Sarna: How antisemitic conspiracy theories fueled hostage-taking at synagogue

Of Brandeis University

The man who took a rabbi and three congregants hostage at a Texas synagogue on Jan. 15 believed Jews controlled governments in nations about the globe, including the U.S.

He told his hostages, as one revealed in a media interview, that since Jews “control the world,” they could use their power to free Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani convicted in 2010 of trying to kill American soldiers and blow up the Statue of Liberty. The hostage-taker demanded to speak to New York’s Central Synagogue rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, aiming to persuade her to use her “influence” to get Siddiqui released.

By invoking Jewish “power,” the gunman, later identified as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, seemed to echo Siddiqui’s antisemitic views — specifically the view that Jews were responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and had infiltrated American political and nongovernmental organizations. Based on that belief, Siddiqui demanded at her 2010 trial in New York that Jews be excluded from her jury.

As a scholar of Jewish history, I know myths concerning Jewish power and control have circulated in America since before the Civil War and continue to do so today. They provide a simple, albeit imaginary, explanation for bewildering social changes people find hard to explain and confront.

As immigration brought Jews to America's shores in larger numbers, particularly from Russia, one of the first overtly antisemitic books ever published in the United States emerged. It was Telemachus Thomas Timayenis’ 1888 tome, “The American Jew: An Exposé of His Career,” which claimed Jews had “acquired a hold on this country such as they never secured on any nation in Europe.”

Actually, Jews accounted for less than 1% of the population at that time — much less. But Timayenis, seen as the “the father of anti-Semitic publishing in America,” claimed the banking, clothing and tobacco industries, along with politics and journalism.

Timayenis and his antisemitic books were largely forgotten for almost a century. Now, however, they are readily available again through the internet.

A republication of one of his books carries a preface by J.B. Stoner, the neo-Nazi convicted of the 1958 bombing of Bethel Church in Birmingham, Alabama.“

The Jews are embarked upon a plan to conquer the world and to rule over all other races and nations,” it warns darkly. “By understanding the evil and aggressive nature of the Jew, we White Christians can better protect ourselves … It is our duty to publish this book for the benefit of the White Aryan Race in America and throughout the world.”

In the 20th century, the publication that did the most to disseminate the myth of a Jewish conspiracy to control the world is a forgery known as “The Protocols of the Elders the Zion.” Described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as “the most notorious and widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times,” it first appeared in Russia as part of a disinformation propaganda campaign mounted by monarchists to prop up embattled Tsar Nicholas II.

Subsequently, the forgery went through numerous translations and adaptations, reaching every corner of the globe. Its explosive allegations continue to influence people to this day.

The Protocols purport to be the minutes of late 19th-century meetings attended by world Jewish leaders known as the Elders of Zion, who are keen to take over the world.

The Protocols set forth different stages of the supposed behind-the-scenes Jewish plan for global conquest, everything from manipulating the economy and controlling the press to promoting liberalism and pornography. They even articulate an ultimate goal — re-establishing the line of King David.

The Protocols form a classic conspiracy theory. The work provides a compelling, easy-to-understand explanation that connects a wide range of disparate phenomena roiling society.

The Protocols join other conspiracy theories in insisting nothing happens by accident and things seldom are what they seem. Conspiracy theorists believe that powerful controlling forces — in this case, the Jews — shape and manipulate events behind the scenes.

Precisely because they offer a simple explanation — “the Jews are responsible” — and flatter believers into thinking they possess secret knowledge others lack, conspiracy theories like the Protocols are notoriously difficult to disprove.

After all, individual Jews, much like their non-Jewish counterparts, may well have engaged in some of the activities the Protocols and similar conspiracy theories describe. And the phenomena recounted — social, economic, political and cultural changes transforming the world — are certainly real enough.

For many conspiracy-minded folks, that is validation enough.

Beyond the Protocols, a wide range of other conspiracy theories involving Jews have circulated over the past century. The great automaker Henry Ford, influenced in part by the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” devoted extensive resources in the 1920s to proving that the “international Jew” was the “world’s foremost problem,” responsible for ills ranging from urbanization to modern music and dance, which he hated.

Ford apologized in 1927 “for resurrecting exploded fictions, for giving currency to … gross forgeries, and for contending that the Jews have been engaged in a conspiracy.” Yet “The International Jew” remains available for purchase around the world, and many still download it from the internet and take its content seriously.

Conspiracy theorists have often targeted the Rothschilds, a famous family of Jewish bankers in Europe.

The Niles Weekly Register, perhaps the most widely circulated magazine of its time, reported in 1835 that “the descendants of Judah” held Europe “in the hollow of their hands.” It ascribed particular power to members of the Rothschild banking family, claiming that even in a Christian world, nothing ever moves "without their advice.”

Almost 200 years later, echoes of the “Rothschild myth” live on in Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s infamous 2018 post alleging that Jewish space lasers owned by the Rothschilds were used to set California’s forest fires in order to clear land for a lucrative high-speed rail line.

In recent years, billionaire George Soros, a Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist of Jewish origin, has been blamed for a host of what the extreme far right perceive to be society’s ills. These conspiracy theories falsely attribute to Soros the anti-Trump protests, refugee problems in Europe and the Black Lives Matter movement, among others.

Anti-Catholic, anti-Masonic, anti-Mormon and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories have attracted legions of followers as well.

In the Islamist circles from which Aafia Siddiqui and the Texas hostage-takers sprang, however, the favorite conspiratorial target remains the Jews. Attacks on “Jews,” “Jewish power” and the supposed Zionist control of America are commonplace.

The reason has almost nothing to do with real Jews and a great deal to do with a phenomenon that historian David Brion Davis noticed some 60 years ago: In environments shaken by “bewildering social change,” people find “unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.” 



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