Before he entered the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 Jews in Pittsburgh, Robert Bowers was posting conspiracy theories on the internet forum Gab. “Open you Eyes! It’s the filthy EVIL jews Bringing the Filthy EVIL Muslims into the Country!!”[sic] For Bowers, it was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an NGO working to save those facing persecution that was the bogeyman, upsetting his white supremacist world view.
Conspiracies about Jewish power are not new. The allegation that Jews had hoodwinked Roman governor Pontius Pilate into doing their dirty work and killing Christ fed Jewish persecution through the ages, and despite Benedict the sixteenth proclaiming that there is no basis in the scripture for blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, conspiracies are powerful and reassuring narratives and persist.
So Antisemitism ‘punches up’. It isn’t just religious configurations though. Hitler’s racist allegation in Mein Kampf was that “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” [sic] Hitler was himself building on the older antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. It is little surprise that when we researched intersectional antisemitism, that is misogyny and anti-Jewish racism, we found that of 9,000 threads related to feminism on the Stormfront far-right website, more than 60% mentioned Jews. Stormfront members think that Jews are leading the feminist movement.
And so, we come full circle, back to antisemitic murders. In Halle in Germany last year, a gunman sought to enter a synagogue. Frustrated by the security, he killed two other nearby innocents. While carrying out the attack he was uttering conspiratorial antisemitic and misogynist bile.
The conspiracy theories that circulate online matter. Their prevalence, or otherwise, in public life matters.
On 27 February Baroness Jenny Tonge stood up in the House of Lords and, in the context of discussing Britain’s ‘freedom’ asked a Minister a question finishing with a description of Israel as America’s “puppet master”.
Baroness Tonge – who was kicked out of the Lib Dems for Antisemitism – has just used a speech to describe Israel as 'America's puppetmaster' ???? pic.twitter.com/MYjNYmo0tL
— Calgie (@christiancalgie) February 27, 2020
The puppet master trope has a long history, there are examples of it in Nazi propaganda and in internet memes about George Soros. The allegory of Israel as the power behind America is, in my opinion, antisemitic.
Our national definition of antisemitism is clear that “Making mendacious, dehumanising, demonising, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions” can be antisemitic as can “Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism to characterise Israel or Israelis.”.
This is not the first time Baroness Tonge has been condemned for antisemitic rhetoric. In 2018 there were calls for her resignation from the Lords after she suggested the Israeli Government was inspiring antisemitism that had led to the racist murders in Pittsburgh.
We know conspiracy theories matter. I believe it is deeply disappointing that Jenny Tonge was not taken to task in the debate in which she was speaking and now something should be done.
Members of the Lords should be seeking to hold Jenny Tonge to their usual high standard. If the Lords Code of Conduct doesn’t forbid conspiratorial racism then it needs to change.
As I’ve said before, people cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in governments and politics is at an all-time low. People are seeking alternative heroes and whoever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will sometimes do. However, conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people, they provide a scapegoat and are seemingly inarguable. They lead to real life harm. If we don’t stop them being used in public life now, the harm won’t just be to Jewish people but to our democracy.