Most people don’t realize that Jews make up only 2% of the American population and 0.2% of the world’s population. It just means that finding them takes a lot of effort. But every year in Western countries, including America, Jews are the No. 1 target of anti-religious hate crimes. Anti-Semites are many things, but they are not lazy. They are driven by one of the most enduring and deadly conspiracy theories in human history.
Last Saturday in Texas, another found its mark. According to the latest news, Malik Faisal Akram crossed an ocean to complete his task, flying from the UK to America at the end of December. On January 15, he held Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville hostage for more than 11 hours. When it was all over, Akram was dead and his captives were not. The hostages escaped after their rabbi staged a distraction, relying on the security training he had received from the Anti-Defamation League and other communal organizations. Another thing that most people don’t realize is that many rabbis need and receive security training.
Talking about Jews as symbols is always uncomfortable, especially when the bullet holes are still fresh in the sanctuary. But the sad reality is that this is why worshipers in Texas were attacked in the first place: because Jews play a sinister symbolic role in the imaginations of so many that bears no resemblance to their lived existence. .
After Akram fired a gun at the congregation, he demanded to speak to the rabbi of New York’s Central Synagogue, who he believed could authorize the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving time for attempted murder. at a Fort Worth facility near Beth Israel.
Obviously, that’s not how the prison system works. “He was someone who literally thought the Jews were in control of the world,” said Rabbi Beth Israel Charlie Cytron-Walker. the front. “He thought he could walk into a synagogue, and we could talk on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”
I happen to know Angela Buchdahl, the rabbi of this synagogue in New York, and I think she would make an excellent chief rabbi of America. But such a post does not exist. Jews are notorious for being grumpy and can rarely agree on anything, let alone their religious leadership. We don’t spend our days huddled in smoky rooms plotting world domination while Jared Kushner plays back dreidel with Noam Chomsky and George Soros sneaks the last latke.
The idea that such a tiny and unmanageable minority secretly controls the world is comical, which perhaps explains why so many responsible people still don’t take the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory seriously, or even understand how it works. In the moments following the Texas crisis, the FBI issued an official statement stating that the attacker was “particularly focused on one issue, and not specifically related to the Jewish community.” Of course, the shooter didn’t travel thousands of miles to terrorize Mormons. He sought out a synagogue and held it hostage for his grievances, believing that only Jews could resolve them. It’s targeting Jews, and there’s a word for it.
The FBI later corrected their mistake, but the episode reflects general ignorance of anti-Semitism, even among people of good will. Unlike many other sectarianisms, anti-Semitism is not simply a social prejudice; it’s a conspiracy theory about how the world works. This muddled perspective is what united the Texas shooter, a Muslim, with the 2018 shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a white supremacist who sought to stem the flow of Muslims into America. It’s a worldview shared by Louis Farrakhan, the preacher of black hatred, and David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the KKK. And it is a political orientation that has been expressed by the so-called conservative Christian leader of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, and Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran’s Islamic theocracy.
The feverish fantasy of Jewish domination is incredibly malleable, which makes it incredibly appealing. If Jews are responsible for every perceived problem, then people with totally opposite ideals can embrace it. And thanks to centuries of material blaming worldly Jews for worldly ills, conspiracy theorists seeking a scapegoat for their sorrows inevitably discover that the invisible hand of their oppressor belongs to an invisible Jew.
At the same time, because this expression of anti-Jewish prejudice is so different from other forms of bigotry, many people don’t recognize it. Like in Texas, law enforcement officials ignore it. Social media companies ignore it. Anti-racist activists – who understand racism as a prejudice exercised by the powerful – cannot grasp it, because anti-Semitism constructs its Jewish targets as the privileged and powerful. And political supporters, more concerned with blaming the problem on their adversaries, spend their time analyzing the identity of anti-Semitic individuals, rather than countering the ideas that drive them.
In short, although many people today say they are against anti-Semitism, they do not understand the nature of what they oppose. And that’s part of why anti-Semitism remains.
This ignorant status quo has proven deadly for Jews, and that alone should be enough for our society to take it seriously. But it also has disastrous consequences for non-Jews. Indeed, people who adopt conspiracy theories to explain their problems lose the ability to solve them rationally. As Walter Russell Mead of Bard College said:
People who think “Jews” run the banks lose the ability to understand, let alone operate, financial systems. People who think that “Jews” dominate business through hidden structures cannot build or sustain a successful modern economy for long. People who think “Jews” dominate politics lose their ability to interpret political events, diagnose social ills, and organize effectively for positive change.
For an example, look at what happened in Texas. An anti-Semitic gunman has taken a synagogue hostage in the false hope that his parishioners could somehow free a federal prisoner. This prisoner herself was sentenced to 86 years in prison after she tried to fire her Jewish lawyers during the trial, demanded that Jews be excluded from the jury and said her guilty verdict came from ‘Israel and not America’ “. One hateful person after another has been destroyed by their own delusions. And such debilitating illusions can ripple outward.
“Anti-Semitism has a real impact beyond just hate crimes,” civil rights activist Eric Ward once told me. “It distorts our understanding of how the real world works. It isolates us. It alienates us from our communities, our neighbors and our participation in governance. It kills, but it also kills our society.
Neither Mead nor Ward are Jewish. The first is a noted white historian and the son of a southern priest; the latter is a black activist who fights white nationalism. Yet, although they come from different places, both have devoted much of their work to combating anti-Jewish prejudice, and for the same reason: they threaten democracy itself.
“Anti-Semitism is not just bigotry toward the Jewish community,” Ward explains. “He actually uses bigotry toward the Jewish community in order to deconstruct democratic practices, and he does this by presenting democracy as a conspiracy rather than a tool of empowerment or a functional tool of governance.” In other words, the more people buy into anti-Semitism and its understanding of the world, the more they lose faith in democracy.
Numerous historical case studies attest that anti-Semitism undermines its adherents on a large scale, from the defeat of the Nazis, who spurned scientific advances simply because they were discovered by Jews, to European countries that shackled each other for centuries by expelling their Jewish populations.
“Rising anti-Semitism is a sign of widespread social and cultural failure,” Mead writes. “It’s a major indicator of a loss of faith in liberal values and a diminished ability to understand and thrive in the modern world.”
Seen in this light, an attack on a synagogue is not just a hate crime statistic. It is also a warning. The mindset of a madman in Texas may seem foreign to us today. But if we do not find a way to confront the conspiratorial currents that threaten to take over our society, we risk finding ourselves hostages to the very ideas that animated it.