Our modern political climate has helped bolster the oldest conspiracy theory of all.
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Earlier this month, white nationalists found cause to rejoice. The culprit behind many of the bomb threats plaguing JCCs and Jewish schools around the country — a young American-Israeli man living in Ashkelon, in the south of Israel — was arrested. The teenager, apparently utilizing sophisticated identity-masking methods, was responsible for a yet-unknown but apparently large proportion of the bomb threats terrorizing toddlers, schoolchildren, and Jews at prayer, according to Israeli police.
For white nationalists like David Duke, the suspect’s religion was proof of a theory they had championed: that Jews, in a coordinated plot, had created the attacks to “get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda.” A popular meme, “Hey rabbi…watcha doin’?,” resurfaced: It depicts a hook-nosed Jewish stereotype spray-painting a swastika onto the wall of a synagogue. Reactions to the unlikely arrest further proved the durability, in a conspiratorial age, of the oldest conspiracy theory of all: anti-Semitism.
Defenders of Donald Trump viewed the arrest as a vindication of the president, whose few months in office have coincided with a striking rise in hate crimes. In a press briefing last week, Sean Spicer used the JCC bomb threat arrest to dismiss a question about an unrelated offense, urging the public not to “jump to conclusions” about the perpetrators of hate crimes — and stating that “the president was right.”
When asked in February about the steadily climbing number of anti-Semitic incidents during his time in office, including the bomb threats, President Trump had reportedly suggested that the Jewish community at large was behind the incidents.
“Sometimes it’s the reverse, to make people — or to make others — look bad,” Trump said, according to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was present at a meeting between Trump and state attorneys general.
It was this insinuation that Spicer claimed the arrest of a 19-year-old in Ashkelon had vindicated. But in his conversation with the attorneys general, Trump did not cite evidence from a months-long joint investigation between the F.B.I. and Israeli authorities that led to Ashkelon’s arrest. Nor would it be right to draw conclusions about the political motivations of a single, warped individual whose lawyer has stated that a brain tumor may have contributed to his alarming behavior. Moreover, most of the 330 incidents of anti-Semitic hate crime ProPublica has documented since January have been impossible to conduct remotely, such as the swastikas daubed on sidewalks and synagogues. The NYPD cites a 94% increase in anti-Semitic hate crime compared to this time last year; meanwhile, several high-profile incidents of cemetery vandalism — resulting in the toppling of hundreds of Jewish gravestones in Philadelphia and St. Louis — as yet have no confirmed culprits.
What is certain, however, is that Trump’s answer on anti-Semitism — positing, without citing evidence, a political plot — encapsulates his tendency to think conspiratorially. It’s a tendency he’s shown for years, before and throughout his presidential campaign and ascent to power, from birtherism to phantom wiretaps. But it manifests most clearly in the way he clings to falsehood, no matter how many times he is presented with fact. Trump has been a guest on InfoWars, Alex Jones’ notorious conspiracy-peddling radio show; he prefers the expostulations of 9/11 truther and ousted Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano to those of his own Department of Justice. In the President’s mind, Ted Cruz’s dad helped kill JFK, Barack Obama literally founded ISIS, and the Jews, as a whole, are threatening their own kindergartens. (The tenacity of these beliefs was put on astonishing display in a recent interview with Time magazine.)
The mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking and the rise in overt hostility towards Jews are intimately connected. As Alana Newhouse put it in Tablet Magazine, anti-Semitism is not a social prejudice against Jews. It has very little to do, Newhouse writes, with any individual’s distaste for perceived Jewish traits, or even antipathy towards specific Jews. Anti-Semitism in its classic sense is the belief that there is a malevolent entity behind the curtain, pulling the strings, and that that entity is a Jew.
“Racism is a prejudice, but it’s not rooted in conspiracy theory, as anti-Semitism is,” Deborah Lipstadt, a prominent scholar of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, told me in an interview last September. Anti-Semitism is present, too, in nearly every conspiracy-theory community; Lipstadt noted, for example, the outsize presence of the Mossad in “alternate” theories of 9/11. Even people from deeply marginal movements, like those who embrace Flat Earth Theory — the belief, as the name suggests, that the earth is really flat and NASA is a sinister fraud — frequently blame the Jews for their role in the “cover-up” of earth’s flatness. As one poster on the Flat Earth Society message board put it, space missions are “all lies…as you’d expect from a media/government/academia totally controlled by jews[sic].”
Trump’s campaign — and presidency — have played repeatedly into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. One infamous tweet juxtaposed Hillary Clinton, a Jewish star, and piles of cash. And a late-stage campaign ad depicted American Jews like Janet Yellen and George Soros as a narrator solemnly intoned about “trillions of dollars” in the hands of “global special interests.” Behind the anti-Semitic dog whistles lurked a braying pack of alt-right hounds who did not hesitate to savage Jewish critics and their supporters alike.
The notion that some malevolence lurks in Jewish singularity, that a refusal to assimilate is a cover for darker impulses, is an ancient one. In the Medieval era, Jews were said to have poisoned wells, to bake the blood of Christian children into matzahs. With the advent of industrialization, theories of Jewish malevolence grew broader and darker: 19th-century nationalists depicted Jews as inherently disloyal to their countries, their purported loyalty to the nebulous entity of “world Jewry” supplanting their loyalty to their own homelands. In the last century, Nazi cartoons depicted the Jew as an octopus encircling the globe, slimy tentacles smothering every continent. A 1940 Nazi film sought to cast this characterization as a timeless truth: It was called “The Eternal Jew.”
Last year, the term “fake news” came into prominence to describe a rash of false accounts, of dubious and possibly Russian origin, promulgated in the lead-up to the Presidential election. Since then, the term has boomeranged against its makers — and is frequently to be heard from a President openly hostile to the media. For Jews, however, the original “fake news” (also, incidentally, of Russian origin), dates back more than a century, to the 1903 publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the principal modern text of anti-Semitic conspiracy — and an object lesson in how difficult it is to debunk appealing falsehoods.
Top: Cover page from “Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. Bottom: poster from ‘The Eternal Jew.’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Protocols purported to be a record of a meeting between Jewish leaders, and was initially presented as the minutes of the first World Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897. The text listed arenas of the modern world over which Jews sought to establish control — from banks to the press to modern states themselves, and their wars; the Elders’ plan would culminate in a totalistic Jewish domination of the world. After its original appearance in the Russian newspaper Znamya in 1903, it was translated into German and widely disseminated in 1920; it was presented to American audiences as The International Jew the same year. What is remarkable — and sadly illustrative — about the text was that its debunking was nearly simultaneous with its promulgation. In 1920 the Protocols were revealed to be a clumsy fake, largely plagiarized from a 19th-century French work of political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu. The Times of London ran a 1921 exposé; in 1924, a German-language debunking was published by journalist Benjamin Segel.
And yet Hitler used it extensively in his campaign to illustrate Jewish malevolence; so, too, did Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin, in the United States. Forty-three years after the New York Herald first published its takedown of the Protocols, “The History of a Lie,” the Senate Judiciary Committee felt compelled to publish its own report, calling the work “A Fabricated ‘Historic’ Document” in 1964. But the work continues to be published all over the world, and is readily available online, to astound first-time readers who may feel as if the curtain is finally being lifted — the dark plot undergirding their unhappiness at last unveiled. The continual success of the Protocols is a stark illustration of the swift spread of alluring untruths, and the ways in which debunking fake news cannot curb its continual appeal.
Fake news — like conspiracy theories — can be immune to fact-based reproach. They resonate with devotees precisely because they contradict the consensus view of reality with which they are unhappy, and purport to vanquish defenders of the status quo.
Anti-Semitism is non-partisan. It exists both on the right and on the left (though leftist anti-Semites often sub in “Zionists” for “Jews”) lurking on the fringes, wherever counter-narratives to established truth are offered to eager listeners. (I am not conflating anti-Zionism, or harsh criticism of the Israeli government, with anti-Semitism; rather, I refer to those on the far left who are eager to explain how Zionists rig elections worldwide, and how global capitalism is shaped by Jewish greed and Rothschild gold.) In times that feel profoundly unstable, and in which the nature of reality is drawn into question by the executive branch of the American government itself, alternative explanations, with their sinister Soroses, are more appealing than ever.
For American Jews, many of whom have felt profound comfort and inclusion in the past half-century — and who have, in turn, shaped American culture in profound ways — the events of the past few months have been deeply unsettling. Warning knells sounded throughout a conspiracy-laced campaign, as Jewish journalists covering Trump faced unprecedented volumes of anti-Semitic abuse. But the two-fronted attack on preschools and cemeteries, children and the dead, coupled with swastika graffiti cropping up on street corners and synagogues, have left a sense of profound unease in their wake. (“Are Jews White?” asked a December headline in the Atlantic, a potent summation of these fears.)
A popular European story in the 15th century told the tale of the “Wandering Jew,” an immortal Jerusalem shoemaker cursed to wander from place to place for eternity. The term became a metonym for the Jewish people themselves— illustrative of both their immortality and the impermanence of their residence in any one country. While this was — and continues to be — cast as a malevolent Jewish trait, the central irony is that that impermanence is caused by the rise of prejudice against a minority that has retained its separateness, and its traditions, for millennia. The postwar embrace of Jews in America felt giddy, complete, perhaps eternal. And yet thousands of Jews facing hate crimes across the country have been driven to question that permanence this year.
In an era in which reality itself is in dispute, can America’s Jews dodge the rise of the most enduring conspiracy theory of all?