…one of the marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.
I thought about this observation of George Orwell’s while listening to a brilliant new podcast series. The podcast is not about antisemitism, nor about Jews. It’s called “The Coming Storm” and through investigative reporting and interviewing key players, it tells the story of the QAnon movement, and earlier right-wing conspiracy theories which today have coalesced around the Big Lie that Donald Trump really won the 2020 election.
So what’s the antisemitism connection, and why is it particularly pertinent today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day?
Antisemitism is not just an ancient prejudice, what Robert Wistrich famously termed ‘the Longest Hatred’, it’s an ancient conspiracy theory, perhaps the longest-running in human history. The QAnon theory, which posits that the Democratic Party is a front for a satanic pedophile ring, is clearly insane. But no more insane than the notion that a stateless and persecuted minority was secretly controlling governments through its grip on international finance, yet The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was widely believed throughout the world, including, fatefully, in educated, enlightened Germany.
According to a recent poll, around a quarter of Republicans believe that QAnon’s bonkers theory is correct, while a far larger percentage accept as fact the decisively disproven claim that Joe Biden ‘stole’ the Presidential election. Are all these people crazy? Stupid? No, far from it. The danger of conspiracy theories, especially those that can incite people to commit acts of violence, is precisely that regular people – otherwise decent, intelligent people, believe them.
The journalist presenting the podcast, Gabriel Gatehouse, interviews a great many people over the course of the series’ seven episodes, one quote in particular, from the very last episode, seemed to get to the very nub of this problem. A former psychologist with the FBI, Kenneth Lanning was involved in investigations into an apparent national epidemic of child sexual abuse by Satanists in the early 1980s. What Lanning found however, was that despite the number of experts convinced that this was a real crisis, there was no actual evidence of any of the reported incidents of abuse. The whole thing was a fabrication. Explaining just how it could be that so many people were fooled, in the absence of factual information, he said this:
Regardless of intelligence and education, and often despite common sense and evidence to the contrary, adults tend to believe what they want or need to believe. And most importantly, the greater the need, the greater the tendency.
And so it is that people who feel the ‘system’ is not working for them; who feel let down by their country’s leaders election after election; who need to justify to themselves why they want a man like Donald Trump in the White House; convince themselves that an ‘establishment’ criminal conspiracy robbed their man of the Presidency in 2020. So it is that some are persuaded that Trump is necessary because the alternative is not just bad for America, but evil. And what could be more evil after all than pedophile Satanists?
We should likewise assume that the ordinary Germans who became true believers of Nazi ideology were not crazy, and were not stupid. There was no evidence that Jewish men were trying to lure and violate aryan German women, or that Jews had been responsible for the humiliation of Germany’s defeat in the First World War. We can assume that, on some deep level, educated people understood that Jews could not be both the architects of communism, and the puppet-masters of global capitalism. But they needed to believe this. And they needed to believe that Hitler would restore Germany to greatness.
I said at the beginning that the “Coming Storm” podcast was not about antisemitism. That is true. But antisemitism is mentioned. Every conspiracy theory which identifies “enemies” and “evil” which must be fought, sooner or later casts its suspicious eyes on the Jews. QAnon is no different. Jews are, inevitably, part of the global elite supporting and providing cover for the satanic child abuse. The Rothschilds are even mentioned explicitly by ‘the Q Shaman‘, that most memorable of the Capitol Hill insurrectionists, dressed in horns and furs, carrying a spear as he filmed himself sitting in the chair of the Vice-President.
When I spoke to that veteran fighter against antisemitism, Abe Foxman, a few months ago, he criticized Donald Trump, not for himself being antisemitic, but for, in Foxman’s words “destroying truth”. As he put it, “Truth is the biggest weapon we have against the lie of antisemitism. If you destroy truth you’ve destroyed the one vehicle you have to fight antisemitism.”
Conspiracy theories are always bad news for Jews. One of American media’s most reliable and shameless purveyors of conspiracy, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, has chosen Holocaust Remembrance Day to broadcast a special feature on how the Hungarian regime of Viktor Orban is protecting “Christian civilization” from the predations of Jewish “arch-globalist” George Soros, who is accused of plotting to replace white, Christian Europeans with brown-skinned Muslims.
When we say ‘Never Again’, we usually mean that we will stand firm against antisemitism – or, in Israel’s case, that the Jewish state will act decisively against any existential threat. If the last few years of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ can teach us anything as Jews, it’s that ‘Never Again’ should also be a call to arms against the purveyors of fact-free conspiracy theories. The masses who believe them are misguided and should be argued against. But they are not the bad guys. Those are the politicians, journalists and others who know that the ideas they are spreading are baseless, they know that these ‘explanations’ for complex problems will likely cause hysteria, hatred, division – and very possibly violence. This Holocaust Remembrance Day, let’s remember not only that antisemitism is itself a conspiracy theory, but that conspiracy theories are almost never good for the Jews.