The Anti-Defamation League publishes an annual report on incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States. This year’s audit, made available in November, showed a significant increase in relation to the previous year: 2017 saw a 67% rise in anti-Jewish hate speech, harassment, vandalism and violence.
It’s a disheartening measure of a terrible phenomenon. Yet in the three months since the audit was released, it’s garnered little attention.
Some public comments hint at why. In a video for Jewish Voice for Peace posted to Facebook in April, the anti-racism 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,” she said. “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 the ADL notes an acute rise in anti-Jewish hostility, alarmed Jewish students are sidelined for being white and middle-class and the Holocaust is trivialized as “white on white crime.” Elsewhere, Jews who protest anti-Semitism are dismissed for failing to ante up sufficient concern about people of color.
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. Not simply a moral failing, this erasure is deeply hazardous, inasmuch as 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 rather than unconscious wiring. As I will argue, the left is doomed to erase anti-Semitism because it’s ill-equipped to understand it.
For in a key sense, regular racism — against blacks and Latinos, for example — is the opposite of anti-Semitism. While both ultimately 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; in other words, it stems from the models of thought that produce conspiracy theories. Where the white racist regards blacks as inferior, the anti-Semite imagines that Jews have preternatural power to afflict humankind.
This is also why the left is blind to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism differs from most forms of racism in that it purports to “punch up” against a secret society of oppressors, which has the side effect of making 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 — a form of speech of which the left is currently enamored.
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. As the historian Norman Cohn has shown, European civilization has embraced this idea since the beginning. The “fantasy,” Cohn writes, “that there existed somewhere in the midst of the great society, another society, small and clandestine, which not only threatened the existence of the great society, but was also addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable, in the literal sense of anti-human,” has targeted different groups — the Jews, in particular — ever since Christianity conquered Europe.
Of course, there are lesser species of anti-Jewish hostility. Think of Woody Allen riffing on the WASP’s disdain for loud, garlicky Jews bickering at dinner, or Ivy League schools using quotas to prevent Jews from denaturing their student bodies. No form of racism can escape its roots in simple xenophobia.
But the idea at the center of the long history of Jewish persecution is a conspiracy theory: that a wicked cabal of international Jews conspires to leech and destroy mankind.
In addition to the belief in a shadowy group 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 especially enticing to groups that view themselves to be under existential duress, and as 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 also 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 power of demons. Unfortunately, Jews had also been associated with sorcery since antiquity. This closed a circle, linking magic, Jews and the devil together 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 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 pre-eminent historian of anti-Semitism, Robert Wistrich, writes, “Alongside the dominant cultural matrix of late-nineteenth-century nationalism, volkisch racism, and imperialism,” a new “populist social dimension” recast Jews as collaborators with the secular demons of laissez-faire capitalism and liberal democracy.
Thus, as the center of civilization shifted from church and king to the nation state, anti-Semitism, at least outwardly, lost its religious focus. Foes of the Jews who aspired to power cast them as diabolical puppeteers who controlled the state; anti-Semites in power libeled them as seditious parasites who undermined it. This was the milieu that produced the foundational document of political conspiracism, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
Purporting to be the minutes of an international meeting of evil Jewish elites, “The Protocols” was 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, which Cohn memorably called a “warrant for genocide,” still flourishes today, especially in Arab and Muslim countries.
While it is a quintessentially modern document, “The Protocols” owes a clear debt to medieval thought. Murder, greed, warmongering, enslavement, false consciousness, opposition to the truth and betrayal of the good are all explicit in the work.
And the association of Jews and magic is there, too, implicit but central. The supernatural coordination by which a few international Jews command such vast power draws on the belief in witches’ flight. Though God was dead and magic moribund, both were now resurrected in the modern political life of conspiracism.
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 Anglo-Saxon 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 organizms and fluoride in the water. The idea that doctors and sorcerers were one and the same surfaces in paranoia about AIDS and vaccines. And flat-earthers 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. Anti-Semitism imagines a diabolic overclass to be exposed and resisted.
Take it from the experts. In Article Twenty-Two of its charter, Hamas 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. With their money they were able to control imperialistic countries and instigate them to colonize many countries in order to enable them to exploit their resources and spread corruption there.”
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 resuscitated efforts of groups like Black4Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace to portray Israel and America as bastions of capitalist white supremacy that collude to brutalize people of color.
In the early part of the decade, Ethiopian-Israeli women charged that state-mandated health providers had used shady means to depress their fertility with the contraceptive Depo-Provera. 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.
But this blindness doesn’t just make space for anti-Semites to operate domestically; it occludes our sense of the history of other parts of the world. (Do you remember the concept of conspiracy theory coming up during your education on the Holocaust? Me neither.)
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 often flies 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 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.
A week ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas delivered a rant of more than two hours to assembled Palestinian leaders. He alleged wild conspiracies, raving in what would have been news to Anne Frank that “[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 despair by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
Neither of these episodes would have been likely if we primarily 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 drug-dealing canard and Holocaust denial echoes of 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 the 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 march and shout, “Jews will not replace us!” This form of hatred thrives in conditions where demagogues undermine the institutions of liberal democracy.
This is a conspiracist moment and it’s bad for the Jews.
John-Paul Pagano is a Brooklyn-based writer who examines extremism, with a special focus on anti-Semitism and liberal democracy (Twitter: @johnpaulpagano).