Conspiracy Theories and Antisemitism
Presentation to the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism, Palace of Westminster, 19 June 2018.
Richard J. Evans
For the past five years I’ve been Principal Investigator on the research project “Conspiracy and Democracy”, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. I have two co-investigators, John Naughton and David Runciman, and we have employed at one time or another ten postdoctoral researchers, who’ve come from a variety of disciplines, including History, Anthropology, Political Science, Philosophy, and Internet analysis, and we’ve also been able to make use of the opinion survey organization YouGov in our work.
Let’s start with a couple of definitions. A conspiracy is a group of two or more people who get together for some criminal or illegal purpose. It follows that it naturally has to be secret. Etymologically the word comes from the Latin conspiratio – people agreeing as in one breath on a particular aim or object.
A conspiracy theory is an attempt to explain an event, or a series of events, or a phenomenon of some sort, as the outcome of a secret plot aiming to deprive the people illegally of money, liberty, power, or knowledge Conspiracy theories are a form of alternative knowledge that regards knowledge produced by experts on events as unreliable; conspiracy theories posit an ‘establishment’ that produces ‘official’ knowledge, often with the ulterior motive of covering up the ‘real truth’ about something. Those who devise and purvey conspiracy theories frequently assert that ordinary people are dupes of ‘official’ knowledge, and that they, the theorists, alone have access to the truth, a claim that of course has the effect of bolstering their frequently low self-esteem.
Conspiracy theory is a way of making sense of the world at a time when the overproduction of knowledge creates confusion. It rests on the belief that nothing happens by chance, and frequently operates on the cui bono principle, that anyone who appears to benefit from an event or a process must have planned it.
Conspiracy theories aren’t always harmful or malign. The allegation that governments are covering up the fact that there are aliens from outer space living amongst us, a belief held by a quarter of the population in Argentina for instance, or that the moon landings actually took place in a film studio, don’t seem to pose any real threat to democracy or have any wider effects except to foster suspicion of government, which isn’t necessarily or in every case a bad thing.
It’s important to remember that only a minority of the population in most countries believes in any conspiracy theories at all – and our work has shown that if you believe in one you’re also likely to believe in others as well. Only 12 per cent of people in Britain believe the world is ruled by a secret group of individuals, and under 2 per cent believe that the Holocaust is a lie and the number of people killed has been deliberately exaggerated; even in Poland, where this belief is much more widespread, the figure is only 7 per cent (rising to 25 per cent among young men, however). By contrast, over 40 per cent of people in this country believe government is deliberately hiding the true number of immigrants in Britain, a higher percentage than any other country apart from Germany. While that’s a high figure, it’s still a minority.
Conspiracy theories are more commonly held by people who feel distant from the centres of political or economic power, marginalized and disempowered; as in the former East Germany for example, in provinces like Brandenburg or Saxony, where they are much more widely believed than in the cormer West. When YouGov carried out their opinion survey for us a couple of years ago, they found that in this country UKIP supporters were far more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than supporters of other political parties were. Conspiracy theories are more common on the right of the political spectrum than on the left but they’re present on both extremes, where people are more likely to feel disempowered than in the centre.
This brings me to the subject of anti-Semitism. The Left has been historically overwhelmingly immune to anti-Semitism: famously, the late 19th-century German socialist leader August Bebel called anti-Semitism “the socialism of fools”, pointing out that economic and social inequality was the product not of a Jewish conspiracy but of the system of capitalism. Far-right movements such as the Nazis in contrast commonly portrayed socialism and communism as the products of a Jewish conspiracy, though Jews were never dominant in left-wing political organizations and of course when they joined them they gave up their Jewish identity. On the far left, the anti-‘cosmopolitanism’ of late Stalinism in the 1950s and early 1960s led to arrests and executions of Jews, and not just in the Soviet Union. In the same period, however, in this country the mainstream Left was strongly supportive of Israel, a society where socialist principles, represented in the kibbutz movement, were strong.
But since the 1970s the situation has changed. On the one hand, in Israel the kibbutz movement has declined, religion has become more important, and political culture has moved sharply to the right. On the other hand, the far left in Britain and elsewhere has come to regard Israel as the tool of American imperialism and identified with the cause of Palestinian liberation. Criticizing the current government of Israel and in particular its support for illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank doesn’t make you anti-Semitic, but it’s all too easy to go from there to hobnobbing with Palestinian groups like Hamas who want to destroy Israel altogether, or arguing that Hitler was a Zionist (to be clear: the last thing he wanted was the creation of a Jewish state), or to denying the Holocaust because that’s a major reason for the existence of Israel in the first place, or to claiming that there is an organized ‘Jewish lobby’ in politics and the media that is secretly organizing support for Israel across the world.
Antisemitism is a very particular kind of conspiracy theory. Unlike others, it doesn’t rest on the belief that there is a small group of people hatching plots. It’s purely racist in origin and expression. Like other forms of racism it rests on the belief that there is something in the blood, something hereditary, that creates a certain type of character – in this case, one that’s constantly engaged in conspiracies, plots and subversive, exploitative activities. The notorious late 19th- and early 20th-century forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is important because it supplies supposed proof of the Jewish racial character, not because it has had any influence on its own account (it’s chaotic, obscure and virtually unreadable). The centrality of racism to anti-Semitism has meant that it’s had a strong appeal to the neo-fascist Right, where it’s more likely to lead to acts of violence than it is on the hard left. But while adherents of the far left would vehemently deny that they’re racist, it’s there too.
Conspiracy theories including Holocaust denial and the belief that there is a worldwide plot to cover up the supposed truth, that there was no Holocaust, have become more visible in the last decade or so above all because of the Internet. Websites, emails, social media all bypass what used to be the gatekeepers of public opinion – news editors, publishers organizers of public events and so on – and companies like Facebook or Google are unwilling to act as editors themselves because if they exercised the right of approval over content they’d be legally liable for it. The law is a blunt instrument and there are a lot of disadvantages in using it in this area, particularly because of the threat it could pose to freedom of speech. The outlawing of Holocaust denial for example would be difficult to enforce and provide anyone charged with Holocaust denial with a golden opportunity to present themselves as martyrs in the cause of free speech, something which in fact they’re not interested in at all as a matter of principle. It would give widespread publicity to people who thrive on it and only assist their cause.
Combatting anti-Semitism and harmful conspiracy theories depends in my view on the relentless propagation of the facts and presentation of the truth. It is possible to drive conspiracy theories from the scene: after the tube and bomb attacks in London on 7 July 2005, for instance, conspiracy theories immediately appeared on the Internet alleging that the incidents had been staged on Prime Minister Tony Blair’s orders, with actors and fake blood, to provide an excuse for draconian anti-terrorist legislation. We interviewed the former head of communications for TfL as well as the driver of one of the tube trains involved, and they pointed out that media interviews with some of the victims soon put a stop to the spread of the theories, which were also comprehensively debunked in a special BBC programme aired in 2009. There are major websites presenting an overwhelming mass of evidence on the Holocaust as a detailed refutation of Holocaust denial, and we need to use social media and the Internet, as well as education and other forms of publicity, as effectively as possible to counter racial prejudice and harmful conspiracy theories. It’s difficult, but in my view it’s possible.