HoaXes and Lies
The origins of antisemitism
Elon Musk may not sincerely hate Jews. He may have meant it when he insisted that “hundreds of bogus media stories claiming that I am antisemitic” could not “be further from the truth.” He may have changed the name and logo of Twitter to a single letter that also happens to be the center of a swastika because he thinks “X” looks cool. He may have reinstated white nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and the like en masse when he bought Twitter, amplified and engaged with their accounts, and in some instances (apparently) paid them for their hate-filled content, because he’s a ferocious free speech absolutist who really does want “the best for humanity and a prosperous and exciting future for all.” Far be it for me to presume to know what goes on in the dark, dark place that is his mind.
But it makes no difference what Musk actually believes. Boost enough Nazis and you become a Nazi. Champion enough anti-Semites and you become an anti-Semite. Propagate enough anti-Jewish conspiracy theories and, especially if you happen to own the single most important media platform on earth, there are real-world ramifications, none of them good for Jews.
After more than a year of Musk’s hateful stewardship, corporate America is finally turning its back on X, as IBM, Apple, NBC Universal, Disney, and other companies have pulled advertising off the site. As Eric Hananoki of Media Matters reported last week, Elon Musk’s “social media platform has been placing ads for major brands like Apple, Bravo (NBCUniversal), IBM, Oracle, and Xfinity (Comcast) next to content that touts Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.”
But this week was a new low, even for the gutter-dwelling Musk, who endorsed a particularly vile antisemitic tweet. As John Whitehouse of Media Matters reports:
The antisemitic post Musk endorsed came in response to a user writing, “To the cowards hiding behind the anonymity of the internet and posting ‘Hitler was right’: You got something you want to say? Why dont you say it to our faces…”
The conspiracy theory, that Jewish populations are pushing “hatred against whites” and supporting “hordes of minorities” coming into the country, is the same one that motivated the 2018 Tree of Life shooter in Pittsburgh, as noted by The Atlantic’s Yair Rosenberg. Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes and other figures linked to white nationalism are cheering on Musk.
This comes at a moment when there is an enormous spike in antisemism, in the United States and around the world. In the aftermath of the Hamas terror attacks of October 7, the Netanyahu government’s subsequent slaughter of thousands of Gazan civilians, and the inability of far too many leftists to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinian and between the Israeli government and Jewish people, Jews are increasingly at risk.
With all the anti-Jewish hoaxes and lies making the rounds on Musk’s platform and elsewhere—and with Thanksgiving coming up, our yearly family forum for turkey, football, and the exchange of ideas—I thought it would be useful to take a look at the origins of the most persistent antisemitic propaganda.
Throughout the Middle Ages, and until relatively recently, lending money at interest—usury—was considered a sin by the Church, and was strictly forbidden. We have since figured out that lending money at a reasonable rate of interest is essential to growing an economy; it is the very engine of capitalism. Without low interest moneylending, there are no central banks, no mortgages, no small business loans, no credit cards, and so on. Modern life would be impossible.
But back then, with rare exceptions, Christians could not and did not lend money at interest. Jews could and did, for the simple reason that other careers were often off limits to them and that one was not. Medieval men of means took out loans from moneylenders, and those moneylenders happened to be Jewish—not because Jews are inherently good with money (as Donald Trump, among many others, has suggested), but for the simple reason that Jews, as non-Christians, were the only ones eligible to do the job.
Medieval Jews thus became essential to their local economies—in England, in France, in Spain, and elsewhere. Jewish moneylenders held the debt of knights, landed gentry, and kings. That was a risky business. Having the all-powerful monarch who still sincerely believes in the Divine Right of Kings owe you cash is perilous. One morning, he might wake up and decide that, rather than pay you back, he will instead confiscate your possessions and banish you from his dominions. Historically, when Jews were expelled from some or other kingdom, whatever the official reason, it was almost always because the king was a wastrel and a deadbeat.
Take, for example, England: Jews first crossed the Channel after the Norman Invasion of 1066, at the invitation of William the Conqueror. The small communities quickly prospered—because, again, Jews offered a service essential to economic growth with which Christians were ineligible to participate—establishing settlements in London and, crucially in the history of antisemitism, Norwich.
As long as things were going smoothly with regards to the economy, and the harvests were bountiful and the Vikings didn’t pillage too aggressively, Jews lived in harmony with their Christian neighbors—provided that the reigning king wasn’t a cynical, amoral asshole. Henry II, for example, was a good king to the Jews of England. But his death in 1189 sparked a wave of anti-Jewish violence, including a massacre at York in 1190.
It was at this time that the “blood libel” first appeared, in the aforementioned village of Norwich. As the ADL explains, blood libel is
a centuries-old false allegation that Jews murder Christians—especially Christian children—to use their blood for ritual purposes, such as an ingredient in the baking of Passover matzah (unleavened bread). It is also sometimes called the “ritual murder charge.”
Here’s how the rumor started: A local Norwich boy, called William, died in 1144, his body found in the woods. His mother—probably to distract from her own involvement in William’s death—blamed the local Jews. No one else did, because the woman was an obvious nutter, and life went on. Then a roving monk, Thomas of Monmouth, showed up in town and got wind of the story. He decided that William was a saint. He determined, without any actual evidence, that the Jews had indeed murdered young William. And he wrote a treatise about it. As Madeleine Schwartz explains in The Nation:1
Thomas writes that as the Jews began to celebrate Passover, they grabbed William from behind and tortured him with a fuller’s tool. They then shaved his head and pricked him with thorns in a cruel imitation of Christ’s Passion. They bound his right foot with chains and pierced his left side. When blood began to flow uncontrollably, they doused the dying boy with boiling water. Finally, after a few days, they hung the body from a tree, until passersby eventually buried it.
The roving monk’s account is, obviously, pure invention. He made it up out of whole cloth. If Thomas of Monmouth were alive today, he’d be one of those QAnon lunatics waiting for JFK, Jr. to show up at the Trump rally. But his work of fiction was amplified and embellished through the years, typically by anyone in authority seeking to cast aspersions on Jews.
Jews were expelled from England in 1290, after a series of laws designed to deprive their communities of income and resources. This was because, as usual, the king, Edward I this time, was in financial trouble due to mounting expenses related to the English war machine. As an Oxford University report puts it:
Kings, especially Henry III (1216-72), tried to extract large sums of money from the Jewish community as taxes and forced ‘gifts’. In order to pay these sums, Jewish lenders often sold on the debts owed to them by Christians, and the new owners of the debt pressured the debtors to pay up. As English knights became increasingly indebted, Jewish lenders got the blame. In Parliament, from the 1260s onwards, local representatives demanded measures be taken to curb Jewish lending. It is likely that these changes contributed to several thousand Jews deciding to leave England.
By 1275, Edward I decreed that Jews could no longer loan money for a living and would have to convert to being merchants, labourers or owning farmland. This statute also confirmed long-standing rules for Jews, e.g. requiring Jews to wear badges (in the shape of stone tablets) to identify them. By 1290, Edward was under pressure: having run up large debts waging war abroad, he needed to negotiate a financial settlement. But Parliament’s permission was needed before a tax would be raised. One thing Edward was willing to barter was the remaining Jewish population. In return for an Edict of Expulsion, Parliament granted Edward a tax of £116,000—the largest single tax of the Middle Ages.
When Jews lost the protection of the king, they were subject to intimidation by the local peasantry, who were typically close-minded, loyal to the king, superstitious, gullible enough to believe the “blood libel” lies, eager to blame their problems on a convenient scapegoat, and—most importantly—greatly outnumbered them.
In France, the king’s ulterior motives were even more blatant. Philip IV—called “The Fair” because he was easy on the eyes, and not because he was fair in any other way—wracked up massive debt waging war in Flanders and elsewhere. In the Great Exile of 1306, he expelled the Jews from his kingdom, confiscated all of their possessions, and sold off what he stole to fill his coffers. He also installed himself as the de facto banker—in effect buying up the Jewish loans without actually paying for them—so he could personally collect on outstanding debts.
(What Philip the Fair did next proved that he was not at all motivated by religious concerns. The following year, on October 13, in a Godfather-style maneuver, he arrested all the Knights Templar living in France. “These men are heretics,” the king decreed, “guilty of a panoply of horrible sins.” What they were actually guilty of was lending Philip money to wage war on England, money the king was not keen to pay back. October 13 fell on a Friday in 1307. This is the origin of Friday the 13th—another ridiculous superstition dating to the Middle Ages.)
Jews were gradually allowed back into France, only to be banished again in 1394 by Charles IV. They would not return for 200 years. By then, a third the population of Europe had died of the Black Death; it was during the plague years of 1347-50 that the false allegations of Jews poisoning the wells proliferated.
In Spain, Jews were expelled by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492. Unlike in England and France, the Spanish monarchs did this purely for religious reasons. Jews had lived and prospered there for centuries; under Islamic rule—ironically, given more recent developments in the Middle East—Jews enjoyed protected status. Also ironically, the Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain were welcomed with open arms by Bayezid II, the Ottoman Sultan, a Muslim.
In 1864, a Frenchman named Maurice Joly put out a work of political satire, Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a critique of Napoleon III. This work was later appropriated—if not lifted wholesale—by the lousy Russian writer Sergei Nilus, who despite his mystical pretensions was a Moscow nepo baby married to the Tsarina’s lady-in-waiting. Nilus translated it into Russian and gave the “dialogue in hell” a new twist: instead of a convo between philosophers, the work would be the made-up minutes, or “protocols,” of an imaginary meeting of a cabal of Jewish leaders—the Elders of Zion. Excerpts of the work first appeared in print in a Russian periodical in 1903. Two years later, the entire manuscript ran as an addendum to Nilus’ monstrous tome The Great in the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth.
In English, the title of that section is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is the basis for much of the anti-Jewish conspiracy theories we see today.
Per the Holocaust Encyclopedia, the book’s
intent was to portray Jews as conspirators against the state. In 24 chapters, or protocols, allegedly minutes from meetings of Jewish leaders, the Protocols “describes” the “secret plans” of Jews to rule the world by manipulating the economy, controlling the media, and fostering religious conflict.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, anti-Bolshevik émigrés brought the Protocols to the West. Soon after, editions circulated across Europe, the United States, South America, and Japan. An Arabic translation first appeared in the 1920s.
Beginning in 1920, auto magnate Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, published a series of articles based in part on the Protocols. The International Jew, the book that included this series, was translated into at least 16 languages. Both Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, later head of the propaganda ministry, praised Ford and The International Jew.
For the Protocols to come out when it did, in the country it did, was particularly ironic. As David Rich points out in his introduction to Hadassa Ben-Itto’s The Lie That Wouldn’t Die: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, “At the time the Protocols was published and popularised in Russia, Jews were fleeing the Tsar in their hundreds of thousands to escape murderous pogroms and growing discrimination. They were hardly in a position to manipulate or control the country they were trying to leave. . . . They were the very opposite of the omnipotent puppeteers depicted in this bizarre hoax.”
This past June, the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University held a symposium on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: 120 years of Antisemitic Propaganda.” One of the panelists, Izabella Tabarovsky of the Wilson Center, said that while antisemitism and anti-Zionism are not the same, in practice, “most of the time, they are. They are the same in the most critical way possible because both lead to antisemitic outcomes for Jews. There is a reason for that, and the reason is that the kind of anti-Zionism that we hear today that dominates the discourse today on the left very much relies on the tropes and ideas of antisemitic conspiracy theory as laid out in the Protocols of Zion.”
The symposium was held four months before the October 7 attacks, but we see now, embedded among the hundreds of thousands of well-meaning people demanding a ceasefire in Gaza, staunch anti-Semites and terrorist apologists disseminating Protocols-inspired anti-Jewish propaganda: that Jews control the media, that “globalists” run the international banking system, that George Soros pays a whole lot of people to do his bidding, and so on.
To reiterate: Protocols is a work of fiction. It has zero basis in reality. The satirical work it’s stolen from doesn’t mention Jews at all. And it’s not like its hoax status was some recent discovery. The Times of London, foreshadowing Snopes, debunked the book as “clumsy plagiarism” in 1921—more than a century ago.
And yet, despite it being demonstrably false, the Protocols had enormous influence over one of the wealthiest capitalists in America and the Nazis he so admired. (Some things, alas, never change.)
Nine years ago, a spokesman from Hamas went on TV in Lebanon and said, in words he appeared to believe: “We all remember how the Jews used to slaughter Christians, in order to mix their blood in their holy matzos. This is not a figment of imagination or something taken from a film. It is a fact, acknowledged by their own books and by historical evidence.”
It is not acknowledged by Jewish books. It is not acknowledged by historical evidence. It’s make-believe.
And this is from Article 32 of the Hamas Charter:
The Zionist plan is limitless. After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying.
Hamas, like so many of the neo-Nazis amplified by Elon Musk on X, is basing its antisemitic platform on the deliberate, batshit lies of 1) a roving, raving 12th century celibate and 2) some third-rate Rasputin.
Like any disease, hatred spreads. Antisemitism expands to include antipathy toward any number of minority populations. And as Ruth Ben-Ghiat and other scholars of fascism point out, it is a sure warning sign of encroaching authoritarianism.
“Antisemitism is the canary in the coal mine in the fight for democracy,” said Aaron Keyak, Deputy Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism at the U.S. Department of State, at the Georgetown symposium. “What happens when the antisemites think that the Jew is behind the media, behind our banks, behind our government—that these actors, these leaders in the political realm or the financial realm or in media are being controlled by the Jew—it’s destabilizing to a society. You don’t think that the leaders are accountable to you or to anyone else and are simply being controlled by this nefarious ‘other,’ the Jew.”
Lack of accountability, more than anything, erodes our collective faith in democratic government. “Once you believe that these leaders can’t be held accountable to the voters or other modes of accountability,” Keyak continues, “you don’t believe in your democracy anymore. The anti-Semite, fundamentally, in the way that they see the world, does not have confidence in the way that normal people would look at democracy.”
Photo credit: Elon Musk interviewed by Chris Anderson at TED2017 - The Future You, April 24-28, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED.
This is a great article that informed much of this section of my piece.