Conspiracy and anti-Semitism; the last century and the next

Alternately titled: Dayenu Nathan Rothschild; Dayenu Elders of Zion; Dayenu George Soros.

Authors Note: This piece was primarily written towards the beginning of October following two events, Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IO)’s comments that opposition to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination was funded by George Soros and the passing of the eminent historian and scholar of extremism Walter Laqueur. I have added an a final section on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, as well as the mail bombs sent to Soros and other liberal leaders.

It is easy enough to begin with the question that often rises with introductory conversations of anti-Semitism. Isn’t anti-Semitism different than racism? Or, in more antagonistic contexts, “Jewish isn’t a race!”

Anti-Semitism is different than racism, in many respects; some features of its eccentricity have made it difficult for a thoroughgoing definition to be provided. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance holds one of the famous and contentious definitions of anti-Semitism (with the caveat that they consider it non-binding and working):

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

It then goes on to enumerate a number of illustrative ways such expression might occur, and this is where the IHRA definition becomes controversial. It includes,

Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews…

Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.

Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.

The British public recently had a substantial discussion about the IHRA working definition as a result of decisions made by the Labour Party.

There are concerns that the IHRA definition may create a broad definition of anti-Semitism that results in any criticism of the state of Israel being regarded as anti-Semitic. I want to step away from that point (for a number of reasons) and focus on a range of cases that the IHRA definition doesn’t handle clearly, though they play an enormous role in historical and contemporary anti-Semitism.

These cases of the IHRA definition capture something deep and essential to contemporary anti-Semitism: conspiracy theories often make use of Jews generally or certain high profile Jewish individuals (or groups who are publicly regarded or coded as Jewish) as the malicious force behind banking, entertainment, government, and/or any other domains controlled by their conspirators.

Celebrated historian and Holocaust refugee Walter Laqueur passed away on September 30, 2018. His works cover a vast swath of 20th century extremism, from his 1974 Weimar: A Cultural History to his 2004 Voices of Terror, an edited collection including primary source writings from Al Qaeda, Hamas, and international terrorist groups, to his timely book Putinism (2015). In his extensive Vitae is a short book titled The Changing Face of Antisemitism (2006).

One of the strands Laqueur traces through the history is the extensive backdrop of conspiracy theories, dating back to interpretations of early Christian crucifixion narratives, whereby the leadership of the Jewish religious community concocts a conspiracy to have Jesus Christ executed by the Roman state. These became entrenched in Christian theology and liturgy. (This remained in place in Catholic Good Friday Prayers through much of the 20th century and saw renewed controversy under Benedict XVI; I won’t subject readers to my fascination with this historical issue.)

More salient, though, were the development of blood libel conspiracies that were popularized during the 12th century. Laqueur’s book tracks these instances from their early incarnations in 12th century England, where Jews were accused of kidnapping and ritually sacrificing Christian children; as a result, their were mass executions of Jews accused of being conspirators.

Some of these did have quasi-racist undertones, holding there was some physical necessity according to which the Jews were naturally inclined to perform such sacrifices, but those were largely irrelevant to the actual charges of the blood libel.

The most famous use of the phrase “blood libel” in recent American political life was by Sarah Palin and other less prominent conservatives to describe criticism they received following the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords. As far as I’m aware, neither Palin or any other conservative commentator was burned alive as a part of that episode.

This is the rough background history, and the reason it is important that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and other attempts to develop a definition include make use of the conspiratorial roots of European anti-Semitism, especially as it has continued to spread through the rest of the world, but the most pernicious developments in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories really came during the mid-19th century and developed through the 20th.

The progenitor of these theories is often referred to as the Rothschild libel (aptly discussed at length by British journalist Brian Cathcart). During the 19th century, as the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family in London, became increasingly wealthy, the story was that the Rothschilds owed this accumulation of wealth to the patriarch Nathan Rothschild’s presence at Waterloo and his use of information that the French would be routed to make tremendously lucrative moves in the Stock Exchange. The conspiracy theory became popular in England and throughout Europe, represented in multiple films (including the 1940 Nazi party production “The Rothschilds: Shares in Waterloo”).

Cathcart notes that there are some arguably banal iterations of the story as a parable on the importance of information, or just a piece of English history, but these features also note the ubiquity of the story. The sense that the story of Nathan Rothschild conspiring to exploit a world event to create a vast family fortune was widely accepted as to be adopted into common use is the center of this observation. The conspiracies themselves are parasitic on the sense that “everyone knows [insert Jewish surname here] is manipulating the markets” or “everyone knows those people control the media.”

Sitting over a cup of coffee, chatting about something in film, only to have a colleague remark “well, your people do control the media” is both the sort of surprising and pernicious indicator of how pervasive these claims have become, even as the Rothschild name (as a particular) carries less weight in the public consciousness.

Perhaps the most famous and widely discussed instance of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 Russian hoax that attested to the existence of a cabal led by Jews with the explicit goal of destroying and subjugating Christian civilization. The Protocols are the progenitor of a large number of such theories that have come to populate the world of conspiracy theories; an incomplete accounting may be useful to those unfamiliar with the literature.

A large number of pre- and post-WWII publications described Bolshevism and communism as Jewish plots to undermine western countries. (Goebbel’s explicitly decried it at Nuremberg, 1935.) Jewish Bolshevism, coined by Alfred Rosenberg’s 1922 pamphlet of the same name, became a predominant conspiracy theory. Notable American publications advancing the conspiracy theory include Elizabeth Dilling’s The Octopus (1940) and Frank Britton’s Behind Communism (1952).

The Turner Diaries (1978) and Hunter (1984) authored by William Luther Pierce hold that many left-leaning American political movements (including the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements) were part of a Jewish-led plot to overthrow the United States. Pierce founded the white supremacist National Alliance organization.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan holds that a Jewish doctor created HIV/AIDS and injected it into black infants and that Jews control the FBI.

W. Cleon Skousen holds that there is a vast communist conspiracy to undermine the United States and Christianity, including orchestrating the presidential elections of communist infiltrators Dwight Eisenhower and Jimmy Carter; Skousen ascribes this to broad conspiracies in the financial industry, much like the Rothschild conspiracy theories.

Robert W. Welch Jr., founder of the John Birch Society, actively distributed materials on conspiracies similar to or directly citing Skousen. His book The Politician (1963) is the most famous source of the claim that Eisenhower was a communist agent or sympathizer. Pierce was a member of the John Birch Society, though only briefly in the ‘60s.

It is worth noting here that the official position of the John Birch Society is that they are not an anti-Semitic organization; one might defend Welch and Skousen on the basis that (unlike Pierce) they aren’t as explicit that the spooky conspirators are Jewish. My own view is that such a defense overlooks how influential (even in their own lifetimes) they were on American white supremacist groups, groups that explicitly adopted their theories.

Charles Lindbergh held that political pressure to get the United States to enter WWII was driven by agitation of Jewish groups. He made many such remarks on behalf of political advocacy for the America First Committee (an isolationist group founded c. 1939). His private writings similarly express anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

The Creature from Jekyll Island (1994) and similar conspiratorial work by G. Edward Griffin expand Skousen and Welch’s conspiracy theories to include the use of the Federal Reserve as a means of control. The more contemporary iterations trade less overtly on the assumption that such conspiratorial entities are matters of Jewish influence instead invoking Jewishness by way of talking about “who controls the banks.” Many of Griffin’s books (including The Creature) were published by the John Birch Society.

This is a short and admittedly incomplete survey, focusing on the American instances of these conspiracy theories. My intention in drawing attention to these particular cases is to highlight their uptake into broader American political consciousness, especially on the American right, but we’ll come to that below.

The popularity of conspiracies in American political and cultural consciousness is noteworthy, on many levels. Fantastical discussions of presidential assassinations from The X-Files to Zoolander make for cultural fodder, but hushed tones about these conspiracies populate similar public consciousness. Drawing attention to these particular cases is not to suppose that all conspiracy theories are anti-Semitic, or that there is something inherently anti-Semitic about their exploration; rather, it illustrates something that is necessary about conspiracy theories that gives them an affinity towards anti-Semites.

A conspiracy theory requires a conspirator, a shadowy figure massaging their knuckles and cackling maniacally while pushing buttons that influence stock prices and pulling the levers that make hurricanes, or whatever the conspiracy theory requires. Sometimes, the details of these conspirators are specified; there is a particular person or group that is responsible. In contemporary sensibility, it is less common for such a theory to just say “it is the Jews!” (Though, as we’ll see, this isn’t as uncommon as one might hope.)

In many cases of conspiracy theories, the description of the conspirator is parasitic on the assumptions of the readers. If your conspiracy theory appeals to some broad understanding of who wields influence in a few domains, e.g. banking, entertainment, then that conspiracy theory will make use of whatever existing assumptions readers hold about who controls those industries. The broader cultural notion that “Jews control the media” (or banks, or medicine, or all of politics) is then used to elevate these conspiracy theories into anti-Semitism. In some cases, there are dog-whistles indicating the Jewishness of the conspirators, either to reaffirm the suspicion of the readers or to make sure that the point isn’t overlooked. But even in the cases absent dog-whistles, we can expect the theories to trade on anti-Semitic assumptions about the power, manipulation, and malice of some spooky Jewish cabal.

I hope it will not surprise readers to learn that we are living in the resurgence of the conspiracy theory; major political leaders and publications spout conspiracy theories that would have been decried by mainstream outlets of previous generations as divisive nonsense. There are a number of reasons that conspiracy theories have resurfaced, some more easily documented than others. The most significant is the cultivation of online communities (both through major social networks and independent sites) that allow for the rapid dissemination and easy discussion of these theories across communities of like-minded individuals who don’t have to venture out into the world to have their darkest suspicions ratified.

One should not make the mistake of thinking that the message board era created these conspiracy theories, but it became much easier to distribute the material when you didn’t need to print a pamphlet and physically put it in a reader’s hand. Being able to run your own site, upload a video to YouTube, run a Facebook group, or reach out to folks on Twitter changed the means of distribution while lowering the overhead. Just as we saw in the proliferation of Muslim extremist materials available online with the rise of the Islamic State, white supremacists and other domestic conspiracy theorists with radical and violent agendas have become a major force online.

I won’t dwell on an intersection with a different area of research, on how these groups game out algorithms to increase their visibility and spread their messages; there are great books and reports on the subject available, and many more yet to be written.

How the proliferation of conspiracy theories into the mainstream happened is less material to this post than observing the extent to which it has happened. Donald Trump is perhaps the most obvious case of a figure cultivating outlandish conspiracy theories, including ones of secret Jewish subversion. Media figures including Glenn Beck and politicians including Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) have too. Beck explicitly aligned himself with Skousen; Paul with Griffin.

Perhaps what is more striking is to see the words come from the mouth of a sitting Senator who has long espoused respect and seriousness as core values, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IO), in an exchange with Fox Business Channel’s Maria Bartiromo:

Maria Bartiromo, Fox Business Network: “Do you believe George Soros is behind all of this, paying these people to get you and your colleagues in elevators or wherever they can get in your face?”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa): “I have heard so many people believe that. I tend to believe it. I believe it fits in his attack mode that he has and how he uses his billions and billions of resources.”

Soros in particular has taken up the mantle of Nathan Rothschild, as the figure regarded as sinister, whose political activities are meant to facilitate the decline of capitalism and Christianity. The through-line from Rothschild to Soros as an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is two-fold.

The first is the broad suspicion that the Jewish financier builds wealth by profiting on the destruction of the white, Christian majority and the decline of capitalist institutions generally; like Rothschild, any windfall is treated with suspicion and regarded as the product of exploitation. (Those who are left-of-the-average-reader may be inclined to think that all profit deserves to be treated with such suspicion; that’s beside the point.) In the collapse of the American housing market, or wars in the middle east, or financial crises in European countries, the financial interests of Soros face particular scrutiny, even when his interests are not particularly deep.

The second is the particular criticism of political activism as a direct form of Jewish Bolshevism (even using the octopus imagery directly), as trying to destroy the fabric of capitalist and Christian society, in America and abroad. Soros is a boogeyman to American conservativism, a figure playing in the shadows against the values of sweet Pleasantville, driving America towards Sodom. Rather than simply being an adversary whose values run contrary to some (though by no means all) causes that American cultural conservatives advocate, he is the mysterious conspirator pulling the strings whenever there is a losing battle.

This is where the missing bit of connective tissue in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism causes a problem, because it makes it difficult to explain why the conspiracy theories are anti-Semitic, why they are dangerous. The feature of associating blame wrongly (e.g. accusing Jews of collective guilt) or of questioning allegiances (e.g. loyalty to country) in special circumstances is a logical mistake, and a consequential one, but it isn’t what makes the hatred move. That lies in the character of the conspiracy theories and the ways that those theories are turned into political action. It is the particular conspiracy theories stitched together with background stereotypes about the moral character of Jewish people (either generally or in particular) and widely held cultural assumptions about a unique Jewish influence in the halls of power.

It won’t do to attempt to reduce anti-Semitism to a sketch of the sorts of the beliefs or claims that we expect from certain segments of our population. (This tactic has been utilized for racism and misogyny as well, and similarly been unsuccessful.) Rather, the approach requires something broad enough to handle the most egregious cases of overt white supremacy and the more subtle cases of conspiracy theorizing that can pass over the teeth of figures like Grassley without much notice, and no public outrage.

There are technical issues to be raised about the IHRA definition and the prospective alternatives in developing an analysis of anti-Semitism. I have a number of points rooted in the technical philosophy literature that aren’t appropriate for a Medium post; I think a multi-valent definition of anti-Semitism has to be the way to go (and at least two of those valences are views of Jewish racial difference like what we find in conventional racist literature and the conspiratorial line traced here), but I cannot really delve into this account at length… and I’d be screwing myself out of a likely peer reviewed publication that could see some real citation action, so I won’t expand here.

Instead it is useful just to note that the standard approach to developing these sorts of definitions in the narrow scope won’t do. Homophobia (for example) isn’t restricted to the gay panic, or the views that homosexuality can/should be “cured.” Those are certain strong cases of homophobia, but the limits extend out into the public policy realm of allowing broad discrimination against homosexuals and fear-mongering over “the homosexual agenda.” (While it lacks as robust a history as anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, homophobic conspiracy theories have seen significantly popularity on the far right as well.)

The challenge in building a satisfactory definition is in catching all of the relevant obvious cases of anti-Semitism while not overextending to catch reasonable utterances of political speech. This has been the regular criticism of the IHRA, that it is too broad, because holds that any criticism of Israel (for example) would qualify as anti-Semitic. I’m unconvinced of this criticism of the IHRA working definition, though it casts light on a serious challenge. Such a definition has to balance criticism of human rights abuses in Israel against the observation that many such criticisms do border on (if not outright hold) the sorts of conspiracy theories previously explored. This is an especially contentious issue in the political discussion, however (I submit) not an entirely unfamiliar one.

It is common to raise concerns about anti-Arab racism or anti-Muslim bigotry in the course of particular lines of criticism of various middle eastern countries. (It is not bigoted to criticize the human rights record of Saudi Arabia; it is definitely bigoted to suggest that these problems arise from some explicit incompatibility between Arabs and the values that underlie human rights.) Similarly, these issues come up in American domestic discussion of problems in communities that have higher populations of racial minorities as a result of racial difference. While those discussions are not necessarily racist, they lend themselves to racist theorizing that is often defended as “honestly trying to explore the problem.” In this respect, I think the challenges of developing a working definition of anti-Semitism that allows for open political discourse while still catching the relevant anti-Semitic claims of political activists are not unique.

When Cesar Sayoc sent bombs to George Soros, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and other figures in liberal politics, I was not surprised. I hope that the above post illustrates precisely why I was un-surprised. I was appalled, both by the insistence of many conservative media figures on identifying the attack itself as a conspiracy and by the attempts to minimize these attacks by focusing on the Sayoc’s incompetence as a bomber and the relative insulation of most of the targeted political figures. I was appalled; I was not surprised.

When Robert Bowers opened fire on a synagogue, killing 11 people celebrating the Sabbath, wounding six more (including three police officers who responded), I was stunned. I suppose, for the reasons enumerated above, I should not have been. Bowers’ rhetoric immediately following the shooting, invoking conspiracy theories about Jews organizing a “white genocide,” are precisely what I should have been conditioned by this research to expect. I wasn’t.

I wonder if this is the way that experts on racist hate crimes felt after the shooting at AME Baptist in Charleston, somehow knowing such violence was inevitable with increasing escalation in hate crimes, but still totally unprepared to see it. Killing in a sacred space. Killing motivated only by the shared identity of people who occupy that place.

The discussion around Bowers’ motivation will be extensive, with folks suggesting he cannot be inspired by these conservative conspiracy theories because he thought Trump was a part of the conspiracy and others noting the trend in anti-Semitic hate crimes and the patterns of rhetoric that have developed over the course of the last decade, culminating in the rise of the conspiratorial wing of the Republican Party. I think the latter is closer to the truth, but expect the conversation largely to entrench existing partisan views, turning fast and going nowhere.

I hope that readers will keep in mind a few things in terms of concrete policy that should happen, areas of negligence by the current administration that this moment could provide impetus to correct. (I am cynical that it will, but would hope that readers might encourage their leaders to take this kind of action.) The positions of Special Envoy to the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism remains vacant and White House Jewish Liaison remain vacant; past holders of the office from administrations in both parties have criticized administration policy on this issues. In September, the House passed a resolution to pressure the administration to do so.

This administration has actively scaled back efforts by law enforcement and private organizations to combat white supremacist extremism. A concrete measure that they understand the significance of this rise would be to direct those law enforcement bodies to ramp up efforts to this effect. These are all consequential decisions that can be made by the administration pretty much unilaterally (and they would receive enormous bi-partisan support for doing so). But I remain cynical about whether the administration will offer concrete policy solutions to these positions, as I have become cynical both about this administration and the governmental response to anti-Semitism generally. I would like to be surprised by the decision to take active and productive measures, either by the media in covering these issues with an eye towards accountability for those disseminating these conspiracy theories or (a measure that would be even more jarring) the government acting to address white supremacist terrorism.

Doctoral Candidate at University of Calgary working on a broad range of problems in ethics and meta-ethics, occasionally commenting on politics, public health.

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