The myth of Brooklyn’s ‘Jew tunnels’

Why is so much of the West in the grip of anti-Semitic paranoia?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics USA World

So, some religious men in New York City dug a hole. I’m sorry, but why is this global news? Why is the Guardian reporting on it? Why was it splashed all over the pages of the Mirror and the Mail? Why did it trend on social media for hours? I was even WhatsApped video clips of this global non-event. ‘Look, a hole in the ground in NYC!’ And? I understand that the juggernaut of American culture, propelled across Earth by social media, makes spectators of us all to every incident and idea that unfolds across the pond. But a hole in the ground is a new low – pun intended.

Perhaps it’s because of who the hole-digging religious men were. Whisper it: Jews. Worse, Hasidic Jews. This is the case, of course, of 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, home to the Chabad-Lubavitch World Headquarters. This is an insular Orthodox Jewish movement. On Monday night, some men were arrested at 770, as the headquarters are locally known, following the discovery of a kind of tunnel. A passageway had been illegally dug under the building, structural engineers turned up to fill it in, a few young Hasidics got angry with the engineers and the cops cuffed them. I can see why this is of interest to New Yorkers. It makes perfect sense that it made the pages of the New York press. But why can’t I, 3,500 miles away, so much as switch on a gadget without seeing breathless commentary on the Hasidic diggers and even feverish talk of ‘Jew tunnels’?

As far as we can tell, the tunnel was dug by rogue members of Chabad-Lubavitch. It is reportedly around 50 feet in length and stretches from the 770 synagogue to a men’s ritual bath area, which had been closed. Apparently, the young renegades dug the hole in the belief that they would enjoy redemption if they followed the command of Chabad-Lubavitch’s late rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to extend the HQ. Most members of the movement frowned on the tunnel-digging. In fact, it was they who reported it to officialdom. A spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch branded the zealous diggers ‘odious’.

That’s it. It’s a colourful story, for sure. If the Atlantic publishes a longform piece on the doctrinal clashes in this curious community, I’ll probably read it. But for it to trend, to make waves worldwide, is odd to say the least. A clue to this global spread of a local religious spat can be found in how it is being talked about. In some circles it is being held up as proof of the sneaky, iffy nature of Jews. As Rolling Stone says, this hole in the ground has ‘sparked an onslaught of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories’. The tall tale of a ‘Jew tunnel’ in New York City has leant itself beautifully, and terrifyingly, to the conspiracist paranoia that has much of the West in its grip, and which has worsened significantly since the start of the Israel-Hamas War.

Social-media outlets are awash with Jew-tunnel talk. Every old trope is being vented on the back of this NYC incident. Key among them is the idea that the tunnel was likely dug for the purposes of trafficking kids for sexual abuse. That there is not a sliver of evidence for such a preposterous take makes no difference. ‘NYC’s Jew tunnel’ had a child’s ‘high chair’ in it, said one far-right tweeter, and we all know what that means: the Jews are brutalising children again.

Footage of a stained mattress seemingly being pulled from the tunnel got anti-Semites salivating. ‘Secret underground tunnels, blood-soaked mattresses, baby strollers… Getting real strong “Simon of Trent” vibes here’, said a hard-right influencer. That’s a reference to the young Christian boy killed in Trento in Italy in 1475, a killing later pinned on Jews, 15 of whom were burnt at the stake. Ancient blood libels given a new lease of life via modern tech. Only where the demonisation of Jews following the murder of Simon was a mostly localised event, that tweet about baby strollers at 770 has been viewed 1.2 million times. We’re all village idiots now having Jew-hate whispered in our ears.

It feels pointless to say there’s no proof that the stain on that mattress was blood, or to point out that there has rarely existed a mattress that hasn’t had some kind of stain on it. Anti-Semitic paranoia is notoriously impervious to reason. Even the old, vile image of Jews as rats has been rehabilitated through the 770 story. ‘Drain that swamp! Rats must run’, said a social-media user with 30k followers. Images of rats wearing shtreimels were shared online. Jackson Hinkle, the bigot who’s refashioned himself as a pro-Palestine activist, asked: ‘Why were there high chairs and stained mattresses in the NYC synagogue tunnels?’ His sly nod and wink has been viewed 2.9million times. These days a blood libel travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting its boots on.

And what is that truth? It’s that the small passageway – even calling it ‘tunnel’ is a stretch – was dug by young hotheads who were later reprimanded by their religious elders. Elders who, according to Forward, ordered the cement truck that filled the passageway in. Facts count for nothing, though, in the face of a good old tunnel conspiracy theory. As Vice reminds us, ‘conspiracy theories about tunnels have radiated outwards from the Middle Ages on’. From the anti-Semitic hysteria of Old Europe to the Satanic ritual abuse panic of recent decades, the dark vision of kids in underground lairs has long kept the mad awake at night.

There’s another striking element to the 770 conspiracy theories: the way they’ve been weaved together with ‘anti-Israel’ sentiment. As Rolling Stone reports, some have made ‘false comparisons to Hamas tunnels in Gaza’. Apparently, what we have in Brooklyn are ‘Zionist tunnels’. If a stained mattress had been pulled from a tunnel in Gaza, say the 770 obsessives, the Zionists (they mean Jews) would have cited it as proof of rape. This folding together of the classical anti-Semitic view that Jews abuse children with the modern Israelophobic view that Zionists are sneaky liars is incredibly revealing. It confirms that some old-fashioned racists now see ‘pro-Palestine’ activism as a prime outlet for their poisonous bigotry.

And they are right to. The moral kinship between Old World loathing for Jews and the new-fangled loathing for Israel has become crystal clear in recent weeks. Everything they once said about Jewish people they now say about the Jewish State. Consumed by bloodlust, all-powerful and influential, keen on harming kids, uniquely murderous… it is flat-out undeniable that today’s fashionable ill will for Israel echoes yesteryear’s vile ill will for Jews. That classical anti-Semites, the kind referring to Brooklyn’s Hasidics as rats that are likely raping kids, spy a moral advantage in wrapping themselves in the Palestinian flag ought to give serious pause for thought to our anti-Israel elites.

If you peruse social media you will likely see hard-right bigots denouncing the Jews as the most evil people and hard-left activists denouncing the Jewish State as the most evil state. And we’re meant to believe these views are entirely morally distinct? That there is no link between them? That one is illegitimate prejudice and the other legitimate critique? Please. Alongside the 770 hysteria, we’ve seen Jeffrey Epstein being madly referred to as a Mossad agent who blackmailed the entire American elite, yet more stories about Israeli soldiers harvesting Palestinian organs, and a ceaseless woke focus on Israel’s ‘targeting’ of Gaza’s children and Christians. Seriously, if this were a question on Jeopardy it would be: ‘What is anti-Semitism?’

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Politics USA World


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