Anti-Semitism has many exceptional qualities. Unlike most forms of racism, it is a conspiracy theory. Like all conspiracy theories, it is a search for the Devil, or for the Devil’s agents on earth. They are imagined not as an underclass to be exploited and despised but as a preternaturally powerful elite that enslaves and destroys humankind. The anti-Semite “punches up” at the Jews who close the road to deliverance from oppression.
Despite its lethality, anti-Semitism is the form of racism most often erased, excused, and even encouraged by people who identify as “antiracist.” One explanation for this phenomenon, increasingly dangerous as harassment, vandalism, and violence against Jews rise across the West, is the failure of Holocaust education to emphasize the importance of conspiracism in Nazi ideology. For their part, soi-disant American antiracists render Jews “white” and “privileged” through a limited lens of race and power, taking an approach that is an allotrope of anti-Semitism and disqualifies Jews from concern.
So when U.S. representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar resolved to visit Israel in August to showcase to the world its peculiar evil, and it emerged that Miftah, the Palestinian non-governmental organization co-sponsoring their trip, had published on its website that Jews bake Christian blood into their matzoh, most major media ignored it. For them the story was the erosion of liberal democracy by the tag team of Trump and Netanyahu, who had barred entry to the congresswomen. There is little indication that the blood libel stirred concern on the left where just a month earlier “Never again” was intoned relentlessly about Trump’s “concentration camps” at the border.
The omission is striking. Blood libel is the purest expression of Jew-hatred there is. To overlook it is not just to miss a spectacular instance of bigotry; it is to be oblivious to anti-Semitism. The reason the blood libel has pride of place in the persecution of Jews is that it exemplifies anti-Semitism’s worst exceptional quality. Most types of racism define their victims as an “other” in relation to the group and regard them as less than human. Anti-Semitism, like all conspiracy theories, marks its target as an “other” in relation to humanity and regards the target as anti-human.
This dynamic has been present since the beginning of Western civilization. In his book Europe’s Inner Demons, the historian Norman Cohn demonstrates that by the second century a popular “fantasy” had emerged that civilization was threatened by a secret society “addicted to practices which were felt to be wholly abominable.” Of course, xenophobia has always assumed the existence of in-groups and out-groups. Generally, out-groups are opposed to in-groups through stereotypes that suggest the inferiority of the former. Ancient Greeks, for example, regarded various foreign peoples as childlike babblers. Romans thought their Jewish subjects smelled bad — a prejudice that survived in Europe long after the Empire fell.
Conspiracist xenophobia uses stereotypes that suggest much more — a set of behaviors, terrible and extranormal, of which only anti-human conspirators could be capable. These include cannibalism, atrocious sexual practices such as incest and pedophilia, and the sexualized worship of monstrous gods. Rituals are performed in clandestine ceremonies. At the center there is often a child, typically a young boy, murdered and consumed for purposes of black magic.
Ritual murder was a “stock charge” in the ancient world. Dio Cassius accused three separate cabals — the Cataline conspirators and Egyptians and Alexandrian Jews in revolt against Rome — of sacrificing a boy and eating his entrails to inaugurate their plots for power. The Greek grammarian Apion applied the canard against all Jews, although in that era it was Christians who suffered the most as a result of stereotypes that reduced some people to the status of the anti-human. In 177 the Romans martyred believers near present-day Lyons, torturing their pagan slaves into corroborating familiar rumors — that their Christian masters were an incest cult who sacrificed and devoured children.
After Christianity was established as the state religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, those lurid fantasies simmered underground for the better part of a millennium. Meanwhile, Christians refined their theology of combat between the forces of good and the forces of evil: between God and Satan, between Christ and Antichrist, and between the righteous people and the demonic people who served as their agents on earth. In that morally supercharged xenophobia, Satan was attached to groups set apart as the “other.” The scope of the anti-human conspiracy became cosmic.
While Christian heretics and women thought to be witches would suffer unimaginably from this association, the Jews were destined to reap the worst of it in the form of the Holocaust. (The word alludes, with the grimmest irony, to a “burnt offering.”) Various passages of the New Testament were read as confirmation of the idea of Jewish guilt for killing Christ and of Jewish communion with the Devil.
In the medieval mind, the association between Jews and the Devil grew. Shortly before Easter in 1144, a young boy named William was found dead in the sallow grass of a heath near the lively center of Norwich, England. His body, stripped naked save for a jacket and shoes, showed signs of violence. He had been gagged with a piece of wood. Despairing relatives accused local Jews of the crime, but the charge didn’t take. Five years later, a Benedictine monk hoping to establish a local cult spun the rumors into a tale of ritual murder.
The myth of little William spread, partly because it met a subterranean need we all share: to explain and dramatize terrible events that happen for mysterious or mundane reasons. Over the next hundred years, copycat claims arose throughout Europe. Yet the mature blood accusation — that Jews ritually murder Christians to harvest their blood for Passover — wouldn’t become standard until the 14th century. The thinking about Jews and blood needed to develop before it might make emotional sense.
Christians in the Middle Ages regarded Jews as sorcerers, allied with demons. Little distinction was made between magic and medicine. When the charges of ritual murder were spreading, Jews were widely thought to suffer from peculiar maladies, many of which caused blood loss: hemorrhages, hemorrhoids, quinsy, scrofula, skin diseases, purulent sores; Jewish men were said to menstruate along with women, and Jewish babies to be born with one hand fixed to their foreheads, requiring surgery to detach. The recipes of medieval magic often focused on sickness and health, and sometimes they called for blood or body parts. Jews were assumed to need non-Jewish blood to be well. Christian life and Jewish life were literally held to be inversely related.
The effect of such fantasies was demonstrated in 1475 when a little boy named Simon went missing in Trent. Local Jews were seized and tortured into confessing that they ritually slaughtered him and drained his blood. Many were burned alive. Blood had become the preferred motif for expressing what medieval Christians conceived of as a parasitical Jewish project to destroy their civilization. While the Nazi movement thought itself superior to Christianity, it imported wholesale the idea of the Jews as the Devil’s agents, coupled to the anti-human stereotype that was embodied by the medieval blood libel. Rumors of blood libel and incidents related to it recurred in Europe until even after the Nazi surrender.
In the blood-libel piece posted on the Miftah site in 2013, President Obama was said to have held an imprudent Passover seder at the White House, where he enjoyed “Jewish cuisine” that was likely prepared with the blood of Christians. Under intense criticism, Miftah eventually retracted and apologized, but the medieval pitch of the piece was so true that I browsed their website for similar material and quickly found an article by Bouthaina Shaaban, who is now Bashar Assad’s media adviser. There Shaaban writes that Israel stole “Ukrainian children in order to harvest their organs.” The blood libel was transferred to the Arab world by Christian missionaries, surfacing in a famous case at Damascus in 1840. Today it is a recurring feature of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism.
It would be a mistake to think that the phenomenon as it exists today is exclusively a Middle Eastern vice. As in the ancient world, the blood libel and other canards about the anti-human can be applied to any enemy. In the Pizzagate affair, far-right opponents of the Hillary Clinton campaign spread the rumor that a pizzeria in Washington, D.C., was a hub for human trafficking, child sex, and Satanic ritual abuse by high-ranking members of the Democratic party. The premises were shot up by a conspiracy theorist with an AR-15.
Often, of course, the targets in the present day, as in the Middle Ages, are Jewish. Alex Jones raves that CNN correspondent Brian Stelter is a “literal demon spawn” who is “drunk on our children’s blood.” Louis Farrakhan preaches that “pedophilia and sexual perversion institutionalized in Hollywood . . . can be traced to Talmudic principles and . . . Satanic influence under the name of Jew.”
It would also be a mistake to think that anti-Semitism is confined to the political Right. Karl Marx, in 1847, repeated the ancient calumny that “Christians really did slaughter human beings and eat and drink human flesh at Communion.” The Second Intifada and the Arab–Israeli impasse retrained focus on the Jews. In 2001 journalist Chris Hedges wrote in Harper’s that Israeli soldiers “entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport.” On Holocaust Memorial Day in 2003, The Independent ran a political cartoon that showed Ariel Sharon eating the head of a Palestinian baby. Recently Rutgers University professor Jasbir Puar was celebrated for enrobing the canard of Jewish organ theft in a sumptuous fabric of critical theory.
A Left that insists on a myopic analysis of race and power, taking the supernatural coordination inherent in conspiracy theories and offloading it onto “systems” and “structures,” is, at best, oblivious to the anti-Semitism of putative victims who “punch up.” In that moral void, the Holocaust becomes a drain catch for whatever is the crisis of the day. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retrofits it to Trump’s border policies, which she calls “dehumanizing.” Yet she defends Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who partner with present-day peddlers of the blood libel. The Holocaust parallel there is much clearer.
We cannot afford double standards. In Poland in the aftermath of the Holocaust, 42 Jewish residents of Kielce were murdered by their neighbors acting on rumors that Jews had kidnapped a young boy. In Brooklyn today, Jews are attacked on the street with increasing frequency. Many of those hate crimes are committed in Crown Heights, where in 1991 an anti-Semitic riot broke out after rumors that Jews had hoarded emergency medical attention for themselves while a local young boy died.
America has seen two mass murders of Jewish worshipers in the past year. Stereotypes of the anti-human are the armature of extremism. “Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god,” Eric Hoffer observed, “but never without a belief in a devil.”