Anti-Semitism Is The Oldest Conspiracy Theory In World

From the right to the left, anti-Semitism is rising. What can we do about it?

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Why is May 2019 different from all other months? It’s Jewish American Heritage Month for one, a period that feels especially important to mark given the rising insecurity coursing through Jewish American life. Because visibility is more important than ever before, Refinery29 brings you our celebration of Jewish American culture. L’chaim!
In October 2015, I found myself in a frightening situation: My name and face on a Neo-Nazi website identifying me as a Jew along with several hundred other Jews in politics, civics, and philanthropy. The website, which I will not name, warned its readers that Jews were too influential in American life; that we were a corruptive influence on America. While it didn’t advocate actually killing me, I was marked as a person to be silenced.
“How likely are these people to actually kill me?” I asked the expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center, an anti-hate group that researches white supremacist groups. I had called them seeking answers. My husband was sitting beside me, his face full of fear. I felt a tiny kick, a flutter inside me, my hands dropping to my belly. “I should probably mention that I am 8 months pregnant.”
There was a pause at the end of the line. “It’s very rare for these threats to escalate offline,” the nice man began. “They want to scare you. They want to scare you so much you decide that you never want to write again. That’s their goal. What you decide to do next is a personal decision.”
You can see that I decided to keep writing. But thinking back on the advice he gave me, it almost seems quaint: In the four years since those threats, especially since the 2016 election, white supremacists spewing anti-Semitic hatred have marched in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us,” shot up synagogues in Pittsburgh and California, and murdered gay Jewish student Blaze Bernstein. Anti-Semitic assaults are up 105% since 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s annual audit on American anti-Semitism. More Jews have been killed in anti-Semitic violence around the world in 2018 than in the last several decades, according to the Kantor Center, based out of Tel Aviv University, which researches and analyses global anti-Semitism. In New York City, a major centre of Jewish culture and life, the NYPD has reported an 82% spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019. In fact, Jews are reporting the highest number of religion-based hate crimes — this is particularly troubling given that Jews are only approximately 2.2% of the U.S. adult population.
And while the majority of incidents and assaults are committed by white supremacists on the right, there has been a concerning spike in incidents and rhetoric from the left wing, too, from the Women’s March to congresswoman Ilhan Omar and their defenders, among others. Most recently an anti-Semitic cartoon landed in the pages of the international edition of the New York Times — the paper of record.
As a child growing up in Boston, I knew anti-Semitism existed. I even experienced it from time to time — including when my childhood synagogue was defaced with a swastika. But overall I felt safe in America. Conversations about anti-Semitism mostly centered around learning our history, honoring our culture, and understanding the warning signs of rising bigotry and its potential consequences. But in personal experience, I was grateful for a country that had provided Jews with peace and prosperity. America was a rare safe place for us.
Today, that’s different. The baby I was pregnant with is now a thriving, rambunctious toddler. But when we tour Jewish preschools, my first question isn’t about education philosophy, recess or student teacher ratios — it’s always about security. In just a few short years we’ve gone from history to fear.

Anti-Semitism is an ancient, chameleonic monster. It adapts to circumstances and seemingly new excuses for age-old prejudices to take hold. This is especially true in periods of political and economic insecurity.

To understand what can be done, first we need to understand what it is: Anti-Semitism is the hatred of Jews as a distinct people, as opposed to anti-Judaism that targets our religious beliefs and practices. Anti-semitism is a conspiracy theory. It depicts Jews as a cabal secretly controlling the world for evil ends, hurting innocent people to further greedy, cruel agendas. How those agendas manifest changes based on your worldview. If you are far left, it may be that Jews are imperialists who start wars to enrich themselves. If you’re a white nationalist, it’s that Jews are the ringleaders of the White Genocide. If you’re Minister Louis Farrakhan, it’s that Jews were the secret orchestrators of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Anti-Semitism is an ancient, chameleonic monster. It adapts to circumstances and seemingly new excuses for age-old prejudices to take hold. This is especially true in periods of political and economic insecurity.
As Amy Cuddy writes in “The Psychology of Anti-Semitism,” in prosperous, stable times, countries tend to tolerate Jewish populations, viewing them as competent, but still feel coldly towards them. When a country faces political, social, or economic turmoil, minority groups that enjoy a degree of prosperity and privilege can very quickly become extremely vulnerable to violence, like during the Holocaust.
It doesn't help that we are also living in an era when conspiracy theories can so easily spread (from anti-Obama birtherism to Pizzagate to QAnon). President Trump and his cohorts on the far right capitalise and promote them, fomenting hatred and division through fake news and an assault on the truth. They accuse prominent Jews like George Soros of treacherous crimes, while consorting with and justifying white supremacists and their actions (“very fine people” Trump called them.). They act shocked and appalled when fear mongering, the mainstream legitimisation of white nationalists, and dangerously lax gun control leave them with blood on their hands (as it did at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue).
And yet while I fear anti-Semitism on the right will lead to more violence, I fear anti-Semitism on the left will cause that violence and hate to go unchallenged. As American Jews face rising hate crimes and domestic terrorism, progressives have grappled with a string of unsettling scandals. At first, it was the way left wing groups downplayed anti-Semitism. In the wake of the 2016 election, for example, the Women’s March conspicuously left anti-Semitism off its unity principles, while left wing groups erased it as a core issue in Charlottesville, and were silent during hundreds of JCC bomb threats. Then it got worse. The anti-Semitism scandal surrounding Women’s March leadership unfolded over several tense months, during which they publicly associated with anti-Semitic Farrakhan and engaged in anti-Semitic dog whistling and bullying.
This controversy was followed by statements by freshman Representative Ilhan Omar, in which she fell into anti-Semitic tropes referencing dual loyalty, foreign allegiance, and Jewish money in her criticisms of Israel. Omar had many defenders who dismissed the charges because Omar herself faces Islamophobia and racism. But such tropes do feed the beast. As Ilhan Omar struggled to contain criticism and put forth multiple apologies for her comments, David Duke, the Grand Wizard of the KKK, came to her defence dubbing her the “Most Important Member of Congress.” It’s not to say that Omar should be held accountable for the words of David Duke. But it does indicate the way anti-Semitism — be it from the left or the right — can connect to amplify the threat.
While the Women’s March has taken positive steps to mend fences, like expanding Jewish leadership in the organisation and including Jewish women in their Unity Principles, and Omar and the New York Times have apologised, the situations have led to increased division as anti-Semitism continues to spread, and becomes a political wedge issue, all of which creates increased danger for the Jewish community. In a time of increased concern about Jewish security, these scandals have had a devastating emotional impact on the Jewish community. We were taught by our grandmothers to watch for signs of danger — hateful words from across the political spectrum is one of them.
Over the past three years, I have seen anti-Semitism break and undermine strong community relationships and budding movements for justice. This what anti-Semitism does: It attacks democracy and transparency, giving authoritarian actors scapegoats for national problems. It endangers women, people of colour, and immigrants as it strengthens and animates white nationalism, xenophobia, and extremist movements.
American Jews know this intrinsically and are frightened. The jump from hate speech to exterminatory violence has been a short one in the history of global Jewry. Many of us were taught about the dangers of anti-Semitism and how quickly it could rise against us from very young ages, especially for those of us who had family who were Holocaust survivors or who endured violence against Jews in the Middle East or Soviet Union. We need Americans to listen to our fear and take a stand.
The first step is to call it out when we see it in our houses of worship, living rooms, libraries, college campuses and kindergartens. This doesn’t mean we dismiss or “cancel” our friends, families, colleagues, and community leaders who engage in anti-Semitism. It means we tell them they are wrong. We educate. Jewish history is over 5,000 years old, and learning what narratives have been used to oppress Jews can be lifesaving. And then, let’s build relationships between communities that are under attack and frightened.
I know this is possible because even in this dark time,I have also witnessed incredible moments of hope. The weekend after the Tree of Life shooting, I attended Shabbat services as part of the American Jewish Committee’s Show Up For Shabbat campaign. The line for Friday night services went around for blocks with hundreds of people waiting in the rain. When services began, Rabbi Shira Stutman asked how many people in the room weren’t Jewish but had come to stand in solidarity. More than half of the room, which seats over 800, stood up. I wept. I felt love. So many hundreds of people stood outside the synagogue, waiting to come and show us love, that when services ended, they began prayers all over again, so everyone waiting outside would have a chance to stand with us.
This is what we need to do for each other: Come together to fight not just anti-Semitism but racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, ableism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. If we learn each other’s histories, warning signs and dangers and fight for each other, we can make the monsters afraid of us.

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