Why So Many People Still Don’t Understand Anti-Semitism
Unlike many other bigotries, anti-Semitism is not merely a social prejudice; it is a conspiracy theory about how the world operates.
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.
This past Saturday in Texas, another one found his mark. According to the latest news reports, Malik Faisal Akram traversed an ocean to accomplish his task, flying from the United Kingdom to America in late December. On January 15, he took Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel hostage for more than 11 hours. When it was all over, Akram was dead and his captives were not. The hostages escaped after their rabbi engineered a distraction, drawing on security training he had received from the Anti-Defamation League and other communal organizations. Something else most people don’t realize is that many rabbis need and receive security training.
Speaking about Jews as symbols is always uncomfortable, and that’s especially the case when bullet holes are still fresh in the sanctuary. But the sad fact is, that’s why the Texas congregants were attacked in the first place: because Jews play a sinister symbolic role in the imagination of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence.
After Akram pulled a gun on the congregation, he demanded to speak to the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue, who he claimed could authorize the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an attempted murder sentence in a Fort Worth facility near Beth Israel.
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.”
I happen to know Angela Buchdahl, the rabbi of that New York synagogue, and I think she would make an excellent chief rabbi of America. But no such position exists. Jews are a famously fractious lot who can rarely agree on anything, let alone their religious leadership. We do not spend our days huddled in smoke-filled rooms plotting world domination while Jared Kushner plays dreidel in the back with Noam Chomsky and George Soros sneaks the last latke.
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.
The FBI later corrected its misstep, but the episode reflects the general ignorance about anti-Semitism even among people of goodwill. Unlike many other bigotries, anti-Semitism is not merely a social prejudice; it is a conspiracy theory about how the world operates. This addled outlook is what united the Texas gunman, a Muslim, with the 2018 shooter at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a white supremacist who sought to stanch the flow of Muslims into America. It is a worldview shared by Louis Farrakhan, the Black hate preacher, and David Duke, the former KKK grand wizard. And it is a political orientation that has been expressed by the self-styled Christian conservative leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran’s Islamic theocracy.
The fevered fantasy of Jewish domination is incredibly malleable, which makes it incredibly attractive. If Jews are responsible for every perceived problem, then people with entirely opposite ideals can adopt it. And thanks to centuries of material blaming the world’s ills on the world’s Jews, conspiracy theorists seeking a scapegoat for their sorrows inevitably discover that the invisible hand of their oppressor belongs to an invisible Jew.
At the same time, because this expression of anti-Jewish prejudice is so different from other forms of bigotry, many people don’t recognize it. As in Texas, law-enforcement officials overlook it. Social-media companies ignore it. Anti-racism activists—who understand racism as prejudice wielded by the powerful—cannot grasp it, because anti-Semitism constructs its Jewish targets as the privileged and powerful. And political partisans, more concerned with pinning the problem on their opponents, spend their time parsing the identity of anti-Semitic individuals, rather than countering the ideas that animate them.
In short, although many people say they are against anti-Semitism today, they don’t understand the nature of what they oppose. And that’s part of why anti-Semitism abides.
This ignorant status quo has proved deadly for Jews, and that alone should be enough for our society to take it seriously. But it has disastrous consequences for non-Jews as well. This is because people who embrace conspiracy theories to explain their problems lose the ability to rationally solve them. As Bard College’s Walter Russell Mead has put it:
People who think “the Jews” run the banks lose the ability to understand, much less to operate financial systems. People who think “the Jews” dominate business through hidden structures can’t build or long maintain a successful modern economy. People who think “the Jews” dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, to diagnose social evils and to organize effectively for positive change.
For an example, just look at what happened in Texas. An anti-Semitic gunman took a synagogue hostage in the false hope that its parishioners could somehow free a federal prisoner. That prisoner herself was sentenced to 86 years in jail after she tried to fire her Jewish lawyers at trial, demanded that Jews be excluded from the jury, and declared that her guilty verdict came “from Israel and not from America.” One hateful person after another was destroyed by their own delusions. And such debilitating delusions can reverberate outward.
“Anti-Semitism has real impact beyond just hate crimes,” the civil-rights activist Eric Ward once told me. “It distorts our understanding of how the actual world works. It isolates us. It alienates us from our communities, from our neighbors, and from participating in governance. It kills, but it also kills our society.”
Neither Mead nor Ward is Jewish. The former is a noted white historian and the son of a southern priest; the latter is a Black activist who fights white nationalism. Yet despite coming from different places, both have devoted much of their work to combatting anti-Jewish prejudice, and for the same reason: It threatens democracy itself.
“Anti-Semitism isn’t just bigotry toward the Jewish community,” Ward explains. “It is actually utilizing bigotry toward the Jewish community in order to deconstruct democratic practices, and it does so by framing democracy as a conspiracy rather than a tool of empowerment or a functional tool of governance.” In other words, the more people buy into anti-Semitism and its understanding of the world, the more they lose faith in democracy.
Numerous historical case studies attest to anti-Semitism undermining its adherents at a large scale, from the defeat of the Nazis, who spurned scientific advances simply because they were discovered by Jews, to European countries that hobbled themselves for centuries by expelling their Jewish populations.
“The rise of anti-Semitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure,” Mead writes. “It is a leading indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and of a diminished capacity to understand the modern world and to thrive in it.”
Seen in this light, one attack on one synagogue is not just a hate-crime statistic. It is also a warning. The mindset of a madman in Texas might seem alien to us today. But if we do not find a way to confront the conspiratorial currents that threaten to overtake our society, we may find ourselves hostage to the very ideas that animated him.