If conspiracy theories were truth, Jews would have an almost unfathomable amount of power — to control the world’s finances, the federal government, Hollywood, the media and even the weather.
Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories blame Jews — or stand-in words that are dog whistles for Jews like “the Rothschilds,” “globalists” or Jewish billionaire investor “George Soros” — for influencing world events to their advantage. And they grabbed the spotlight once more this month when District of Columbia Council member Trayon White Sr. said “the Rothschilds” were controlling the weather. Earlier he had said that the wealthy Jewish banking family controlled the World Bank and federal government.
Where do these conspiracy theories come from? Who are the people espousing them and how do they spread?
In the case of the Rothschilds, their basis as the subject of conspiracy theories began in the 1800s with Mayer Amschel Rothschild, who was born in the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and became the banker of a local nobleman. With Rothschild’s five sons, a European banking dynasty was born.
The first prominent conspiracy theory about the Rothschilds appeared in 1843, when Nathan Rothschild, who founded the family’s London branch, was falsely accused of making a killing on the stock market because he had advance word of Napoleon’s 1815 defeat at Waterloo. He didn’t, and he hadn’t, but the myth persisted.
“They never die,” said Michael Barkun, professor emeritus of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, who studies conspiracy theories. “They have remarkable resilience. Which is why an image like the Rothschilds’ alleged control of everything resonates despite the fact that the Rothschilds banking dynasty has long since [declined].”
The roots of modern anti-Semitic conspiracy theories can largely be traced back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, said Marilyn Mayo, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. The Protocols, a fabricated Russian document that outlined a plan for Jewish global domination, was hugely influential before World War II, especially after Henry Ford funded a printing of 500,000 copies in the 1920s.
While the Protocols is still referred to today, many current anti-Semitic conspiracy theory devotees today have been influenced by the work of Kevin MacDonald, a former professor of psychology at California State University-Long Beach, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project for Southern Poverty Law Center.
MacDonald wrote a trilogy of books outlining his argument that Jews have developed a genetic disposition that causes them to undermine white, European societies in an effort to solidify Jewish power.
MacDonald puts a faux-academic sheen on what Beirich referred to as “just conspiracy theories on steroids.” MacDonald is associated with a number of white nationalist-fronted think tanks and publications like Richard Spencer’s National Policy Institute.
“The theories even from today are based on pretty basic ideas from long ago about Jews,” Beirich said.
Both Mayo and Beirich said the internet and increasing polarization have been key factors in spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Mayo pointed to YouTube, where thousands of videos espousing these ideas can be viewed, despite the platform’s recent crackdown.
A recent ADL report found a nearly 60 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents from 2016 to 2017 nationally. Mayo and Beirich also reported anecdotally seeing the spread of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories during and since the 2016 election. There is generally a sense that anti-Semites feel emboldened, they said. The 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, where attendees chanted “Jews will not replace us,” is the most notable example.
“There’s a feeling among anti-Semites that they are able to express their views openly,” Mayo said, adding that they are trying to “put their ideas out into the mainstream.”
And the way they’re entering the mainstream is through coded language, Beirich said. Instead of blaming Jews directly, the theories will jump from openly anti-Semitic websites to anti-government websites with “Jews” replaced by “globalists” or George Soros as a stand in. The Hungarian-American businessman and investor, who is Jewish, is a frequent target of rightwing conspiracy.
“It’s not just anti-Semites who are pushing these ideas,” Beirich said. “People don’t realize ‘the globalists’ is a code word for ‘the Jews,’ so people who would otherwise be put off by anti-Semitism are brought in.”
While anti-Semitic conspiracy theories usually circulate among white nationalist groups, many of whom identify with the new moniker alt-right, there is also a small contingent of African Americans who subscribe to some of these beliefs. They include the Nation of Islam led by Louis Farrakhan, who has espoused numerous anti-Semitic conspiracy theories in the past.
“Here’s a second strain of anti-Semitism we don’t talk about as much as neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” Beirich said. “It’s a very small segment of the black population, but it’s there.”
It’s easy to dismiss people who believe conspiracy theories as “crazy,” but Barkun cautioned against that. They’re not different from anyone else. There’s no one characteristic that they all share. Instead, believing in a conspiracy theory gives people a sense of superiority and an aha! moment — something everyone is susceptible to.
“In a strange way, they are psychologically comforting to people,” he said. “They make the world seem ordered. They make the world make sense when you have an explanation for the evil or issues of the world that don’t otherwise have a source.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.