How an anti-Semitic staple about Jewish power captured the left
In two weeks, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee will host its annual confab, the AIPAC Policy Conference. As one of the largest pro-Israel lobbying organizations in the United States, surpassed only by Christians United for Israel, AIPAC often works as a stand-in for perceptions of American Jewish power. In the decade that I worked for AIPAC, board members would routinely return from visits abroad and share stories with me about foreign leaders lobbying them to change the US government’s mind, not about Israel or the Middle East but about a host of issues unrelated to AIPAC’s lobbying work – things like trade policies or diplomatic choices vis-à-vis these (sometimes very problematic) countries.
But it’s not just AIPAC that receives these requests. Colleagues at other Jewish organizations often told me their board members fielded similar requests. It took me a while to realize the disturbing truth: It was not AIPAC’s effectiveness in the American political system that inspired the foreign leaders to ask for board members’ assistance; it was the fact that they were Jews. That was enough to give these foreign dignitaries the impression that they were powerful enough, almost supernaturally so, to convince the American government to do their bidding, even to go against its own interests.
The connection between Jews and power is of course nothing new. Though our position in society has vacillated throughout history between disempowerment and influence, regardless of whether Jews were marginalized in society or leading figures, there were voices — sometimes loud, sometimes in whispers — that complained about Jewish power.
What made these insinuations so dangerous was precisely the fact that they were not based in reality. Jewish power was imbued with a mythical element, cast as unnatural, inhuman power that made the facts on the ground irrelevant, and the Jews even more dangerous to those who hated them. For when someone is believed to have extraordinary power, perceived as beyond normal means of control, there is a terrible urge to contain them by all means necessary. In other words, since natural methods are ineffectual, they must be completely alienated, eliminated or eradicated. And that’s exactly what they did to the Jews.
America has not been free of this framing, though it has historically been the fringe right that’s spread conspiracy theories about Jews trying to take over the world. People like George Lincoln Rockwell and Fritz Julius Kuhn took the Nazis’ language and created a homegrown form of anti-Semitism.
Sadly, the anti-Semitic trope of supernatural Jewish power that can only be contained through elimination is no longer the exclusive province of the right. I’m not speaking about anti-Zionism per se, but about the form anti-Zionism has taken over the past fifteen years. It is no longer deniable that the anti-Zionism which has become the bread and butter of the left flank of American political life has abandoned criticism of Israeli history, policies, and actions in favor of calls for elimination of the Jewish state based on a totalizing portrayal of its power that borders on the supernatural. In this new 21st century version of anti-Zionism, the practically supernatural power that Israel is seen as wielding can only be met with complete boycotts, exclusion and demands that the Jewish state cease to exist.
To students of Jewish history, this equation is all too familiar. We’ve been here before.
The theme of the incommensurately supernatural powers of the Jews can be traced back to the first century AD, to the very beginnings of Christianity’s murderous anti-Semitism. Early Christians blamed the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, an impossibility from both a theological perspective and a political historic one. The accusation imbued Jews with enough supernatural power to overcome total political disempowerment as well as religious constraints in order to bring about the death of the Son of God.
This elevation of the power of the Jews to a mythical degree, whereby the Jews were not subject to the laws of religion or politics or even nature, allowed them to be held responsible for other, completely unreasonable and illogical events, many of which lead to mass murder.
As Steven Beller notes in “Antisemitism: a very short introduction,” anti-Semitism “took ever more irrational, delusionary forms, so that by the mid-12th century Jews came to be accused of the ritual murder of Christian children.” Over the next hundred years, this mythology developed into blood libels, wherein Jews were accused of baking the blood of Christian children into matzos for Passover. Throughout the Middle Ages, there were over 150 blood libels. All lead to murderous mobs torturing and killing Jews.
The blood libel essentially argued that the Jews were inhuman, fantastical vampiric creatures or all-powerful devils who were willing consumers of their own species’ blood. Like these super-human mythical creatures, Jews murdered children and used their blood to empower themselves through witchcraft and pagan behaviors. The blood libel helped explain the supernatural power of the Jews by connecting them with other unnaturally powerful creatures. And because Jews were supernaturally powerful creatures, these canards justified – if not demanded — that these impossibly dangerous Jews be destroyed.
As murderers of Christians and drinkers of human blood, Jews could easily be seen as in league with mythological forces against the rest of humanity. And given that they were believed to have powers beyond human ability, it was not illogical that Jews were also accused of playing a role in what appeared to be an unexplainable plague — the Black Death that decimated Europe in the mid-14th century.
Needless to say, the power assigned to the Jews in the Middle Ages had no basis in reality, and not just because they weren’t actually drinking blood. Jews in the Middle Ages were completely disempowered; they were relegated to the fringes of economic and political society. But since their power was seen as coming from an unnatural place, simply marginalizing Jews by not allowing them to hold certain positions or jobs in society or impoverishing them would not work to contain the Jews’ inhuman and hostile power over the world. The Jews’ very existence within one’s community or country was seen as threatening to the anti-Semitic societies where they lived.
The power of the Jews was seen as so supernatural that only by literally ridding the community of Jews — through conversion, expulsion or murder — could a Christian population be safe. So Jews were slaughtered by Crusaders and then expelled, from England in 1290, from France in 1394, from much of Germany by 1350, from Spain in 1492 (in addition to the forcible conversions and torture of the Spanish Inquisition), from Portugal in 1497, and from Vienna in 1670. Orthodox Russia, before its imperial expansion in the 18th century, also prided itself on being free of Jews.
This link between supernatural power and anti-Semitism explains why it was the onset of the Enlightenment, with its introduction and popularization of science, rationalism, and reason, that helped reduce the virulent and bloody anti-Semitism that reigned freely throughout the Middle Ages. And it explains why 19th century Romanticism, with its embrace of the irrational, also oversaw a renewed growth in anti-Semitism. And it explains why once the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews, Nazi propaganda evolved to focus on the Jews’ almost supernatural power that threatened not only Germany but the entire Western world.
Calls for elimination are the calling card of anti-Semitism. What cannot be controlled through discrimination must be eliminated.
Given this history, it’s been rather shocking to see this same obsession with what is perceived as the unfathomable danger presented by Jews develop in today’s anti-Zionist rhetoric. This rhetoric casts Israel as so powerful that reasonable methods of responding to its perceived misuse of power are impotent; nothing for this crowd will work but total elimination.
Leaders of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, known as BDS, frequently make use of dangerously overwrought descriptions to describe Israel, as do its supporters. Recall Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s now-deleted 2012 tweet: “Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” The tweet taps right into the trope that Jews are not only powerful, but all-powerful – capable of hypnotism that only Allah can reverse. This is a classic of the genre, though of course, this theme is not unique to Omar. The language is everywhere in the BDS community, as when Mahmoud Nawajaa, the General Coordinator of the BDS National Committee, accused Zionists of “brainwashing” and controlling U.S. policy, and when famous BDS supporter Roger Waters narrated a documentary film titled “The Occupation of the American Mind.”
This idea that Israel’s very existence is a danger to world peace is repeated over and over again, both in academic spaces and outside them. A 2013 BBC poll found that Israel is considered one of the most dangerous countries to world peace — tied with Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea — a view as ubiquitous on American university campuses as it is irrational. Israel, which has shown no hegemonic aspirations in its short history, and certainly no interest in any place that does not threaten its borders, is described and perceived as a danger to the entire world, a threatening power way beyond what is reasonable given its size and history.
That’s how you can recognize the old anti-Semitic canard at work: Israel, the unnaturally powerful Jew of the international arena, has grown into the most oppressive, most dangerous genocidal country in the world and it must be stopped in its hegemonic, demonic tracks.
If it was Romanticism that helped Nazi anti-Semitism, and Middle Ages’ ignorance that enabled the blood libels, the progressive left’s embrace of eliminationist rhetoric comes from its own anti-scientific discourse: postmodernism. Like the Romantics, postmodernists reject the Enlightenment principles of reason and scientific explorations of reality, arguing that all truth is subjective, and subjective mythologizing is seen as a perfectly valid way of understanding the world. In addition, contemporary postmodernists are obsessed with issues of power, dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed. Anyone with power is evil and must be fought against.
This combination of an obsession with power with a repudiation of facts was the perfect storm to give rise to the reemergence on the left of supernatural myths about Israel and Jews.
Of course, it is certainly true that Israel and the pro-Israel movement in the US are very powerful, and can help influence political opinion. Members of the pro-Israel movement are highly effective participants in the marketplace that is the American political system. It’s also true that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make American diplomacy easier; America’s Arab allies continue to stress that they cannot publicly support Israel or America’s endorsement of Israel while this situation continues.
But this is not how Israel’s critics talk about the Middle East. Instead they suggest that the Jews and the Jewish state are superhumanly powerful – hypnotizing, controlling, brainwashing — so that reasonable channels of addressing a problem cannot work. Engagement, negotiations, debate, or a more successful political counterweight are cast as unviable in the face of this inhumanly powerful Jewish state and her supporters. Only the end of the existence of the state of Israel will suffice.
There is no room for dialogue or conversation with a country or her citizens and supporters when they pose a danger to world peace, and when they have the power to hypnotize. It must be boycotted — her supporters excluded, shut and shouted down — and ultimately cease to exist. One cannot, and does not, engage with supernaturally powerful monsters; one eliminates them.
Israel’s supporters are no doubt thankful that in the face of this kind of rhetoric, Israel is indeed in a position of power, necessarily so since it is a country surrounded by enemies, and exists in a part of the world where multiple countries and terrorist groups are openly committed to its destruction. Still, one can’t help but shudder when one hears the eliminationist rhetoric of our past reemerge, given that elevating Jewish power to a supernatural level has always historically lead to murder.
But this discourse is not only dangerous to Jews; it is also sure to stymie real growth in Israel. If the Jewish state could be seen not as a terrifyingly supernatural hegemonic and genocidal monster that controls minds, but instead, for what it truly is — an imperfect country like all others, intent on remaining as powerful as humanly possible because it is surrounded by enemies, unlike most others — perhaps there could be a real conversation about how to address some of Israel’s very human flaws.
Dr. Sharon Goldman is Vice President of Global Resources and Strategy at Bar-Ilan University.