Why Conspiracy Theorists Always Land on the Jews

“The more conspiratorial discourse your society has, the more likely people will become anti-Semites,” Yair Rosenberg says.

Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party
Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party (Jean-Baptiste Lacroix / AFP / Getty)

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Late on Saturday, Ye (formerly Kanye West) tweeted to his 31 million followers that he planned to go “death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” “On its surface, this story is both sad and saddening,” Atlantic contributor Yair Rosenberg wrote in his newsletter, Deep Shtetl, the next day, calling the tweet the “the unmoored musings of an unwell man.” But Ye’s story also holds lessons about what anti-Semitism is and why it endures today. I called Yair to discuss what makes anti-Semitism different from other prejudices.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.


‘Infinitely Malleable’

Isabel Fattal: In your newsletter post, you wrote that anti-Semitism is not just a personal prejudice—it’s a conspiracy theory. Can you explain this concept?

Yair Rosenberg: When people think about anti-Semitism, they often think about it through the prism of other prejudices they encounter, which typically take the form of people saying, “I don’t like people like that.” “Like that” could be Jewish, Black, Muslim. And that is certainly a component of anti-Semitism, but it's not the only component. Anti-Semitism shares things with other prejudices, but it also has things that distinguish it from other prejudices. One of these distinctions is that anti-Semitism can take the form of a conspiracy theory about how the world works. It blames society’s problems on some sinister, string-pulling Jewish cabal behind the scenes.

This conspiracy theory is infinitely malleable. Whatever the problems you perceive in the world, you can blame them on the same invisible culprit. So you end up with people who have entirely opposite worldviews who somehow land on the Jews as their enemies. You can have an Islamic extremist who takes a synagogue hostage in Texas, and you can have a white supremacist who [allegedly] shoots up a synagogue in Pittsburgh because he sees the synagogue as facilitating the entry of Muslims into the United States as refugees. [Robert Bowers pleaded not guilty; his trial is set for April 2023.] These are people who have completely disparate ways of seeing the world, but somehow, they’ve ended up in the same place, because they’re both conspiracy theorists.

Isabel: You write that because anti-Jewish bigotry is a conspiracy, it becomes a “self-sustaining cycle.” How does that cycle work?

Yair: In Kanye West’s anti-Semitic tweets, he [implies] that he’s going to attack Jewish people, and his rationale is that they blackball and silence those who act against them. This is a very clever little paradox, because if you, as a Jewish person, then say, “I think this is anti-Semitic,” and as a result of that, Kanye or anyone else who voices anti-Semitic sentiments suffers any consequences at all, then the anti-Semite can turn around and say, “Ha, you see? That proves that the Jews do control the things I said they control. Because when I tried to say anything about it, people tried to shut me up.” It’s a self-fulfilling conspiracy theory that provides its own evidence and can never be falsified in the mind of the anti-Semite.

Isabel: Those are some of the strongest conspiracy theories in general, right? The ones that feed into their own evidence in that way.

Yair: Exactly. A big question about anti-Semitism has always been how it has managed to persist for so long. You would think that at a certain point, a lot of these crazy ideas about Jewish people would be exposed as untrue, and that would lead people to reject them. And of course, many people do. But when you have a conspiracy theory that feeds on itself, it’s a perpetual-motion machine that will continue to sustain itself for quite some time.

Isabel: Twitter locked West’s account over the weekend, a step it hasn’t taken for other prominent anti-Semites on the platform. What do you make of that?

Yair: Twitter is an example of how society relates to anti-Semitism—it’s able to condemn anti-Semitism when it’s extremely obvious, blatant, and embarrassing. But when anti-Semitism becomes more coded, when it gives itself a veneer of plausible deniability—even a very thin veneer—all of a sudden, people start having trouble identifying it and condemning it.

When you have West saying he’s going to go after Jewish people, it’s really hard for Twitter and anyone else reading that to escape that he is in fact assailing Jewish people. But had Kanye used one of the many popular euphemisms for Jews that exist both online and offline, and have for some time—whether that’s globalists or Zionists or bankers or Rothschilds—his tweets would likely still be up, and there would be people defending his comments.

There are many euphemisms that exist for Jews. Those terms can be tricky to identify, because they all have legitimate uses, but they’re often used illegitimately to imply an anti-Semitic conspiracy. It’s not that you can’t criticize those things or use those terms. It’s that they have to be used honestly, and they’re often used dishonestly.

Isabel: We’re living in a moment where conspiracy theories abound on the American right. How does the conspiracy of anti-Semitism fit in with other conspiracies, such as QAnon?

Yair: The more conspiratorial discourse your society has, the more likely people will become anti-Semites. You might start out as a freelance, equal-opportunity conspiracy theorist, but you’re just one Google search away from somebody telling you that the people behind the problems that you perceive are Jewish people. And that’s why you see a phenomenon where QAnon becomes Jew-Anon. It’s how you see someone like Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is just your garden-variety conspiracy theorist, suddenly liking a tweet about how the Mossad, Israel’s security service, was behind the assassination of JFK.

And that’s why I think combatting conspiracy theories is a key component to combatting anti-Semitism. A lot of times, people parse anti-Semitism in political terms—left wing, right wing. But those are just ways people express their anti-Semitism. Fundamentally, anti-Semitism predates the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, communism, capitalism—all these categories that we use now. But the human propensity for conspiracy theories, for attributing simple, single explanations to complex phenomena, is old. And we’re all susceptible to it.

Isabel: Where does a person like Tucker Carlson fit into this conspiracy ecosystem?

Yair: Some people are conspiracy theorists, like Marjorie Taylor Greene or Kanye West, as expressed in his interview with Tucker Carlson and in his tweets. And then there are people who know better but find conspiracy theories useful. Someone like Tucker Carlson sees West as a convenient tool with which to make certain political arguments.

Related:


Today’s News
  1. The House committee investigating the January 6 riot held what may be its last hearing. The committee voted to subpoena Donald Trump, though it's unlikely he will comply.
  2. A jury decided that the gunman who carried out the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, will be sentenced to life in prison without parole and will not receive the death penalty.
  3. Next year, Social Security recipients will receive the largest cost-of-living increase since 1981.

Dispatches

Evening Read
Illustration of a police officer wearing a clown nose
(Getty; The Atlantic)

The Most Important Amicus Brief in the History of the World

By Mike Gillis

Tu stultus es. “You are dumb.” Last week, The Onion filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court beginning with those three Latin words. The case of Anthony Novak v. City of Parma, Ohio involves a man who was arrested and forced to spend four days in jail for creating a parody Facebook account satirizing the local police department. Novak sued, claiming that the city had violated his constitutional right to free speech. A federal appellate court ruled in favor of the police, and Novak is now seeking to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court.

Why did we file? Partially, because our livelihoods depend on putting parody out into the world and not being arrested for it. But more broadly, we filed because parody holds a powerful capacity that’s especially worth defending in the present moment.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic


Culture Break
Annie Ernaux
(Isabelle Eshraghi / Agence VU / Redux)

Read. Happening, a memoir by the new Nobel Prize laureate Annie Ernaux, which tells the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when it was illegal in France.

Watch. The Novice, on Showtime, a sports drama that ratchets up the tension to nightmare levels.

Or check out the other picks on our list of “scary” movies for people who don’t like horror.

Play our daily crossword.


P.S.

I asked Yair what keeps him sane amidst his coverage of some pretty disquieting topics.“Well, I try to spend more time writing about what fascinates me than what frightens me,” he said. “But also, I sing and compose music. My grandfather was a Hasidic composer, and for some time, I’ve recorded my own Jewish compositions, combining ancient lyrics with modern musical styles ranging from Irish folk to EDM. It took seven years, but I actually just released my first album!” Listen to Az Yashir: Songs for Shabbat here.

— Isabel