Discover more from Lucid
Jews as Tricksters and Spreaders of Disease: Antisemitism's New Wave
"A mighty antisemitic storm has broken over us," Alfred Wiener, Deputy Chair of the Central Association of German Citizens of the Jewish Faith, wrote in his 1919 pamphlet Prelude to Pogroms? Newspapers and magazines warned of "the Jewish plague," while "skillfully led organizations" with "unlimited funds" flooded Germany with posters, stickers, and hundreds of leaflets "in print runs of millions."
A witness to things that other Germans were not yet ready to see, Wiener denounced the agitators and militias that invaded the streets, trams, and trains and disrupted public meetings, spreading conspiracy theories about Jews -- all to make sure "the antisemitic seed is widely sown and nurtured."
Wiener's account of how extremists used a wide variety of media to circulate their messages merits our attention. Many people dismissed the Nazi threat because of the sophistication of German culture -- how could those crude ranters and thugs possibly get into power? -- but the scope and variety of German mass communications and visual culture ended up facilitating the spread of extremism.
The Weimar Republic had one of the highest literacy rates in the world (by 1933, when German conservatives appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, the country had more newspapers than Italy, Britain, and France combined). It also had a cutting-edge graphic design and advertising culture, which the Nazis used to their benefit.
A century later, in a different media landscape, antisemitism is again spiking. The rise of authoritarianism, far-right populism, and opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians had already created political environments conducive to anti-Jewish sentiment.
Then the coronavirus pandemic arrived, fostering the perfect social and psychological conditions for old conspiracy theories and propaganda points to be renewed. Jews as untrustworthy enemies in our midst, plotting against us; Jews as diseased carriers of moral and other degeneration; Jews as cheats, tricksters, and killers of Christ; Jews as the not-so-secret controllers of world capital, with George Soros as the latest emblem.
The rise of antisemitic incidents in Germany and Poland is particularly haunting due to those countries' histories as architect and enablers of genocide. It is hard not to think of the past when we hear of fliers found on a train in Cologne blaming Jews for the pandemic (a refrain of the new wave of antisemitism in France, Turkey and Brazil as well), although social media is now the main delivery system for racist content in Germany.
The global right's appropriation of antisemitic symbols, like the yellow star, as symbols of its own imagined victimhood (at the hands of "authoritarian” vaccine and mask mandates) is meant to drain those symbols of their original meaning. That way inconvenient histories of Fascist persecution may be buried - the better to persecute new generations of Jews and other perennially targeted groups (leftists, the LBGTQ+ community, nomadic peoples, and more).
The rewriting of the history of Jewish persecution is particularly advanced in Poland, a country now governed by the right-wing Law and Justice party. 2018 legislation makes anyone who draws attention to Polish Holocaust perpetrators and accomplices liable for charges of libel and slander.
America presents a more complex situation. Antisemitic incidents have increased from 2020 to 2021 - the swastika carved into a State Department elevator this July being one example - after already reaching record levels in 2019. As elsewhere, the pandemic has heightened the need for scapegoats, and the appeal of conspiracy theories like QAnon. Its dogma about cabals controlling the world repurposes propaganda about Jewish domination.
Four years of Donald Trump prepared this situation, starting with his outreach to White extremists when he was the Republican candidate. In one week in January 2016, 62% of his tweets had White supremacist origins or connections. In 2017, his administration released a Holocaust Remembrance statement that did not mention Jews, and he praised the Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville as "very fine people." In 2019 and 2020, playing on the old "Jews have divided loyalties" theme, he let Republican Jews know that he did not really see them as Americans, mentioning "your people" and "your country" when referring to...Israel.
That makes the staunch support Orthodox Jews have shown to Trump all the more shortsighted. Certainly, Orthodox groups felt reassured at the presence of two observant Jews in the former president’s inner circle (his convert daughter Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner) and felt well served by his pro-Israel policies. The pardons he granted to Orthodox Jewish criminals also helped. The Orthodox share a common authoritarian culture and mindset with Trump, and a messianic and apocalyptic belief system that marks his most fervent Christian and conspiracy theorist backers as well.
Yet Jews who continue to back Trump and the GOP might take a cue from the history of Italian Jews under Fascism. Many supported Benito Mussolini for years, thinking he was the "good" authoritarian - persecuting other groups, but not them, unlike Hitler - only to be hit by antisemitic legislation in 1938 and forced into ruin or exile even before World War Two started.
Italian Jews learned the hard way that once violence becomes a legitimized in a country, the roster of "enemies of the people" inevitably expands. When will American Jews who support an increasingly violent and authoritarian Republican party heed the lessons of history?
Alfred Wiener, The Fatherland and the Jews (London, 2021), which reprints Wiener's 1919 and 1924 pamphlets.