Conspiracy Theories Can Do Real Harm

By Dan Meisel   |   January 25, 2022

The recent targeting of a Colleyville, Texas Jewish community in connection with grievances it had nothing to do with was just the latest in a trend of rising antisemitic violence and conduct in recent years. We have seen some of it here, with 26 credible reports of antisemitic incidents in the Tri-Counties last year (more than double the incidents in 2020), including antisemitic assaults, fliers, and school incidents in the Santa Barbara area. 

To understand antisemitism, we must recognize it as not merely a prejudice or feeling of animus toward Jews, but also as a conspiracist world view. We often think of conspiracy theories as the domain of extremists, and they certainly have played a prominent role in violent crimes fueled by extreme ideologies. But conspiracy theories also have become a prominent part of our online media threads, podcasts, and popular episodic series, where conspiracy-of-the-day seems to be rivaling “true crime” in followers. 

Conspiracy theories often emerge from people’s desire to seek accessible explanations for complex phenomena, unexplained mysteries, or even straightforward events. Conspiracies can be used to delegitimize unwelcome events, such the false claims by some Republicans that the January 6 Capital incursion was a “false flag operation” designed by liberals. Conspiracy theories also have been used to demonize groups of people for various purposes.

Antisemitism is a particularly pernicious example. It has existed for millennia based on an enduring and unique duality. Unlike other bigotries that only treat their targets as inferior, antisemitism has historically involved treatment of Jews both as inferior and as diabolically powerful. Whether due to the Jewish association with monotheism or the false claim that Jews killed Jesus, the myth of Jewish power seems buoyed by the fear that a people who could defy or even kill another’s deity could be capable of controlling banking, global media, and even the weather.

These myths were useful for groups in need of a scapegoat or common enemy to unify support. Czarist Russians who needed to undermine growing support for socio-political reform concocted lies about Jewish plots to enslave the world. Hitler spread the same lies to blame Jews for national economic hardships among others, and the enduring myths later appeared prominently in propaganda in the Middle East and North Africa after the creation of Israel. White Supremacist ideology in the U.S. and Europe has also long drawn upon these conspiracist ideas of Jews as the hidden puppet masters controlling the strings of global events, including its “Great Replacement Theory” of immigration.

Despite being factually debunked long ago, these big lies continue to influence and contaminate mainstream thinking on any number of subjects, from public health to geopolitics. The big lies also filter down to less extreme lies – that Jews cannot be trusted with leadership, that they are disloyal, that they are greedy, and so on. These derivative – though no less reprehensible – lies may seem less fantastical, reinforced by stereotypes or anecdotal experiences, and therefore more credible. 

Perhaps less obvious, however, is that responding to a myth of power has appeal across the political spectrum. Both conservatives and liberals can find in antisemitic narratives of malicious Jewish dominance an attractive explanation of the source of perceived ills that both conforms to and confirms their particular world view. The liberation narrative can be appealing no matter what your concept of social justice may be.

We see the liberation narrative in conservative political ads accusing Jewish candidates (including depictions of said candidates with an exaggeratedly large nose) of buying votes, questioning their loyalty, and portraying them as controlled by wealthy Jews. We see it in the amplification of The Great Replacement Theory by popular conservative media, and we see it in former President Trump’s multiple comments about Israel having had “absolute control over Congress” and questioning the national loyalty of American Jews who don’t vote for him. 

We have also seen the liberation narrative from the left in claims of Jews controlling banking, Hollywood, professional sports, or the entire world. The liberation narrative is particularly evident in pro-Palestinian advocacy and criticism of Israel. We see activists and elected officials understandably concerned about the human rights of Palestinians, but not concerned about the falsity of claims that Jews are wealthy, controlling, or sinisterly powerful as they speak of Jewish control from “behind a curtain,” of Israeli leaders exploiting others “for a profit,” or of self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people (aka Zionism) as inherently “oppressive.” Accusing Israel of “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” “settler-colonialism,” or “white supremacy” is not just factually incorrect (a discussion for another day) and offensive to a population with claim to indigeneity. It is using inflammatory terms of emancipation to generate opposition to Israel’s legitimacy – and leveraging the myth of Jewish power to do so.

Antisemitism from the right and left is not a tale of equivalence, but antisemitism stems from the same conspiratorial roots regardless of its ideological source.

The damaging impact of conspiracy theories reaches far beyond antisemitism. Conspiracy theories about Muslims fueled anti-Muslim hate in the wake of September 11, former President Trump’s claims about Mexican immigrants were echoed in the manifesto of a man who killed 22 people in El Paso, Texas, and conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19 have contributed to a shocking rise in hate incidents against Asian Americans. 

Antisemitism doesn’t just harm Jews. It is part of a broader social problem that wreaks broader social havoc against other marginalized communities as well. The rise in antisemitism we see locally and nationally has unsurprisingly coincided with a rise in hateful acts and violent acts against many other communities. We need to be better aware of how conspiracy thinking distorts and masks ills in our society. It will not help us solve our problems, and it can result in tremendous harm to those wrongly accused of causing them.  

Dan Meisel is the Regional Director of Anti-Defamation League Santa Barbara/Tri-Counties


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