2020 was a terrible year for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and attacks on Jews. 2021 promises to be worse.
The aftermath of a calamitous 2020, as the virus and lockdown trapped people inside with their own fears, is the growth of conspiracy theories in American society that blame Jews for the country’s troubles. This dangerous development has taken root not only among ideological extremists but in groups with a dangerous purchase on the mainstream. Demonizing Jews as nefarious agents of power and oppression, a trope that readily draws on classic anti-Semitic sources like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the blood libel, shows up among the supporters/manifestations of critical race theory and in the paranoid investigations of QAnon. Predictably, left to fester, these ideas have fostered violence. The first outburst came over the summer as anti-racist protests turned into riots that targeted Jewish districts and, more recently, as right-wing fury erupted from online chat rooms into real life when rioters stormed through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
That was bad enough but 2020 was only a preview. The violence so far has been relatively minor compared to what lies ahead if the dehumanizing use of Jews as props in ideological schemes and conspiracy plots is allowed to grow unchecked.
The Capitol rioters included numerous, overt anti-Jewish propagandists with one man wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt, and another sporting a pro-Holocaust shirt declaring “6MWE,” handy shorthand for “6 Million Wasn’t Enough.” As alarming, the conspiracy group QAnon, which is built on classic anti-Semitic tropes including the blood libel and the Protocols, and which inspired many of the Capitol rioters, has increasingly found apologists within the mainstream of the Republican Party and supporters on its fringe. The Texas GOP has adopted the QAnon slogan, “We Are the Storm,” and an official with the Hawaii GOP resigned after tweeting support for QAnon followers and a since-deleted endorsement of a Holocaust-denying YouTuber, from the official state party account. Georgia’s Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon follower, has spread videos on Facebook claiming that “Zionist supremacists” deliberately plotted to overwhelm Europe with Muslim immigrants in order to “replace” white people. Greene also subscribes to the idea that the California wildfires were started by a space laser.
Meanwhile, on the left, calls to destroy Israel mingled easily with attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in anti-racist crusades from campuses to commercial strips, to public school curricula that mention Jews only to invoke their “privilege.” In some sense, left-wing activists who embrace anti-Semitism are simply following the lead of prominent Democrats who normalized the treatment of Jews as carrying a special burden of guilt. In April, New York City’s beyond-progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio singled out only one group to threaten: “My message to the Jewish community, and all communities, is this simple: The time for warnings has passed.” A few months later, de Blasio would grant his full support to mass protests with tens of thousands of people crowding together while the city was still reeling from COVID cases.
Globally, COVID followed the historical pattern of past plagues, with Jews playing the villain role in multiple contradictory conspiracies. A May 2020 poll found that a full 20% of the British believed at least one Jew-based cause for the pandemic. I identified four distinct main streams of accusation: First, ultra-Orthodox Jews (the “black hats”) spread the virus either through negligence or out of spite. Second, there was a worldwide plot among all Jews—but probably led by George Soros or another nefarious billionaire—to use the novel coronavirus to dominate the world. This would be accomplished either by killing people off or by profiteering on a secretly pre-designed and hoarded vaccine.
Then there was the predictable accusation that Israel was behind COVID and using it either to exterminate the Palestinians or, again, to profiteer. Finally, there were the protesters worldwide whose opposition to lockdowns and other COVID-prevention regulations fixated on Nazi and Holocaust imagery to convey their resentment. Arbeit Macht Frei, J.B.(“Work will set you free, J.B.”) declared one picket aimed at Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, himself Jewish, and referencing the notorious three words at the entrance to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. This was to accuse Pritzker of consolidating power and restricting others’ freedoms by mandating masking and lockdowns, as was a similar incident directed at Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, also Jewish.
Anti-Semitic propagandizing during COVID spread faster than during, say, the Black Plague, since social media served as a greased conduit for conspiracy theories. With lockdowns forcing more people to spend even more time online, memes were created with new levels of creativity and quantity and shared between users and platforms with increased rapidity. Content-policing on mainstream social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter nudged bigots onto unmoderated and encrypted platforms. There they could be drawn ever deeper into conspiratorial beliefs without encountering any contrary opinions or the risk of getting kicked off or of having their identifying information easily subpoenaed by law enforcement.
When COVID fades and people reemerge into their lives, will those who fixated on Jewish plots for months feel motivated to keep harboring and sharing these views? Will they escalate their hatred to physical attacks on Jews? I asked a spectrum of experts, and the answer was usually: “Who knows?”
While COVID conspiracies percolated, another unexpected crisis in 2020 led to more victimology and demonization. The death of George Floyd in May kicked off protests, riots, legislative changes, and heated national debates not only about police use of force, but also about race and whether Blacks are systematically subjugated by American institutions. On its face, this was typically framed as a debate about “white supremacy” and “white privilege” with no direct connection to Jews. And yet Jewish advocacy groups found that the ascendance of this civil unrest coincided with a spike in real-world anti-Semitic incidents—more clearly than any spike from COVID.
The idea of “white privilege”—unfair, all-encompassing advantages inherent to white people at the expense of others—has been gaining currency for years in universities, media, and as part of the official curricula in government bureaucracies and corporate HR departments. But the notion of “white privilege” became even more prominent and widespread during the 2020 summer of protest—including among many liberal Jews, whose worldview is influenced by publications like The New York Times, and The Washington Post, and other elite institutions that have endorsed progressive dogmas of racial guilt. Branching off from the white privilege discourse, the hashtag #JewishPrivilege trended on social media in mid-June, attempting to cast Jews as the most powerful and oppressive of all peoples. The hashtag may have originated with far-right groups but it quickly insinuated itself into the far left, pointing to a cross-ideological obsession with Jews as all powerful agents of injustice and shadowy manipulators of global affairs.
Black Lives Matter-inspired protests also served as backdrop for the destruction of Jewish property and violent anti-Semitism. On May 30, rioters spray painted “fuck Israel” on Congregation Beth Israel in Los Angeles, where “protesters” targeted Jewish businesses with anti-Semitic graffiti and looting. It was too easy for groups with an anti-Jewish agenda—the hard left, Nation of Islam, and others—to make common cause with protesters, who accepted Israel and the Jews as another embodiment of the systemic subjugation they were trying to destroy.
Vivid examples were provided by the July anti-Israel “Day of Rage” protests across 35 cities, which rode on the powerful momentum of BLM. Ostensibly aimed at Israeli territorial policies, Day of Rage rally leaders, like the Harvard student who led one in Washington D.C., proclaimed the Palestinian movement to be “intrinsically tied to Black Lives Matter.” Hordes alternated chanting support for BLM and condemnation of Israel for child murder. At rallies in Brooklyn, chants of “Black lives matter” intertwined with “Death to Israel!” Building on the trendy anti-police sentiment, a protester with a microphone received wild cheers for: “When I saw that precinct burn, I felt closer to a free Palestine!”
The ideological fervor that mixed hostility to American law enforcement with vitriol toward Israel—as if they were two parts of a single system—was especially acute on American campuses. At the University of Southern California in June, students motivated by George Floyd’s death led a campaign of anti-Semitic abuse against the student council vice president, Rose Ritch, for her basic support of Israel. It started when the council was chided for insufficient diversity among its leadership. Its president immediately posted on Instagram that he recognized he was a “person of privilege,” inviting fellow students to educate him about race, and announcing greater outreach to diverse student groups. When Ritch did not individually respond, she was charged with being “outspoken on issues that alienate Palestinian Trojans.” This unexplained accusation was enough to incite a push for her impeachment and a barrage of abuse. Ritch feared for her own safety and ultimately resigned from the student council.
According to Yael Lerman, legal director for the pro-Israel group StandWithUs: “Since the protests started in the spring and summer, we’ve seen a one-third increase in reported instances of campus anti-Semitism.” The already alarming rise in online anti-Semitic attacks on high schoolers also appeared to increase this summer, said Lerman. The spike was largely driven by threats and hate comments on TikTok and Instagram, which Lerman tracks through reports sent to her organization by targeted students.
Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader and aging icon of American anti-Semitism, delivered a highly anticipated Independence Day speech—his “message to America”—in which he described Jews as “Satan” and the “enemy of God” and threatened Jews with their potential destruction.
The speech was par for the course for Farrakhan, whose vitriol and scapegoating of Jews have defined his public persona for decades. Equally predictable, unfortunately, was the fact that Farrakhan’s speech was attended by powerful, and wealthy celebrities who fawned over the bow-tie-wearing bigot in his white embroidered vestments. These included TV personality Nick Cannon, former NBA basketball player Stephen Jackson, and music artists T.I., 2 Chainz, and Rick Ross.
Echoing a claim widely repeated by prominent leftists and activists, Farrakhan also blamed Israel for U.S. cops’ use of excessive force, directly implicating the Jewish state in the death of George Floyd. He said of police:
"That’s why you gotta come at us like a coward. Like snakes trying to wrap yourself around us so you could give us the treatment that you were taught in Israel. You may, as you gonna stop your police from going to Israel to learn how to kill better … Your days of killing us without consequence are over."
Shortly before attending Farrakhan’s speech, Cannon had confidently spouted racist conspiracy theories on his own podcast: “the Rothschilds, centralized banking, the 13 families, the bloodlines that control everything even outside of America.” Cannon also claimed that white and Jewish people in positions of power have a “lack of compassion” caused by the absence of melanin in their skin:
"So, therefore, the only way that they can act is evil. They have to rob, steal, rape, kill in order to survive. So, these people that didn’t have what we have—and when I say we, I speak of the melanated people—they had to be savages."
Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted exuberant praise for Farrakhan following his speech: “This man powerful I hope everyone got a chance to watch this!! Don’t be blinded. Know what’s going on!!” Jackson also posted anti-Semitic quotes falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler.
Rapper Ice Cube posted anti-Semitic tropes tying Jews to the oppression of Black people, even nodding to conspiracies about the noses of Egypt’s sphinxes that were used to try and manipulate Black voters in the 2016 election. Ice Cube, who has been tied to claims that Jewish people were behind the 9/11 terror attacks and COVID-19, went on a daylong Twitter spree warning of a Jewish cabal. One of the images he posted with an emphatic “FUCK THE NEW NORMAL UNTIL THEY FIX THE OLD NORMAL” showed anti-Semitic caricatures playing Monopoly on the backs of Black people. The picture was a wall mural painted in 2012 in Tower Hamlets, a top locus in the U.K. for breeding Islamic terrorists.
Throughout the mass unrest over the summer, demands for the redress of specific injustices became entwined with wholesale condemnations of America as irredeemably evil, while protests bled into riots, and mainstream commentators made excuses for political violence. In that atmosphere, Farrakhan was not some kind of outlier or marginal hate figure. In fact, the Nation of Islam leader’s rhetoric echoed the libels spread by “Deadly Exchange” a campaign initiated and promoted by the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) that accuses Israel of training American police forces in explicitly racist and brutal tactics. These allegations were so pernicious that the California Democratic Party Executive Board went so far as to pass a resolution in July opposing those blaming Israel for American police brutality—even asserting explicitly that Israel has never taught the knee-to-neck technique that was used on George Floyd.
The JVP-backed Deadly Exchange’s advisory team includes Omar Barghouti, a co-founder of another anti-Semitic movement capitalizing on the current civil unrest—the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS)—which seeks to isolate Israel, Israelis, and Jews through commercial and other forms of discrimination. Organizations representing BLM have officially endorsed BDS for years, but observers note BDS’ savvy rebranding to fit the current focus: The movement has reframed its mission as a racial—rather than territorial—campaign, casting Israel primarily as an “apartheid” state.
Anti-Semitism has been mounting steadily since at least 2016. In 2018, there was the horrifying shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people. The following year another life was taken by a white nationalist shooter at the Chabad of Poway in California. 2019 saw another 18% rise worldwide in major violent cases of anti-Semitism with 53 synagogues and 28 Jewish community centers and schools attacked. In New York City, the police department reported 234 anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2019, a full 26% annual bump, and the ADL cataloged at least 50 New Yorkers violently assaulted.
What will the new year hold? With vaccines already in distribution, the scourge of COVID should recede, although we will be dealing with the economic, psychological, and educational scars for the foreseeable future. There may be fatigue in the most radical pushes for racial and social change, as massive police defunding efforts have seen skyrocketing levels of violent crime, especially victimizing Black Americans. And perhaps a new presidential administration will shake things up and reset our trajectory.
On the other hand, we do not know the long-term impact of white supremacists stewing in conspiratorial narratives for a year or the monumental “mission creep” that brought anti-Semitic facets into so many of the year’s protests. How many Americans who had never given Israel or the Jews a thought spent some part of 2020 chanting to destroy it? How much of this messaging crept further into the speeches and platforms of progressive politicians? In 2020, lockdowns may have prevented some attacks but violent theories gained ground.
Will the 2021 numbers for anti-Semitic crimes continue the upward trend or represent the moment of a tidal shift? Speaking on policing anti-Semitism at the Manhattan Institute, former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly said, “I don’t think the threat is going to lessen. I think it’s only going to get worse … I think it’s here to stay.” Every Jewish person and institution needs to see itself as a target, he warned, especially given the diminished abilities and vigilance of American police forces after this year of extreme anti-police activities, legislation, and budgeting, Kelly added: “It’s contrary, I know, to the philosophy of Judaism, which is to be open, to be welcoming: I think we have to pause right now for where we are in history.”
Without losing sight of larger political and cultural issues that may be contributing to the alarming trend that Kelly cites, it’s a critical moment for American Jewish communities to take simple steps like locking synagogue doorsand having their security plans reviewed by the overlapping networks of Jewish security initiatives devoted to maximizing defenses.
Let’s hope that being overprepared and unnecessarily pessimistic is our biggest problem in 2021.
This piece originally appeared at Tablet
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images