Watching the Covid inquiry, I felt something bleak, reassuring, grim and funny all at the same time. I doubt there is a word for it in English. Maybe Yiddish has it covered. Every witness testified to chaos during the pandemic. Inadequate planning combined with fatal prevarication, derelict leadership and toxic relations between advisors, ministers and civil servants. There was nothing to be cheerful about. But, I mused, at least if it can be proved that no-one was in control, it will be harder to blame the Jews.
It wasn’t a serious thought. But the fact that it occurred to me says something about conspiracy theories, antisemitism and the way they surge in turbulent times.
A truth about politics that gets clearer the closer you get to power is that no-one is organised enough to pull off the kind of elaborate schemes alleged by digital sleuths in the sweatier corners of the internet. The Covid inquiry lays bare how bad government is at planning anything, let alone anything as logistically convoluted as a “plandemic” – a fake viral outbreak, staged as pretext to inject the population with mind-controlling microchips hidden in vaccines.
That lurid fantasy suffers from the same flaw as all conspiracy theories, including the one about Jews as puppet-masters of a secret world government, which has a good claim to be the progenitor of the whole genre.
Spend any time following YouTube algorithms down paranoid rabbit holes and soon enough you encounter the machinations of Illuminati, Freemasons, lizard people, Rothschilds and Elders of Zion.
An irony about the conspiracy theory mindset is that it takes scepticism about the way power works to such irrational extremes that it ends up naively credulous. It attributes extraordinary levels of competence and coherence to situations where the absence of those qualities better explains why things turned out badly.
Satisfying the innate human need to believe in some orchestrating power, even a malicious one, is the psychological function of a conspiracy theory. A chaotic world governed by accident and unintended consequence can feel more existentially threatening than one in which hidden hands pull the strings. And there is a particular kind of cognitive gratification that comes from identifying the pattern yourself, joining the dots between disparate and confusing events. Uncovering the hidden causes of wars and crises makes the world feel less terrifyingly random.
To make the connections plausible, you need some network of people who are alike in ways that are identifiable but not conspicuous. Potential conspirators should have something obvious in common while also being embedded in different cultures and contexts. They should be assimilated into the general population yet also stubbornly alien. The theory acquires its deepest resonance when this covert cohort comes pre-branded by centuries of religious and cultural prejudice as devious and acquisitive.
With those criteria, it isn’t hard to see how Jews have found themselves so often in the frame. Antisemitic conspiracism was tracking rising geopolitical volatility even before October 7. Since then, anyone predisposed to identify “Zionism” as a force of almost supernatural wickedness will have had that perception reinforced by industrial-scale propaganda. Social media is awash with depictions of Israel’s war against Hamas as an unprovoked act of bloodthirsty, neocolonial aggression targeting Palestinian children. Some of it is pumped down digital channels by Iranian, Chinese and Russian state provocateurs in order to incite division, exacerbate polarisation and stoke inter-communal strife in Western societies.
It works. The radical left has embraced indifference to the murderous doctrine and character of Hamas. Far-right racists have cynically rallied to the Israeli flag as a way to insinuate themselves into mainstream conservative respectability. Wherever these partisans gather online, tales of Jewish manipulation (of capitalist and Marxist varieties) are never more than a few clicks away.
Positions get more entrenched, fanatics get even more radicalised. Millions of people become more certain that they know something about “Jewish power” while hardening in their ignorance of what it actually means to be Jewish.
Too often it has meant watching your world unravel and wishing we really did have the strings to pull it all back together. But we don’t. So when it feels like the world is against us, one of the few things on which Jews of all opinions can agree — the joke we’re all actually in on — is how bitterly absurd it is to believe we planned the whole thing.