In 1172, the Christian monk Thomas of Monmouth completed his book about the death and alleged miracles of St. William of Norwich. Thomas had been hard at work for decades writing and rewriting his book, trying to establish a local cult of sainthood around William, a boy who had been murdered in 1144. Thomas alleged that William had been lured to his death by the Jews of Norwich, who had ritually sacrificed the child on Easter in a bizarre perversion of the Crucifixion. To spice up the story, Thomas tapped into already extant myths about an international Jewish conspiracy. He described an annual secret meeting whereby Jews would gather in Narbonne, a city in southern France and the rumored seat of the "king" or "pope" of the Jews, according to medieval myth. Thomas wrote that the secret Jewish cabal "casts lots for all the countries which the Jews inhabit; and whatever country the lot falls upon, its metropolis has to carry out the same method with the other towns and cities." When the lottery fell to Norwich, the Jews of the city murdered a boy.
To be extremely clear, this is all dangerous nonsense. There does seem to have been a boy named William who was murdered in Norwich in the 1140s. The culprit remains unknown, according to the most recent scholarship. There was no international Jewish conspiracy to murder Christian children in the Middle Ages (nor was there in antiquity, nor is there today).
Also, the first time I taught this text in a classroom, a wide-eyed student exclaimed, "I had no idea this was true!"
The lesson is that no matter how preposterous a conspiracy theory, if you don't frame the material carefully, at least some people will believe it. When enough people believe these kinds of narratives, Jews or other marginalized people tend to get murdered. Neutrality, just letting the material speak for itself, only serves the anti-Semites.
On December 13th, the New York Times published an interview with the famous writer Alice Walker in which Walker casually recommended a book laden with grotesque anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Walker, best known for her novel The Color Purple, opens the interview with a response to a question about what books are on her nightstand. She first lists Somaly Mam's memoir about sex trafficking in Cambodia (a book widely deemed to be fraudulent), then moves on to a book called And the Truth Shall Set You Free by David Icke. Explaining the title, Walker told the Times, "In Icke's books there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person's dream come true."
Icke is one of the most prolific and virulent anti-Semites in the world. His work, whether in books or in his more recent emergence as a YouTube star, mixes traditional calumnies against Jews with his own bizarre fantasies of extraterrestrial corruption. Like the early 20th-century book Protocols of the Elders of Zion,—a work that still informs anti-Jewish discourse today—Icke alleges a global Jewish conspiracy that runs much of the world by controlling the levers of finance. Icke claims that Jews were pro-slavery and financed the Ku Klux Klan, he's a Holocaust denier, and he alleges that all anti-Jewish groups are secretly financed by Jews. He also claims that the "elite" are descended from alien lizard people who came from outer space to breed with humans and control them.
These lizard people engage in ritual child sacrifice and drink blood, so Icke's legend invokes the tradition of blood libel. It's not clear to me whether Icke is using the lizards as a thinly veiled metaphor for Jews, or whether he's saying that Jews are half-breed monsters. Either way, it's all literally unbelievable.
Still, as an American Jew, a medieval historian, and a journalist interested in white supremacy, I also know that these are the kinds of stories that get Jews killed. These narratives led to pogroms in medieval England and accusations of blood libel in 19th-century Europe. They also led to the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh just days before this year's mid-term elections, where a man steeped in conspiracies killed 11 people in a synagogue.
Walker's anti-Semitism was not secret, at least not in some circles. As detailed in Tablet, she's spoken frequently about her taste for anti-Semitic YouTube videos (including those by Icke) and has written virulent anti-Semitic poetry. Still, I had never heard about it, despite my professional interest in tracking North American anti-Semitism, and I observed similar shocked reactions among a number of other Jewish journalists.
Now that Walker's dangerous beliefs have become more widely known, I am looking forward to following the lead of black Jewish writers on how to parse her legacy. The New York Times must also reckon with its role in the proliferation of hate in our media ecosystem. I wonder whether the assigning editors were aware of this troubling history, or whether anyone at the paper, at any point, recognized Icke's name or looked him up. Following the outrage, Times book editor Pamela Paul has defended the decisions that went into shaping the interview. On social media, Paul said that the Times books section would even print a recommendation for Mein Kampf without editorializing. In a Q&A about the story, published at the Times, Paul wrote: "Our readers are intelligent and discerning. We trust them to sift through something that someone says in an interview, whether it's the president or a musician or a person accused of sexual harassment, and to judge for themselves."
The first time I assigned Thomas of Monmouth, I felt just the same way about my students as Paul does about her readers. Now I wonder how many fans of Walker might have read her recommendation, looked up Icke, and said, "Holy cow, I had no idea this was true!"
We are in a tricky era that challenges many of the norms of journalism. Lies travel around the world with unprecedented speed, helping forge connections between far-flung communities of believers. There's a community that believes Donald Trump is the leading warrior against an international pedophile ring led by Democrats and Jews (Pizzagate was just one tendril of this theory). The conspiracy theory known as QAnon has firmly integrated with the 35 percent of American voters who will support Trump no matter what happens. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theories centered around George Soros may have led directly to the Tree of Life massacre. In such a cultural moment, journalists and editors will sometimes have to shift their rigid adherence to a studied neutrality—a performative even-handedness—and simply do the right thing. In general, when someone recommends titles for the "By the Book" series, editors should stay out of the way. But given rising public violence against Jews, when a famous author recommends a book seriously alleging that Jews are half-breed lizard people, that's a case where intervening is obviously appropriate.
The recent conspiracy-fueled attacks, as well as the long, sad, history of pogroms and expulsions, demonstrate that too many people are willing to believe the most preposterous theories about "the other" and to act on those theories with great and terrible violence. To claim neutrality is to cede the field to Thomas of Monmouth and Icke and the like. There are no neutrals here.