The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders may soon have to confront this anti-Semitic myth

A conspiracy theory dating to the Russian revolution says socialism is a Jewish plot. Expect it to surface in ugly ways.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks at a rally in Des Moines this month. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

As Iowa’s Democratic caucuses approach, polls show that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is gaining traction. Sanders evokes strong reactions from all sides. Supporters see the Jewish democratic socialist as an unapologetic straight shooter who takes uncompromising stands against structural inequality. Detractors criticize his socialist ideology itself or paint Sanders as free-spending and fuzzy on details.

But Sanders could face another kind of attack in a general election — one based not on critiques of his policies or personality but on a much more old-fashioned suspicion. It’s a form of anti-Semitism that was born 100 years ago. If Sanders continues his political momentum, we all may soon confront it again.

The story begins in 1917, when governments around the world were shocked by the fall of the czar and the seizure of power by Russian revolutionaries. As a civil war raged, Russians opposed to the revolution found one of their most powerful rhetorical tools in the Russian Empire’s rich legacy of anti-Semitic teachings.

That’s how the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was born, defined by historian Paul Hanebrink as the belief that communism was a Jewish plot. The idea rapidly crossed borders, as pro-monarchy Russian exiles settled in Berlin, Paris and other European cities. The emigres’ descriptions of a fearsome takeover by Jewish revolutionaries found an eager public reception.

Other influential voices soon joined in, such as the British journalist Robert Wilton, who blamed a “seething mass of Jewish pauperdom” for the Russian Revolution and framed the killing of the czar’s family as an act of Jewish ritual murder.

By 1920, popular interest had ignited a publication boom for “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the Russian hoax that explained modern evils as the result of a vast conspiracy of Jews uniting to subjugate the globe.

The fact that most Bolsheviks were not Jews — nor most Jews Bolsheviks — didn’t matter. The myth resonated powerfully, both for Russian exiles and a wider public anxious about political instability. The image of the bloodthirsty Jewish Bolshevik traveled well, showing up in places as far-flung as Philadelphia, Buenos Aires and Madrid. It took root easily in countries where church teachings and popular lore had long framed the Jews as the corrupting, conspiratorial force behind the world’s evil.

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The trope of the Jewish Bolshevik never functioned independently. It was bound to existing images of Jews sowing chaos, from medieval falsehoods of Jews poisoning wells, to modern fantasies of Jewish bankers and liberals plotting society’s downfall. But the persistence of the Soviet challenge to capitalism gave the notion of the Jewish Bolshevik added currency. Even politicians who considered themselves friends of the Jews considered it fair game to call attention to this “sinister confederacy” of Jews. As British war secretary in 1920, Winston Churchill contrasted “good Jews” with the “International Jews” he imagined plotting to bring about “impossible equality” through a “worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation.” To Churchill, the threat went far beyond Russia; these scheming International Jews had been “the mainspring of every subversive movement” of the 19th century.

As suffering increased worldwide under the Depression, more people joined socialist movements — and fascist ones. Fascist art symbolized the communist threat with larger-than-life Jewish demonic figures presiding over a Russia in flames, its pillars of smoke drifting ever closer to helpless Christian nations. It was largely by sounding alarms about the Judeo-Bolshevik threat that the Nazis rose to power and mobilized for genocide.

In the United States, where the first Red Scare was ramping up in the 1920s, respected leaders subscribed to the Judeo-Bolshevik myth, among them Henry Ford, who introduced it to the public in the anti-Semitic newspapers he gave out at every dealership, and State Department staffers and senior military officers.

As fears of radicals combined with racial pseudoscience of the time, Congress took steps to dramatically curtail immigration. Immigration laws had long discriminated against non-Europeans. Now new legislation was added to keep out racially undesirable Europeans. Members of Congress were particularly anxious about Jews, repeatedly raising concerns about how many were coming into the country.

U.S. officials’ reports to Congress disparaged most immigrants but took special care to catalogue Jews. In Rotterdam, officials had found Russian and Polish Jews “of the usual ghetto type … filthy un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” Diplomatic staff in Poland warned: “The majority of these people belong to the undesirable classes … from whom the present type of political and labor agitators are drawn. … Many bolshevik sympathizers.”

Jewish organizations fought a losing battle against the new immigration restrictions. Even pleas for exemptions for those fleeing religious or political persecution were looked upon with suspicion.

Sen. James Thomas Heflin (D-Ala.), a powerful defender of the Jim Crow social system, argued: “We are face to face with one of the greatest evils that has confronted us in a century. We have reached the point where alien power and influence dares to challenge that of the native stock in our country.”

Heflin warned of a “dangerous and despised element” which “secretly or openly seeks to overthrow the free institutions of America.” In his eyes, the choice was between protecting the United States or allowing it “to become the dumping ground for the scum and refuse of the Old World.” He urged lawmakers to “build a wall against bolshevism, which is seeking to aid a world movement by spreading its poison here.”

Despite the efforts of Jewish organizations, the new immigration restrictions passed. The ramifications for Jews were chilling: Millions were trapped in Europe, captive to the coming genocide.

After World War II, most open expression of anti-Semitism became frowned upon in the United States. But the Judeo-Bolshevik charge lingered: During the Cold War, fear of Jewish communists became the acceptable way to suspect Jews. While many Jewish leftists found themselves in the public eye during the McCarthy era, the dangers also extended to those outside of the political spotlight.

The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, driven by Sen. Patrick McCarran, (D-Nev.), who was obsessed with the threat of Jewish communists, set new precedents for removing citizenship from immigrants who had already achieved it. Observers lamented that the act made it harder for Holocaust survivors to enter the United States than for Nazis. (Indeed, McCarran soon proved willing to help Nazi supporters.)

For Jews, the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism was tinged with tragic irony. Thousands of Jews did initially find inspiration in the Soviet vision of a fair world for everyone, including its promises to undo Russia’s legacy of anti-Semitism.

One Jewish communist captured the sense of relief and hope that many felt early in the Soviet era: “There was a tremendous joy and a tremendous friendship between the Gentiles and the Jews. We thought that this was like the Messiah came.”

Yet over time, Soviet actions showed precisely how little power Jews had over the state: Soviet leaders systematically repressed Yiddish culture, lost interest in interrupting popular violence against Jews and eliminated Jewish leaders through exile, secret executions and show trials. Even a revolutionary society — one that had rebuilt itself from scratch in opposition to the traditional dominance of the Russian Orthodox Church — carried with it the anti-Semitic ideas that had shaped Russian culture for centuries.

The United States is not Russia or Europe, where, for centuries, discrimination against Jews was official policy and churches were privileged arms of government. Americans have a history of racism all our own. But the cultures of those lands shaped the people who colonized and settled this country. As white nationalism resurges in the United States, Eric Ward has pointed out, anti-Semitism continues to form its ideological and strategic core.

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If there is a Jewish candidate come November — even one very different from Sanders, such as former New York mayor and billionaire Mike Bloomberg — understanding the peculiar contours of anti-Semitism will be a critical asset for voters. Biases against other groups, such as African Americans, indigenous people or Latinos, have tended to paint them as morally flawed or culturally inferior. These tropes serve to justify robbing them of power: stealing their labor or their land, withholding public services from them or profiting from their incarceration. But anti-Semitism is based on inflating Jews’ imagined power. It describes Jews as the ultimate masterminds, in league together to dominate the world’s unsuspecting non-Jews.

What shape might this view take in a general election? Anti-Semites might not openly name Jews as the enemy. They might more subtly urge voters to “fight back” against the shadowy forces manipulating the little guy, such as George Soros, “globalists” or international bankers. Or they might grow more explicit, turning Sanders’s powerful criticisms of a rigged economy around to argue that Democrats’ messages of equality are a ruse. In the eyes of anti-Semites, Jews are the ones rigging things behind the scenes, whether they are capitalists like Bloomberg or socialists like Sanders. Among the most overt anti-Semites, the rhetoric of Judeo-Bolshevism is already being used to defend the incumbent president. Florida-based pastor Rick Wiles, who received White House press credentials last week to cover the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and thanked Trump for inviting him there, has blamed Trump’s impeachment on a “Jew coup,” part of a takeover of the United States by “a Jewish cabal, a Bolshevik revolution.”

Sanders’s supporters think his outsider appeal can bring in disaffected voters. But anti-Semitism says that it is non-Jews who have been made outsiders, and that taking the country back requires uniting against Jews.

In an economy where more people feel like outsiders than insiders, this is a message with dangerous appeal — and Jews aren’t the only ones at risk. The Judeo-Bolshevist myth doesn’t just preach that Jews are bad; it says that the search for “impossible equality” is itself morally suspect. The reality is that defending Jews and defending the right of all people to fight for a fair economy will be one struggle.

Want to fight anti-Semitism? Here's one easy way.

Anti-Semitism poses a threat to Democrats in 2020. The answer is not to hide from it. When anti-Semitism increases, even non-Jews can’t escape it. Just ask Franklin D. Roosevelt, who presided during the last historic rise of American anti-Semitism. Roosevelt wasn’t Jewish, but that didn’t protect him from consistent rumors that he was secretly a Jew or that he was a puppet of his Jewish advisers. Nor was this phenomenon limited to the 1930s — look at the anti-Semitic rhetoric used in 2016 against Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, both by Republican candidate Donald Trump and his supporters.

Americans will need a candidate who can slay this dragon, a leader who understands that the answer to both anti-Semitism and inequality in America is to face them head-on. Such a candidate will need supporters who grasp how anti-Semitism works in America: its deep roots, its power to divide movements and its strategic role in silencing people who know how possible equality really is.

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