As a journalist who covers Jewish subjects with a name that might as well be “Jewy McJewface,” my work has always attracted bizarre anti-Semitic invective. To turn the tables on these trolls, I once adopted a simple approach to every anti-Jewish conspiracy theory that came my way on social media: Always agree.
“So I’m a Nazi for pointing out Jews are 2% of the population and over 50% of the media?” read one representative retort to my writing. “No, you’re just clueless,” I replied. “We Jews control 93.6% of the media, according to our latest statistics.” (It’s the decimal point that sells this one.)
“The real question is why Sandy Koufax is the only Jewish athlete that was ever any good,” wrote one Twitter correspondent, ineptly attempting to unsettle me. Some might have pointed to Hank Greenberg or Bill Goldberg in response. Not me. “Athletics is something we Jews use to occupy the most physically capable gentiles while we take over the world,” I explained.
I still think these are funny lines. But I don’t make many jokes like them anymore, at least not in front of the undifferentiated social-media masses. I finally figured out why after watching Dave Chappelle crack similar ones recently on Saturday Night Live. As I wrote in The Atlantic, conspiracy theories are easy to mock when you’re pretty sure that everyone listening finds them ridiculous. But such humor evokes unease when conspiratorial thinking is common in your society, and so you’re not sure who in the audience is in on the joke—and who actually believes it.
From Kyrie Irving to Kanye West, and from Tucker Carlson to Elon Musk, conspiracism has increasingly invaded our public discourse. Just today, losing Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake released a video baselessly insinuating that the Arizona election had been stolen from her. And when conspiracy theories are on the rise, anti-Semitism is not far behind. As I noted in my piece:
The progression is as dependable as it is depressing. Conspiracy theorists begin by rejecting mainstream explanations for social and political events in favor of supposedly suppressed knowledge and hidden hands. These individuals may not start out as anti-Semites. But anti-Semitism has a multi-thousand-year head start on their crooked conception of the world, and has produced centuries of material casting the Jews as its chief culprit. Once a person has convinced themselves that an invisible hand is manipulating the masses, they are just a couple of Google searches away from discovering that it belongs to an invisible Jew.
This is a sobering realization, but it’s also a useful one, because it offers a clear way to recognize and combat anti-Semitism.
If conspiratorial thinking—the search for simple solutions and scapegoats for society’s problems—is a leading indicator of incipient anti-Semitism, then teaching people to reject a conspiratorial mindset is essential to stifling anti-Jewish bigotry before it takes off.
This is a different way of thinking about anti-Semitism than what one usually encounters in the media. Among activists and journalists, there’s an understandable tendency to sort anti-Semitism according to its source. Taxonomies differ, but common categories include “Christian anti-Semitism,” “Muslim anti-Semitism,” “right-wing anti-Semitism,” and “left-wing anti-Semitism.” These days, I often avoid this framing, in part because these contemporary labels obscure the deeper roots of anti-Jewish bigotry.
It’s true that anti-Semitism is expressed in political form, but it is pre-political. After all, before there were capitalists and communists or Republicans and Democrats, there were anti-Jewish bigots. Likewise, just as Judaism predated Christianity and Islam, so did discrimination against its adherents, long before the term anti-Semitism was ever invented. The reason for this is that anti-Jewish prejudice through the ages flows from far more fundamental forces: intolerance of minority difference and conspiratorial thinking.
Most societies have trouble integrating and accepting subcommunities that do not conform to the general culture. As a result of this unfortunate human tendency, many minorities have experienced prejudice and discrimination. Jews are not special in this regard, but they are older, and so have been on the receiving end longer than most. Just look at the biblical book of Esther, where the villain Haman proposes Jewish genocide by arguing: “There is a certain people dispersed among the peoples … who keep themselves separate. Their customs are different from all other people, and they do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.”
Minorities also make easy scapegoats for a society’s problems. When something goes wrong, it is easier to blame outsiders than to look within. This lends itself to conspiratorial thinking, in which supposedly sinister splinter sects like Jews or Mormons or Muslims are cast as subversive threats to the social fabric. Once again, because Jews have been around for so many centuries, and because they have been a minority everywhere they have lived aside from Israel, they have been the unlucky beneficiaries of this ugly impulse. The result is that there is now an ancient yet self-perpetuating corpus that exists solely to pin society’s problems on its Jews, and it appeals to conspiracy theorists everywhere.
This explanation is a lot more complicated than simply blaming anti-Jewish bigotry on the left, the right, Christians, or Muslims. To be sure, anti-Semitism is expressed by different communities in terms that are familiar and persuasive to those communities, which is why it is valuable to distinguish among them, so that we can learn how to recognize the bigotry in all its guises. But understanding the ways that anti-Jewish prejudice grows in different soils should not distract us from its roots. The forces that fuel anti-Semitism are not inherent to any particular community; they are inherent to humanity.
Grasping this reality gives us the tools to change it.
By combatting the conspiratorial mindset, and teaching people to understand their problems in all their complexity rather than to expect easy answers, we can also innoculate them against anti-Semitism. By including minorities in our collective community, rather than positioning them as perpetual outsiders, we can thwart the source of Jewish stigmatization. And by learning about Jews from Jews in all their diversity, we can immunize society against the conspiratorial caricatures of those who demonize them.
These tasks are much tougher than crafting a clever punch line, but taken together, they offer a real road map to a world in which it’s easy to laugh about anti-Semitic conspiracies again.
Thank you for reading this edition of Deep Shtetl, a newsletter about the unexplored intersections of politics, culture, and religion. Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. And as always, you can send your comments and choicest conspiracy theories to firstname.lastname@example.org.