Reflecting on George Orwell’s Observations
In 1945 George Orwell, one of the 20th century’s most profound thinkers and author of the dystopian social science fiction novel 1984, wrote about the nature of antisemitism and its manifestations in an essay entitled “Antisemitism in Britain.” In it, he concluded that “…one of the marks of antisemitism is an ability to believe stories that could not possibly be true.”
Further, the anti-Jewish attitudes he encountered while examining the issue were not only fostered and promoted by those with alleged ‘economic grievances’ or by the overt racists with Nazi sympathies. Many of those who promoted antisemitism and held racist or bigoted attitudes towards Jewish people would, and did, otherwise consider themselves ‘reasonable’ individuals. People who, on most topics, exercised sound judgement and critical thinking.
Yet, when it came to a discussion of ‘the Jews’ they seemed to suspend their skepticism and embraced ideas that, under any other circumstances, would be dismissed as fringe conspiracy theories or outright insane. As evidence of this, Orwell relates the story of an accident that happened in 1943 during the war. A crowd, frightened by a nearby bomb-burst, fled into the mouth of a London Underground station. Panicked Londoners flooded the station and as a result 173 people were trampled with about 60 others taken to hospital. The very same day, according to Orwell, “it was repeated all over London that ‘the Jews were responsible.’”
His conclusion was that if people were willing to believe this kind of thing, there was no point in arguing with them; The only useful approach was to attempt to discover why they seemingly had the ability to compartmentalize, to remain ‘sane’ on most subjects while swallowing antisemitic absurdities. This capacity to accept even the most outrageous of lies as reality, a trait Orwell identified as a hallmark of antisemitism, has thus allowed it to thrive, even in societies that otherwise value reason and evidence.
So how and why can people accept such absurdities about Jews while remaining rational on other subjects? While Orwell did not offer a definitive answer to these questions, he did explore a few theories; Chiefly, that antisemitism was not due to economic or political factors, but was instead an irrational bias deeply ingrained in society. This anti-Jewish bias is often reinforced by social environments where such beliefs are normalized or even encouraged. I don’t agree with him on this, and the idea that antisemitism is just ‘always there’ or a ‘deeply held bias’ with no substantive explanation isn’t really an answer. I’m going to tackle this topic in a future essay.
But back to Orwell and irrationality. In our times, social media can and does play a role in disseminating and amplifying prejudiced beliefs about Jewish people. Echo chambers on social media platforms, where users are primarily exposed to information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs, unfriendly to Jews significantly reinforce antisemitic narratives by regurgitating classical antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories including alleged Jewish desire for world domination or control of the global financial system. This often results in the normalization of antisemitic attitudes, as users are continuously exposed to similar views, making these prejudiced beliefs seem more widespread and acceptable than they truly are.
Moreover, even in physical spaces, such as certain community gatherings or political rallies, antisemitic ideas and messaging can be spread and reinforced, leading individuals to perceive these discriminatory beliefs as socially acceptable or normative.
When combined with a lack of personal experience or interaction with Jews, this can lead people to rely on stereotypes or false information. Lastly, while it is important to note that none of these factors excuse antisemitic beliefs, understanding the sources of anti-Jewish sentiment can help in addressing and combating antisemitism.
Ultimately, antisemitism is not a problem that can simply be argued away and may never truly disappear. Instead, manifestations of antisemitism must be understood and dismantled from their roots through a combination of education and outreach. Those of us who make the conscious effort to fight antisemitism are therefore called upon to engage in a deeper conversation about how such irrational beliefs persist and how they can be confronted. We must promote education about Jewish history, culture, and religious beliefs while offering comprehensive and unbiased education. This can help to dispel misconceptions and stereotypes about Jews, and build understanding and empathy, with the ultimate aim of counteracting the spread of antisemitic prejudices.
Let us remember that hatred of the Jewish people is not an isolated problem and is instead a symptom of a broader failure of society to uphold the principles of reason, empathy, and justice. Each of us has a role to play in combating antisemitism. We should thus ask ourselves: What steps can I take in my everyday life to challenge and dispel these deeply ingrained prejudices? As Orwell reminds us, the fight against antisemitism isn’t just about countering unfounded accusations; it’s about standing up for truth, rationality, and our shared humanity.