The tragic history — and scary future — of fake news and anti-semitism.
By David M. Perry
Alex Jones, of Infowars, with Roger Stone at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, on July 20th, 2016. (Photo: Ben Jackson/Getty Images)
“When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her. Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore.” —Alex Jones, 2016.11.04 (now offline)
In the late 1140s in the English city of Norwich, a monk named Thomas of Monmouth decided to convince locals to worship a recently murdered boy as a saint. Thomas claimed falsely that the boy, named William, had been ritually slaughtered by local Jews.
Initially no one seems to have paid much attention, so the monk kept revising, adding gory details, while claiming to have unearthed an international conspiracy. He describes horrific torture followed by crucifixion, as the Jews “laid their bloodstained hands upon the innocent victim.” Thomas claimed to have located a Jew who had converted after hearing about William’s death (and after witnessing subsequent miracles). This convert told Thomas that every year the Jews of Narbonne, France, would randomly pick a country for that year’s Passover murder.
Thomas’ campaign worked. While legends of Jews murdering children had been part of anti-semitic mythology in the ancient world, Thomas of Monmouth embedded this myth firmly in the Western culture of his day. As violence against Jews intensified — albeit often for reasons more related to economic or political concerns than specific religious hatred — the blood libel often took center stage in anti-semitic polemic. Even today, the lie has never quite been shaken loose.
Last September, a Jewish family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, asked the local public school if their kids could be excused from a version of A Christmas Carol, and were told yes. But in the week before Christmas (and Chanukah, last year), the school decided to cancel the play. School officials said it just took too much time away from education.
Fox News was on the case, citing it as part of the War on Christmas, and leading with the detail that “parents told local reporters the play was canceled because two parents complained about a line [God bless us, every one] in the Charles Dickens holiday classic.” School officials explained that the play had been canceled because it was too time intensive, but Fox News buried those denials deep in the article.
In the 12th century, the blood libel came from a publicity-seeking monk. In the 19th, anti-semites used the Dreyfus Affair to purge Jews from the military. In the 21st, the new blood libel will fly over the Internet, fueled by tweets.
Breitbart joined in, publishing an article about the cancelation with a wholesome image of white children in a church performing a nativity scene, implying that the local Jewish family had somehow stopped this Christian church performance from going forward. The picture and the story don’t connect, but communication and bigotry don’t require logical sense. The local Jewish family, seeing comments on Breitbart asking for their home address, decided to leave town for vacation a day early. As the father told reporters, referring to Pizzagate: “There’s no way we’re going to take a chance after the pizza incident.”
Later, the Anti-Defamation League tried to tamp down fears by saying that the family had not, properly speaking, “fled,” but that largely seems to depend on how you define “flee.” Clearly, they were concerned and so left town.
The “pizza incident,” as the Pennsylvania Jewish father put it, has been much on my mind lately. When I teach Thomas of Monmouth’s text to my students, they are horrified, but also baffled. How could anyone have believed such outrageous drivel? To them, I can now offer the modern example of Pizzagate.
Alex Jones, Internet and television conspiracy monger, dredged up a fictional story about a pedophile ring in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant from the bottom of the Internet, promoted it to his fanbase, and linked it to Hillary Clinton, whom he then called a murderer and molester of children. His fans believed it, shared it on their own platforms, some surely out of their own convictions and others because they wanted to promote their own brands or go viral. The story spread rapidly. Believers started sending harassing emails and phone calls, and even went to the restaurant to perform surveillance.
Things escalated further when Edgar Madison Welch armed himself and went to the restaurant on a crusade to liberate the trafficked children. Finding none, he fired a few shots, then surrendered.
Clinton is, of course, not a Jew. But in a certain slice of American society, her demonic nature is simply accepted as a basic fact — much as medieval Jews were treated as sub-human creatures. On October 10th, in fact, Jones went on a long rant about Clinton’s (and President Barack Obama’s) Satanic essence, even claiming that Clinton smelled like sulfur. This is an escalation from a decade of demonizing — literally — Obama. Apocalyptic YouTubers, former Congress people, and right-wing evangelical ministers have long claimed that the Book of Revelation described the antichrist as looking and acting just like Obama (Snopes: It’s not true). Now Clinton has received the same treatment. Once you’ve dehumanized someone to that degree, it’s not hard to believe that Clinton, like the Jews of Norwich, might have murdered children.
Jones and those like him (he’s only the most visible) have taught their followers to believe these myths. Jones has accused Jews of harvesting organs in a modern version of the blood libel. He rails against bankers and “elites” in rants steeped in anti-semitism.
Of course, while Donald Trump has never to my knowledge invoked the blood libel, he has trafficked in narratives arguably based on anti-semitic tropes. Trump said that “global power structures” and “global special interests” are stripping the country of wealth and controlling the levels of power in Washington, a claim based more heavily on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion— the early 20th-century forgeries pretending to lay out a Jewish conspiracy for world domination — than on anything in Thomas of Monmouth. Still, the Edgar Welches of America have adopted an epistemology in which violent conspiracy theories seem normal and realistic.
So much of the focus on “fake news,” understandably, has looked at intentionally crafted political propaganda. But Jones’ violent fantasy and its echoes across time speak to the specter of violence directed either by would-be vigilantes or by the state itself. “Fake news” is a very narrow way to consider these dangerous falsehoods, which often spring from populations living in tightly constructed information ecologies, vulnerable to the viral, inflammatory, idea. It’s not that history repeats, but that certain kinds of narrative take shape in moments of unease, when radical ideologues enjoy unfiltered messaging power over their base, and when other leaders do nothing to prevent it.
I’m Jewish, at least by some definitions. My names, David Mordecai, testify to the Jewishness of my maternal grandparents before they renounced religion (but not Jewishness) in favor of Communism. This is actually a pretty typical story in New York Jewish culture, and I bring it up only because in the first six weeks after the election of Trump, I was repeatedly besieged on social media by racists who branded me as Jewish by enclosing my username in parentheses, known as “echoes.” By writing (((@Lollardfish))), they mark me as a Jewish target. I had lived 43 years without ever having been called a kike, but that time is over.
History is full of moments when Jews who thought they were part of mainstream society suddenly come to feel their otherness. In 1892, a young French artillery officer named Alfred Dreyfus, who was Jewish, was expected to soar through his examinations at the War College. Instead, he received poor marks on cote d’amour (personality fit) from an anti-semitic general. Dreyfus protested to no avail. Two years later, in the infamous Dreyfus affair, he found himself falsely accused of treason, convicted, and sentenced to life on Devil’s Island. The subsequent outrage and back-and-forth over the truth of the accusations fanned anti-semitic sentiment in France, casting Jews as inherently treacherous to those who until recently had merely regarded them as harmlessly different.
In Nazi Germany, such trends only intensified. The passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 identified people as Jewish based on their grandparents, so suddenly many Christian converts found themselves marked as undesirable — a menace to the German people and state. We know their fates.
I keep being told that Trump is not Adolf Hitler, and, of course, he isn’t. History does not simply repeat in easily identifiable, and perhaps avoidable, patterns. There are, however, trends we can identify, and the role of “fake news” in spreading unbelievable, yet believed, lies about Jews and leading to violence is one of those trends. Trump isn’t responsible for Pizzagate. But he and his enablers have primed their followers to believe anything is possible, while stoking the fires of hate.
In the 12th century, the blood libel came from a publicity-seeking monk. In the 19th, anti-semites used the Dreyfus Affair to purge Jews from the military. In the 21st, the new blood libel will fly over the Internet, fueled by tweets, YouTube videos, and unrepentant media outlets that sell only fear. Meanwhile, elected officials hungry for tax cuts and re-election look the other way.