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…