations, and others. With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the world with the purpose of achieving their interests and reaping the fruit therein. They were behind the French Revolution, the Communist revolution and most of the revolutions we heard and hear about, here and there. With their money they formed secret societies, such as Freemasons, Rotary Clubs, the Lions and others in different parts of the world for the purpose of sabotaging societies and achieving Zionist interests.
Above all else, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the maleficent Jewish elite. And it’s this that makes it easy to disguise as a politics of liberation, or, at least, to embed anti-Semitism quietly in efforts for social justice.
You can see this in the efforts of groups like Black4Palestine and JVP to portray Israel and America as bastions of capitalist white supremacy that collude to brutalize people of color.
In the early part of this decade, Ethiopian-Israeli women charged that state-mandated health providers had used shady means to depress their fertility with the contraceptive DepoProvera. The government denied coercion, but questions remain about the validity of its probe. This was not enough for Black4Palestine,which declared that “[Israel] has sterilized Ethiopian Israelis without their knowledge or consent.”
Narrowly, the effect of alleging sterilization invokes the Nazi specter of eugenics. But more broadly, the conspiracy theory summons medieval fears of Jewish magic harming sexual function, which live on in the Arab world.
For its part, JVP launched a national effort to promote the idea that Israel teaches U.S. law enforcement how to inflict “systemic” racism on people of color, “including extrajudicial executions, shoot-to-kill policies, police murders, racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders.”
It’s critical to note that Americans are not accustomed to recognizing, let alone understanding, a sizable portion of anti-Semitism, because it typically doesn’t resemble anti-blackness — the horrific down-punching form of racism that haunts American history and reverberates into the present.
Anti-Semitism is a poor man’s revolution. And so long as it doesn’t present as a far-right or “alt-right” cartoon, it will often fly under our radar.
In the spring of 2016, the Stanford University Student Senate debated a resolution, undertaken in light of strident activism on campus against Israel, to condemn anti-Semitism, citing conspiracy theories about “the power of Jews as a collective — especially, but not exclusively, the myth about… Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
A student senator named Gabriel Knight objected, saying that the resolution would “irresponsibly” stifle what he thought was a “very valid discussion.” “Questioning these potential power dynamics… is not anti-Semitism,” he admonished.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has spoken to assembled Palestinian leaders, alleging wild conspiracies, raving, in what would have been news to Anne Frank, “[The Western powers] wanted to bring Jews here from Europe to maintain European interests in the region. They asked Holland, which had the largest navy in the world, to transfer the Jews.”
Abbas also declared that “Israel has imported frightening amounts of drugs in order to destroy our younger generation.” In response, the liberal Israel interest group J Street, after rejecting “the divisive and inflammatory rhetoric used by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas,” complained that Trump had provoked Abbas to the point of despair by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
Neither of these episodes would have been likely if we understood anti-Semitism as a conspiracy theory. If he had recognized anti-Semitism as a paranoid religion that offers vulgar salvation to the oppressed, Gabriel Knight might not have insisted on interrogating the privilege of Jews. If J Street’s leaders knew the classic tropes of conspiracism, they would have heard in Abbas’s canards and Holocaust denial something too big to be laid at the feet of an American politician: 2,000 European years of fanatical dualism, feudal fatalism, superstition, fear and cleansing violence.
Americans are — thankfully — tuned to detect and deplore racism that punches down. But we must broaden our perspective if we want to reverse the progress of anti-Semitism, which punches up toward mass murder and extermination.
So when ADL reports that incidents of anti-Semitism rose by 67% in 2017, view it in this light. That’s what it means when white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere march and shout “Jews will not replace us!” This form of hatred thrives in conditions where demagogues undermine the institutions of liberal democracy.
We live in a time of hateful rhapsody where truth is relative and fear prevails.
This is a conspiracist moment, and it’s bad for the Jews.
FROM RUSSIA WITH HATE: An English translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” published in New York in 1922