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How the rise of conspiracy theory politics emboldens anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a form of prejudice rooted in conspiracy.

A mourner places flowers on the memorials erected outside of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh on October 29.
LightRocket via Getty Images

On Saturday morning, 11 people were shot to death at the Tree of Life synagogue by a gunman believed to be inspired by an anti-Semitic internet conspiracy theory.

The alleged gunman, Robert Bowers, was a deeply committed far-right anti-Semite, and surrounded himself online with other anti-Semites. He based his reasoning for his murder spree on a conspiracy theory that the migrant caravan currently working its way through Mexico is a Jewish plot intended to destabilize America, a theory that has its own lengthy history.

Anti-Semitism is an ancient form of hate, stretching back for millennia and leaving ghettos, pogroms, and mass industrialized murder in its wake. And the language of the anti-Semitism of the Wannsee Conference is being repeated today, on 4chan and by far-right mayoral candidates alike.

Bowers posted online that he had lost his faith in President Donald Trump because Trump hadn’t supported white supremacist groups, sharing a post that read in part, “First Trump came for the Charlottesville 4 but I kept supporting Trump because he is better than Hillary Clinton.”

But though the Pittsburgh shooter ultimately rejected Trump — and to be clear, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law and their family are practicing Orthodox Jews — Bowers was present in a political moment when prominent figures, from Fox News hosts to Trump surrogates and even Trump himself, have encouraged and even enabled conspiracy theories to flourish, including birtherism, QAnon, and Trump’s accusations about the father of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) being involved in murdering John F. Kennedy.

An environment where conspiracy theories flourish and find new ground is the perfect environment for anti-Semitism itself to flourish and find new acolytes. Anti-Semitism is a distinct form of hate, one deeply rooted in conspiracies about the role Jewish people play in shaping public life. But moreover, anti-Semitism itself is a conspiracy theory.

How anti-Semitism is different from other forms of hate

Anti-Semitism in America is a form of hate, but its motivations aren’t identical to other forms of prejudice.

For example, while anti-black racism or white supremacy revolve around on the (wrong) idea that black people or nonwhites are inferior, anti-Semitism, as practiced by many of its adherents today from a number of political and social backgrounds, is based on the idea that Jewish people have too much power, or even that Jewish people are secretly in charge — of the government, of culture, of the world in its entirety.

I spoke with Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and an expert on far-right white supremacist organizations. “In general, racism against people of color tends to denigrate their abilities or ascribe criminality to them,” Beirich told me. “With Jewish people, it is more often the case that they are seen as nefarious connivers who engage in activities to harm the majority population, meaning white people, by bringing in nonwhite immigrants or refugees.”

The idea that Jewish people, or Jews in general, hold secret power over everyone else is widespread among anti-Semites. Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan (himself deeply anti-Semitic) put his views bluntly in February of this year: “The Jews have control over those agencies of government. When you want something in this world, the Jew holds the door.” (Anti-Semitism on the left has its own very worrying history and legacy.)

In short, as writer John-Paul Pagano, who has discussed anti-Semitism extensively in his work, put it on Twitter, anti-Semitism is essentially a conspiracy theory. And in our conversation, Beirich agreed, telling me: “The whole anti-Semitic narrative is based on conspiracies. That is the thing that often sets apart anti-Semitism from other forms of hatred.”

Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director for the Anti-Defamation League, told me religious anti-Semitism and racial anti-Semitism have been factors in anti-Semitic language and actions for centuries. (Examples of religious anti-Semitism include blaming Jewish people for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or accusing Jews of using the blood of Christians in religious rites. In acts of racial anti-Semitism, people sometimes spread fear about Jewish people “contaminating” non-Jewish people’s bloodlines, essentially making a religious group into a race.)

Jacobson said that if there’s one thing that differentiates anti-Semitism from racism more broadly, “it’s that racism is largely ‘what you see is what you get,’ but anti-Semitism to a significant degree is not.” A racist sees a nonwhite person and is prejudiced against them. But to anti-Semites, he said, “Jews appear to be normal people but in fact the reality is that there’s something hidden, something powerful, something nefarious. Reality is not what it appears with the Jew.”

He added that demagogues the world over have picked up on that theme to argue during crises or turmoil, “what’s really troubling is that the Jew is behind it all.”

Anti-Semitism argues not that Jewish people are inferior, but that Jewish people are dangerous. Often those who espouse anti-Semitism use the political interests of any Jewish person, be they left-wing or right-wing, as evidence that their Jewishness is the real basis of their political beliefs and thus, that those beliefs cannot be trusted.

The characteristics of far-right anti-Semitism

The conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism has many parts and works in many different ways. For one, the anti-Semitism of the white supremacist far-right argues that Jewish people secretly hate white people — or more generally, “everyday Americans,” generally conservatives — and are attempting to subvert them through politics or through the media, using nonwhite people to do their bidding.

Here’s a recent example. In 2016, Trump-supportive musician Ted Nugent a meme posted on Facebook containing photos of prominent Jewish Americans like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, each with Israeli flags superimposed over their photo and with the tagline, “so who is really behind gun control?” His answer, apparently: Jews.

Know these punks. They hate freedom, they hate good over evil, they would deny us the basic human right to self defense ...

Posted by Ted Nugent on Monday, February 8, 2016

Nugent’s point was clear: These people aren’t real Americans interested in gun control for their own personal reasons; rather, they’re trying to rob real Americans of their rights through subversion and lying for selfish purposes — perhaps even doing so on behalf of Israel (as three figures in the meme are explicitly linked to either Israel or “Russian Jews”).

As Beirich told me, “Anti-Semites have for centuries accused Jews of being globalists who do not care about the countries that they live in and lack patriotism, instead favoring building up their own worldwide power. In today’s terms, that is called “globalism” and these unpatriotic Jews are seen as driving nations to extinction in favor of their own global power.”

“This is the same kind of conspiracy you find in the bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is read to this day by white supremacists.” The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a fake document (likely created by Russian secret police in the late 19th century) that purportedly details the secret Jewish plan for world domination.

The term “globalism” has been used by self-described “nationalists” — like Trump — and by, say, anti-capitalist protestors, but the false idea of the “rootless” and “globalist” Jewish people who lack real ties to their home countries has a lengthy anti-Semitic history.

Anti-Semites view Jewish success as further evidence of the conspiracy theory that Jews are secretly in charge of everything, while arguing that Jewish Americans aren’t “real Americans” and that they are somehow disconnected from traditional American values.

These sentiments are hardly new to the American imagination: Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, believed that the “international Jew” had no real statehood and took part in funding wars to profit from them while destroying non-Jewish countries, saying in 1925, “That is what I oppose — a power that has no country and that can order the young men of all countries out to death.”

Ford was one of the biggest promulgators of the Protocols, publishing them in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, in 1920. (He apologized for doing so seven years later.)

American anti-Semitism is based on conspiracy theories that fit the moment

As I mentioned above, the conspiracy theory that is anti-Semitism as practiced by the white supremacist far right — the world in which the Pittsburgh shooter was deeply immersed — is racist. Both during the civil rights movement and today, anti-Semites believed that Jewish people controlled nonwhite people and their actions, making them truly “responsible” for what anti-Semitic racists viewed as an effort to encourage miscegenation — “race mixing.”

Take the Christian Anti-Jewish Party, founded by J.B. Stoner, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1945. In its literature, the CAJP held that Jewish people were “behind race mixing,” arguing that Jews were secretly the driving force behind desegregation efforts led by the NAACP. “A Jew, Julius Rosenwald, spent $30 million financing organizations and writers that promote mongrelization. A race once mongrelized is mongrelized forever.”

A leaflet from the Christian Anti-Jewish Party, early 1950s.

Another racist organization of the 1950s, the National Anti-Jewish Party, argued in its own leaflets that “through inter-mixture of the races the Jews hope to lower the white race to a servile status so as to realize the longed worked for dream of Jewish world domination.”

From a pamphlet from the National Anti-Jewish Party, April 1956.

These words were echoed by George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party. In April 1966, Rockwell was interviewed by Playboy, and he said that Jews were behind desegregation, arguing that Jews “won’t be mingling like the rest of us. They believe they’re too pure to mix; they think they’re ‘the chosen people’ — chosen to rule the world. But the only world they could rule would be a world of inferior beings. And as long as the white man is pure, they cannot succeed. But when the white man permits himself to be mixed with black men, then the Jews can master him.”

From Playboy Magazine, April 1966.

On Gab and elsewhere online, from older forums like Stormfront to newer ones like 4chan’s /pol/ board, that language still resonates. Anti-Semites argue that Jews are “using” nonwhite people — like Muslims, or people in the migrant caravan, or even mixed-race couples — to subvert white Americans.

From a Gab user responding to the Pittsburgh shooting. October 27, 2018.

On the subject of Muslim immigration, the Pittsburgh shooter shared a posting several weeks ago reading, “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!! Stop the kikes then Worry About the Muslims!”

To that end, in the mind of anti-Semites who believe that Jewish people are engaged in, as one of the Pittsburgh gunman’s Gab postings put it, a “war against #WhitePeople,” then, taking action against Jewish people through violent means — like killing people in a synagogue — is a defense mechanism.

Ironic anti-Semitism is still anti-Semitism

But anti-Semitic attitudes that argue Jewish people are secretly in charge of everything haven’t been left to what some might call “serious” anti-Semites — hardened neo-Nazis and white nationalists like the Pittsburgh shooter.

In a 2016 interview, far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos argued that anti-Semitism being voiced by younger people was intended to be “ironic”, saying that the alt-right’s focus on Jews and jokes about “annuda Shoah” — the Shoah is the Holocaust — were intended only to “trigger the libs.” He said, “It’s not because there’s a spontaneous outpouring of anti-Semitism from 22-year-olds in this country. What it is is it’s a mischievous, dissident, trolly generation who do it because it gets a reaction.”

But Yiannopoulos then added that while the alt-right might not “care” about Jews, “they may have some prejudice about Jews. Like, ‘The Jews run everything.’ Well, we do. ‘The Jews run all the banks.’ Well, we do. ‘The Jews run the media.’ Well, we do. You know they’re right about all that stuff.” In Milo’s view, the conspiracy theory isn’t a conspiracy theory, because it’s accurate. (It isn’t.)

During the 2016 election, Donald Trump gave tacit credence to the memeing “ironic” anti-Semites and their harder-core brethren, both of which sent journalists and others thousands of anti-Semitic tweets and emails and death threats. In 2016, when Trump was asked about anti-Semitic death threats aimed at a writer who had profiled his wife, Melania, Trump responded, “I don’t have a message to the fans” — which neo-Nazis took as an “endorsement.”

But whether it be “ironic” anti-Semitism that assumes that jokes about the Holocaust or the death of Jews are humorous because they are offensive, or the violence we witnessed in Pittsburgh believed to be caused by a gunman who wrongly believed Jews were responsible for demographic changes that put him at some sort of risk, these forms of anti-Semitism have mixed and blended online to create an amorphous mass of hate.

In fact, the Pittsburgh shooter himself seemed to combine these ideas, reposting Holocaust-denial memes he clearly believed to be humorous while sharing “ZOG” cartoons (“ZOG” is short for “Zionist Occupied Government,” a theme among American white supremacists since the 1970s) and using “1488” as his Gab profile header — 14 for the “14 Words,” 88 because H is the eighth word in the alphabet, and HH means “Heil Hitler.”

While anti-Semitism is based on a false conspiracy theory, its ramifications are far too real. Online and in person, these viewpoints have remained deeply embedded within the conspiratorial far right. And those viewpoints have now contributed to yet another act of horrifying violence.