Antisemitism: how the internet has revived old anti-Jewish tropes

The Conversation

Antisemitism in the UK appears to be at a modern record high. The Community Security Trust (CST) is an organisation dedicated to protecting Jewish communities. According to the most recent data it has collected, there were 2,255 antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2021.

This is the highest number ever collected by the CST in a single year. It represents a 34% increase from 2020 and breaks the previous record of 1,813 incidents set in 2019. The organisation explains this rise, in part, as being a consequence of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The flare-up in hostilities in the Middle East that took place in May 2021 led to a sharp spike in antisemitism here in Britain.

These shocking figures alert us to the current threats facing British Jewish communities. For many, the type of antisemitism monitored by CST and found online is a modern phenomenon. Evidence of anti-Jewish hatred, though, can be traced back across two millennia.

This long history means that the study of antisemitism has attracted to date far more historians than data scientists. There is, however, a growing body of statistical work that seeks to measure the nature and extent of current issues so that policies can address them more effectively.

Recent research has mapped the scale of problems in the UK, as well as attitudes towards Jews, sensitivity towards anti-Jewish sentiment and the influence of social media. It shows that what might appear to be new forms of antisemitism are often merely age-old tropes revived.

Official definition

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) defines “antisemitism” as, simply, hatred towards Jews. Despite ongoing debates concerning legitimate and illegitimate criticisms of Israel – addressed by the IHRA – numerous organisations and public bodies have adopted its framework. Arguably, we have something close to an official definition.

The term “antisemitism” has been used since being proposed by German writer Wilhelm Marr – himself an antisemite – in the late 19th century. There is a fairly broad consensus among academics that modern antisemitism stretches back at least 200 years, to the formation of European states. The persecution of Jews, however, stretches back much further, to biblical times and perhaps beyond.

While the study of anti-Jewish hatred has long been the preserve of historians, organisations such as the CST, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research and the Woolf Institute are developing a more data-driven picture of antisemitism today. But deciding on whether we take the historian’s long-view or crunch the latest stats need not be considered a zero sum game. We need both.

In fact, combining history and data science has already delivered valuable insights. Not least, that the “classic” historic tropes of antisemitism remain highly offensive to overwhelming majorities within Jewish communities.

At first glance, antisemitism found on the internet may appear to be a thoroughly modern invention. On Instagram and Twitter, we see terms commonly associated with antisemitism alongside contemporary conspiracy theories relating to COVID-19, the Illuminati group, chemtrails, 5G and the deep state. This feels about as 21st century as it gets. But dig a little deeper and the past emerges.

Hashtags on Instagram conveying strong anti-Israeli attitudes — such as #zionistagenda – regularly appear in conjuction with #devilworshipper and #newworldorderagenda. Similarly, #israhell is found with #saturndeathcultkiller (a historic antisemitic trope relating to Jews worshipping the planet Saturn).

Enduring tropes

A series of giant leaps through history will confirm that antisemitic depictions of Jews in modern society renew older ideas that have remained stubbornly resilient. Times may change but the tropes, it would appear, remain the same.

We see a forerunner of modern antisemitism in the New Testament and the Gospel of John, as early Christians attempted to distance themselves from Judaism. Writing in the second century, Justin Martyr described Christians, and therefore not Jews, as the true people of God. If we are looking for the source of current antisemitic depictions of Jewish people as inherently different – or outside the norms of western society – here will do.

Fast forward to the 11th and 12th centuries and we find Jewish communities stigmatised and persecuted as traders and moneylenders. Financial success bred resentment leading to the expulsion of Jews from England by King Edward I in 1290. Such events fostered stereotypes of Jews as greedy and untrustworthy that have survived for over 700 years.

In the 14th century, we find Jews blamed for the Black Death and the ritualistic killing of children – the so-called “Blood Libels”. Modern conspiracy theories casting Jewish people as devil-worshippers recycle tropes around paganism and satanism that are centuries-old.

A final giant leap through history lands us in the 19th century, witnessing the birth of modern Europe. The emergence of the twin concepts of biological race and nationalism – blood and soil – was disastrous for European Jewish communities, leading ultimately to the Holocaust. Thinkers in the 19th century (such as Marr) asked, are European Jews really European? Are German Jews really German? And what do they want?

Suspicions and fears culminated in the rather mysterious 1903 publication of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion – a fabricated account of plans for Jewish global domination. Its popularity and influence grew throughout the 1910s and 1920s (thanks, in part, to the industrialist Henry Ford who republished it in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent).

Despite being exposed as a fake by The Times in 1921, the work remains a popular influence on antisemitic ideology – whether emanating from the political right or left. Modern-day conspiracies concerning secretive power, undue political influence and control of the media have a heritage traceable back to the same fictitious source material that was used to justify the genocide of European Jews.

The Woolf Institute received funding from the Antisemitism Policy Trust and the Community Security Trust to undertake a study of antisemitism online, referenced in this article.