(JTA) — Earlier this month — or 16 years ago in Trump years — the White House disinvited a cartoonist named Ben Garrison to a meeting of right-wing media influencers. It had been pointed out that Garrison had once drawn a cartoon that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.
The cartoon depicts two administration officials being manipulated by a puppeteer labeled “George Soros,” who is in turn having his strings pulled by a puppeteer labeled “Rothschild.”
Soros, the Jewish financier, often figures in far-right anti-Jewish conspiracy theories. But he also spends millions promoting liberal causes, so I suppose demonizing him can be construed as something other than anti-Semitic. But the Rothschilds, the famed European Jewish banking family and target of anti-Semitic fantasias since the 19th century, are barely relevant today. The only people talking about them as a potent political force are anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.
Garrison disagrees. He told my colleague Josefin Dolsten that the Rothschilds were “instrumental in the behind-the-scenes creation of the Federal Reserve” (they weren’t) and thus, according to the logic of the cartoon, ultimately responsible for the “globalists” who are undermining Trump.
“All of this is not conspiracy theory, it is historical fact,” he said. “Yet nowadays anyone who even mentions the ‘R’ word is smeared as anti-Semitic.”
I have no doubt the cartoon is anti-Semitic. As for Garrison, who can say. Because I think we have come to a point where anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic tropes have become part of the political discourse, and are being adopted by people who may not even understand the vicious precedents for such words and imagery.
Is this good news, when what sound like anti-Semitic messages are so divorced from their original targets they stop being about Jews?
Perhaps. I suspect, however, there is an insidious mainstreaming of toxic ideas that undermines our ability to call out anti-Semitism when we see it.
Almost 30 years after the Holocaust, the Austrian Jewish journalist Paul Lendvai described the anti-Jewish obsessions of post-war Communist leaders as “anti-Semitism without Jews.”
In 1980, writing about Austria, the sociologist Bernd Marin took this a step further, writing about “anti-Semitism without anti-Semites.” Average Austrians understood it was socially and politically unacceptable to express hatred for Jews after the Shoah. But people still held on privately to what Marin called “anti-Semitic mystifications” that were embedded in the collective unconscious.
Today we can talk about “anti-Semitism without anti-Semitic intent.” In recent years, Jews have seen fringe and mainstream politicians use anti-Semitic tropes even as they proclaim their devotion to Jews and Israel. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign warned about a global financial conspiracy by elites, and singled out four Jews in their closing ad. Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted that it was “all about the Benjamins baby,” using slang to suggest that campaign donations bought U.S. support for Israel. Last week, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri gave a speech decrying the “cosmopolitan elite” whose members live in the United States but “identify as ‘citizens of the world.’ They run businesses or oversee universities here, but their primary loyalty is to the global community.’”
In each of these instances the speakers have plausible deniability. Didn’t Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein represent elite, moneyed interests at the expense of the little guy? Doesn’t campaign spending distort public policy? Hawley said he was drawing on mainstream political science, not age-old conspiracy theories starring Jews, and gave his talk at a conference whose organizers are both Jewish.
Those accused of anti-Semitic dog-whistling also often point to their own affinity for Jews. After all, say Trump’s defenders, if the president allegedly trafficked in anti-Semitic memes and tropes, what accounts for his unflinching support for Israel and his administration’s pledge to combat anti-Semitism? And aren’t his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren Jewish?
If Hawley was tapping latent anti-Semitism in his “cosmopolitan elites” speech, why would he go on to talk about his commitment to “the Jewish people, their greatness, their history, their safety, and the state of Israel”?
And in an op-ed this week accusing Trump of racism, Omar wrote that the “chants of ‘Jews will not replace us,’ shouted at a rally in Charlottesville in 2017 by white supremacists, whom this president tacitly accepted, are a direct attack on the values of religious freedom central to the founding of our nation.”
Whether you accept these explanations and protestations depends a lot on your own politics, I’m guessing. Omar apologized for her “Benjamins” tweet and thanked the “Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” which suggests she wasn’t familiar with centuries-old canards that rapacious Jews manipulate governments. If you are no fan of Omar, you probably don’t believe her, just like Trump’s critics don’t believe he and his circle don’t understand the painful history of the tropes they have used. Partisans on both sides have weaponized anti-Semitism in attacks on the other, and tend to be more forgiving of the bigotry heard on their own side.
You don’t have to take sides to wonder whether, given the rise in actual threats to Jews, including blatant attacks on social media, cemetery vandalism and murder, we shouldn’t be distracted by ambiguous and perhaps unintentionally bigoted remarks and tweets. If those who have been accused of trafficking in anti-Semitic memes are so willing to accept and defend us, maybe we should stop complaining about “tropes” and “echoes” and “dog whistles” and focus only on direct, unambiguous threats to the Jews.
The problem is that even if the speakers don’t think they are trafficking in hate, there are plenty of people out there who think otherwise. Internet trolls and lone wolves and bands of unabashed white supremacists don’t care that your argument draws on political science or that you believe your conspiratorial worldview has nothing to do with Jews, especially the ones in your family. The haters just appreciate the boost that their ideas are getting in the real world.
Consider the “Great Replacement,” the once fringe conspiracy theory that insists white people face a demographic “genocide” from non-white and Muslim immigration. Mainstream politicians and pundits offer the “acceptable” version that they are merely defending “European” or “Judeo-Christian” culture. In 2018 Trump warned Europeans that “you are losing your culture” as a result of immigration from Muslim countries.
But the white supremacists who hold by the theory also say the process of replacement is “deliberately engineered and controlled by a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the white race,” as the Anti-Defamation League explains. Those chants of “the Jews will not replace us” at Charlottesville? That’s what the neo-Nazis were going on about. Both the Poway and Pittsburgh shooters espoused a version of replacement theory that blamed Jews.
History tells us what kinds of ideas serve as tinder, and what kinds of words act as the match.
“Anti-Semitism without anti-Semitic intent” is the oxygen that allows noxious ideas to burn on.