Tag Archives: anti-Semitism

Connecting The Dots

Pew has recently reported on the global eruption of anti-Jewish incidents.

Jewish people were the targets of harassment in 94 countries in 2020, with incidents ranging from verbal and physical assaults to vandalism of cemeteries and scapegoating for the COVID-19 pandemic….

The U.S. hasn’t escaped that worldwide rise.  Violence focused on Jews and other minorities tends to spike in times of social and civil turmoil, and unscrupulous politicians are always willing to stoke the flames. (DeSantis recently  labeled New York DA Alvin Bragg a “Soros-funded” prosecutor, a reference clearly intended to suggest to the anti-Semitic Right that–while Bragg is Black– Jews are to blame for Trump’s expected indictment.) 

For obvious reasons, anti-Semitism is something I take personally. It is also a type of hatred I’ve found difficult to understand–so a recent podcast in which Yascha Mounk interviewed Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League, was very enlightening.

In that Persuasion interview, Mounk raised several questions that have always bedeviled me. For example, the usual explanation for Christian hatred of Jews is religious–rooted in the bogus “Jews killed Jesus” accusation. (I always want to respond  by pointing out that Jews lacked the power to kill anyone; it was the Romans, dammit!) (We also don’t have space lasers…) But if you look at a survey of some of the worst eruptions of anti-Semitism–in the Inquisition and  Nazi Germany, for example– it becomes obvious that  conversion to Christianity doesn’t erase the hatred.

As Mounk noted,

If it’s purely religious, then it should be the case that the moment you convert that there should be no prejudice against you, you should be fully accepted. But if it has an ethnic, racial, and perhaps in certain ways, cultural element, then you go on to say, “Well, OK, you’ve converted, but you’re still a Jew.” Now, obviously, that’s true in the Holocaust: many, many murdered Jews were Protestants and Catholics, had been baptized, and the Nazis didn’t care.

The  whole conversation was edifying , but one observation by Greenblatt triggered an epiphany for me.

What’s different is that anti-Semitism, as the Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt has written, is a kind of conspiracy theory about how the world works that posits that the Jew, the Eternal Jew, in some way is responsible for whatever is wrong. Colorism, we call it racism today, isn’t new. It’s been going on for thousands of years. But that’s where someone feels superior to someone else. Anti-Semitism is “the Jews who are responsible for controlling business, manipulating government, the world’s wars, cheating me,” whatever. There’s a set of recurring myths that seem to cross cultures—that have been reinforced, again, by different sociocultural forces over time—that keep this alive. But I think the conspiratorial nature of anti-Semitism makes it very different. We’re living in a time that is shaped by social media, where we’re trapped in our filter bubbles in a world where everything has become relative. Conspiracy theories are often the coin of the realm in a world in which nothing can be believed and in which anything is possible. People always feel like something is working against them. We shouldn’t be surprised that anti-Semitism not just festers but flourishes in a world in which systems also seem to be failing. Our politics are failing. Markets are failing. Our expectations aren’t being met. That creates the kind of space where populist demagogues come in and their typical toolbelt is blame: “Well, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the Jew.” And so the conspiratorial dimension of anti-Semitism, which, again, I think is somewhat unique, because of its recurring nature and how amorphous it is. The immigrant takes your job. The welfare queen takes your money. But the Jew does all of it. 

Until recently, I hadn’t really thought about the prevalence–and enduring political utility– of conspiracy theories, or the recurring role they play in offering comprehensible “explanations” of complicated realities. It has only been with the advent of social media and the Trumpers that I have come to appreciate the role that conspiratorial beliefs play in society, and the way they fulfill the very human need to simplify a bewildering social environment, to understand why-why is my life going the way it is?  Why does that person make more money, or have more friends, or [fill in the blank] than I do?

For many people, ambiguity is intolerable. Such people desperately need to construct a simpler world–preferably, a world where “people like me” are clearly good and others are just as clearly evil. They need to believe– in an ideology, or religion, or a comforting conspiracy theory that tells them who to blame for their problems.

 Conspiratorial world-views require villains. Presumably, with space lasers…

Behavior Versus Identity

Last Sunday, I was a guest in an adult class at St. Luke’s United Methodist church.  The class wanted to discuss the recent, disturbing rise in anti-Semitism. (St. Luke’s is one of the local churches in my “good guys–actual Christians” column.)

The format was informal–Q and A– but I did begin by suggesting that, before embarking on discussion, it was important to distinguish between hatred and ignorance.

As I explained, when I was young, growing up in one of only 30 Jewish families in Anderson, Indiana, most of what I encountered was ignorance:  I was asked things like “Do Jews have tails?”  and “Do Jews live in houses like real people?” But there was also animus: in third grade, a playmate informed me that “My parents said I can’t play with you because you’re a dirty Jew.”

It’s also important to distinguish between criticisms of Israeli actions/politics and anti-Semitism. Criticizing Israel’s government or policies is not anti-Semitic (plenty of American Jews are appalled by Netanyahu). That said, criticisms of Israel grounded in longstanding anti-Jewish tropes are anti-Semitic.

In the United States, citizens are supposed to be judged on our behavior, not our identities. Today’s polarization is to a great extent a fight between Americans who want their countrymen to live up to that principle and those who defend negative stereotypes based on religion, sexual orientation and skin color.

Anti-Semitism is hatred of Jews because we’re Jews.

In The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon Allport’s seminal book about the roots of bigotry, published in 1954, Allport pointed out that most  prejudices come from ignorance–the relatively unthinking acceptance of what “everyone knows.” Jews are “sharp” businessmen, blacks are lazy, women are emotional and illogical. Most people aren’t emotionally invested in these negative social stereotypes, and Allport thought the misconceptions would erode once there was greater familiarity and more contact.

Allport’s great contribution was to distinguish between prejudices that were simply an outgrowth of widely held–albeit inaccurate and unfair– social attitudes and those that were central to an individual’s identity. He found that most people who expressed bigotry against blacks or Jews (then the most frequent targets) were not invested in their negative opinions –they had simply accepted common stereotypes about “others,” and they could be educated to change what were essentially casual beliefs they had never really examined.

But there was, he found, another category. It was much smaller, but also much more troubling. These were individuals that Allport—who founded the discipline of social psychology—described as invested in their bigotries. For whatever reason—bad toilet training, lack of parental affection, abuse—their belief in the inferiority of designated “others” had become absolutely central to their personalities. Education and contact would have no effect at all on their attitudes.

Allport recognized that we all have a fundamental human desire for status and upward mobility, and that desire makes a certain amount of what we might call “identity-based one-upsmanship” inevitable. He also recognized that such prejudices are heightened during times of rapid social change.

As the Roman Empire crumbled, Christians were more frequently fed to the lions; in the forties and fifties, whenever the cotton business in the American south slumped, lynchings increased; when forest fires swept across Maine in 1947, many citizens blamed the Communists. As Allport put it, “whenever anxiety increases, accompanied by a loss of predictability in life, people tend to define their deteriorated situations in terms of scapegoats.”

In other words, we want to blame our anxieties on someone or something we can identify—we channel our aggressions against an outsider, an “other.”

Of course, there are many numerical minorities that are not usually chosen as scapegoats. Why this group and not that one?  Allport notes that the nearest thing to an “all-purpose” scapegoat is a group that has a degree of permanence and stability. So while a few Macedonians in Lexington, Kentucky (assuming there have ever been any) might exhibit cultural differences that arouse majority hostility for a time, there really isn’t any basis for a good, persistent mythology about Macedonians in general, and even if there were, the next generation is likely to be so Americanized as to be indistinguishable from others who live in Lexington.

Jews, blacks and gays, however (along with women) have always been around, and probably always will be. And in all likelihood, we’ll all continue to be sufficiently different to be useful for scapegoat purposes.

Undoubtedly, there will always be emotionally-unhealthy people who need someone or something to blame for the disappointments in their lives. My conversation with the lovely folks at church last Sunday reminded me that there are also a lot of good people “out there.”

At times like this, that’s comforting to know.



It Isn’t Just Space Lasers

I’ve made a lot of fun of Marjorie Taylor Greene’s accusation that California’s fires aren’t the result of climate change, but instead were started by Jewish Space Lasers financed by George Soros. Greene and her loony-tunes ilk are perfect representations of an anti-Semitism that continues to attribute super-powers to an invented Jewish “cabal.” (Elders of Zion, anyone?)

If only we Jews were really that powerful…

There’s a robust academic literature attempting to explain some people’s need to pin the world’s woes on an identifiable, deliberate and malevolent group–and as Hitler figured out, it helps if the group chosen to be the bad guys is numerically small and unable to effectively protect itself.

Whatever has made Jews the “chosen” people to blame, it seems the contemporary GOP has become the preferred home for today’s anti-Semites, whose versions are marginally less whack-a-doodle than Greene’s, and for that reason, pose more of a threat.

A recent article in the Intercept recounted the then-Republican rejection of Pat Buchanan’s version of anti-Semitism, then contrasted it with what is occurring today.

Trump resurrected Buchanan’s strain of populist nationalism. He’s always nurtured business relations and personal ties with Jewish people, but his revival of “America First” — both the slogan and the ideas surrounding it — inevitably excited antisemites. In 2016, he tweeted out an image using a Star of David to symbolize Hillary Clinton’s “corruption.” The Trump campaign tweeted an altered version after an outcry but then ran an ad in the campaign’s closing days decrying “a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities” coupled with images of Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein — all of whom are financial figures who happen to be Jewish.

Trump attacked his critics as a cabal of “globalists” and fixated on the secret powers exerted by Soros, who has displaced (or in some cases joined) the Rothschilds in the imagined role of secret Jewish financier orchestrating a series of catastrophes for profit. The explosion of militant paranoia that followed Trump’s rise — from the Oath Keepers to QAnon — has appeared both online and in the real world with occasionally deadly consequences in places like Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Although much of this activity has taken place outside the party system, the energies on the right have crept into the Republican Party.

The article went on to report anti-Semitic statements by high-level Republicans (including a spokesperson for Ron DeSantis) and the close relationship of Doug Mastriano, Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor, with the ultra-right-wing social-media site Gab. (The site promotes Christian Nationalist themes, and its chief executive is an “out and proud” antisemite “who has promoted Mastriano as a fellow enemy of the Jews.”)

Is it fair to criticize the Republican Party for the views of its most distasteful members? The Intercept article is lengthy, with a number of other examples, but I found the closing paragraphs pretty persuasive.

There is a simple test to measure their influence. If antisemites were too marginal to pose any danger, it would be easy enough for the party to cut them off. (If you want to know what it looks like when Republicans decide to really throw somebody out of their party, look at their treatment of Liz Cheney.) Instead, they vacillate. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declined to comment on Gosar’s attendance at white nationalist Nick Fuentes’s conference. McCarthy has likewise promised to restore Greene’s committee privileges if Republicans regain the majority.

Prosecutors have found that Trump’s January 6 rally attracted a significant number of people who share Hitler quotes, hold membership in neo-Nazi organizations, have a fixation with “white genocide,” and the like, making the party leadership’s desire to sweep the whole thing under the rug all the more dangerous. Whatever misgivings the remaining old-line Republicans may have toward the militant cadres Trump inspired, Republicans fear their political and even terroristic power. They no longer imagine they have the gatekeeping force to exclude the antisemites, less still to steer the party away from the kind of paranoid rhetoric that invites their participation.

The GOP’s overriding goal is to win, and it has decided this means accepting the support of anybody who will provide it. For three-quarters of a century, antisemites were locked out of major American politics or at least had to keep their bigotry quiet. Now the door is open.

I guess a Republican Party that has been deserted by  people who are pro-choice, pro- LGBTQ, pro-public school, pro-gun safety regulation and pro-environment needs to replace those groups with whoever is handy…

However, watching them scrape the bottom of the barrel is making me feel distinctly unsafe.

The March of Those Christian “Soldiers”

Marching backwards…

Last Tuesday, the Indianapolis Star reported on the explosion of anti-Semitic incidents on IU’s Bloomington campus. National headlines trumpet passage of anti-LGBTQ legislation (“Don’t say gay!”) and mean-spirited attacks on transgender youth. The Ted Cruz’s of the GOP and the Tucker Carlsons of rightwing media warn against the “feminization” of American men and the “dire threat” posed by (nonwhite) immigrants.

The fears and hatreds that feed these behaviors are exploited by the Christian Nationalists who have come to exercise disproportionate influence in American life by turning  a political ideology into a version of Christianity, and insisting that only adherents of that version are authentically American.

In a recent column, Jennifer Rubin considered that influence–and confluence. In a column about the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, she wrote:

.Democracy functions only with restraint, good-faith application of procedural rules and devotion to the principle that the other side gets to govern when it wins. That concept is now an anathema to the GOP. As Thomas Zimmer has written for the Guardian, “Many Republicans agree that the Democratic Party is a fundamentally illegitimate political faction — and that any election outcome that would lead to Democratic governance must be rejected as illegitimate as well.”

That view of illegitimacy often stems from Christian nationalism. As Robert P. Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute, explains, “A worldview that claims God as a political partisan and dehumanizes one’s political opponents as evil is fundamentally antidemocratic.” He tells me, “A mind-set that believes that our nation was divinely ordained to be a promised land for Christians of European descent is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion and equality of all.”

The New Republic–among others–has also looked at what it called “The Shock Troops” of Christian Nationalism, and the wealthy theocrats funding them. 

The article focused on a little-known foundation, the James and Joan Lindsey Family Foundation, and what it characterized as “a vast and steady flow of contributions” to  organizations in that Christian nationalist movement: the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, WallBuilders, a media company called Mastermedia International, and the Council for National Policy, a networking group for movement leadership.

“We are a Christian country. And the Founders were—definitely—and our founding documents were written under prayer each day of the writing,” Joan Lindsey has said. On the eve of the 2020 election, she announced that “this election will either preserve faith’s sacred place in our country or destroy it.”

The most recent effort backed by the Lindseys is something called “The Church Finds Its Voice,” a new entrant in what the article identifies as “a long-standing pattern in the Christian nationalist movement of backing projects to turn America’s network of tens of thousands of conservative churches into a powerful partisan political machine.”

The article is lengthy, and includes multiple other examples of Christian Nationalist activism.  It’s chilling; one leader of the movement is quoted as saying that “every election is a contest against absolute evil, and the consequences of failure are almost too dire to imagine.” To suggest that these activists are motivated is to understate the situation. Rightwing media has convinced them that Trump was anointed by God to protect Christians from those who would not only dislodge them from their privileged position but would also strip them of their rights and liberties.

Numerous accounts of the January 6th insurrection have focused on the ubiquity of Christian Nationalist symbols, and expressions of belief that God was on their side. As the deeply religious Michael Gerson has observed, transforming opponents into infidels provides an opening for racism and anti-Semitism.

The anti-Semitism being displayed at Indiana University is just one aspect of the Christian Nationalist worldview, but it is a fairly major element of it. An analysis by the Washington Post found that Christian Nationalism, support for QAnon, and anti-Semitism to be tightly linked.

Since Christian nationalism is a worldview holding that the United States was created by and for Christians, it may not be surprising that they dislike non-Christians. On average, the most ardent Christian nationalists subscribed to four of the eight anti-Semitic tropes presented; those most opposed to Christian nationalism subscribed to an average of one. Christian nationalists were more likely to believe each individual trope but showed the strongest support for the mistaken ideas that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than to this country” and “Jews killed Jesus.”

Christian Nationalists who had bought into nutty QAnon conspiracy theories were even more anti-Semitic. QAnon reinforces a number of anti-Semitic tropes: that Jews control the banks, the media and the government, and that Jews are the ones behind the Deep State.

The problem is, those “Christian soldiers” own today’s GOP.



Speaking Of Conspiracy Theories…And Space Lasers….

Two recent reports about the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue gave me one of those “ah ha” moments, a genuine epiphany.

I thought I understood anti-Semitism. After all, I’m Jewish–and what’s more, I grew up in a small town in Indiana where I routinely encountered classmates with negative feelings–and sometimes bizarre beliefs– about Jews. (Yes, we live in houses like “real people” and no, we don’t have tails. I am not making those questions up!)

Clearly, however, I still have much to learn about the deep-seated assumptions in which anti-Semitism is grounded.

The column from MSNBC was straightforward. The opinion piece took aim at the FBI assertion that the choice of hostages wasn’t “related to the Jewish Community.” While it is true that the perpetrator’s goal was not to harm Jews, but to obtain the release from prison of an unconnected person, the hostage-taker himself explained that he targeted a synagogue because he believes the U.S. “only cares about Jewish lives.”

The  article argued that the FBI statement

failed to capture the very nature of antisemitism and how it’s embedded in a wide range of age-old and contemporary conspiracy theories about power, elites, U.S. governance and global cooperation. As Yair Rosenberg explained in The Atlantic this week, antisemitism is not only a discriminatory prejudice, but also “a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.”

The second “aha” article  I read was the one from The Atlantic referenced in the foregoing quote.That article explained something I’d never previously understood: anti-Semitism isn’t simply one more manifestation of human tribalism– another “us versus them” hatred–it’s a conspiracy theory.

Most people do not realize that Jews make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s population. This means simply finding them takes a lot of effort. But every year in Western countries, including America, Jews are the No. 1 target of anti-religious hate crimes. Anti-Semites are many things, but they aren’t lazy. They’re animated by one of the most durable and deadly conspiracy theories in human history.

I’m pretty sure I am not the only person–Jewish or not–who had never previously recognized what the article persuasively described–the weird way in which Jews “play a sinister symbolic role in the imagination of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence.”

Evidently, once he had taken the rabbi and congregants hostage, Akrim (the hostage-taker) demanded to speak to the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue. Why? He was convinced that the rabbi had the power to authorize the release of Aafia Siddiqui, the Pakistani woman he was trying to free.

Obviously, this is not how the prison system works. “This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told The Forward. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”

The author noted the irrationality of that belief.

The notion that such a minuscule and unmanageable minority secretly controls the world is comical, which may be why so many responsible people still do not take the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory seriously, or even understand how it works. In the moments after the Texas crisis, the FBI made an official statement declaring that the assailant was “particularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.” Of course, the gunman did not travel thousands of miles to terrorize some Mormons. He sought out a synagogue and took it hostage over his grievances, believing that Jews alone could resolve them. That’s targeting Jews, and there’s a word for that.

it is really hard to take this lunacy seriously–although the consequences are very serious indeed.

It is patently ridiculous to think that a Jewish “minuscule and unmanageable” minority secretly exercises immense super-powers, that–as wacko Marjorie Taylor Green insists–we can deploy “space lasers” to set fires in California. (Why would we do that, even if we could?) It is particularly ludicrous to those of us who grew up in the “unmanageable” Jewish community to suggest that we are even capable of agreeing to conspire; as my mother used to say, the only thing two Jews can agree about is how much money a third Jew should be contributing to charity.

And as far as the “minuscule” descriptor goes, with inter-marriage rates hitting new highs  (Pew Research has found the current intermarriage rate to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews) we’re heading from minuscule to undetectable.

Pretty soon, the nut cases might have to find a different group guilty of running the world….