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How antisemitic conspiracies drive violent attacks and harm democracy


Last Saturday, when an armed man took four people hostage at the Beth Israel Congregation synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, many people hearing the news might have wondered why there? Why that city? Why those people? We later learned that the man, a British national, was demanding the release of a federal prisoner, a Pakistani national named Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving a decades-long sentence on terrorism charges at nearby Fort Worth and whose imprisonment has become a cause for some in Pakistan and elsewhere.

According to statements made during the hostage standoff, the man evidently believed that a rabbi or other members of the Jewish community could make her release happen. Why does that matter? According to our next guest, that fantasy, wild as it seems, draws upon centuries-old antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories centered on the idea that Jews, a tiny portion of the world's population, secretly control the world. And he argues that those conspiracy theories aren't just at the root of violent attacks against Jews, which have proven to be dangerous in themselves but that at their core, they are also damaging to our democracy and others.

Yair Rosenberg is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and he recently wrote about this in a piece titled "Why So Many People Still Don't Understand Anti-Semitism." And he's with us now to tell us more. Yair Rosenberg, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

YAIR ROSENBERG: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You write in the piece that antisemitism is not merely a social prejudice. It's a conspiracy theory about how the world operates. Now, obviously, antisemitism is of grave concern to Jewish people. It has been and remains the cause of much violence and discrimination over centuries. So we shouldn't need to say that, but we're going to say it again. But because it unfolds this larger conspiracy theory that you talk about, you also argue that it causes harm to society at large. I want you to tell me how that works.

ROSENBERG: Sure. So I think when most people think about a prejudice, they think of people disliking people who are not like them. That's the social prejudice. Those people, they're different. I don't like them. Antisemitism has that. But it also has this other thing, this broader conspiracy theory about, as you said, how the world works, which is to say that antisemites, like the person who took this synagogue hostage, believe that Jews, who are a tiny, tiny proportion of the world - 0.2% of the world population - actually run everything in the world. They control politics, economics, the government media. And therefore, they exercise outsized power.

So this is obviously bad for Jewish people, but it's also really bad for societies that buy into this idea because one thing that conspiracy theories do to societies is that they destroy them from within because they teach people that they're powerless to effect change. And they leave them to be unable to solve their own problems.

What does that - what do I mean by that? Well, if you think that, you know, Jews control politics, if you have a problem in politics, you're going to go after Jews instead of trying to vote, elect people, do activism, do all the things that could actually solve your problems. If you think that, you know, Jews control the economy, you're not going to try to solve your economic problems by saving, investing, making better financial decisions. Again, you will go after these invisible Jews. And so societies that buy into the antisemitic conspiracy theory lose the ability to rationally solve their problems and instead become obsessed with phantom solutions and hurting Jews.

MARTIN: So I want to connect the dots to some other things that you talk about in the piece. But before we do that, you know, antisemitism has been such a feature of, I don't know how to say, world history that you think people would know that by now or that conspiracy aspect of it. But one of the things that you point out in the piece is that people still don't draw that connection. For example, when the hostage standoff at the synagogue in Texas took place, FBI special agent Matthew DeSarno initially told reporters that the attacker's motive was not specifically connected to the community.

Now, the FBI has since walked back those statements and declared the incident both a hate crime and a terrorist attack. But what did you think when you heard that? And how does that connect to your feeling that there's still a gap - let me call it that - maybe, whatever - you can tell me what you think it is - to how that sort of demonstrates the public's understanding of antisemitism or the - what's missing in its understanding of antisemitism?

ROSENBERG: So I think it's understandable how a lot of people hear antisemitism, they think this is anti-Jewish bigotry. And so like any other anti-some-group bigotry, it just means people don't like those people. They say nasty things about them. They use slurs. That's how I think a lot of social media companies think of antisemitism. It's how some law enforcement officials, like you said, think of it. And that's an incomplete understanding. And so it's true, right? It's all true. But it's incomplete. And if that's your only conception of how antisemitism works, when you hear someone make an antisemitic conspiracy theory or act on one, you won't process it as antisemitism because you're not aware that this is another way that antisemitism manifests throughout history, like you said.

And so I think that that's what happens. It's not even - it's not necessarily that people are ill-intentioned. It's that they simply lack this awareness of this broader dimension of how antisemitism acts, because again, a lot of other prejudices don't work that way. So you wouldn't really think when you talk about this, that, oh, that's something I have to worry about.

MARTIN: Yeah. You point out in your piece that a belief of these weird conspiracies connect haters from wildly different backgrounds. I mean, the most obvious example that some people might remember is Charlottesville, Va., where the - so the tiki torch-bearing white supremacists who were ostensibly there to defend the confederate statues started chanting anti-Jewish slurs, right?


MARTIN: They started chanting, Jews will not replace us. OK, so how are these connected? Talk a little bit more about that.

ROSENBERG: Yeah. So let's underscore that. The person who attacked the synagogue in Texas was a Muslim from the United Kingdom. And then at the same time, when you go to the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue in 2018, a white supremacist attacked them. And he's angry at the Jews there because he thinks they're trying to bring Muslims into America. So you have this person who hates Muslims attacking Jews. And you have this person who is a Muslim attacking Jews. But the thing that they share is they both think that the Jews control society and are responsible for all its problems.

And if you understand this conspiracy theory and you understand that this is what antisemites believe, you realize, oh, if you can offload your problems onto Jews, it doesn't really matter what your problems are. It works for everyone. And so you can be the Christian Conservative leader of Hungary, Viktor Orban, and start talking in conspiratorial terms about, you know, liberal Jewish financiers who control everything. And you could be the supreme leader of Iran and start talking about how Jews control America, and Jews control the world and so on. And that's the exact opposite because, you know, that's an Islamic theocracy. But the worldviews of these people is almost secondary to their general buying into the idea that Jews run everything and are responsible for all the problems.

And that's how you can find, you know, the fact that, like, Louis Farrakhan and David Duke agree on absolutely nothing except for the fact that the Jews are responsible for everything that's wrong in America. So people who absolutely hate each other, in other words, agree that the Jews are their common enemy because they buy into this conspiratorial mindset.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I think in recent years, we've become aware of the fact that it isn't the responsibility of people who are marginalized to fix the world. But you do point out in the piece that Jews are a tiny minority in the world. Is there a way to make this more obvious to people who may not know any Jewish people or think about this very much in relation to themselves? Now, I mean, I'm just going to say, if you are Jewish, if you have Jewish people in your life, presumably you care when they are attacked or threatened. But if you don't, perhaps you live in a part of the country where there just isn't much diversity. This might be a hypothetical to you, and your response might be, well, that's a shame, but what does it have to do with me? So forgive me for asking you this, but I do wonder if you think there is a way to make that connection more clear to people who don't see it.

ROSENBERG: Yeah. So it's always challenging because, of course, Jewish lives matter because all lives matter. And especially, you know, minority lives that are under threat matter. And they should matter in and of themselves. But it is helpful to tell people about the broader implications of how hatred reverberates through society. And in the case of antisemitism, as we discussed, societies that fall prey to antisemitic conspiracy theories lose the ability to rationally address their problems because they offload them onto invisible Jews.

And so if you care about your society and your democracy and you want it to be responsive to you and you want people to believe in your government and be able to act to change their circumstances for the better, then antisemitism is a threat to you because it teaches people that they can't do any of those things, and it teaches them to pursue all the wrong answers to their problems. And so if you want to combat antisemitism, you want to combat conspiratorial thinking. You want to combat the idea that there's some secret hidden hand that's responsible for all our problems and teach people, instead, to work together to solve those things on a rational and political basis.

MARTIN: That was Yair Rosenberg, contributing writer at The Atlantic. We're talking about his piece, "Why So Many People Still Don't Understand Anti-Semitism." Yair Rosenberg, thank you so much for spending this time with us.

ROSENBERG: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.