Conspiracy Theories and Today’s New Antisemitism

Protesters at “Unite the Right” rally, Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017. Image Credit: Anthony Crider/Wikimedia Commons

by Charles Lipson

Today’s conspiracy theories, like their predecessors, frequently target Jews. This age-old hatred was on shameless display during the Capitol riots, where one thug wore a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt. He was not alone. A Rutgers University report found that at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups were involved in the riot. Still more extremists without any formal affiliation joined them, according to research by Robert Pape and Keven Ruby.

Among right-wing groups like the Proud Boys, anti-Semitic tropes are commonplace. They are staple features of QAnon conspiracy theories, which mark Jewish names with triple parentheses to label them as usurpers and predators. Some groups borrow from Nazi propaganda and denounce Jews as “not members of the white race.”

Anti-Semitic vitriol like this is not new. What’s new is its rationale, which is now divorced from medieval and early modern religious doctrines. Indeed, anti-Semitism is now part of a broader ideology of illiberalism that endangers America’s long-standing principles of individual rights and tolerance.

Historical Anti-Semitism

In the Middle Ages and the early modern era, anti-Semitism was largely a product of religious tensions coming from an overwhelmingly Christian society and directed by the Catholic Church, not only at Jews but at Christians they deemed heretics. That’s changed dramatically as the West has become more secular. The old curse of “Jews as Christ killers” has waned. So has the bizarre “blood libel” that Jews kill Christian children to drain their blood and mix it into unleavened bread for Passover.

These ideas weren’t just noxious; they were deadly. They not only excluded Jews from an overwhelmingly Christian society, but they justified lethal attacks. Among the most prominent were those that accompanied the First Crusade (1096–1097). As Christian warriors left for Jerusalem, they massacred whole Jewish villages in the Rhineland. Their compatriots in France did the same.

These quasi-religious doctrines of Christ-killing and blood libel were reinforced by primitive, anti-capitalist ideas, which depicted “middlemen” as parasitic profiteers living off the hard work of others. Although these derogatory views applied to all middlemen, Jews became special targets because they were so closely associated with trade and commerce, banking and pawnbroking. Some of the sharpest attacks were directed at lenders. Jews often played that role because the Church prohibited Christians from making interest-bearing loans to each other. Jews were allowed to make those loans, and they did.

Jews were not only drawn into those profitable occupations, they were driven into them because they were banned from so many others, such as joining craft guilds or owning land. Faced with these limitations, Jews turned to the scraps that were left. Permissible jobs included pawnbroking, where small-scale lenders secured borrowers’ credit by holding their goods. If a loan was not repaid, lenders could sell the goods to recoup their losses. One such pawnbroker identified his Frankfurt shop with a red shield, a roth schild.

Anti-Semites believe descendants of this “Rothschild” now rule the world, along with such modern financial wizards as George Soros. Even in market economies such as the United States and Europe, these anti-capitalist themes live on, often highlighting Jews as malign examples of markets run amok. As one Austrian social democrat, August Bebel, put it more than a century ago, “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.”

Anti-Semitism Without Christian Roots

Today’s hatred of Jews has largely broken free of its old religious foundations for three reasons:

  1. Secularism has risen dramatically, and religiosity has declined in most developed countries.
  2. After the Holocaust and Vatican II (1962–1965), Christian doctrines became more ecumenical and less antagonistic to other faiths, including Judaism. The Catholic reforms begun by Pope John XXIII set a template for mainline Protestants.
  3. As long-standing barriers to Jewish advancement have fallen, many Jews have risen to eminent positions. While their prominence is a triumph of meritocratic competition and social mobility in Western societies, it makes them conspicuous objects of envy, individually and collectively.

Religious hatred of Jews has not disappeared entirely. It endures, more in Europe than America, and sometimes takes dangerous forms. But today it seldom comes from conservative Catholics, as it did as late as the 1890s when France’s right-wing military leaders and Catholic political conservatives falsely accused Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and damned him as a Jew. In Paris, Berlin, Vienna and across fin de siècle Europe, religious anti-Semitism merged with a militaristic “blood and soil” nationalism, which reached its fatal zenith in Nazi Germany. (America’s nationalism has always been different. Despite significant nativist and anti-immigrant movements, American nationalism is based on common civic identity, not bloodlines.)

Today, the religious roots of anti-Semitic hatred in Europe (and to a lesser extent in North America) come not from Christians but from Muslim extremists who emigrated from the Middle East and North Africa and brought rigid, intolerant doctrines (and their imams) with them. They don’t want to blend into Western society, and many have not. They want to share in Western prosperity, of course, but they also want to maintain their communities’ religious purity. That means avoiding assimilation into the morally corrupt societies that surround them.

These separatist religious attitudes have fueled hatred not only against Jews but against “infidels” of all faiths, including fellow Muslims. We know from numerous terrorist attacks that these dangerous ideas have survived for several generations in some immigrant enclaves. They threaten not only Jews but Christians, gays and lesbians, and independent women, including those in the Muslim community itself. Beyond these specific targets, they threaten the tolerance and mutual forbearance that took centuries to achieve in Western democracies.

Strange Bedfellows

Oddly, some of these zealots, together with Palestinian activists, have forged political alliances with radical, secular leftists. These partnerships began and flourished on college campuses, where they were directed at pro-Israel activities and the Jewish students who supported them. The same coalition has gradually spread beyond universities to become a standard feature of “progressive” politics across North America and Europe. It became a central feature of Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, one the party is still trying to root out.

Although these allies are powerful forces on the left, they lack any shared positive agenda. What holds them together—indeed, what holds so much of Western politics together these days—is shared animosity. These disparate partners are unified by their common enemies and the practical goal of sustaining a large coalition. Sticking together means endorsing each other’s primary grievances. “I’ll hate what you hate if you’ll hate what I hate.”

This “grievance coalition” is buttressed by two ideological strands: identity politics and a vague socialism centered on punishing the rich and redistributing wealth. How else could religious Muslims, gay activists, transgender athletes and secular socialists work together?

The Centrality of Anti-Zionism in Left-Wing Politics

One of this coalition’s most prominent shared ideas is despising Israel. They consistently paint it in lurid colors as a parade of horribles: colonialism, capitalism, globalism, racism, militarism, nationalism, “whiteness” (the opposite of the far right’s depiction), apartheid, what have you. It embodies everything they loathe and, in doing so, binds them together.

This criticism is not directed at a few Israeli policies. It is outright “Israel denial,” as anti-Semitism expert Alvin Rosenfeld terms it. Its key feature is “a widespread and increasingly determined opposition not just to individual policies of the state of Israel but to the country’s very existence… On the ideological level, opposition to the idea of Jewish peoplehood as such, especially as it is embodied in a strong and sovereign Jewish state, is at the core of one prominent strain of today’s antisemitism, particularly among segments of the political left.”

The immediate goal of this “Israel denial” is to strip Israel of any international legitimacy, its right to exist. That’s the essence of a slogan chanted at so many campus rallies and city marches: “Palestine, Palestine must be free, from the Jordan to the Sea.” This aspiration leaves no space for Israel on the map. It must disappear entirely, they claim, if Palestine is to be free.

That fanatical goal, and the more realistic one of delegitimizing the Jewish state, is the ideology driving the left’s call to “boycott, divest and sanction” Israel. The BDS movement, which began at universities and is now a staple of leftist politics, seeks to do more than boycott Israeli products and services. It has bigger goals than exerting economic pressure. It wants Western consumers and institutions to sever ties with anything connected with Israel.

That means all public and private institutions across the Western world must end their contact with Israeli universities, hospitals and research facilities. All American universities, philanthropies and pension funds must sell their shares in any company that invests in Israel. All academic departments and medical centers must refuse to accept any Israeli faculty, visitors or speakers. This campaign is the modern equivalent of pinning a yellow Star of David on anyone and anything associated with the Jewish state. Almost all Jewish organizations consider it anti-Semitic.

BDS proposals have gained strong backing from left-wing intellectuals, progressive foundations and some mainline Protestant churches, which see their positions as advancing “social justice.” No one seems to have noticed how bizarre this doctrinal mutation is. Postwar Christian theology, which aimed at being inclusive, tolerant and ecumenical, has slowly degenerated into a furnace of hatred for the Jewish state and its citizens. All too often, that odium morphs into scorn for Jews themselves. Although these progressive religious ideas are not central to the new anti-Semitism, they reinforce it, mostly by baptizing it in the fire of moral virtue.

Anti-Semitism on the Right: Distinguishing the Far Right, Populists and Conservatives

Many on the far right share the same antipathies, amplified by conspiratorial nightmares. They typically frame their anti-Semitism in dangerous language, backed by the threat of violence.

There are two major differences from anti-Semitism on the left. The first is that the far right is openly violent. (Anarchists are, too, but they cannot be labeled right or left.) The overwhelming majority of progressives are peaceful, despite some violent elements on the far left and in racial-identity movements. The second is that right-wing extremists don’t use anti-Zionism as a façade for hating Jews. They hate Jews directly, with no apologies and no intervening steps. Neo-Nazis add an explicit racist component: “We are European and Jews are not.” Some speak of resuming Hitler’s quest to exterminate “the Jewish race.” (Jews think of themselves as both a religion and a heritage, not a “race” as Hitler did.) Although these far-right movements are still small, they ride a larger wave of illiberalism across the U.S. and Europe.

The verdict on populism is more mixed. Although they are accused of being bigots or white supremacists, the vast majority of today’s populists are neither. Nor are they violent. But overt racism, anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiments have been regular undercurrents of populism, especially Southern populism, for well over a century. As historian C. Vann Woodward famously chronicled, Georgia’s Tom Watson began his political career in the 1890s by trying to build a biracial coalition of small farmers. After that failed, he shifted to a virulent racism, setting a prototype for Jim Crow populists such as Mississippi Govs. James K. Vardaman and Theodore Bilbo and later for Govs. George Wallace (Alabama), Ross Barnett (Mississippi) and Lester Maddox (Georgia).

It is crucial to note that these dark undercurrents are not shared by traditional conservatives or Evangelical Christians. Quite the contrary. Today, many within these groups are philo-Semites. Almost all are strong supporters of Israel and a robust U.S.-Israeli alliance.

Primary credit for exorcising racism and anti-Semitism from modern American conservativism goes to one man: William F. Buckley Jr. He left the American Mercury in the early 1950s over its anti-Semitism and ensured that bigotry was never a part of the National Review, which he founded in 1955. “In the 1950s, when American conservatism still bore the taint of anti-Semitism, Bill Buckley moved forcefully to erase it,” Sam Tanenhaus told The New York Times. “One important step was banning anti-Semitic writers from National Review.” Buckley’s efforts permanently shaped modern American conservativism and sharply differentiate it from right-wing extremism. Lumping the two together is simply wrong.

What’s New about the New Anti-Semitism

Modern anti-Semitism is characterized by attacks on prominent Jews, both secular and religious, for their success in a meritocratic society. This condemnation is almost always accompanied by strident attacks on the Jewish state and accusations of “dual loyalty” against American and European Jews who support Israel. These attacks come from all political directions and are based on several key features of modern Jewish life in the West, especially in America.

First, Jews have become exceptionally prominent and prosperous since they were freed from centuries of onerous restrictions (from the Enlightenment onward in Europe; from the outset in America, where some remaining barriers were eliminated in the mid-1960s). Their success is evident across a wide range of fields: finance, law, science, medicine, education, media, politics, venture capital, technology and more.

One simple measure of Jewish academic accomplishment is the Nobel Prize. Although Jews are less than one-fifth of 1 percent of the world’s population, they have won about 20 percent of the prizes. This hundredfold overrepresentation is even greater in the sciences and economics. The same is true for top awards in mathematics, the Fields Medal and Abel Prize. It is hardly surprising, then, to see similar achievements in lucrative or prestigious fields.

This success across multiple fields means there are now scores of prominent Jews for bigots to attack. They are obvious targets in every profession and everywhere on the political spectrum. Whatever the haters’ grievances, some Jews exemplify them.

Mass movements directed at any political viewpoints or occupations typically target groups or individuals as convenient symbols of whatever they hate. The goal is to mobilize supporters by putting a recognizable face on the enemy.

As a result, these political-ideological movements, especially virulent populist ones on both left and right, often target Jews (“the Rothschilds,” “George Soros,” “Mark Zuckerberg”) both as individuals and as representatives of their religion. To the extent Jews are seen as cosmopolitan, they become ready targets for nationalist movements. They can be portrayed as aliens who undermine our völkisch solidarity — eternal outsiders who are “not part of our nation.”

That attack was an integral feature of illiberal nationalist movements in 19th-century Europe. It has resurfaced recently on the far right in both Europe and America. (The difference, once again, is that Europe has malign traditions of “blood and soil” nationalism that America does not.) The goal of these movements is always the same: to muster political support, using their common enemies as a call to arms.

In recent years, Jews have become bigger targets because they have become more prominent in two ways:

  • First, as social and legal barriers to their advancement have fallen, Jews have become better educated, richer, more powerful and better known. That makes them more visible targets despite their increased integration into American society.
  • Second, they no longer try to downplay their Jewish heritage as they occupy these prominent positions.

What’s new here is the combination: success in multiple fields and Jews’ refusal to hide either their success or their religious background. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood moguls, nearly all of them Jews from poor villages in Eastern Europe, made every effort to strip away any “Jewishness” in their movies. As late as the 1950s, Jewish businessmen, professionals and politicians kept a low profile because they felt vulnerable. On national television, Jewish comics avoided any ethnic references, either to themselves or to fellow Jews. “They knew their place,” one thoughtful observer told me. “And they knew not to press certain issues.”

That has changed, as it has for other minorities in American society. Jews in high-profile positions no longer try to conceal their religion or ethnic heritage. They no longer speak softly on public issues for fear of endangering other Jews or being labeled as disloyal or un-American. They have dropped the wariness that shrouded their parents’ and grandparents’ lives.

Some, like Leonard Lauder, the late Sheldon Adelson, John Podhoretz, Thomas Friedman and Bret Stephens openly identify as active Jews, attentive to Jewish issues and causes. Others are simply billionaires or columnists with names like Bloomberg, Schwartzman or Krugman, who, whatever their personal religious practices, do not draw public attention to their faith or ethnicity, but don’t hide it either.

Whether Jews emphasize their religion or not, bigots still know it and use it for their own purposes. They note, for example, that the new Biden administration has appointed a Jewish secretary of state, secretary of the treasury, attorney general, secretary of homeland security and director of national intelligence. It must be a conspiracy.

What anti-Semites don’t recognize is that these high-level appointees were not chosen because they were Jewish. But they weren’t barred because of it either. That’s the crucial point: They can now compete based solely on their ability. That’s the American dream for all races, creeds and religions.

Equally important, although these public officials may be Jewish (or at least come from Jewish backgrounds), they are not acting on behalf of Jews. That, too, is crucial. They are acting on behalf of their country, as they understand it, just as President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are not acting on behalf of Catholics or as specifically Catholic officials. Sens. Mitt Romney, Mike Lee and Mike Crapo are not acting on behalf of their co-religionists either. Their views are naturally informed by their religious beliefs, but they are acting for their constituents and their country. That’s the oath they all take. The Constitution they pledge to defend prohibits any religious test for public office.

John F. Kennedy famously made those points during the 1960 West Virginia primaries. In that overwhelmingly Protestant state, he addressed voters’ fears by telling them he would never be controlled by the pope or the Catholic Church. He was proud of his religion, he said, but he was running to be America’s president, not the Catholics’. His victory there was rightly seen as a decisive moment for religious tolerance in America’s public sphere.

The New Anti-Semitism Is Getting Worse

Is anti-Jewish bigotry rising today? Is it becoming more dangerous? Yes to both, unfortunately. That’s obvious in Europe, but it is a growing problem in America, too. Hate crimes in general are rising, and those against Jews have risen even faster. They grew by double digits from 2018 to 2019, the latest year for which comprehensive statistics are available. The largest increases have been in vandalism and assault. Those numbers are the worst since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking them in 1979.

Not surprisingly, surveys show a large majority of Jews are worried about this increase. They should be. Their “sense of security and relative normality can no longer be taken for granted,” says Prof. Rosenfeld.

The problem goes well beyond hate crimes and violent attacks. Those extreme actions are embedded in a growing ideology of illiberalism, one that denigrates constitutional democracy, free markets and competition based on merit and achievement, not skin color, religion, sex or gender. For the first time in modern American politics, we are seeing explicit demands for equal outcomes, misnamed as “equity,” instead of long-standing calls for equal opportunity.

Identity politics seriously compounds these problems and deepens our social cleavages. What began as the benign politics of group pride has declined into a rigid dogma of division, resentment and invective. Mobilizing some people based on their “approved” group identities all too often singles out others for their less-favored ones. Most disturbing of all, those with disfavored identities are deemed guilty for their birth and upbringing. They are cursed as oppressors and shamed for their immutable characteristics and those of their ancestors.

This pernicious ideology undermines the very core of Americans’ common identity. It has spread from the most politically biased academic departments, led by race and gender studies, to virtually every field and, beyond the campus, to K-12 education, corporations and philanthropy. Those who push back find themselves smeared and doxxed, their careers imperiled. They are condemned as racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic and transphobic. This is not discussion or debate. This is back-alley abuse by bullies.

One telling measure of how bad these ideas are is that France’s education minister has now declared them a threat to his country’s identity. President Emmanuel Macron has endorsed that criticism, saying American theories about race, gender, identity politics and postcolonialism actually endanger France’s unity and stability. A group of 100 prominent French intellectuals signed a similar statement, published in Le Monde. Mon dieu!

“E Pluribus Unum” as America’s Aspiration

The growth of these vitriolic, exclusionary ideas is a terrible portent for any tolerant, liberal society. That’s why Macron objected so strongly. That’s why we should too. That’s why America’s motto is “E Pluribus Unum,” one out of many, and not the opposite. Right now, extreme ideologues on the right and left disdain that worthy goal. Some are violent, but all are dangerous. They are working to shatter an already-divided country and pit the bloody shards against each other. That’s not just bad news for Jews. That’s bad news for all Americans.

This piece originally appeared in Discourse magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author and the magazine.