Antisemitism Is a Threat to Us All — And to Democracy

The danger in antisemitic conspiracy theories lies not only in the direct threat they pose to Jewish communities, but also in the way fascists and authoritarians have used them as tools to undermine democracy.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Fighting antisemitism is important because it has long been a powerful tool used by fascists and authoritarians to undermine democracy. In the U.S., that has been especially true beginning in the 20th Century, when Jewish migration inspired vigorous antisemitism alongside anti-Catholic nativism. During the 1920s, this racist movement in the U.S. led to the targeting, harassment, and deportation of Jewish and Eastern European socialists and intellectuals by the federal government. It also helped inspire the racist Immigration Act of 1924 designed to prevent Jewish and Catholic immigration to guarantee that racialized groups could never hold power and that the U.S. would forever remain a white ethnostate.

The Tree of Life shooter espoused an antisemitic version of the “white genocide” conspiracy theory that is among a whole host of antisemitic conspiracy theories promoted by the Republican Party in its “globalist,” “antifa,” and QAnon conspiracies. The basic logic of these racist conspiracy theories is that a shadowy cabal headed by Jews (often George Soros) is behind a plot to destroy “traditional” white America; this is a direct descendant of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic conspiracy that became an important part of Nazi propaganda in the 1930s.

While these conspiracy theories are bogus and absurd — democracy is obviously not a Jewish trick but a struggle towards a better future for all — antisemitic lies take aim at the institutions that ought to create a free and fair society for everyone. 

READ: When America Refused To Hold White Supremacist Terrorists Accountable, It Made Itself Into A Klan Country 

The danger in antisemitic conspiracy theories lies not only in the direct threat they pose to Jewish communities, but also in the way fascists and authoritarians have used them as tools to undermine democracy. The Jim Crow regime gives a decent indication of how these worked in the U.S., with similar mechanisms targeting Black, Asian, and Jewish Americans along with other ethnic groups that varied based on local demographics. These led to the targeting and persecution of Jews in New York, where the police commissioner claimed that they were responsible for half of all crime, charges similar to those levied at Black Americans in the Deep South and Asian Americans in the western U.S.

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An excerpt from a New York Times report on the statements and tactics of antisemitic New York Police Commissioner Theodore Bingham. Bingham’s statements coincided with a rise in eugenic public policy that reconsecrated the U.S. as a white ethnostate, enshrined in the racist Immigration Act of 1924 that restricted immigration to northern European countries. “The Jews and Gen. Bingham,” New York Times, September 16, 1908, p. 8.

As a historian who studies white supremacy, its impact on the state, and ways to combat it, it is clear not only that antisemitism harms Jewish communities, which it does, but that it is almost universally tied to larger efforts to remake the body politic. We can look not only at the eugenic ethnostate of Jim Crow as an expression of this principle, but also as one that shows its reach in the ways that it inspired the Nuremberg Laws and “final solution” in Nazi Germany.

And in fact, this point that antisemitism undermines democratic protections more broadly is not lost on Jewish civil rights activists themselves — either historically or in the present — who have been among the most outspoken civil rights activists of the last century. 

The Shifting Boundaries of White Supremacy

The nature and meaning of antisemitism is bound up with white supremacy, the dominant ideology governing immigration, citizenship, and the state in the U.S. As my friend Eric Morgenson argued after the Tree of Life massacre in 2018, “America’s racial color line generally put Jews in the ‘white enough’ category.” For Morgenson, the Trump administration and the racist conspiracy theories animating today’s GOP caused a critical rupture between American Jews and whiteness, sparking a rise in antisemitism “during a nationalist presidential administration with little patience for minority rights.” 

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A banner of George Washington hangs between two swastikas at the Nazi “Pro America Rally” in Madison Square Garden on February 20, 1939. Photo via WNYC

When white Americans have shifted the historical boundaries of whiteness — and especially when they have embraced overt antisemitism — that has historically led to mass violence against racialized groups.

We saw the relationship between antisemitism and antidemocracy after the rise of the second Klan in a wave of racist hysteria, which inspired lynchings and mass violence events across the U.S., especially targeting Black Americans. It is also clear in the deportations of Jewish activists, the racist 1924 Immigration Act designed to prevent Jewish and Catholic immigration, and especially in the rise of explicit fascism in the 1930s United States.

When we permit antisemitism to rage before us, we invite systems of dehumanization and torment and the demolition or further destruction of rights and systems of governance designed, in hope if not fully in practice, for the protection of all. The rise and normalization of antisemitism by public figures like Elon Musk represents a grave threat to us all. It is one we must recognize and repudiate as an attack on the premise of a society with rights and protections of any kind—an assault on our very survival. 

READ: Antisemitism: A Growing American Problem

The bombing, starving, and invasion of Gaza and portions of the West Bank by the Israeli state only heightens the urgency of rejecting a binary vision of rights that lies at the heart of antisemitic conspiracy theories. This hollow version of rights asks us to choose just recipients of violence — to embrace as justified attacks on apartments, schools, hospitals, churches, and mosques in Gaza (or to blindly dismiss them as ‘collateral damage’). It also asks for uncritical consent to what Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, even the U.S. State Department classifies as an occupation regime that has bound Israelis and Palestinians for more than 50 years. Or, on the other hand, to claim that Jews have a hidden agenda to overwhelm white countries with “hordes of minorities,” the Great Replacement Conspiracy Theory popularized by conservative pundits and mass shooters alike. This is a false choice that can only end in mass death, and in fact already has.

What we must never permit, what we can never allow, is this zero-sum vision of rights that asks us to justify, or even celebrate, the nefarious and grotesque. As the terrible history of antisemitism and white supremacy reveals time and again, the only way forward is together.

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William Horne

Dr. William Horne is a teacher, writer, speaker, editor, and historian of racial capitalism and Black liberation. He is the co-founder and editor of The Activist History Review and an Arthur J. Ennis Postdoctoral Fellow at Villanova University. Subscribe to his newsletter on Substack:

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