Antisemitism as a Classic Conspiracy Belief

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Solomon D. Stevens

The recent antisemitic rants by a well-known singer are just one sign of a growing problem. The Anti-Defamation League reports that last year saw the biggest increase in anti-Jewish incidents in American history. Antisemitism is becoming mainstream again.

Solomon D. Stevens

At the same time, a new Economist/YouGov poll reports that two out of every five Americans believe that “regardless of who is officially in charge of the government and other organizations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.” This belief increased 9% in just the last year. This belief is, of course, encouraged by talk of the so-called “deep state,” but it goes further than that. It’s a belief in a worldwide conspiracy, a secret group secretly controlling everything around us.

Who are these people? Unfortunately, many think it is the Jews.

The essence of antisemitism (or Judeophobia) has always been linked to conspiracy. Antisemitism is not just hatred of Jews. It is not just racism. We do nothing to combat it by saying we want to “stop the hate.” This has been true since the medieval lies about Jews poisoning water wells to the early 20th-century publication of the forgery known as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which spread a myth of a secret plan of the Jews to take over the world. The “Protocols” was written by the secret police of Imperial Russia in 1903, where it became popular; later, it was embraced and popularized by the Nazis.

Its basic themes have since been embraced by right-wing groups throughout the United States. Antisemitism is not just hatred of Jews; it is a belief that Jews are working behind the scenes in a variety of ways to control everything. In this way, antisemitism differs from many other forms of hatred. It portrays Jews as having special gifts, powers and dangerous intentions. Both former New York Times columnist and editor Bari Weiss in “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” and Holocaust historian and Emory University professor Deborah Lipstadt (who currently serves as U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism) in “Antisemitism Here and Now” explain that this animus towards Jews in fundamentally about seeing them as conspirators. And the forces of antisemitism have exploded in America at the same time that general belief in conspiracies has increased dramatically.

Consider the modern version of classic lies about Jews that were popularized by the “Protocols,” as Stephen Bronner brilliantly explains in his book, “A Rumor About the Jews.” Jews want to subvert nationalism to bring about a new world order. Jews control the press and use it to confuse people with lies, as well as undermine the family and Christian values. Jews create economic crises to benefit themselves monetarily. Jews seek to control educational institutions to replace healthy education with one that serves their goals. And also, apparently Jews will destroy countries by the creation of diseases (10C). As the “Protocols” say: “The [non-Jews] are a flock of sheep, and we are their wolves. And you know what happens when the wolves get hold of the flock (11B)?”

What kind of people believe these things? Those who have a psychological need for them. They cling to them with a ferocity that is unsettling. An article by Karen Douglas, Robbie Sutton and Aleksandra Cichocka in “Current Directions in Psychological Science” pulls together recent research in the field and suggests three main sources of this need for conspiracies: epistemic, existential and social.

Epistemic needs are needs for finding satisfactory causal explanations for events and protecting cherished beliefs. It is helpful for some to believe that those who challenge their beliefs are involved in a conspiracy against them; this allows them to ignore challenges to cherished feelings and beliefs. Existential needs are for safety and the illusion of being in control when so much seems overwhelming in life. This is why more people turn to conspiracies when they are feeling uncertain or threatened. And finally, the article by Douglas, Sutton and Cichocka points out that people who have a deep need to maintain a positive image of themselves turn to conspiracies. They can attribute negative outcomes in their own lives and in the lives of their chosen groups to others; they are not to blame.

And herein lies the danger for Jews today. When the conspiracy mentality flourishes, Jews suffer because sooner or later, Jews are identified as the source of the conspiracy. And while conspiracies have been around in the United States for a long time, belief in them was until recently relegated to fringe groups.

If we, as Jews, want to combat antisemitism, we have to begin by separating it from other forms of hatred and racism. Understanding the challenge we face is the first step.

Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College. His books include “Religion, Politics and the Law” (co-authored with Peter Schotten) and “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East.”

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