Blame It on the Jews: Anti-Semitism and the History of Jewish Conspiracy Theories

Article excerpt

NOT LONG AFTER THE WORLD TRADE Center attacks of September 11, 2001, the Internet teemed with legends and rumors about the cause of the tragedy. An alarming number of these legends implicated Jews in the attacks. The American website Information Times, using misinformation propagated by the Lebanon's Al-Manar Television, claimed that 4,000 Jews were mysteriously absent from their jobs at the World Trade Center on September 11. (1) This fictitious story was a clear attempt to demonstrate Jewish foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks, and possibly even blame them for planning the acts of terrorism as a means of prompting American retaliation against Israel's Muslim enemies. More fantasies about the evil intentions of Jews would follow during the coming months. In March 2002, the Saudi-Arabian daily newspaper Al-Riyadh ran an article by Dr. Umaya Ahmad Al-Jalahma of King Faisal University in Al-Dammam claiming that Jews kill non-Jews and use their blood to make Passover matzos. (2)

To many in the West, these claims are puzzling. However, Western Christian culture was the birthplace for many of the anti-Semitic attitudes currently expressed by Islamic extremists. The claim published in Al-Riyadh that Jews need Gentile blood for rituals, for instance, was popular in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. And even in contemporary Western culture, one occasionally finds hints of Jewish conspiracy theories, such as the common belief that Jews control the media.

The "media control" theory illustrates the difficulties involved in assessing the causes of anti-Semitic ideas. Although Jews represent only about 2% of the American population, they are dramatically prominent in the newspapers, television and film industries. The reason for this is traceable to complex social and historical factors, such as the large numbers of European Jews who arrived in the United States during the formative years of Hollywood, the cultural preferences of Jews for these occupations, and the social desire for Jews to live and work with their friends and relatives. Thus, notions of Jewish "domination" of the media aren't entirely ridiculous, but they are also far from completely rational. Jewish over-representation in the media has certainly not resulted in frequent depictions of specifically Jewish issues on television. Jews working in the media need to appeal to a broad demographic base, and hardly find it prudent to promote pure "Jewish" interests foreign to most members of their target audience. Depictions of Jewish rituals such as hat-mitzvahs and Hanukah celebrations are much less frequent than corresponding depictions of such Christian cultural hallmarks as Christmas parties and church wedding ceremonies.

To realistically assess the causes of anti-Semitic theories, we need to carefully examine the specific times and places in which the theories originated, and avoid comforting oversimplifications of complex issues.

Beginnings: The Christian and Medieval Context

Many ancient peoples such as Egyptians and Romans expressed hostility toward Jews. This hostility could properly be considered anti-semitic when is focused on perceived "Jewish" traits such as exclusiveness. Still most modern anti-Semitic attitudes can be traced to the development and eventual success of the Christian religion, although this does not necessarily indicate that Christianity has been the most important factor determining expressions of anti-Semitism. Jesus was a Jew who claimed that his mission was to fulfill Jewish law, not to replace it. His followers also understood his role in human history in terms of the Jewish scriptures collected in the Septuagint, or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. Christianity, in its early stages, was a fringe religion embraced by small groups of both Jews and Gentiles who saw in Jesus the embodiment of an ideal religious life. (3)

Since Rome had crashed an uprising of Jewish revolutionaries in 70 CE, Christians did not wish to provoke further Roman wrath by publicly blaming the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate for the death of Jesus. …