Antisemitism is at its core a conspiracy theory. It is based in the irrational belief that “the Jews”, a numerically tiny and historically marginalised ethnic and religious group, have been conspiring to cause harm to others, undermining and manipulating, for their own nefarious purposes. It is not what Jews do or not do, but what antisemites ascribe to Jews.
The deluded imaginings of antisemites are beyond reason and know no bounds. It is about mythological Jews rather than real Jews. Antisemitism is premised on two myths: that “the Jews” are innately evil and immensely powerful. Most of the predominant and deadly myths about Jews involve conspiracy theories – the belief that Jews, more commonly expressed as “the Jews”, conspire to harm others.
The Blood Libel accusation arose in the Middle Ages, in 1144. It was believed that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood in the making of matzah, the special bread eaten during Passover. The myth was spread from pulpit and market. Some popes tried to denounce it as the lie it was. Jewish law and practice forbade the consumption of any blood, even a speck of blood in an egg rendered the egg ineligible for consumption. And yet, millions of European Christians believed the lie, and acted on it – by murdering Jews.
The charge of “Desecration of the Host” arose within thirty years of the Catholic Church adopting, in 1215, the belief in transubstantiation, that the Eucharist wine and bread became the actual blood and body of Jesus of Nazareth. Jews were accused of conspiring to steal and torture the wafer, by sticking pins into it, as a means of torturing Jesus. The fact that Jews did not believe in transubstantiation or voodoo was irrelevant to the Christian authorities. For over four centuries, Jews were executed and massacred, often by being burned, in the multitudes.
The Black Death that killed tens of millions of people, a third of the population in Europe, from 1347 onwards was often blamed on the Jews. A myth was developed that the bubonic plague was caused by an international conspiracy of Jewry to poison and destroy Christendom. The Jews were accused of poisoning the water-wells. In frenzied retaliation, whole Jewish communities throughout Europe were slaughtered ― more than 200 Jewish communities were wiped out. We now know that the bubonic plague was caused by plague-infected fleas on rats. But the trope of Jews as well-poisoners and plague-spreaders remains alive even today.
Communism was characterised as a Jewish conspiracy to undermine and destroy capitalism. The most popular ‘evidence’ produced was that Karl Marx, one of the most prominent communist ideologues, was born a Jew. The fact that he was converted to Christianity at age six is conveniently ignored. And so is the fact that Communism has devastated Jewish communities wherever it has ruled, including millions of Jews in the USSR, and yet communism is still touted as being a “Jewish plot”. At the same time as being accused of being behind communism, Jews were also accused of being behind capitalism – controlling the banks, international finance, stock exchanges – and were portrayed as Shylock and Fagin.
The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, first published in 1903, was a document fabricated by the Russian secret police, as a weapon to be used against Jews in Russia, and to deflect anti-Czarist sentiment. The Protocols purported to set out a secret plot by leaders of “international Jewry” to take control of and rule the world. In short, it claimed that Jews aimed to influence, infiltrate and take control of governments, the media, and the banks; Jews were supposedly plotting to undermine and corrupt religion, morality, culture and society. The Protocols have been cited repeatedly by those advocating violence or even genocide against the Jewish people, from Russian pogromists to Hitler and Hamas.
National Socialism (Nazism) is constructed around a racial theory and a conspiracy theory. Nazi ideology subscribes to the long-discredited pseudo-scientific racial theories of a superior “Aryan race” and a sub-human “Jewish race”. Despite regarding Jews as “sub-human”, Nazi ideology subscribes to conspiracy theories that “the Jews” were so powerful that they manipulate and control governments, finance and media, with the aim of totally dominating the world. Nazism therefore designates “the Jews” as the most dangerous threat to the “natural supremacy” of the “Aryan race”. Nazis believe that for “the Aryan race” to assert its “natural supremacy”, Jews must be annihilated from the earth. The Nazis and their collaborators were able to round up and murder six million Jews – and the Jews, despite Nazi belief in “Jewish power”, were powerless to stop the genocide.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the USA in September 2001 by Islamist terrorists spurred a conspiracy theory that “the Jews” were behind the attacks. It was often portrayed as a plot by “the Jews” to foment war between the Christian West and the Muslim world. Rumours that Jewish workers at the World Trade Centre had been forewarned and so did not come to work that day sprouted, despite the fact that of the 2,606 people murdered that day in the World Trade Centre itself, over 400 were Jews, ie one in six deaths.
Within the contemporary Islamic world, there has been many bizarre conspiracy theories. Israel/Jews were blamed for the 2004 tsunami in Asia which killed over 200,000 people, mostly Muslim. In 2008, Israel was accused of being able to train rats to bite only Arabs but to leave Jews alone. In 2010, Israel was accused of training sharks to attack people at an Egyptian resort to destroy the tourism trade. Some Islamic clerics preach that Jews are evil and conspire to dominate the world, and so must be destroyed. Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, Daesh (ISIS), and others, seek to destroy and eliminate the Jewish people as they believe that “the Jews” conspire and plot to destroy not only Islam, but humanity – ideas often based on the writings of Sayyid Qutb and Nazi ideology, as well as Islamic texts.
The theory of “White Replacement” (sometimes called “White Genocide”) is the false belief that there is a global conspiracy, usually described as orchestrated by “the Jews,” to “import” non-Europeans ― especially Africans, Asians and Arabs ― and Muslims into Europe, North America and Australasia for the express purpose of subjugating and decimating the European races and destroying Western civilisation. Those who subscribe to the “White Replacement” myth believe that through such mass immigration, people of ethnic European background will become a minority group, outnumbered and dominated ― that is, replaced ― in countries where once they were a majority of the population.
No matter how trivial or important a matter, a way is found to cast “the Jews” as being the plotters or puppet-masters, the manipulators or the hidden hand. No matter how irrational or nonsensical the claim, it is often hard to dislodge such beliefs from the mind of an antisemite. Logic and facts have no influence on such a mindset.
The default position is that if a Jew, even one Jew, is involved, then that is enough to claim it as “evidence” of it being a “Jewish plot”. Jews are not seen as doing anything normal or mundane – Jews, individually and collectively, are seen, by conspiracy theorists and antisemites in general, as always having a hidden agenda and pernicious purpose.
Jews are a mere 14 million people in the world, comprising 0.2 % of the world’s population of 7.8 billion people. And yet, Jews are considered to be so powerful that they manipulate and control countries like the USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China, and even Iran, and control most, if not all, of the banks and media throughout the world.
A conspiracy theory is the belief that events are not random or consequential, but rather are orchestrated by people who are manipulating events for their own malevolent agenda. This type of mental gymnastics and cognitive dissonance appeals to people who fear the randomness and therefore the powerlessness over many life events, from disease to automobile accidents to tsunamis. But it has two main benefits to them. Firstly, it makes them feel secure in the idea that all bad things are orchestrated, that nothing is random, and therefore all evil is preventable. Secondly, it makes them feel smug and intelligent because they believe that they are the only ones clever enough to see ‘the truth’. The great majority of conspiracy theories place “the Jews” as the conspirators orchestrating evil in the world.
There are indeed many problems throughout the world – poverty, corruption, hatred, racism, violence, wars, domestic violence, child abuse, exploitation, slavery, and many more. Such problems can only be addressed by knowing the causes and how to work to fix them. Conspiracy theorists are never going to solve one problem, no matter how small, because they blame some mythical culprit, an imagined being. All that conspiracy theorists manage to do is threefold: to show that their own deranged mind is impervious to reason, to make life uncomfortable, and often deadly, for the innocent people they target, and to divert attention away from the real causes of problems in society. They are thus aggravating societal problems and hence become a problem themselves.
Where ignorance and hatred rule the human mind and heart, people will believe the most deluded and irrational things. In the end, antisemitism tells more about the antisemite than anything about Jews.
Julie Nathan is the Research Director for the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, the peak representative body of the Australian Jewish community and the author of the annual ECAJ Report on Antisemitism in Australia.