For centuries, antisemitic propaganda has been spread through the use of antisemitic imagery. The earliest known antisemitic caricatures appeared in Europe in the thirteenth century. In fact, the first antisemitic “caricature” is actually a doodle appearing on the top of a 1233 English royal tax record. It depicts three Jews standing inside a castle. The castle is being attacked by horned, beak-nosed demons. A larger demon stands in the center of the castle and touches the noses of two of the three Jews, as though to demonstrate that the demons’ noses resemble Jewish noses.
The earliest antisemitic caricatures often depicted blood libel (the antisemitic conspiracy that Jews kill babies for ritual purposes), as well as imagery depicting Jews with horns on their heads (another antisemitic conspiracy).
Said depictions reflected and ignited the already-existing antisemitic sentiment among the general population, antisemitic sentiment which often led to pogroms (antisemitic massacres) and hundreds of instances of ethnic cleansing.
In the last decades of the fifteenth century, Jews in Europe experienced a massive wave of expulsions (ethnic cleansing), culminating in the Spanish Inquisition of 1492. There are multiple reasons for these expulsions, such as the changing economic landscape, but perhaps the most impactful was the invention of the printing press around 1436, which facilitated the dissemination of antisemitic propaganda, including pamphlets, folksongs, imagery, literature, and ballads. While virtually all of this propaganda had its roots centuries prior, the printing press exposed these conspiracies, tropes, and stereotypes to a much wider audience in a shorter amount of time. Before the invention of the printing press, antisemitic events (such as pogroms) remained relatively isolated to the specific location in which they occurred. It was thanks to the printing press that a (negative) homogenized image of Jews as subversive to Christendom emerged in Europe.
Most infamously, Martin Luther utilized the printing press to publish virulently antisemitic texts. Most significant was a 65,000 word antisemitic proclamation called “On the Jews and Their Lies.” Luther’s antisemitic works deeply influenced the development of “modern” antisemitism in Germany, so much so that many historians argue that his work influenced Nazism. In fact, nearly every antisemitic book published during the Third Reich included references and quotations attributed to Luther.
PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION
In 1897, in response to “the Jewish Question” (what should be the fate of Europe’s Jews?) and violent antisemitic persecution, Jewish delegates from 17 countries around the world met in Basel, Switzerland to attend the First Zionist Congress. In 1903, an antisemitic hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” was published as a series in a Russian newspaper. Inspired by the publicity surrounding the First Zionist Congress, The Protocols purported to share the minutes of secret meetings between Jewish leaders.
First published in part in the Russian newspaper “Znamya” in 1903, The Protocols was published in full as an appendix to “The Great in the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth” by a writer named Sergei Nilus. The original writer is unknown. However, in 1920, 1935, and 1964, the text was proven to be a plagiarized fabrication.
The Protocols codified antisemitic tropes that had been around for millennia. It portrayed Jews as power-hungry conspirators who are plotting to rule the world by controlling the economy and the media and inciting religious conflict. In 1920, two British newspaper correspondents who lived in Russia first published The Protocols in English. Shortly after, Henry Ford brought The Protocols to the United States (see next slide).
In 1921, the first Arabic language edition was published. This had a tremendous negative impact on the Jews of Palestine, who were violently targeted for supposedly attempting to “advance the international Jewish conspiracy.” To this day, the text has been endorsed by various current and former leaders in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a wave of Jewish immigrants escaping antisemitic violence in Europe arrived to the United States. This influx of Jewish immigrants resulted in the spread of anti-immigrant, antisemitic sentiment, as well as the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Among those Americans participating in antisemitic sentiment was Henry Ford.
In 1918, Henry Ford purchased a newspaper known as The Dearborn Independent. Soon after, the newspaper published a series of articles claiming that there was a Jewish conspiracy infecting America. The series ran for 91 issues and brought many of the centuries-old European antisemitic tropes and conspiracies to the United States.
Eventually Ford bound the articles into a four volume book series known as “The International Jew.” He also published The Protocols of the Elder of Zion for the first time to an American audience. Due to his fame, platform, and influence (The Dearborn Independent was spread through Ford Motor dealerships across the United States, and often, when people bought new cars, issues of the newspaper were left in their vehicles for them to read), Ford was able to spread his antisemitic ideas on a massive scale.
Nazi Germany enacted a massive campaign of antisemitic propaganda to earn the support of the German public for their persecution and genocide of the Jewish People. As soon as the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Hitler opened the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The ministry controlled and produced art, music, theater, films, books, radio, educational materials, and the press.
Films were perhaps the most significant in the dissemination of antisemitic Nazi propaganda. Movies such as “The Eternal Jew” portrayed Jews as subhuman creatures intent on infiltrating and destroying the “Aryan race.”
Newspapers also spread antisemitic propaganda, particularly Der Strümer, which printed antisemitic cartoons, not unlike antisemitic cartoons published to this day. These cartoons depicted Jews as power-hungry, greedy, wealthy, and manipulative, and illustrates Jews utilizing centuries-old antisemitic stereotypes (e.g. large, hooked noses).
The Nazis also spread their antisemitic messages through children’s stories, especially the (already heavily antisemitic) Grimm’s fairytales. For example, they claimed that Little Red Riding Hood symbolized the German people, suffering at the hands of the Jewish wolf.
Following World War II, antisemitism was heavily associated with Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was, of course, an enemy to the Soviet Union. As such, Stalin, who’d long expressed antisemitic sentiments, began persecuting Soviet Jews under the guise of “anti-Zionism” instead.
He enacted a massive “anti-Zionist” campaign, spouting millennia-old antisemitic tropes about Jews, money, greed, and power. Much of the antisemitic (or “anti-Zionist”) propaganda found today in left-wing spaces borrows directly from Stalin’s campaign.
Most notably, the Doctors’ Plot was an antisemitic campaign between 1951-1953, when Stalin alleged that Jewish doctors from Moscow had conspired to assassinate Soviet leaders. In “response,” Jewish doctors were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, and tortured. A propaganda campaign warned of the dangers of “Zionism.” People with Jewish last names were condemned.
In 1952, a letter from a Russian cardiologist from 1948 revealed that a Communist party leader had suffered a heart attack but the Kremlin doctors had misdiagnosed it and covered up their mistake. The Soviets alleged that the cover up was a Zionist conspiracy. However, since none of the doctors involved in the cover up were actually Jewish, the Soviet government added the names of Jewish doctors to the list and had them arrested.
Initially, 37 were arrested. Under extreme torture, the prisoners “admitted” that there was a Jewish plot to assassinate Soviet leaders. Stalin ordered the media to issue an anti-Zionist propaganda campaign, likely to set the stage for a series of show trials. Stalin then intended to publish a letter signed by Soviet Jews “denouncing” the killer doctors, as he wanted to differentiate between Jews that were “loyal to the Soviet state” and disloyal “Zionists.” Two drafts were written but the letter was never published.
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