Jews fear what follows after Republicans applauded Marjorie Taylor Greene
It is chilling that rather than condemn the conspiracy theorist’s espousal of antisemitic nonsense, her party supported her
Marjorie Taylor Greene holds a press conference outside the Capitol in Washington DC on 5 February. Photograph: Carol Guzy/Zuma Wire/REX/Shutterstock
Mon 15 Feb 2021 23.46 AEDT
For a few days last month, in a little corner of the internet where topics of Jewish interest are discussed, Jewish space lasers were trending.
The discussion was prompted by speculation from the newly elected Georgia Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene based on “research” she had conducted, that wildfires in California had been caused by a project to explore “solar generators” tenuously associated with Rothschild, “an international banking firm”. Once that assertion became public, the floodgates opened and cynics, humorists and pundits – the Jewish community is blessed with an abundance of them – took ownership of this meme and began to explore every aspect of the lasers. Were they an appropriate batmitzvah gift? Did people who observe kashrut need separate lasers for dairy and for meat? Was a special one necessary for Passover? If buying in bulk, could they be obtained wholesale?
Of course, the Jewish community is a place where there is always a surfeit of opinions. Not surprisingly, some observers doubted whether this was a matter for humour, arguing that it was not acceptable to laugh at such a dangerous – albeit absurd – claim. They argued that however far-fetched – a word that some pundits claim must have a Yiddish origin – Greene’s assertions might be, they were not a laughing matter.
The doubters were quickly reminded that Jews have developed a fine art of laughing at their sorrows, even while trembling with fear. Surprising though it may be, in Nazi Germany Jews crafted jokes about the horrendous circumstances in which they lived. Consider this classic. Berlin 1938: two Jews were sitting on a park bench reading newspapers. One was engrossed in the Jewish communal paper, while the other occupied himself with the Nazi party’s official paper. The first, seeing his companion’s choice of reading material, expressed amazement that he would read a paper rife with antisemitic propaganda. The second explained that if he read the Jewish newspaper all he would find was news of Jews’ trials and tribulations. But if he read the Nazi paper, he learned that Jews controlled the banks, the media, foreign governments and every other important global institution. One depressed him, while the other made him feel powerful.
But then, just as suddenly as it had gained a foothold on social media, the humour stopped. The abrupt halt to some very clever exchanges came when the Republican caucus refused to punish, criticise or condemn Greene in any fashion. Instead, they gave her a standing ovation. They did so after she told them that she had only been “curious” about some of the ideas she had posted and didn’t really know what space lasers were. Though her explanations beggared the imagination – her space laser post was long and detailed – it was enough for her colleagues. She made no public apology, neither to the gathering of Republican colleagues or on the following day, when she spoke on the House floor. She contended that the comments for which she was being criticised were “words of the past”, as if they had been made decades ago. In fact, some were just a few months old.
Some people were shocked by Taylor’s comments. I was not. Having spent decades studying, teaching, researching and fighting antisemitism, Greene’s claims were familiar territory. All of them – space lasers, 9/11, school shootings, Trump’s election loss and so much else – shared a common theme: conspiracy.
In her QAnon-inspired worldview, behind them all was a small group of inordinately powerful people who had global – not national – loyalties. They conspired against the common welfare to advance their own interests. They mutilated babies. They amassed power and money in order to harm good, hard-working and, one can fairly assume, Christian folks. This is the foundation stone of classic antisemitism. There are certainly non-Jews in the swamp Greene wants to “drain”. But ultimately it is Jews who are the puppeteers. Antisemitism is a prejudice, akin to so many others. Just like racism and an array of other hatreds, it relies on stereotypes and assumes that all members of the group share those characteristics. Antisemitism has unique characteristics that differentiate it from other hatreds. The racist “punches down” and loathes persons of colour because they are apparently “lesser than” the white person. They are, the racist proclaims, not as smart, industrious, qualified or worthy. In contrast, the antisemite “punches up”. The Jew is supposedly more powerful, ingenious and financially adept than the non-Jew. Jews use their prodigious skills to advance themselves and harm others. The Jew is not just to be loathed. The Jew is to be feared. Every act of antisemitism – from shoving a Jew on the street to murdering them en masse – has this conspiracy at its roots. It was what prompted people in the middle ages to believe that Jews had poisoned the wells in order to spread the plague. It was at the heart of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known forgery that purported to be the records of a meeting of powerful Jews who were scheming to control the world’s finances. Nazi antisemitism was founded on the notion that Jews were engaged in a deadly conspiracy against the German people. They had, the Nazis charged, “stabbed Germany in the back” during the first world war, thereby engineering its loss. I don’t believe Greene is advocating physical violence against Jews. It was hard, however, not to be struck by her choice of words when she spoke on the House floor to argue that these were no longer her views. Rather than apologise, she condemned the attacks on her as an attempt to “crucify” her. Crucify?
Irrespective of her personal views about Jews, there is no doubt, however, that she is reinforcing and spreading a dangerous notion. She may not pick up the rock or gun to harm a Jew, but she is giving ammunition to those who will. And this kind of hatred and violence may start with Jews, but it never ends with them. And if it begins with others, it will eventually lead to Jews. History makes that clear.
The UK recently witnessed how seamlessly various manifestations of antisemitism flowed from the fringes of a political party into the centre. That was, of course, from the left of the political spectrum. One has to wonder, if after the embrace Greene has received from her colleagues, we will not witness the same thing in the Republican party. This time it will come from the right. Both give witness to the ubiquitousness of antisemitism. It has no political favourites. Ultimately, however, this is about something more all-encompassing than even antisemitism. It is about an attack on democracy and the institutions that undergird that democracy. Conspiracies, such as those peddled by QAnon, are not just infused with antisemitic symbolism and themes, but are designed to create doubt about democratic institutions including Congress, the courts, financial agencies, electoral processes, the media and anything that is even obliquely connected to democracy.
Every act of prejudicial physical violence begins with words. Greene has provided an endless array of such words. Her Republican colleagues, rather than stand and applaud, should recognise that and act upon it. There are people who spread hatred and prejudice and there are those who enable the spread of hatred and prejudice. Not just Greene, but also the Republicans who have failed to condemn her are enablers. They will ultimately bear responsibility for the consequences.
In the fight against hatred and evil, neutrality is not an option. There are no bystanders.
- Deborah Lipstadt is Dorot professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Atlanta