Conspiracies about all-powerful Jews, like the Rothschilds and George Soros, offer a false sense of clarity for some Americans facing an increasingly traumatic society.
The larger problem, historian Jonathan Sarna told a Washington, D.C.-area audience, is that you cannot disprove an argument rooted in fantasy.
“If only we gave up Israel, or reshaped our noses, or gave up the Sabbath, antisemitism will disappear,” Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said of the futile arguments Jews often make to themselves. “But antisemitism tells us much more about the antisemite than it does about Jews.”
And in the Dec. 15 lecture over Zoom, sponsored by the Haberman Institute for Jewish Studies in Rockville, Maryland, Sarna explained the nature of antisemitism today.
“Antisemitism is a cultural code,” he said. “It tells us a lot about the problems of the day, and not about the Jews themselves.”
Sarna, who is also the chief historian for the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, spoke for an hour and then took questions. His reason for speaking was the rise in antisemitism in the United States since 2016.
The Philadelphia-born professor argued that the root of Jewish hate today is the same as it was throughout American history. It’s helpful for Jews to understand that it’s not about us now, and that it never was.
Antisemitism is related to larger social ills like mass migration, economic dislocation and the displacement of elites. When people can’t explain those problems, they look for easy answers.
In the current era, changing demographics, hollowing towns and reeling elites have become prominent features of American life.
Such uncertainties have sparked antisemitic incidents, according to Sarna.
In 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump used a Jewish star background to tweet that his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was “most corrupt candidate ever.”
A year later, white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia and chanted “Jews will not replace us!”
Finally, in 2018, a white nationalist shot and killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue complex in Pittsburgh.
Sarna said that since 2016, antisemitic incidents have risen, according to the Anti-Defamation League. The year 2019 saw a record high of 2,107 incidents nationwide.
But perhaps no episode or statistic summarized Sarna’s point better than Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Facebook post from 2018.
Taylor Greene, who was not yet elected to Congress, wrote that a Rothschild family member helped cause California’s Camp Fire, the deadliest fire in the state’s history. Weeks after entering the U.S. House as a Republican representative from Georgia in January 2021, that Facebook post resurfaced in media reports.
In that post, she was offering an unfounded explanation for a tragic event.
“They were designed. Nothing is by accident,” Sarna said of Taylor Green’s faulty logic.
“Conspiracies are very hard to disprove,” he added. “This is a central element of the antisemitic mind.”