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Conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism

Let’s get this out of the way: First-term Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s claim that the 2018 California wildfires were ignited by a space laser controlled by a corporate cabal, including the Rothschild banking firm, is objectively ridiculous. It’s okay to laugh about it. And yet it is, at the same time, kind of horrifying. It’s the latest in a long line of conspiracies about the Rothschild family, and those conspiracies are always, at root, anti-Semitic: Since the 19th century, people have used claims that this one particular wealthy family controls the world to cast aspersions on Jews in general.

Nor is this an isolated anti-Semitic incident for Greene. In December 2018, she shared a video on her Facebook page, which features a prominent British anti-Semite explaining that “Zionist supremacists have schemed to promote immigration and miscegenation.” This is a conspiracy theory that seemingly motivated the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s rampage in October 2018, less than two months before Greene’s post. Despite concrete evidence that these ideas were endangering American Jews, Greene chose to spread them anyway.

In this, she wasn’t alone. On October 31, 2018, three days after the Pittsburgh shooting, then-President Donald Trump blamed the approach of a migrant caravan coming to America’s southern border on George Soros — a Jewish billionaire who, like the Rothschilds, is often cast by anti-Semites as a villain in their conspiracy thinking. Soros is a frequent boogeyman on the right, blamed for the world’s problems by everyone from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

There’s a reason Jews are so often the targets of conspiracy theories, even mainstream ones. Much of conspiracy theorizing as we know it — the enterprise of explaining the world’s woes by positing that a shadowy, all-powerful elite is behind them — arose out of the European anti-Semitic tradition. The influence of that tradition is inescapable; its language and conceptual architecture are inherently linked to longstanding and deadly stereotypes about Jews.

This is a problem for conspiracy theorists of both left- and right-wing varieties. But in the United States, conspiracy theorists have become a dominant influence on only one of our two major political parties: the Republicans. The result is a political landscape in which right-wing anti-Semitism becomes more and more mainstreamed, even as Republicans win support among Orthodox Jews and loudly proclaim their pro-Israel bona fides.

So sure, the idea of a Jewish space laser ravaging California is kind of funny. But it speaks to something profoundly dark about our current political moment: the way the rise of the American far right has enabled the spread of one of the world’s oldest hatreds.

The unbreakable link between conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism

To understand why anti-Semitic rhetoric is so common among modern conspiracy theorists, we need to go back over 2,000 years. Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory University historian and leading expert on anti-Semitism, traces the structure of anti-Semitic ideas back to the very origins of Christianity — specifically, the New Testament description of Jesus’s death.

The early Church taught that “the Jews” conspired to kill Jesus — even though Jesus and his apostles were all Jewish and the Romans who actually executed him in the story were not. This, according to Lipstadt, was in part a strategic choice: Christianity had become a competing religion to Judaism, and its leadership wanted to marginalize the older, more deeply rooted tradition. What better way to do that than to blame Jews for killing the literal savior, casting remaining Jews as Christ-denying heirs to a dark conspiracy?

“Jews, [early Christians] argued, repudiated this new faith because of their inherent maliciousness,” Lipstadt writes. “This formulation rendered Judaism more than just a competing religion. It became a source of evil.”

This is the crucial thing to understand about anti-Semitism: It is both bigotry and an explanatory framework. Jews aren’t just detestable people, in the anti-Semite’s mind; they are the force responsible for all that is bad in the world. After Christianity’s conquest of the Roman Empire and Europe, blaming the Jews for the world’s ills — from war to famine to pandemic — became a persistent feature of the European social environment.

“When the bubonic plague raged across Europe in the 14th century, Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and spreading the disease,” Lipstadt writes. “For people schooled in millennia of Church-based anti-Semitism, it provided an easy, straightforward, and logical explanation for a seemingly inexplicable disease.”

The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution weakened the traditional Christian character of the European continent. Jews were freed from ghettos — walled-in segregated neighborhoods — and “emancipated” from legal restrictions on their participation in secular society. Many Jews benefited tremendously from their new freedoms; the Rothschilds, for example, initially became a powerful force in the banking world in mid-18th century Frankfurt.

But modernity brought its own problems, like crushing urban poverty, and anti-Semitism adapted to explain those ills as well. Anti-Semitic writers and politicians described Jews as a disloyal population dispersed throughout the Christian world, an international group plotting to use modern finance to undermine the stability of Christian society and manipulate Europe and the United States from behind the scenes.

Put differently: The overarching structure of the modern Western conspiracy theory — a global cabal manipulating the world from behind the scenes for its own profit and power — is an anti-Semitic construct. Many of its most significant texts, like the infamous 1903 Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were explicitly anti-Semitic.

After the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany and the horrors of the Holocaust, the horrific endpoint of centuries of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, explicit anti-Semitism became far less socially acceptable in both Europe and the United States. Even some conspiracy theorists backed off, to a degree, from openly blaming Jews.

But the link between conspiratorial thinking and anti-Semitism proved impossible to sever. In his book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, the European scholar Jovan Byford explains that modern conspiracy theories always draw on the conspiratorial past. Either intentionally or unintentionally, their vocabulary and concepts invariably draw upon foundational anti-Semitic tropes.

“While a writer may seek to dissociate him- or herself from the ‘outdated’ trends within the conspiracy tradition, including the focus on the Jewish provenance of the alleged plot, they nevertheless continue to operate in an ideological space with a long antisemitic tradition,” he writes.

And when conspiracy theorists try to explain the historical origins of the dark conspiracy, Byford finds, they tend to reach back for older conspiratorial writings — which are, invariably, anti-Semitic:

Between the mid-nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War, antisemitism was the dominant motif in conspiracy theories. Much of the conspiratorial literature of that period, but also about that period, revolves around the idea of a Jewish conspiracy. This means that, when authors today reflect on the history of the plot — a task that requires them to recognize the relevance of past conspiracies and past conspiracy theories — they invariably come into contact with the antisemitic legacy of the conspiracy culture.

You can see Byford’s analysis at work in the most popular right-wing conspiracy theory in America today: QAnon.

The closest thing Qanon has to a central thesis — that Democrats are part of a secret global cabal of pedophile Satanists that Donald Trump will soon expose and destroy — is not on its face anti-Semitic. “The vast majority of QAnon-inspired conspiracy theories have nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” the Anti-Defamation League wrote in a 2018 report. And yet, the ADL also found that anti-Semitic content had permeated QAnon-friendly spaces on the internet.

It’s easy to see how that would happen. QAnon fans obsessively parse posts written by an anonymous person named Q, often found on the fringe web forum 8kun (previously 8chan). Q’s posts are cryptic, to the point where QAnon devotees look to things like punctuation and capitalization for hidden meanings. To draw those out, they often look at other conspiratorial literature — concluding that the letter “R” in brackets refers to the Rothschild banking conspiracy, for example. Overt anti-Semites, like many 8kun users, are only too happy to fill in the anti-Semitic blanks for them, helping such ideas to flourish in QAnon-friendly spaces despite being ancillary to the main theory.

This seems to be how Mary Ann Mendoza, a hardline anti-immigration advocate scheduled to speak at the 2020 RNC, ended up tweeting a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion approvingly: by retweeting a thread from a QAnon enthusiast who had woven anti-Semitism into the Q canon.

The culture of conspiracy theorizing as we know it is thoroughly and unavoidably saturated with anti-Semitism. Conspiracy theories started with the Jews, and they always come back to the Jews.

The GOP’s conspiracy theorizing and anti-Semitism

The persistence of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories should make mainstream politicians very wary about indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially about Jews. Yet it doesn’t always work out that way.

In early 2019, for example, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) repeatedly got into trouble for the way she talked about the US relationship with Israel. She claimed that members of Congress supported Israel for financial reasons — “It’s all about the Benjamins” — and warned of a “political influence” pushing “for allegiance to a foreign country.”

Neither of those comments express animus for Jews, per se. But by claiming that shadowy powerful forces are distorting US policy on behalf of the world’s only Jewish state, she (seemingly unintentionally) provided rhetorical cover for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It’s why David Duke, the virulently anti-Semitic former grand wizard of the KKK, tweeted that “Omar is right ... about Israel.” Comments from mainstream leaders that seem to validate an extremist’s worldview give the extremists an opportunity to spread their ideas.

This isn’t to say Omar’s remarks and Greene’s were in any way equivalent — they very clearly are not.

Omar engaged in factually questionable rhetoric that echoed ugly tropes in a way that maybe helped some bad actors spread their ideas. Greene outright endorsed a series of obscenely outlandish conspiracy theories, some relating to Jews and some not.

This speaks to a fundamental asymmetry in the nature of the two political parties. The Republican Party depends, and for a very long time has depended, on a faction of the conspiratorial faction of the conservative movement.

From the John Birch Society in the 1960s to claims that Bill Clinton killed his political opponents in the 1990s to Glenn Beck’s chalkboard during the Obama years, conspiracy theories have been both a major presence in the conservative movement and a driving force in its activist ranks. With the rise of Trump, himself both a consumer and creator of right-wing conspiracy theories, this faction of the GOP seized control of the party.

“Those people just got closer and closer to the centers of power,” Rick Perlstein, a leading historian of conservatism, tells me. “It’s one of these things where this has always existed but got turned up to 11 in the Trump era.”

And in any climate where conspiratorial thinking is prominent, Jews will inevitably become the target. In the polluted right-wing media ecosystem, where conspiracy theories are omnipresent, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists will have an easier time getting a hearing for their ideas. One way or another, ideas from the fringe right slip into conservative media outlets like Fox News and, from there, straight into GOP legislators’ ears.

The result is an increasing presence of and tolerance for right-wing anti-Semitism in American public discourse. Notions like assigning blame to wealthy Jews like George Soros for non-white immigration, an idea that has its origins on the far-right anti-Semitic fringe, are not only acceptable but echoed by Republicans at the higher level.

There is no parallel phenomenon on the American left, which is much more careful both about both its epistemic hygiene and rhetoric that could offend historically marginalized groups. There is a reason that Omar apologized for her comments and faced backlash from party leadership while Greene is blaming the media and being given prestigious committee assignments (though the Republican Jewish Coalition has criticized her).

Until the Republican Party gets its house in order, we will likely hear more and more about things like the Rothschild space lasers. And anyone with a passing knowledge of Jewish history can tell you that’s very bad news.

Zack Beauchamp