The concept of antisemitism refers to two distinct kinds of prejudice and hostility against Jews. It denotes both an essentially premodern hatred against Judaism as a religion and a cultural community, and a more modern, racist and economic aversion to practically all of Jewish ethnicity or heritage.
Both types of antisemitism regard Jews as a uniform group with inherent characteristics and predilections, whether they are derived from religion, from historical-cultural development, or from the supposed racial essence of a people.
The older type of antisemitism formed a part of the worldview of several Western and Middle Eastern religions since before the Common Era and was perpetuated through patristic, medieval Catholic, and early Protestant church doctrine. The latter type has proliferated with the elaboration of those modern industrial, economic, and democratic structures with which disproportionate numbers of Jewish people have been associated.
In the United States both generic forms of antisemitism have existed throughout the country’s history, marginal in numbers but pervasive in the ethos of several extremist groups and fluidly imbedded in mass popular culture. Both forms of antisemitism have also yielded to various conspiracy theories throughout U.S. history. This has been the case especially in the period after the 1870s when several overarching conspiracist syntheses have been constructed and broadcast by antisemitic ideologues and publicists.
Christian Antisemitism in Colonial and Antebellum America
In the colonial period of American history and in the early Republic antisemitic prejudice rarely resulted in full-blown conspiracy theory. Much of those periods’ public doctrine was, however, underlain by a traditional Christian public theology that incorporated a deeply ambivalent and frequently adversarial attitude toward Jews and Judaism.
These attitudes abided, were reformulated, and significantly contributed to the content of later, more modern forms of antisemitic conspiracism. Among Christian motifs with powerful conspiracist resonance were the concepts of original sin, of the Fall of Man, and the supposedly continual temporal struggle between forces of good and evil, of Christ and of Antichrist.
These motifs tended to envisage this worldly existence as a space characterized by human rebellion and hubris, rooted in the Fall, and in a free will wrongly employed, which amounted to a conspiracy against a divinely set and ultimately triumphant order.
Given its supersessionary outlook (i.e., a belief that the Christian religion had now rightfully replaced or “superseded” Judaism), such a worldview not surprisingly supported and became enmeshed with antisemitism. Supersessionary beliefs were grounded in antisemitism by early Christian writings, and later by Catholic canon law and early Protestant texts, much of which tended to associate postbiblical Jews and Judaism with satanic forces and to imagine a Jewish desire to destroy Christians and Christianity.
Such underlying, cosmic conspiracy beliefs were particularly strong in the Puritan Protestant forms of Christianity that were prevalent in the United States of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These tended to predict a future apocalypse in which Christianity came to take over the world from its supposed infidel or Judaic grasp.
Given that for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the majority of U.S. citizens identified with some form of Christian religion, the nation was particularly predisposed for varied syntheses of religion, conspiracism, and antisemitism.
Although a strong pro-semitic strand also existed from the beginning of the Christian experience in the United States, many leading Protestant clergymen of the colonial and early republican periods did proffer a public theology along antisemitic lines conducive of conspiracism.
Some of these clergy, such as the colonial New England divines John Winthrop and Cotton and Increase Mather, denounced Jews as “the synagogue of the Antichrist,” and accused them of supposedly using magic and witchcraft in an anti-Christian, satanically inspired campaign. Others accused Jews, Roman Catholics, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians of a joint conspiracy to foist an established, apostate church on the United States.
Also, popular myths dating back to the medieval age continued to circulate well into the nineteenth century about Jewish anti-Christian practices such as the poisoning of wells, the drinking of Christian blood, and the desecration of the Holy Communion wafers, as well as about Talmudic prayers for the annihilation of all Christians.
On occasion these myths found expression through the idiom of conspiracy, but more often this so-called chimerical antisemitism restrained itself to a more general and unsystematic, politically unorganized prejudice. For the most part, the conspiracies pointed out were taken to be local and contextual on the one hand, and universal but transcendental on the other hand.
In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, this kind of a religion-based conspiracist attitude did not, however, tend to lend itself to political conspiracy theory. As far as such theory existed, it was more likely still to be directed against the British, the French, and the Roman Catholics, or against such secret societies as the Freemasons, than against observant Jews.
This was the case especially with the conspiracist polemic that briefly followed the French Revolution in 1789 and in which some leading Protestant clergy for the first time broached the so-called Illuminati conspiracy theory, later to be suffused with antisemitism.
In what were the first theories ever constructed about a universal, systematically led political conspiracy, the Illuminati were taken to be the world conspiracist hub of Enlightenment philosophers, Freemasons, and of several occult anti-Christian secret societies, and as such the organization primarily responsible for the French Revolution and for all subsequent subversionary and anti-Christian agitation.
The major European theorists who constructed that all-inclusive theory sometimes claimed that Jews were to be found at the core of its subversive apparatus and that Jews in particular were the ones ultimately directing it.
Some U.S. conspiracy theorists alluded to such accusations, first made in 1806, and they sometimes formed part of the mostly anti-Catholic and anti-Masonic agitation of the early- and mid-nineteenth-century mass political movements, the Anti-Masonic Party and the Know-Nothing (American) Party.
However, such claims were not generally accepted at the time, and also the French Revolution’s contemporary U.S. critics tended to regard its conspiratorial aspects as largely unconnected with Judaism or Jewishness.
All in all, in the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there rarely resulted antisemitic action comparable to that which was endemic in contemporary European societies.
Although residual discrimination in office holding and sometimes in voting and landowning rights continued in some states into the nineteenth century, on the whole antisemitic prejudice in the United States remained weak. Its conspiracist aspects were weaker still, residing mostly in general and diffuse suppositions about a cosmic conspiracy by those refusing to accept Christianity.
Modern Political and Economic Antisemitism
It was only with the arrival in the late nineteenth century of two additional sets of influences—modern finance capitalism and modern racist theory— that the materials were all in place for the emergence of a fully developed antisemitic conspiracy theory.
In its consistent, generic form this theory came to accuse all Jews, as a group, of having colluded to take unfair advantage of the economic and political power that, after late-nineteenth-century Jewish emancipation, was for the first time formally available to them. Given that this generic theory issued from secular, economic, and racist speculations, the prescriptiveness for antisemitic conspiracy theory of Christian attitudes would seem to be open to question.
Yet it remains equally true that antecedent Christian prejudices had already predisposed many in the Gentile world so to configure all subsequent threats to traditional religio-political valuations and structures that Jews were accorded a central role.
In the United States and in Western Europe this modern, economic, and racist form of antisemitism emerged after about 1870. It was by that time that most Western European Jews had achieved full political emancipation and civil rights and had suddenly become socially and politically more prominent than ever.
Jewish representation in the financial and commercial sectors was by that time already disproportionate. According to so-called interactionist models of antisemitism, this multiple new conspicuousness of Jews called forth intensified European animosity toward them.
The same process was at work in the United States, even though political emancipation had taken place much earlier. For the late-nineteenth-century rise of the Jews was patent in the United States as well, partially because of the arrival of great numbers of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and partially because of Jewish prominence in the new class of finance capitalists that emerged after the Civil War.
The unprecedentedly swift and pervasive period of industrialization, urbanization, and economic centralization that also followed the Civil War generated new economic dislocations and anxieties just as Jews became more prominent and seemed more than others to benefit from the changes. For those so minded, it proved irresistible not to trace that conjunction to a secret financial cabal that was malevolent, foreign, international, and Jewish.
From the early Republic onward some U.S. antisemites had voiced concerns over what they perceived as Jewish power in international finance and commerce far in excess of what their numbers should have indicated. Late-eighteenth-century plans for the construction of an American Bank had been denounced as a secular Jewish conspiracy, and similar charges had reemerged at regular intervals throughout the nineteenth century.
During the Civil War they had enjoyed a particular revival, and the commander of the Union armies, General Ulysses S. Grant, had at one point tried to evict all Jews from areas under his control because of their purportedly disloyal commercial activities.
On the Confederate side similar, inverted charges had been made against the Jewish secretary of state Judah Benjamin and against others said to conspire against the Confederacy and on behalf of international financiers and moneylenders. With the palpable rise of American-Jewish banking interests that took place from the late nineteenth century onward, these kinds of charges multiplied and intensified manifold.
Most conspicuous in the discourse of various left-wing populist and agricultural protest movements, such as the Populist Party, this new economic antisemitism issued in a variety of full-blown conspiracy theories in the 1870s through the 1890s.
In these conspiracy theories all the perceived evils of modern capitalism and industrialism were ascribed to Jews, because of their supposed racial/ religious bent for exploitation and, on a more precise level, because of the purported machinations of identifiable Jewish financiers.
The latter type of theories tended to center around the supposed power of the Rothschild banking family and those of its U.S. agents that were central in various reconstruction and public debt refinancing schemes after the Civil War, as well as in an essentially imperialist defense of their investments abroad.
The economic dislocations attendant on these schemes were highly disruptive of traditional agrarian communities, and in the western and southern areas most affected they tended to be blamed on a cabal of Jewish financiers acting in collusion with corrupted Gentile politicians.
This strand of left-wing antisemitism reached something of a culmination in the 1890s campaigns for the free coinage of silver (and against imperialism) by the Democratic presidential candidate William J. Bryan. Affiliated motifs could still be detected after World War I in various anti-internationalist, isolationist, and social reformatory forms of discourse.
On the political right, as well as elsewhere, these conspiracist speculations were further focused by the new racist, eugenicist, and social Darwinist theories, which made their appearance at about the same time. No major race theorist emerged in the United States, but a more generally orienting racist paradigm came to characterize much of the intellectual discourse of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Both right-wing and left-wing intellectuals traversed racist arguments, claiming that some inherent, genetically acquired racial imperative drove Jews toward a quest for world domination and generally to reprehensible financial and commercial activities.
Elitist literary antisemites further accused Jews of having a baneful, corrupting influence on the aesthetic and moral standards of U.S. life through their financial dealings and through the control that they allegedly acquired in early-twentieth-century print media and in the Hollywood film industry. These elitist antisemites tended to regard both of these kinds of supposedly Jewish influence as somehow racially grounded and possibly conspiracist in nature; certainly international and pervasive.
A fusion of these right- and left-wing tracks of racist antisemitism was never effected, but in the United States no less than in Europe they separately continued to color much of public discussion throughout the twentieth century. On the whole, the Left’s racist conspiracism tended to remain altogether more implied and unsystematic, directed against international bankers in general, while the right-wing version moved ever closer to structured and highly ossified universal conspiracy theories.
Antisemitism and Twentieth-Century Illuminati Theory
In the wake of World War I right-wing conspiracy theorists revived and brought up to date the older theories on the Illuminati. It was then that antisemitism was, for the first time, placed into the very center of the Illuminati theory.
Its full-blown twentieth-century forms tended to be adaptations from the writings of Nesta Webster, a British pioneer of the study of the Illuminati whose many publications were widely circulated in the Englishspeaking world from 1918 onward. It was she, more than any other, who framed the twentiethcentury interpretive matrix that made secular and revolutionary Jews the controlling and directing power behind the Illuminati.
Claiming that the originally Masonic organization had been taken over at some point by an inner cabal of influential Jewish financiers, philosophers, and Reform rabbis, Webster and her conspiracist followers portrayed all, apparently unrelated forms of subversion as deliberately chosen, complementary tracks of a core Jewish conspiracy.
This reformulation of the Illuminati theory found favor primarily because of the need to explain Russian Bolshevism, the apparent overrepresentation of Jews in it, and the purported interest of international financiers to trade with the Bolsheviks and to have them recognized by the Western powers.
The concurrent radicalization of Western labor movements and of colonial nationalists provided further causes for concern for many on the right, as did the creation of the League of Nations as a new supranational authority invested with a radical social program.
This multiple coincidence could not readily be explained in traditional, nonconspiracist ways, least of all by those already steeped in Christian conspiracist thought-forms and interested in continued adherence to traditional religio-political authorities. In the tumultuous aftermath of World War I, all of these developments were instead increasingly interpreted from the Illuminati theory and pronounced different tracks in the campaign for world control of the Illuminati’s core of Jewish financiers.
The 1920 republication of the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion provided crucial added documentation for this new version of the Illuminati theory. Protocols contained a relatively precise program of action that fitted in with earlier predictions and could be presented by conspiracy theorists as the exposed twentieth-century plan of Illuminati action.
Although the document was actually a forgery created by czarist secret police, the authenticity of the Protocols as a secret Jewish document was vouched for by a wide range of apparently respectable commentators. Various abridgements and commentaries of the Protocols quickly spread in the United States. Especially influential among them were those broadcast in the Dearborn Independent and the book The International Jew (1921) by the industrialist Henry Ford.
He became the primary popular disseminator of Illuminati conspiracism in the United States and, more than anyone else, was responsible for the unprecedented spread and popular acceptance of the Jew-Bolshevik equation, which coincided with his period of greatest antisemitic activity, the years 1920–1927. A range of lesser known and less influential U.S. antisemites further popularized the Jew-Bolshevik collusion before and after Ford’s public recanting in 1927.
From the Catholic radio priest Father Coughlin to the Silver Shirts of William D. Pelley and from the Defenders of the Christian Faith of Gerald D. Winrod to Gerald L. K. Smith’s Christian Nationalist Crusade, these populist antisemites benefited from and used the anxieties of the Great Depression to incorporate in 1920s generic conspiracy theory such subsequent developments as the New Deal, or “Jew Deal,” and the United Nations. More than a hundred new antisemitic organizations were created in the 1930s, most of them rooted in this kind of conspiracism.
In the 1930s and 1940s, speculations on the Illuminati also found their way to the exegesis of many prominent Christian fundamentalist leaders. Especially important in this regard was William B. Riley, the Baptist founder and head of the World Christian Fundamentals Association, who commanded an important position in Christian print and radio media and in various fundamentalist organizations, and could thus powerfully exert himself in the spreading and popularizing of antisemitic attitudes.
Riley primed the early cold-war generation of fundamentalist leaders and made sure that Christian fundamentalist theology accommodated secular Illuminati conspiracism within the older framework of Christian prophecy thought. He, his disciples, and others like him endorsed the Illuminati theory, accepted Protocols as largely authentic, and accentuated the purported Jewishness of international communism.
Believing in the imminence of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and in a preceding antiChristian world empire, these fundamentalists tended also to portray the League of Nations and the UN as prefigurations of the coming anti-Christian world power and to oppose them as such. They further assumed that secular Jews, in particular, played a central role in this anti-Christian world power and that it operated along the lines sketched out in the Protocols.
Renditions of Illuminati theory thus shaped by fundamentalism were used by many religious and secular antisemites throughout the interwar and cold-war periods. To them, it cohered the apparently unrelated, subversionary, and anti-Christian movements of religious and cultural modernism, international communism, liberal internationalism, colonial nationalism, and, originally, Zionism.
Each was presented as but one track in the world conspiracy of secular Jews and their allies, each designed in its different way to weaken the temporal power of Christianity, and each directed by an immensely powerful inner cabal of conspirators. Because of its malleable and inclusive nature, such a compound conspiracy theory proved appealing to many on the political and religious right, usable in a range of anticommunist and antimodernist campaigns from the 1940s to the early 1990s.
By any gauge, antisemitism precipitously declined in the United States during the cold war. The antisemitic aspects of anticommunist conspiracy theory tended to become ever more rarely voiced and explicit, more and more silent and implied. Yet behind much of the anticommunist clamor of the cold war the old antisemitic prejudices still operated.
Post–Cold War Trends
No marked weakening of the various antisemitic conspiracy theories was noticeable immediately after the cold war, even though one of their main rationales was removed by the implosion of the Soviet Union and of international communism.
Also, the increasingly consensual aversion felt toward antisemitism that the crimes of the Holocaust had generated in Western societies made it increasingly difficult for conspiracists to maintain the overtly antisemitic complexion of their theory. Yet its essence remained unchanged. Conspiracy theorists’ concerns were hardly alleviated by the ending of the cold war, for they saw in it the collapse of only one overt aspect of a still ongoing conspiracy.
After the cold war conspiracist discourse centered increasingly on international organizations, such as the UN, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, which were now portrayed as the residual aspects of the one single conspiracy of which international communism had been another aspect. The supposedly Jewish character of that conspiracy’s inner cabal was now referenced more through general allusions to international finance than through direct naming, but the antisemitic element remained at the core of the theory, as did, frequently, the Illuminati.
One new constituency for antisemitic conspiracism received much public attention from the 1980s onward, but its theories did not contain anything new. This was the antisemitism apparent in the African American community, most glaringly in the Nation of Islam movement.
Its leaders, and other prominent African American antisemites, revisited all the customary religious, economic, and racist conspiracy theories, but it was manifest that the core motifs of antisemitic conspiracy theory had remained remarkably uniform and unchanged from their first appearance.
Throughout its long history in the United States, antisemitism has yielded itself to conspiracism, whether premised on antecedent religious prejudices or more interactionist prompters. Its religious and secular forms alike have tended to coalesce around a number of slightly different but essentially homogeneous permutations of the socalled Illuminati conspiracy theory.
This theory has proved to be one of the most persistent containers of antisemitism ever, not least because its malleable and all-inclusive nature can be used to accommodate widely dissimilar forms of economic, religious, racist, or political anxiety.
For most Americans, a general predisposition toward conspiracist explanations came from originally Christian forms of anti-Jewish prejudice, and the Illuminati theory was situated into this context as a secularized form of millennialist speculation. Gradually, its appearance became emphatically anticommunist and anti-internationalist and its antisemitic roots increasingly obscured.
However, there was no doubt but that secular conspiracy belief, especially when allied with prophecy belief, was a mainstay of much of U.S. popular and extremist thought well into the post–cold war era. Nor was there much doubt that such conspiracism was predicated on presuppositions and paradigms originally derived from religious and racist antisemitic speculation.