The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an infamous antisemitic tract written in the early 20th century advancing the conspiracy theory that Jews seek to control the world through a secret cabal. Scholars have long suggested it was written in Russia around the time of deadly antisemitic pogroms in the early 1900’s.
In the 1920’s Henry Ford published 500,000 copies of this tract and distributed them throughout the United States to English reading audiences. Despite the fact that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was long ago debunked, it continues to find audiences and sympathetic ears.
Today QAnon and its followers allege an equally outrageous conspiracy theory. A group of Satan worshiping pedophiles is running a sex-trafficking ring whose goal is the downfall of President Donald Trump. According to QAnon, among the ring’s followers are some Democratic leaders and liberal Hollywood actors who secretly meet in the basements of Washington DC pizza restaurants.
There are of course other debunked and discredited theories out there seeking to explain how nefarious forces stole what many people wanted to happen, namely the election of Donald Trump to a second term. The core belief of such theories is that there exists some mysterious all powerful other out to get the “good guys.” It is now painfully obvious that far too little is being done to protect us against these dangerous ideas.
As Jews we should know the deadliness of such conspiracy theories. Their dangers were on vivid display on Wednesday when a violent mob stormed the capital and delayed the work of Congress as they were meeting to sanctify the will of the majority of American voters. Shame on the leaders who encouraged them. Shame on the leaders who granted them the space to amplify their distorted views. Their actions sullied the reputation of every American. Let all our elected leaders stand with the institutions they serve, speaking truth against such insidious dissension and the kindling of violence.
Conspiracy theories cannot be refuted by facts, even when they are painstakingly and methodically taken apart as exemplified by Gabriel Sterling, Georgia’s election official, whose commitment and devotion to democracy I greatly admire but whose efforts to debunk these theories are doomed to failure. Conspiracy theories are consistent only to their own internal beliefs. They are built on what their evangelists preach. They are ignorant of facts and untethered to truth. Our approach to them must therefore be different.
We cannot respond with facts but instead with trust in the institutions that guide us and faith in the sacred constitution bequeathed to us. Enough of the talk about election irregularities and stolen landslides. Sure, it’s an imperfect system but it is ours. Of course, it can be improved. But there are not so many inaccuracies as to change the end result. Yes, we can, and should, take comfort in the truth. Yes, we can be buoyed by facts. But they will not guard us against the dangers of these conspiracy theories.
Instead, we must enact laws to protect us. We can write regulations to keep these conspiratorial ideas at bay and limit their preachers’ influence. We can deprive them of the oxygen allowing them to spread and foment. Take note Facebook, Twitter and YouTube! Falsehoods should no longer be granted sanctuary in your forums. Hold the Parler App accountable. And by all means train Capitol police officers to monitor its chats and better prepare when violence is promised on its pages. Inciting violence is not free speech.
When watching yesterday’s news, nothing gave me greater pain that seeing Confederate flags paraded through the Capital. This flag represents a violent idea. It symbolizes the belief that human beings can be enslaved, and that Black Americans should be oppressed. Carrying the flag against which our nation fought a bloody and costly war on federal property should be a crime. Should free speech be granted to those who espouse views that Blacks are sub-human and can be bought and sold as property? If yes, I might then respond, hold a flag in one hand and a deadly weapon in the other mandates jail time. This is how we might combat violent ideas.
And let each state debate and enact similar laws. It is long past the time to protect ourselves against the malignant ideas of the Confederacy. Such would be the kind of laws we require. And I offer these examples not so much as concrete suggestions but to urge us to erect forceful barricades against insidious beliefs. We have again witnessed how they can turn violent, how railing against facts and complaining about stolen elections can turn deadly.
Pharaoh set in motion 400 years of suffering and slavery by his wild conspiratorial fantasies that the Jews would attack his army from within. “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them…’” (Exodus 1) Judaism therefore comes along as an antidote to forgetting. It is a contrast to the suffering set in motion by Pharaoh’s forgetfulness. The Torah states over and over again: Zachor! Remember! “Remember, you were slaves in Egypt.” It is as if our sacred tradition wants to shout, “You know what it feels like.”
Be forever on guard. Advocate for better laws.
Take faith that the majority of senators and representatives recognized the fact that the majority of their fellow American voters chose Joseph Biden as our next president and Kamala Harris as our vice-president. Take heart that they were not dissuaded from their constitutional duty and they reconvened soon after the riotous mob was evicted.
President Biden and Vice President Harris are the direction chosen for our country by the majority of voters and the majority of electors.
There are no winners and losers in our elections. November 3rd was not the Super Bowl. We are all Americans whether or not we voted for the people who are our representative, senators or president. They in turn are supposed to serve our collective interests whether we voted for them or not. Our elections are about the direction the majority of voters wish to travel in the next four years not about winning or losing.
If one disagrees with this direction, then argue against it. Advocate for your opinions. Work to elect people who will advance your views. I for one have lost patience with those who believe that the best way to advance their cause is by tearing down the system and offering up conjured theories that is now manifesting clear eventually leads to violence.
Do not rest easy. This project called democracy requires ongoing effort and care, and even greater amounts of hard work by each and every one of us. Take faith in those who continue to uphold our beloved institutions and who will not be bowed by violent mobs. The voice of our sacred constitution shouts louder than the noise of the crowd.
Take faith in this week’s Torah reading and the nameless woman who rescues an infant Moses from certain death and reaches down to lift him and the basket in which he rests out of the Nile’s waters. And while the Torah does not reveal her name it does tell us her lineage. It is none other than Pharaoh’s daughter. We read: “When she opened the basket, she saw that it was child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, ‘This must be a Hebrew child…’” (Exodus 2)
Gain strength from her example. Difference uplifts us. Compassion for strangers can redeem us. Sympathy with others can rescue us.