During Shabbat morning prayer services at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Tex., Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let in a man who was asking for help. The man soon turned a gun on the rabbi, holding him and three other congregants hostage in a harrowing 11-hour ordeal. He ordered the rabbi to call the leader of Central Synagogue in New York City, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, and demand that she free a convicted terrorist serving an 86-year sentence.
The idea that a rabbi could overturn a criminal conviction at the drop of a hat is such a stereotype of a stereotype that it’s almost comical. And yet it is precisely this type of absurd conspiratorial thinking that presents the greatest threat to Jewish lives.
“This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Cytron-Walker told a reporter at the Forward. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”
This weekend’s Texas hostage situation highlights the deadliest threat to Jews today: the myth of Jewish power. The conspiracy theory that Jews are uniquely evil and influential has led to the spilling of Jewish blood since at least the Middle Ages and heavily influenced the Nazi ideology that left 11 million dead, including 6 million Jews. But it isn’t just systematic use of the trope for political ends, on the level of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” that Jews should fear. Even the sort of casual “jokes” that spread online in extremist circles can be deadly.
“Somebody might think that they’re just making a comment, or just making a joke,” Cytron-Walker said. “Unfortunately, someone, somewhere, is going to take that hatred and they’re going to go to a dangerous place with it.”
While conspiratorial-minded politicians asserting that Jews control the weather or space lasers might seem easy to dismiss, the idea that Jews control society is spreading — in a way that often looks like a virus — and inspiring violent antisemites. In Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., Jersey City, N.J., and Monsey, N.Y., we've seen this thinking turn deadly.
Most antisemitic hate crimes reported in this country are thankfully nonviolent — vandalism and property crime rather than assault or murder. But an overwhelming amount of online vitriol — transcending every political and identitarian line — consists of virulent antisemitism.
During the 14th century, Jews were accused of spreading the Black Plague as a way to usurp Christian civilization. During the current pandemic, posters on neo-Nazi blogs, Louis Farrakhan acolytes, an antisemitic pastor and even a major GOP donor have all shared modern versions of this conspiracy theory, suggesting that Jews are somehow attempting to “euthanize” or “sterilize” non-Jews with the coronavirus vaccines — or, conversely, of being behind the anti-vaccine movement.
Those who study online hate using epidemiological methods have shown that particularly during periods of instability or transitions of power (such as the enduring pandemic or in the run-up to presidential elections), antisemitic rhetoric and conspiracy theories of Jewish power rise to a fever pitch. Online, and often disguised as an attack on an individual, like George Soros or Jared Kushner, these ideas, sometimes amplified by state actors, infect and inspire white nationalists, Black nationalists and Islamist extremists alike.
The man awaiting trial on charges in the killing of 11 Jews worshiping in a Pittsburgh synagogue ranted about a Jewish “infestation” in the United States and the humanitarian group HIAS bringing in refugees to “kill our people,” justifying his 2018 attack on those praying in a house of worship with a refusal to “sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
In 2019, the Poway gunman who killed one and injured three worshipers at a synagogue told a 911 operator that he did so to “[defend] our nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.” Just months later, two gunmen associated with the antisemitic Black Hebrew Israelites opened fire at a small kosher grocery in Jersey City, killing four people and injuring three more. Weeks later, a man stabbed several attendees of a Hasidic rabbi’s Hanukkah party, injuring four and killing one. His journal questioned why people mourn for antisemitism “when there is Semitic genocide.”
None of these attacks were a coincidence, but rather the fruit of years of antisemitic conspiracy mongering online, particularly within identitarian groups. According to analysis from the Network Contagion Research Institute, the Pittsburgh attack in particular correlated with a “high volume of Soros-related anti-Jewish conspiracy memes,” amplified by Russian state actors, alleging that “George Soros and Jewish organizations were importing migrants to influence the 2018 midterm elections.” Similar themes have continued to metastasize at alarming rates ever since.
Last weekend in Texas, we saw these same themes once again. One of the four hostages said their captor was ranting and yelling that “Jews control the world, Jews control the media, Jews control the banks,” and “Jews control everything.”
“This guy was not the typical guy who comes in and just wants to kill Jews and comes in guns blazing and kills everybody,” he added. “He did what he did because of the tropes — they are ancient, they go on, they continue.”
While we often rush to characterize these attacks as emanating from the “right” or “left,” this is not a helpful impulse. Antisemitism transcends such binaries. Reducing the conspiracy theory to a political argument only makes combating it harder and can blind people to antisemitism when it is advanced by those in their own circles. Instead, we must attack the problem at its roots. Rather than looking for political solutions or pointing fingers across the aisle, we should be combating the myth of Jewish power.
There’s no way to reason with it — it’s pointless to try to demonstrate that no, actually, Jews don’t control all that much. More effectively, we should call it what it is: a conspiracy theory. And scream of its dangers from the rooftops.
We need better and smarter content moderation on mainstream social media platforms, informed by our understanding of how these memes manifest and spread. This will not only keep platforms from being unwitting vehicles of these conspiracy theories, but also help law enforcement and Jewish community officials look for spikes to detect when attacks might be coming.
While the frequency is overwhelming, there are reasons to be optimistic. Unlike in the Middle Ages or Nazi Germany, the enemy for American Jews now is not our government.
After the hostage situation, a founding member of Congregation Beth Israel, Anna Salton Eisen, reflected that she is grateful that the response to antisemitism today — and the strong relationship between law enforcement and the Jewish community — looks little like what she experienced in Poland during the horrors of the recent past.
“The Holocaust was a government-sponsored systematic destruction of a people,” she said. “And I have to say that people have asked me, ‘Are you more afraid now?’ And I’m like, ‘No. I feel, really, better.’ Because I know that if I’m in trouble, they’re coming to help me.”
Blessedly, American Jews have institutions of our own — as well as partners within government and law enforcement — who are eager to address the rise of violent antisemitism. The more we start viewing and treating this phenomenon as the consequence of a conspiracy theory, the more effectively we can do so.