How conspiracy culture made anti-Semitism respectable
The mainstreaming of conspiratorial thinking has been very bad news for Jews.
What do The Economist and Dieudonné M’bala M’bala have in common? At first glance, nothing. The former is an erudite magazine read religiously by besuited businessmen and politicos and with absolutely no anti-Semitic component. The latter is an oafish French comedian given to outbursts of anti-Semitism, most notorious for having popularised the quenelle, an inverted Nazi salute. And yet one curious thing appears to bind together the bible of the business classes and the comedic scourge of the French establishment: a propensity to believe that Zionism has a stranglehold, or at least exercises a baleful influence, on world politics.
Last week, as Western observers continued to get hot under the collar over the growing popularity of Dieudonné among French youth, a cartoon controversy at The Economist went virtually unreported. The magazine pulled from its website a cartoon that it had originally published on 21 January after Jewish groups complained that it was anti-Semitic. The cartoon showed President Obama reaching out to shake hands with Iranians, trying to make peace with Iran, but he can’t quite get there because his leg is shackled by a huge seal of Congress that is daubed with the Star of David. Not surprisingly, Jewish groups expressed concern that the cartoon indulged the old, foul notion that ‘Congress is run by Jews or Israel’. Certainly the cartoon seemed to imply that the most powerful man on Earth is hampered, harmed, held back by something to do with the Jews. Last week The Economist said ‘some readers felt that the cartoon implied that Jews controlled Congress’, which is not ‘what we believe’, so it took the cartoon off its website.
That The Economist could land itself in hot water over an image of Zionist / Israeli / Jewish influence in the same week Dieudonné continued to make international headlines for his Jew-baiting antics is very striking. What it suggests is that the Dieudonné phenomenon might not be as foreign as some people think. There has been a tendency to depict Dieudonné’s belief system as an immigrant thing (he is of Cameroonian descent) that is spreading like a virus among the uncouth and the uncultured. Indeed, concern about Dieudonne increased massively when Nicolas Anelka, a French footballer for West Bromwich Albion, performed the quenelle after scoring a goal, leading to much handwringing in the respectable press about footie fans, that most feared of modern constituencies, being corrupted by populist anti-Zionist prejudices. Yet this obsessive focus on the dumber expressions of cheap anti-Zionist or Israel-hating or anti-Semitic ideas overlooks the fact even in respectable circles these days, there is a temptation to see Jewish-related forces as worryingly influential. Where Dieudonné says Zionists have ‘organised all the wars and all the disorders on this planet’, a cartoon in The Economist hints that the Star of David is a barrier to American peace with Iran and thus, presumably, a source of global conflict.
This is not to suggest for one minute that The Economist is anti-Semitic. It isn’t, whereas Dieudonné clearly is. But the underlying similarity of views expressed in that Economist cartoon and in Dieudonné’s far more disturbing outpourings does suggest they at least inhabit the same moral universe. And that is a universe in which there is a growing tendency to think conspiratorially, to be constantly on the lookout for the one malevolent thing or group or person that might be held responsible for the myriad problems afflicting Western societies and international affairs. This is the real driving force of modern-day populist anti-Zionism that sometimes crosses the line into anti-Semitism: not a resurrection of old, explicitly racial fears of the Jews, but rather the mainstreaming of the conspiratorial imagination, the way in which pretty much everyone today is a conspiracy theorist, the increasingly common temptation to find a dark actor or hidden force who might be blamed for political, economic and global disorder that we otherwise struggle to explain.
One of the most striking developments of recent years has been the movement of conspiratorial thinking into the centre of political life and public debate. For decades, conspiracy theories about global affairs and domestic politics being controlled by largely hidden, unnamed actors with a malevolent agenda tended to flourish only on the fringes of society, especially among far-right groups. But today, it is commonplace to hear very mainstream thinkers and activists talk about the ‘cabals’ and ‘cults’ that allegedly control economic life and dictate the global agenda. As a result of a broader crisis of politics, of a long drawn-out evacuation of meaning and oftentimes purpose from the political sphere, political and economic developments can seem arbitrary and unhinged to many – and they respond by devoting their energies to obsessively hunting down the dark, dastardly thing which, they assume, must be puppeteering these confusing developments from behind the scenes.
The conspiratorial cry can be heard everywhere these days. You can hear it in casually made left-wing claims about a ‘neoliberal cabal’ or a ‘neoliberal cult’ sinisterly controlling the economies of both Western nations and benighted Third World countries. You can hear it in the mainstream discussions about a ‘cult of bankers’ bringing about a recession and then benefiting from it in the shape of government handouts. You can hear it in the top-table talk about a ‘neocon conspiracy’ – that is, a tiny group of secretive American war-mongers – setting out to destroy Muslim countries and even control Europe. You can hear it in serious claims that ‘Big Oil’ demanded, won and effectively oversaw recent wars in Iraq and elsewhere. You can hear it in the oft-repeated claims that the Israel Lobby has the whole of Washington in its back pocket. You can hear it in the hysterical discussion of News International setting up a ‘shadow state’ in Britain, through which Rupert Murdoch ‘orchestrated public life from the shadows’. That idea of public life being controlled from the shadows – whether by neoliberal fundamentalists, money-loving oilmen or the Murdoch Empire – is now so mainstream, so widely accepted, that it is rare indeed to hear anyone point out how closely and scarily it echoes those conspiracy theories that were once the preserve of the nuttier sections of society.
Again and again, what are actually deeply complex issues and events, informed and swayed by the interplay of various constituencies and ideas – whether it’s modern capitalism, modern warfare or the modern media – are reduced by the conspiratorial imagination to brutally simplistic instances of malignant forces controlling the world, its inhabitants and our destinies. This mainstreaming of the conspiratorial imagination, which is further entrenched by popular TV and cinema, which seem positively obsessed with the idea of dark actors corrupting communities, towns or nations, speaks to a powerful sense of public detachment from political life. The more politics seems to be beyond the purview of us mere mortals, and the more there seems to be little clear correlation between our interests and political life as it currently exists, the more there is a temptation to believe that public life is controlled by others, often hidden, always self-interested, dangerous, toxic.
It is this mainstreaming of the conspiratorial imagination that explains the re-emergence, and the rising popularity, of the demonisation of Israel, Zionists and, sometimes, most tragically, the Jews. Throughout the twentieth century, conspiratorial thinking, which was then a pursuit of small, isolated groups, very often drew on the longstanding resources of anti-Semitism. For a fairly long time in Western societies, ‘The Jew’ had existed as a kind of sinister being, a corruptor of societies, depicted in some fringe literature as a money-hungry individual who could be held responsible for various nations’ economic and moral problems. Thus those who were given to conspiratorial thinking had a strong tendency to draw upon this rich resource of hateful literature in their search for The Thing that they could present as being in control of society. It is the same today: the rise and rise and mainstream embrace of conspiratorial thinking has led to a renewed plundering of the old resources of anti-Semitism in search of the cause of our current moral and economic malaise. Today, Israel or the Zionists, and sometimes explicitly the Jews, have become the vehicle through which the malevolent forces said to control all aspects of politics and life in general are given definition, a name, a face.
So mainstream has conspiratorial thinking become that even many of those currently attacking Dieudonné for his hateful comments have themselves propagated conspiracy theories about Zionists and even Jews controlling world affairs. So the Guardian has laid into both Dieudonné and Anelka for their ugly, populist anti-Zionism. Yet just last year that very paper published a cartoon showing a huge prime minister of Israel controlling tiny puppet versions of leading Western politicians – which is not a million miles from Dieudonné’s assertion that Zionists have ‘taken France hostage’. The New Statesman chastises Dieudonné’s ‘radicalism of fools’. Yet a few years ago it published a frontpage story headlined ‘A Kosher Conspiracy?’ which mused on the baleful influence of ‘Big Jewry’ on Western political life. Some Western leftists, including supporters of the Occupy movement, have criticised Dieudonné’s hate-mongering. Yet Occupy’s own founder, Kalle Lasn of Adbusters magazine, has previously authored articles exposing the Jews among America’s neocon set.
Indeed, Lasn’s article, titled ‘Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?’, shows the extent to which the more intensely conspiratorial sections of society have a tendency to obsess over evil Zionists or even influential Jews. In his article, he listed ‘the 50 most influential neocons in the US’ and put a black mark next to the names of those who are Jewish. He discovered that ‘half of them are Jewish’, half of this sect that wants to ‘[reshape] the rest of the world into its morally superior image’ are Jews. Not surprisingly, this awful conspiratorial outlook trickled down into elements of the Occupy movement, where placards lambasted ‘Zionist Jews’ for running the US Federal Reserve. ‘Does anyone care about the anti-Semitism?’, asked the Washington Post after the American Nazi Party expressed its support for Occupy and its opposition to ‘Judeo-Capitalists’. Occupy’s conspiratorial conviction that a neoliberal cabal governs everything often crossed the line into handwringing over Zionist sects and even Jewish bankers. Among the leaking lobby, too, another of the modern world’s most explicitly conspiratorial outfits, there are occasional lapses into something very close to anti-Semitism: one of Wikileaks’ researchers, Israel Shamir, has been described by one British newspaper as ‘notorious for Holocaust denial and publishing a string of anti-Semitic articles’. It seems the more groups embrace the conspiratorial imagination, the more they move towards shallow anti-Zionism and even outright ‘Jew-exposure’.
What we are witnessing today is the emergence of an anti-Semitism that is not racial, but cultural, which is fuelled not by old racial stereotypes of the Jews but rather by cultural concerns about their growing influence. The engine of these sentiments is the conspiratorial imagination, the now very common conviction that small groups of peculiar forces control public life from the shadows, which has in turn given a new lease of life to concern about the impact of the Jews and their interests. It is, of course, entirely possible to be an anti-Zionist without being an anti-Semite. These are not the same thing. However, increasingly today, the obsession with Zionism is underpinned, not by a desire to put forward a specific, rational critique of that political ideology, but once again by the modern conspiratorial urge to discover a singular sinister source of global tensions and instability, by an overwhelming sense that the world is beyond our control and a desire to find the people allegedly responsible for this. As a consequence, modern anti-Zionism, especially the more populist variety, can feel more driven by hyperbole and even prejudice than by serious opposition to the Zionist outlook.
This week on spiked, we plan to explore the Jewish Question in the twenty-first century, to locate the origins and nature of modern-day anti-Semitism and the question of why it is gaining ground among certain constituencies. From circumcision to the truth about Zionism to the Yid Army controversy, every day we will publish a piece on the debate about Jews in modern times. Don’t miss it.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.
Picture: Messyasz Nicolas/ABACA/Press Association Images
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