“We have a duty to protect people who can’t protect themselves,” said Edgar Madison Welch in a recording made on his way to D.C. Later that day, he fired three shots from his AR-15 inside the Ping-Pong Comet pizzeria. Families were at the restaurant, playing ping-pong and grabbing a bite to eat.
The three 5.56mm bullets struck the wall and a counter. No one was injured in the attack. Luck. Police arrived at the scene and Welch surrendered.
Mental illness is a factor here, but there’s evidence that Welch was also fueled by a belief that Democratic elites ran a child sex ring in the basement of the pizzeria – a conspiracy that had been building momentum in far- and extreme-right chat groups in the months leading up to the attack. In his view at the time, Welch was just doing his duty.
That was 2016. By now, five years and several more violent incidents later, the core tenets of Pizzagate (as the conspiracy came to be known) have evolved into a multifaceted international conspiracy known as “QAnon.”
The movement coalesced when in October 2017, a user named “Q Clearance Patriot” appeared on the anonymous messaging board 4chan and claimed to be a government insider with a high-level security clearance. Q began to post cryptic messages (“breadcrumbs”) for readers to decipher and interpret in the context of world events.
QAnon followers say that a secretive cabal of Satan-worshipping Democratic elites is engaging in cannibalism and pedophilia while waging a global clandestine war against Donald Trump. They believe — or at least claim to believe — that the end game (“The Storm” a.k.a. “The Great Awakening”) will usher in a revelation that exposes the cabal, resulting in the execution of its members.
Thanks to the ability to anonymously share content, and supercharged by social media, QAnon has flourished in the years since its emergence. The American-born conspiracy has spread across the globe. QAnon adherents, fans, members, or whatever the right designation is, come from at least 74 different countries. For example: Germany, Brazil, France, Canada, New Zealand, Italy, and Australia. And importantly for the current context, it has found supporters in Israel.
It’s hard to quantify how many supporters QAnon has around the world. In part because, as one member on an encrypted far-right group on Telegram put it, “there is no QAnon. Only Q and only anons.” In other words, there is no centralized organization that registers membership. Though numerical data still doesn’t tell the full story and scope of QAnon, it looks like the conspiracy has millions of followers around the world.
QAnon in Israel
A search on Telegram reveals numerous groups (where the conversation is in Hebrew) hosting users that are enthusiastic about the conspiracy. Based on the a few of the biggest Israeli groups on the app with conspicuous names like “QAnon Israel WWG1WGA,” “Hadashot Q” (Q News), and “QAnonJewish17”: around 10,500 people (though there’s probably significant overlap — and bots).
Members of these groups share and consume conspiratorial, extremist, false, misleading, and sensationalized content. Some of it originates from sources in English; members and administrators post links to sources and then translate the material into Hebrew. Sometimes, a real news story is posted and conspiratorial commentary is added. There is also content originally composed in Hebrew, mostly appearing in the form of commentary, short essays and documents, and memes.
On these Israeli channels, the classic QAnon pillars are there – the shadowy elite international cabal of cannibalistic, Satan-worshipping, child sex-trafficking pedophiles headed for a doomsday confrontation with the savior, Donald Trump. One document, titled (in Hebrew) “Background material for newcomers, New World News” is particularly descriptive and has been widely circulated in these groups and in others. The document’s rambling sections answer questions such as, for example, “Who is the cabal?,” “What is corona and why is it here?,” “What is the connection between corona and the cabal?,” “What is the connection between Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] and Trump?,” and “If everyone has understood that Covid-19 is a lie, why is it continuing?”
Upon reading the “answers” to the questions as they appear in the document, the reader steps into a jungle of conspiracy. According to the author (who, ironically, makes little effort to remain anonymous), it’s still not known whether Netanyahu is a “bad guy or a good guy.” But she sounds confident that Netanyahu does Trump’s bidding, from aleph to taf (from A-Z in Hebrew). The document goes on to claim that in Israel, the Mossad runs an “intelligence and executive arm” of the cabal, which helps carry out operations, such as taking down the Twin Towers and prolonging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The document discusses Covid-19 in Israel and the early days of the vaccine rollout. The rhetoric approximately matches the bigger-picture QAnon sentiment: downplay the severity of the crisis, spread medical disinformation, attribute the pandemic to nefarious actors, i.e. the cabal — Barak Obama, Hilary Clinton, Tom Hanks, Bill Gates, George Soros, and more, mostly Democratic, elites. The document targets Israel’s public health system. It alleges that Israel’s health ministry is part of the cabal and that most doctors (especially surgeons) can’t be trusted. Nurses, it says, are either clueless and ignorant or knowingly let the bad actors do their thing.
After going on about how vaccines are just old flu shots or water, it concludes on a sinister note by urging the public to avoid seeking medical attention if possible. The critical and unfortunate point: in addition to being light-years from reality, the document is dangerous and undermines public health efforts.
It exemplifies many aspects of what QAnon supporters in Israel talk about and what they claim to believe. But it’s not alone or exhaustive. These groups put out a constant stream of posts and links to junk news and conspiratorial material. They also share content from other Israeli groups that are not necessarily QAnon but are no less disinformative. There are groups (Facebook and Telegram membership numbers around 10,000) dedicated to spreading disinformation about Israel’s vaccination program. A common theme — of which echoes can even sometimes be heard outside of conspiratorial circles — is to compare Israel’s social distancing measures during the breakout of Covid-19 and its vaccine program to the Holocaust.
Comparing the response to the pandemic and the Holocaust is particularly cutting in Israel, given the country’s history, and that a large percentage of the population has relatives that were in the Holocaust — or survived it themselves.
The QAnon conversation in Israel has its regional nuances. For example: inserting itself into the discourse via the missing Yemenite children affair. But in general, the vibe on the channels is similar to that on English-speaking channels. It roughly matches QAnon’s “I’ll-be-whatever-you-want-me-to-be” pattern. One can find disinformation on lizard-men, 911 cover-ups, the Covid-19 hoax, anti-vaccination, aliens, The New World Order, Flat Earth, chemtrails, and many more creatures from the conspiracy theory bestiary.
In the US, QAnon is a right-wing movement, intrinsically linked to partisan politics. Though QAnon is a pro-Trump conspiracy, its adherents are not necessarily aligned with the Republican Party. This is reflected in the conversation and shared content, where we often see far-right (and alt-right) imagery, such as Pepe the Frog, the mascot of the alt-right. These streams of far-right ideology often express disdain for classic Republicans (who are often referred to as “cuckservatives”).
In Israel, the political leanings of members of QAnon groups are not as clear. There’s no discernible coordinated support for the Israeli far-right. And there’s evidence to suggest mixed feelings about Benjamin Netanyahu (a former right-wing prime minister, current leader of the opposition). But a lot of the shared content is from American QAnon groups that disseminate far-right, extremist, and sensationalized material.
According to our sampling of the QAnon presence in Israel, membership numbers in the thousands. The volume of the made-in-Israel content is microscopic when compared to the amount of content pumped into Israeli conversations through links from American groups. Taking overlap (and probably bots) into consideration, once you start counting membership on these American groups, you quickly get to millions. Besides Israel and the US, this doesn’t even consider any groups elsewhere.
Israeli cyberspace is just one small star in the global QAnon galaxy. Nonetheless, Israelis, in Hebrew, in Israel (and probably a few abroad), are animating the QAnon conspiracy.
QAnon, antisemitism, and Jewish identity
Like most far-, alt-, and extreme-right groups, QAnon is antisemitic. The core tenets of the conspiracy resemble old and dangerous staples of antisemitism. Much of the content mirrors The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Jewish text originally circulated in Russia in 1903 by antisemitic propagandists. Its central claim was that greedy, money-and-power-hungry Jews are plotting for world domination.
For Q, the diabolic group of powerful people trying to take over the world is not necessarily all Jews, but there’s a lot of Jewish money in the mix. The Rothschild family prowls behind the scenes with the Deep State and controls the banks. In The Protocols, Jews slaughter children, harvest their blood, and use it to make matzah. This is the blood libel. In QAnon, the Satan-worshipping Democratic elites harvest the blood of children to get adrenochrome, which they consume to get high and to prolong their lives. Also, generally speaking, QAnon is a pro-Trump, anti-Democrat conspiracy. It does not go unnoticed by anons that most American Jews vote Democrat.
QAnon conspiracists are obsessed with George Soros, the billionaire Jewish Hungarian investor and philanthropist. This isn’t unique to QAnon – most far-right spheres are obsessed with him; his master plan, in their view, is to flood the West with brown people to “dilute” the white race.
It doesn’t take much digging through the QAnon discourse to hit the antisemitic bedrock. Because of this, Gregory Stanton from Genocide Watch has even argued that QAnon is a “rebranded Nazi cult.” So how do Jews, Israeli and otherwise, become QAnon followers and reconcile the conspiracy’s clear-cut antisemitism with a Jewish identity? How do you support a movement that incites hate against Jews if you yourself are Jewish?
A Jewish American woman from Arizona, and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, got sucked down the QAnon rabbit hole after she saw a meme that equated mask mandates with the genocide of the Jews. She came to believe that there might be another Holocaust looming on the horizon and that former president Trump (a big supporter of Israel) as the headman of QAnon will prevent it. What about the antisemitism?
Some more anecdotal evidence from the US provides a couple of avenues by which Jews become QAnon followers: through their political leanings, or, in the ultra-Orthodox community, through anti-vaccine disinformation (which is commonplace there). Some Jewish QAnon supporters on far-right platforms avoid choosing Jewish usernames. Their Judaism is not something they want to advertise on these platforms — so on some level, some Jewish QAnon fans are aware of the antisemitism
Haaretz just published an excellent article that also takes a sampling of the QAnon landscape in Israel. The authors also highlight the possible proliferation of QAnon content into Israel via the Orthodox community: “engineered panic over pedophilia is how QAnon appealed to Orthodox women particularly, and metastasized throughout the Orthodox community in Israel.” They too mention political leanings and distrust of the government as possible affinities the Orthodox have with QAnon.
There’s research that can explain the psychological mechanisms that account for the different shades ignorance, belief, and denial at play in the minds of conspiracy theorists. But the data on Jewish — Israeli and otherwise — QAnon adherence and the broad social factors that influence it is scanty. What we do know for certain is that QAnon’s influence has been documented in a number of violent incidents in recent years, so it should be looked at seriously.