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The centuries-old history of Jewish “puppet master” conspiracy theories

The alleged Pittsburgh synagogue shooter thought George Soros was controlling the world economy. Here’s the anti-Semitic history of that far-right narrative.

ROME, ITALY - MAY 13: A view of Jewish and Catholic graves and tombstones vandalised at Rome’s historic Verano cemetery on May 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy. Approximately 70 graves, and tombstones were damaged overnight on 11 May. 4 unidentified youths have be
Jewish tombstones vandalized In Verano Cemetery in Rome, Italy, in 2017.
Stefano Montesi/Corbis via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooter had a conspiracy theory.

The suspected killer of 11 Jewish people in a mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue frequently posted snippets of his political ideology on far-right social networking sites like Gab. He posited that George Soros, the Jewish billionaire known for contributing to liberal causes, was secretly controlling the Honduran migrant caravan, a dwindling group of about 4,000 people heading on foot to the US-Mexico border to seek political refuge from instability and gang violence as part of a wider scheme to destabilize Western democracy.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the suspected gunman allegedly wrote on Gab hours before the attack, referring to a Jewish nonprofit that advocates for refugees, before adding, “I can’t stand by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics. I’m going in.”

Hours later, 11 people were dead.

As Media Matters researcher Talia Lavin told Vox earlier this week, the narrative of “white genocide” — the destabilization and marginalization of white people in Europe — is historically inextricable from the conspiracy narrative of the Jew as “puppet master.” This figure is supposedly both secretly, insidiously in charge of the economic and political world order, and deeply committed ideologically to destabilizing ethnic and national identities.

Soros is an incredibly wealthy Jewish man who has made no secret of his liberal political affiliations. He’s become a convenient symbol for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. But he’s far from the first one — and unlikely to be the last.

The conspiracy theories against Soros, and the insidious idea of the “Jewish puppet master” more generally, are part of a much broader rhetoric of hate, one that has fomented amid populist anxieties about urbanization, industrialization, and capitalism for centuries.

It’s a pernicious trope, but far from a new one, dating back to the European Enlightenment, an umbrella term for a number of rationalist, largely secular, philosophical schools of thought that flourished in the 18th century.

Since the late 18th century — and the political changes that followed the European Enlightenment — Jews have been treated as a scapegoat for populist anger, unfairly blamed for wider cultural anxieties about capitalism, industrialization, and an increasingly diverse and cosmopolitan social landscape.

Anti-Semitism today is rooted in narratives that have been around since the 1780s

Historical hatred of Jews has taken very particular forms over the past two millennia. There was religious anti-Semitism based loosely on the idea that the Jews were (allegedly) responsible for the killing of Christ, or for refusing him as Messiah. There was also straightforward racial animosity, which led to sickeningly regular genocidal violence throughout Medieval Europe.

But the anti-Semitic narratives around George Soros, which seem to have motivated the suspected Pittsburgh shooter, are rooted in a relatively more recent anti-Semitism that has been around since the late 18th century: a toxic conflation of anti-Semitism and “populism” that portrays Jews as mysterious, mustache-twirling puppet masters of the global order.

In an excellent 2017 piece in Jacobin, Harrison Fluss and Landon Frim look at how this form of anti-Semitism came to be.

They trace the origins of this modern “populist” narrative of anti-Semitism — the idea that Jews are out to subvert a Christian, ethnically unified society — to the political and economic upheavals that defined the late 1700s. The French Revolution, in particular, dispensed with absolutist monarchy in France and plunged all of Europe into a time of political instability. One Revolution-era document they highlight lays out what it meant to be part of this new, post-monarchical France.

That 1789 document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, laid out a radically new way of understanding what it meant to be French — or, at least, French in a newly democratic, post-monarchical society. It presented a vision of citizenship as distinct from bloodline or heritage, grounded instead in the democratic process and in “universal reason and equality.” A vision of citizenship that, Fluss and Frum write, explicitly emancipated Jews.

The ways in which Jews became citizens, Fluss and Frum argue, highlighted a fundamental difference in the way identity was understood between the ancien régime of monarchial France and the post-Revolutionary, increasingly capitalist, world order.

“Belonging” became not an issue of ethnicity or birthright but of political participation. “Citizenship,” by contrast, became a unifying foundational concept — one that allowed for a society based, in theory, on a coherence of ideas rather than a confluence of bloodlines.

The 18th-century debate over “human rights” was inextricably tied to the practical question of the place of Jews in society. If all citizens of a nation were equal by virtue of their civic participation, then Jews were “one of us.” If, however, identity were more fixed — based on natural and biological factors — then Jews could never be “one of us.” They would always be outsiders at best, impostors at worst.

This debate over “citizenship,” and what it meant to belong to a place, came at a time of immense social upheaval more broadly. The 19th century in Western Europe was a time of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and the increasing dominance of an urban, capitalist economic order. For some, this meant the possibility of prosperity — throughout Europe, the 19th century saw the dawning of a larger, richer middle class.

But for others, the new, liberal, capitalist world order did not live up to its promise. And those left behind, socially or financially, by that new order sought someone to blame. And so, as Fluss and Frim write, "the Counter-Enlightenment belonged to the Right, quite often of the romantic, völkisch [or nationalist], and anti-Semitic Right.”

Opponents of Enlightenment values more broadly bought into ideas that prioritized fixed identity — based on blood, language, or faith — over nebulous definitions of “citizenship” or “human rights” (definitions that would, in turn, legitimize Jews as full members of society).

The 19th century saw a dawning of nationalist ideology across Europe, including a fascination with imagined, primordial pasts defined by national myths. The composer Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitic legacy has long been debated, created staggering operas, based on Old Norse mythology, that doubled as paeans to an imagined German past. The Brothers Grimm started their project of collecting German folklore and fairytales — like Wagner, hoping to create a vision of a unified, purer Germanic past.

This reactionary Counter-Enlightenment treated Jews (alongside other “undesirables”) as responsible for the evil of uncontrolled capitalism, another social factor that had come to shape the industrial 19th century. In their minds, the emancipation of Jews went hand in hand with all the flaws of the new “liberal” world order that the Enlightenment — and, after it, the French Revolution — had wrought.

It was this conflation of populist, anti-capitalist sentiment and anti-Semitism that led German sociologist August Bebel to term anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools.

For example, from an 1845 text by Alphonse Toussenel:

Protestants and Jews, thanks to emancipation after 1787 and 1791, have controlled public opinion in order to favour trafficking and rigging the market, blocked every defence of royalty and of the people, put the producer and the consumer at their mercy so that in France the Jew reigns and governs.

These attitudes weren’t just limited to verbal discourse. Anti-Semitic pamphlets and imagery throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries visually portrayed the Jew as something between a corporate fat cat and a shadowy overlord; someone “cosmopolitan,” urbane (and urban), and dangerous.

This rhetoric reveals the extent to which Jews were seen as scapegoats, responsible for somehow manipulating the current world order in order to destabilize white Christian identity. It’s the exact same story we see today in narratives around Soros: that of the scheming Jewish billionaire, without any real (i.e., blood) loyalty to the country that allows him to be a citizen, actively seeking to undermine white Christian unity.

A caricature of the Jewish soldier Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused of espionage after a cover-up, whose case galvanized late-19th-century Paris.
Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion set the blueprint for future anti-Semitism

Perhaps the most noxious and notorious example of this brand of anti-Semitism is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 1903 Russian hoax document. It was a “handbook” on Jewish rule “proving” that a shadowy cabal of Jews was running the government, the media, and actively plotting to suppress nationalism and religion.

It’s unclear who wrote the document, or when — although parts of it are plagiarized from unrelated, earlier French and German satirical texts — but it seems clear that the document was intended to stoke anti-Semitic sentiments among ordinary Russians. But, even more disturbingly, it managed to conflate the Jewish people both with a threat to national and religious identity, and with a kind of dangerous secular capitalism.

These straw-man fictitious Jews, depicted in the document for example, announce that:

“It is indispensable for us to undermine all faith, to tear out of the mind of the "goyim" the very principle of god-head and the spirit, and to put in its place arithmetical calculations and material needs”

The Protocols were used by the Nazis as propaganda and are still distributed and presented as fact by organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, and remain in common use among extremist right-wing groups. In 2012, for example, a representative of Greece’s ultra-right Golden Dawn party read a portion of the text aloud in the Greek parliament.

Serbian anti-Semitic poster depicting Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin as puppets of a Jewish man.
Swim Ink 2/Corbis via Getty Images

The populist anger at the heart of modern anti-Semitism may not be new. But that doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Last weekend’s attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue — the deadliest ever attack on Jews on American soil according to the Anti-Defamation League — reveal just how noxious the “Jewish puppet master” trope can be, and just how long it can survive.

But historical memory is as short as history itself is cyclical. The mantra of “never again” — repeated so often after the horrors of the Holocaust — all too easily dissolves into “until next time.”

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