The disturbing resurgence of antisemitic conspiracy theories
Antisemitic incidents in the UK reached an all-time high in the UK in 2021. Social media has helped breathe new life into age-old stereotypes
Late last year, Malik Faisal Akram travelled from the UK all the way to Dallas with the intention of taking Jewish people hostage in a synagogue. He bought himself a gun and, on 15 January, enacted his plan at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
Fortunately the hostages escaped unharmed. But why did Akram fly 4,500 miles to take Jews hostage, when he lived on the doorstep of Britain’s second-biggest Jewish community in Manchester?
The answer lies in the murky world of antisemitic conspiracy theories, and a centuries-old belief in mysterious Jewish power that can still motivate people to kill.
Akram was trying to secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui from a Texas prison. Siddiqui, who was jailed for 86 years in 2010 for attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan, had a long association with al-Qaeda. There have been several previous attempts by terrorist groups to obtain her release, including one 2013 plot to kidnap Jews in Nepal as bargaining chips.
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However, having flown to Texas where Siddiqui is imprisoned, Akram did not take hostages in a government building, or a church, or some random shop or restaurant. He wanted Jewish hostages, because he believed that Jews controlled the US and had the power to release Siddiqui.
Other terrorist attacks on Jews in recent years have also been fuelled by antisemitic conspiracy theories. Robert Bowers, who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018, believed that Jews were to blame for non-white immigration into the United States. The following year, Stephan Balliet murdered two people after attacking a synagogue in Halle, Germany. In a short video he made of the attack, Balliet explained that the Jews were responsible for feminism.
Three terrorists attacking three different synagogues on two continents in the past four years, all motivated to violence by conspiracist beliefs about Jews. Bowers and Balliet were neo-Nazis while Akram was a jihadist, but they had a shared belief in where real power lies in this world: with the Jews.
This is the backdrop to the year-on-year increases in antisemitism in Britain recorded by my organisation, the Community Security Trust (CST). Five of the past six years have seen record annual totals for antisemitic hate incidents reported to us from across the Jewish community.
Every year, there is a different proximate cause for the increase. In 2021 it was a large spike in attacks, abuse and threats directed at British Jews during and after the conflict in Israel and Gaza in May. In previous years it was arguments over antisemitism in the Labour Party. But most people who oppose Israel don’t go out and shout abuse at Jews and nor did most supporters of Jeremy Corbyn.
The immediate trigger in any given year is often just an excuse used by antisemites to express their hatred, and to do so in a moment when they feel there is a permissive atmosphere and an opportunity to get away with it. People driving through Jewish neighbourhoods in the UK shouting ‘Free Palestine’ at visibly Jewish people on the street aren’t doing anything for the Palestinians. They are just getting their kicks from harassing British Jews.
Similarly, the person who daubed ‘Kikes’, ‘Free Palestine’ and a swastika on the front door of a synagogue in Norwich last May probably doesn’t actually care whether Palestine is going to be freed. They just know that, along with swastikas and racist insults, that is what you paint on a synagogue door to make Jews feel scared.
In recent months, London has seen two violent assaults on Jews and a bus full of Jewish children attacked
Conspiracist antisemitism is found across the political spectrum. For every left-winger who believes there is a well-funded Zionist lobby inventing fake smears of antisemitism to prevent a socialist government, you will find a comparable right-winger who holds George Soros responsible for immigration, Black Lives Matter, globalisation and whatever else can be blamed on the spectre of a hidden Jewish financier pulling everyone’s strings.
These conspiracy theories have been supercharged in recent years. The rise of the QAnon movement and claims of a stolen US presidential election were quickly followed by a surge of conspiracism about the COVID-19 pandemic. According to research by anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate in 2020, this has had a particular impact on younger people. Their poll found that those aged between 25 and 34 are most likely to believe conspiracy theories about COVID, including about vaccines, and about Satanic elite cults. They are also five times as likely as 65-74-year-olds to believe that “Jews have disproportionate control of powerful institutions, and use that power for their own benefit and against the good of the general population.”
Younger people growing up in diverse Britain are supposed to be less racist than their elders, but Hope Not Hate’s research suggests the opposite is true when it comes to antisemitism. CST’s antisemitic incident data for 2021 showed that the proportion of incident offenders described as minors almost doubled from 2020, with a record number of incidents involving schools and school students.
Tackling this is a vast challenge. Social media obviously plays a central role in the popularity of conspiracy theories, but even with government regulation, it will be difficult to shut that particular stable door.
We might like to think that medieval superstitions are no longer relevant in our modern, high-tech world. In a time where racism is measured by unconscious biases, it would be remiss to ignore the deep roots that anti-Jewish stereotypes have in our culture. Learning how to recognise these myths and tropes is a first step to challenging them and reducing their power to incite yet more hatred.
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