Why the Origins of Antisemitism Matter
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. Yes, drawing a straight line between the massacre of 11 Jewish men and women at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend and the anti-Semitic rhetoric and the Trump administration and the pro-Trump media is a fraught affair. Because, after all, blaming Trump for Jew hatred is like blaming him for cancer.
BEN SHAPIRO: We need to get something off the table right away.
BOB GARFIELD: Jewish conservative pundit Ben Shapiro.
BEN SHAPIRO: When an anti-Semitic attack occurs, you generally don't need to bother blaming particular politicians. Anti-Semitism is literally as old as the Jewish people. Literally as old as the Jewish people.
BOB GARFIELD: Shapiro is wrong on the contemporaneous facts, the alleged Pittsburgh shooter directly tied his act to suppose a Jewish culpability for the Central American caravan characterized by Trump and his allies as diseased and criminal invaders. But according to Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, it's also historically untrue. Fergusons work focuses on debunking many of the myths and the myths about the myths about Jews.
LEO FERGUSON: Part of what you're seeing is two different ideas, one that sort of comes from within certain corners of Judaism, especially on the right and one that comes from without. And the one that Shapiro is referring to is the idea that anti-Semitism is almost a force of nature and natural law. Something that is inevitable and immutable. And of course, on the other side you have the sort of erasure of anti-Semitism at all from the acts of violence we have seen so you have, you know, Kellyanne Conway.
KELLYANNE CONWAY: The anti-religiosity in this country is that it's somehow in vogue and funny to make fun of anybody of faith, to consciously be making fun of people who express religion. [END CLIP]
LEO FERGUSON: And of course Trump not mentioning Jews when talking about the Holocaust last year. They're both serving the same purpose, which is to sort of create a vague confusion about the origins of anti-Semitism and of course the purposes of anti-Semitism.
BOB GARFIELD: Now make no mistake, there is a long history to anti-Semitism and it's horrific, but it didn't begin at the beginning.
LEO FERGUSON: So anti-Semitism comes specifically out of Christianity, it comes out of Europe and capitalism or proto-capitalism. You had Jews who were diasporic people who are migrating throughout Europe. And in a set of forces that should be very familiar to anyone watching the very ugly immigration politics of the Trump administration today, you have the idea that folks are competing economically with the Christians who are already there. And so rulers had a huge incentive to bar Jews from owning land and from becoming merchants and tradesmen. And so Jews were forced to find other ways to put food on the table. And you saw them essentially taking jobs that Christians didn't want. There were all of these Christian Catholic prohibitions on handling money, on money lending and so it was very very convenient for Jews to be funneled into those roles. And that's where the basic set of ideas about Jews and money comes from. Of course, the dark side of this was that when things went bad economically or when rulers raised taxes or otherwise oppress their populations, Jews became the targets. They became the scapegoats. And this is the role that Jews have played historically for centuries.
BOB GARFIELD: And on top of that, there were putatively Christ killers so that would make them even greater scapegoats when the economy turns sour.
LEO FERGUSON: Yeah, that's correct. One of the complexities of anti-Semitism is that it takes a bunch of different forms. And so sometimes it can be essentially economic, it can be xenophobic, it can also be religious. And then of course later on you get racialization and so then you get the ideas that Jews are mongrel lesser race. You see that in Nazi ideology.
BOB GARFIELD: One recurring theme continues to be the notion that Jews control the world's economy, that they are natively genius in all matters of money. I'm going to play a little tape from South Park.
KYLE: Dude, we don't have time for your stupid jokes. We're going to die.
CARTMAN: Yes, but can live if you give me that Jew gold. The decision is yours Kyle.
KYLE: You know I don't carry gold in a little bag around my neck Cartman. What do you want from me?
CARTMAN: I want your Jew gold.
KYLE: Ok, fine, here.
CARTMAN: You think I'm stupid. I know that Jews carry fake bags of gold around their necks to keep the real bags of gold around their neck save. Hand over the real Jew gold Kyle. [END CLIP]
LEO FERGUSON: Hahaha.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that's kind of post-modern, that's ironic ridiculing, unfortunately, a very real and deadly trope.
LEO FERGUSON: Yeah and that trope was on full display with the shootings in Pittsburgh and, of course, the bomb scare that we just had. These conspiracy theories go all the way back, again, to medieval Europe. They go back to the idea of the blood libel, which is sort of the original Jewish conspiracy theory. This fakey fake idea that Jews drink the blood of Christians. Fast forward to the 19th century and you have the protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is sort of the modern reincarnation of this old idea. You have a revolutionary movement in Russia in which folks are teaming up to overthrow the czar, sort of been oppressive monarch, and Jews are very much a part of that movement as Jews have often been especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jews have been at the center of movements for social justice in Europe and in the United States. So you have a lot of Jewish leaders in that movement and so the Russian secret police, with the help of a pro-czar propagandists, cook up and then disseminate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is another fakey fake document reporting to be the minutes of a secret Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. And this successfully turns people against Jews. It divides the movement and ultimately crushes the movement.
BOB GARFIELD: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you know, you'd like to think 'well that's a quaint 19th-century smear that was fully debunked and completely eradicated from history.'
LEO FERGUSON: You can buy a copy from street vendors on the streets of New York. I mean, it's everywhere. It's been translated into many languages. Henry Ford famously disseminated it widely in the United States. He was a pretty virulent anti-Semite.
BOB GARFIELD: George Soros is the ultimate villain of the global Jewish conspiracy to pull the strings of our society. Trump used his image in his final campaign ad before the 2016 election as an example of globalists interfering in our affairs.
PRESIDENT TRUMP: For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests, they partner with these people that don't have your good in mind. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD: And only last week, Chris Farrell of Judicial Watch was a guest on Lou Dobbs' show on Fox, claiming that George Soros was working with our own government to bring the Honduran caravan to the border.
CHRIS FARRELL: A lot of these folks also have affiliates who are getting money from the Soros Occupied State Department. [END CLIP]
LEO FERGUSON: George Soros is foreign. He has an accent. He wasn't well-known. And so he's a little bit of a blank slate on which people can project their fears and of course conspiracy theories. And it couldn't simply be that George Soros is doing something that philanthropists around the world do every day and that certainly many Christians have done. They give money to causes that they care about. He's doing something very mundane. But when you add in this anti-Semitic element, you get the sense that there is something inherently illegitimate and unAmerican about his activities. You know, Steven Spielberg is a household name and he's a well-known quantity. And so even though he is a Jew and a Democrat, who gives lots of money to lefty causes, it's hard to portray him as bizarre, strange outsider with nefarious motives. But who's George Soros. He's just a name.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to play you a piece of tape that came from Ben Shapiro once again saying never mind Donald Trump. What about these others.
BEN SHAPIRO: Who do you think has made the world less safe for Jews. President Trump and his winking and nodding at the right or the left, which mainstreams Louis Farrakhan, which mainstreams Linda Sarsour, which mainstreams the BDS movement, which mainstreams wildly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic policies. Which one do you think is more damaging to Jews all across the world and in the United States. [END CLIP]
LEO FERGUSON: It has never been more clear that BDS activists are not what the American Jewish community has to be afraid of. Louis Farrakhan who is a virulent anti-Semite has, you know, no real political power. It has never been more obvious than it is this week that the people who have inflicted the most violence and damage on the American Jewish community and on many other communities for hundreds and, in fact, you know, at this point, you know, a couple of thousand years, are white Christians, primarily men, especially on the right.
BOB GARFIELD: Is it my imagination or is there a bit of reticence on the left to even discussing anti-Semitism. It seems to me that it's somehow deemed awkward.
LEO FERGUSON: For decades virtually the only people talking about anti-Semitism were folks on the right. It was used specifically to defend and support Israel and it was also used to silence criticism of Israel. So you saw a lot of false or inflated charges of anti-Semitism to shut down students for Justice in Palestine or Jewish Voice for Peace or other organizations working in solidarity with Palestinians or to hold Israel accountable. So the sense that both it was associated with the right and that charges of anti-Semitism were somehow, you know, almost always illegitimate or suspect, I think made many folks on the left really reticent to engage. There was a hesitancy and a suspicion about whether anti-Semitism was real, whether it was significant or whether it was basically just right-wing propaganda.
BOB GARFIELD: There's one thing about anti-Semitism that seems to me, different from other forms of oppression. Oppression by its nature tends to be the powerful versus the powerless, whether we're talking about African-Americans or undocumented workers crossing the border for economic opportunity. Jews, on the other hand, have prospered, more or less, in most of the societies where the diaspora has taken them.
LEO FERGUSON: The role that anti-Semitism has played in capitalism has been to create a pressure release valve for people's sense of injustice around capitalism. If you have an economic system that basically requires inequity to function, you need a story for why it's not working well or else people might get the idea that they might want to change the system. So in order for that story to be plausible, you have to have a plausible villain. Most Jews through most of history have been poor and oppressed. But at various times and in a number of these places in which we've lived, you also have Jews who become more assimilated into society, who have more access to wealth and success. And when that begins to happen, it suddenly makes the story that Jews are, in fact, secretly very powerful more plausible.
BOB GARFIELD: Eighty years ago, in the German media, conversations exactly like this were taking place. And then you know what happened. Is there anything that gives you hope that that nightmarish trajectory is not in store for us?
LEO FERGUSON: Oh, I am filled with hope! I'm hopeful because of the outpouring of support and solidarity I've seen from other non-Jewish communities, you know, flooding my inbox and my voicemail and my text messages. This may be new for white Ashkenazi Jews in the US. It is not new for many, many people of color and many other communities that have been facing this kind of oppression for decades, centuries. We have lessons to teach each other and stories to tell each other about how to survive and resist and thrive even when times are scary and dangerous. There is a way forward and the way forward is solidarity and friendship and figuring out the ways in which our interests are actually deeply aligned with one another.
BOB GARFIELD: Leo, thank you.
LEO FERGUSON: Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Leo Ferguson is an organizer for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.