There’s a Word for Blaming Jews for Anti-Semitism
Category: Op/EdVia: hallux • 3 weeks ago • 20 comments
By: Yair Rosenberg - Deep Shtetl - The Atlantic
For most people, Labor Day weekend was a time for rest and relaxation with friends and family. But for Elon Musk and countless users on Twitter, it was an opportunity to denounce a Jewish organization as the source of their sorrows.
Over the past several days, hundreds of thousands of posts on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, have assailed the Anti-Defamation League, the premier Jewish civil-rights organization, under the hashtag . Ostensibly, the campaign is a response to the ADL’s persistent public pressure on Twitter to remove bigotry from its platform, on the grounds that the organization’s activism is censorious and causing advertisers to abandon the site. But in practice, as even a cursory glance at ’s many bigoted boosters reveals , the viral vilification is not about anything the ADL has done; it’s about whom the group represents .
Like any organization, the ADL is not above reproach. I’ve written critically about some of its well-meaning but misguided social-media-moderation efforts , and am to the group’s left on questions of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. On the right, politically conservative Jews have long taken issue with the ADL’s more progressive stances. But none of this is what is driving the current consternation on Twitter.
This is readily apparent from Musk’s own tweets on the matter, which have amplified the anti-ADL attacks to millions of readers. Far from offering a considered critique of the organization, the bombastic billionaire has instead circulated cartoonish conspiracy theories about it. “The ADL, because they are so aggressive in their demands to ban social media accounts for even minor infractions, are ironically the biggest generators of anti-Semitism on this platform,” Musk wrote yesterday. Abuse of Jews on his site, he argued, is the consequence of Jews complaining about the abuse. (Chronology does not appear to be his strong suit.) Musk later insinuated that organizations like the ADL may be “complicit” in covertly creating the bigoted accounts they criticize. This is not a rational critique of the ADL’s advocacy; it is an irrational attempt to blame the Jewish group for Twitter’s failings. Musk is not shy about this motive behind his missives: The ADL “would potentially be on the hook for destroying half the value of the company, so roughly $22 billion.”
In reality, Twitter’s cratering valuation is the fault of a far more obvious offender: Musk himself. The social-media site was already in terrible shape when the entrepreneur acquired it, shedding power users and overrun by bad actors , and the new owner has done little to reverse its trajectory. Instead, he has accelerated the decline. By allowing users to pay to prioritize their replies, Musk enabled trolls and scammers to dominate the discourse with low-quality contributions that would previously have failed to gain traction. Musk has also abandoned the company’s iconic name and logo, fired much of the site’s content-moderation team, throttled its direct-messaging capability, replaced its free TweetDeck service with an inferior paid version, and repeatedly engaged conspiracy theorists and bigots on the site, most recently the self-described “raging anti-Semite” and unapologetic white nationalist who popularized #BanTheADL. It’s hard to keep brands and users on your platform when you keep making it worse. As Musk himself has said , “advertisers avoid controversy,” and he has been a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to Twitter’s—sorry, X’s—reputation.
But though the ADL is not the cause of Twitter’s continuing unprofitability, it is a convenient culprit on which to pin the platform’s many failures. Anti-Semites love to blame Jews for whatever problems they personally perceive in the world. What is being done to the ADL on Twitter right now has little to do with the group’s conduct and everything to do with the symbolic role Jews play in the conspiratorial imagination. Rather than face up to the hate that has enveloped his platform, and the errors that led to the site’s degradation, Musk is claiming that the victims have had it coming. But no matter how many Jewish scapegoats he slaughters, he will not be able to revive his platform’s flagging fortunes, which stem from his own inadequacies, not Jewish mendacity.
Sadly, the conceit that Jews cause themselves to be persecuted is not limited to Musk. Indeed, the fallacy transcends political allegiances and is as old as anti-Jewish bigotry itself. In 1938, on the eve of the Holocaust, the polling firm Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans believed that “the persecution of Jews in Europe has been partly their own fault,” while 11 percent said it was “entirely” their fault. Put another way, 65 percent of Americans blamed Europe’s Jews for their own denigration. In 2018, CNN found that nearly 20 percent of Europeans believed that anti-Semitism was “a response to the everyday behavior of Jewish people.” Today, those on the right like Musk and his Twitter allies blame Jewish organizations such as the ADL for contemporary anti-Semitism. On the left, others such as the former head of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth, blame the state of Israel . (Some Jewish people even blame so-called self-hating Jews for propagating anti-Jewish prejudice.) The argument is that through their bad behavior, individuals or groups of Jews incite anti-Semitism toward all Jews.
This perspective is profoundly deranged. If you are flattened by a grand piano that falls from the sky, the cause of your death is the grand piano. But obviously, the actual cause of your death is the person who shoved it out the window and onto your head. This is the difference between a proximate cause and a root cause.
When synagogues in Europe are torched while Israel battles Hamas in Gaza, the strife overseas is the proximate cause of the anti-Semitism. Likewise, when bigots angry at the ADL’s advocacy attack Jewish people online, the organization is the proximate cause of the abuse. But the root cause is the hateful ideology of the bigot, who holds every Jew responsible for whatever any other Jew in the world might do, and uses this to justify violence against them.
This is how prejudiced people think about minorities. In their addled imagination, all Muslims are accountable for the perceived bad acts of any other Muslims, all Black people are responsible for the perceived bad acts of any other Black people, and so forth. This warped worldview, not the actions of members of the targeted community, is the root cause of bigotry. Take away this ideology, and the hatred goes away. By contrast, the ADL or Israel could disappear tomorrow, but the bigoted outlook would remain and continue to cause anti-Semitism, just as it did for centuries before either existed. Until people learn to treat Jews and other minorities as individuals, and not as stand-ins for their entire group, bigotry against them will persist.
That’s because whatever Musk might say, Jews don’t cause anti-Semitism. Anti-Semites do.