Antisemitism has a long history in American politics. For centuries, politicians and propagandists on the left and the right have used Jew-hatred as a mobilizing tool to stoke fear of “the other,” as well as to find a convenient scapegoat on which to blame social, political, and economic problems. While Jews have experienced discrimination in what is now the United States since the mid-17th century, American antisemitism skyrocketed during the 19th century. Rising levels of Jewish immigration into the country and the speed at which some European Jews assimilated into American society led to the dissemination of conspiracy theories that “urban Jews were exploiting markets and the federal government as a whole.” Similar conspiracy theories of Jews controlling the United States government, manipulating the economy, and threatening “the American people” persisted into the 20th century. While public expressions of antisemitism declined after 1945, Jew-hatred found renewed popularity following the 2008 financial crisis. The chaos and financial devastation of the 2008 housing market crash drove many Americans to scapegoat “the Jews” as the masterminds behind the catastrophe, drawing on the old trope of a nationwide Jewish conspiracy to control the American government, the US economy, and subjugate non-Jewish Americans. During the recent presidency of Donald Trump, however, American antisemitism rose to even greater heights. Trump’s supporters in the Republican party and the far-right engaged in antisemitic marches, spread conspiracy theories online, and attacked Jews verbally and physically. Indeed, in 2019, the Anti-Defamation League reported that “Jews in the United States suffered the largest number of anti-Semitic incidents since [the organization] began collecting records 40 years ago.”
Given its prevalence in the past and the present, antisemitism is a disturbing yet persistent force across US history and politics. But how has it remained this way? Put simply, “What are the traits and psychological roots of American antisemitism?” This paper posits a two-part hypothesis to answer this question. First, this paper argues that American antisemitism is a populist ideology based on the conspiracy theory that “the Jews” are plotting to undermine and subjugate “the American people.” Second, this paper contends that American antisemitism is a manifestation of intuitive thinking, magical beliefs, and group identification. In other words, American antisemitism is a social psychological phenomenon that construes “the American people” as a non-Jewish, morally good in-group that opposes a malevolent Jewish out-group that aspires to dominate every aspect of the United States and its inhabitants.
I will use a mixture of historical, political, and psychological analyses to support my hypothesis. To demonstrate American antisemitism’s populist orientation, I will examine two pieces of antisemitic propaganda: “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion.” The former is a political cartoon that was created during the 1896 presidential election to garner support for the Populist Party, and the latter is an antisemitic meme that was created between 2017 and 2018 by a white nationalist. Although they were created 122 years apart in different historical contexts, both images use eerily similar antisemitic tropes to demonize the Jews as malevolent “others” who scheme against and want to dominate America’s non-Jewish population. In this way, these pieces of propaganda perfectly express Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser’s definition of populism, which is “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” In both “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion,” “the American people” are the innocent and oppressed “pure people,” while “the Jews” are the sinister and oppressive “corrupt elite.”
To demonstrate the psychological underpinnings of American antisemitism and its populist tendencies, I will draw on the social psychological concepts of intuitive thinking, magical beliefs, and group identification. Intuitions are quick, nondeliberative judgments that are emotionally-based and frequently linked to visceral, evolutionary feelings such as anxiety and fear. These negative emotions can lead to prejudices against “out-groups,” such as the Jews. Such emotions also cause humans to create magical beliefs about the world to better understand it, especially during times of uncertainty and chaos. Magical beliefs “[invoke] an invisible force and [contradict] an alternative, empirical explanation,” and therefore constitute the basis of conspiracy theories that present Jews as a shadowy force that makes the non-Jewish “American people” suffer. These conspiracies, as well as the entire populist division between the evil “Jewish elite” and “the American people,” are premised on the psychological categories of in-groups versus out-groups. American antisemitism portrays “the American people” as a virtuous in-group, while “the Jews” are cast as a wicked out-group that conspires against them to achieve complete dominance over their lives and the United States. Thus, I will use historical, political, and psychological frameworks to support my hypothesis that American antisemitism is a populist ideology that is deeply grounded in social psychological factors.
American Antisemitism as Populism: “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion”
American antisemitism is a populist ideology because it is based on the fundamental distinction between a corrupt, malevolent “Jewish elite” and a morally pure “American people.” American antisemitism depicts “the Jews” as a unified group that dominates the highest levels of power in the United States government and economy, with Jews using this power to threaten and punish legions of hard-working gentile Americans. The pursuit of “the Jewish elite” is total domination of the United States and its people, as well as to make non-Jewish Americans suffer as much as possible. The content and artistic expression of this ideology have remained disturbingly continuous throughout American history, and this continuity is best shown through two pieces of antisemitic propaganda: “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion.”
“History Repeats Itself” was published on April 15, 1896, as a political cartoon in Sound Money magazine, an Ohio-based publication that was aligned with the Populist Party. The cartoon’s creator was Watson Heston, an artist and satirist who was also a member of the Populist Party. The Populist Party was a left-wing political party that was active in the late 19th century and advocated for the rights of farmers and other agricultural workers. True to its name, the party opposed large businesses and corrupt politicians who exploited farmers, and its ideologues frequently identified Jews as the culprits behind this exploitation.
“History Repeats Itself” perfectly espouses the Populist Party’s brand of antisemitism, mixing classical antisemitic imagery with a pro-American and anti-establishment stance. The cartoon employs the ancient Christian trope of deicide (Christ-killing) by depicting Uncle Sam being crucified and tortured by two male Jewish figures. These men are drawn with exaggerated noses and are dressed as bankers with fine coats and top hats. One of the Jews is piercing Uncle Sam’s left side with a spear that is labeled “Gold Standard,” and the other Jewish figure, who is labeled “Wall Street Pirate,” is attempting to make Uncle Sam drink poison labeled “interest on bonds.” Hence, the cartoon portrays the Jews as the leaders of the business establishment that the Populist Party despises, an establishment that manipulates the economy against the American people. The cartoon also implies that the Republican and Democratic parties are conspiring with the Jews against gentile Americans. It features Republican and Democratic politicians, James G. Blaine and Grover Cleveland, emptying Uncle Sam’s pockets of gold and silver. The cartoon, therefore, claims that the United States will suffer and die as long as Jews and their establishment puppets control American politics and finance. It drives this point home with stark words posted above Uncle Sam’s head: “This is the U.S. in the hands of the Jews.”
“History Repeats Itself” was meant to appeal to farmers, the Populist Party’s base, as the Jews represented the political and economic elites that they saw as their oppressors. Furthermore, the cartoon was produced during the 1896 presidential election, and by using antisemitism as an organizing tool, “History Repeats Itself” was designed to mobilize the Populist Party’s base to support its presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan. The main issue of the 1896 election was the debate over whether American currency should be based on the gold standard or free silver. Republicans backed the gold standard, while Democrats supported free silver. Judging from “History Repeats Itself,” however, elements of the Populist Party despised both currencies, as well as the major parties that supported them. The cartoon used antisemitism to express its hatred of both the Republican and Democratic parties, as well as their debate over the future of American currency. The Populist Party denounced its Democratic and Republican enemies as being controlled by the Jews to present itself, not the American political establishment, as the “true” party of the American people.
Like “History Repeats Itself,” “Oy Vey 6 Billion” depicts the Jews as the foes of the American people. However, it emerged in an entirely different historical and technological context. The image was posted on the meme-sharing app iFunny on May 2, 2018, although it emerged on 4chan’s “Politically Incorrect” thread as early as 2017. All links to “Oy Vey 6 Billion” have been removed by 4chan and iFunny’s moderators, and the identity of the image’s creator remains a mystery. However, the image is explicit in its antisemitism.
“Oy Vey 6 Billion” is an antisemitic meme that parodies the cover art of Far Cry 5, a first-person shooter video game. It is an extremely vivid and detailed image, featuring multiple antisemitic tropes. The picture shows six bearded Jewish men with sidelocks, dressed in stereotypical Hasidic garb, sitting behind a table. The Jews at the left side of the table are in deep conversation, with a plate full of gold next to them. A white man is tied up below them, with the words “Jesus Lover” burned onto his back. These symbols imply that the Jews are wealthy, greedy, and hate Christianity: the burned back of the white Christian victim asserts that Jews will not hesitate to torture and subjugate American Christians. This anti-Christian imagery is exacerbated by the background of the picture, which features a Christian church covered with the Israeli flag. On the right side of the table, two Jews are guarding a white woman with a bloody nose and a Black man who is chained at the neck. These details vilify the Jews even further, depicting them as abusers of women and the enslavers of Black people. At the center of the picture sits a Jewish man with a white prayer shawl. He uses an American flag as a tablecloth, which has been altered to feature a Star of David. A menorah, another stereotypically Jewish symbol, is set on the American flag. The Jewish man’s hands are outstretched and his palms are facing upwards, as if to demonstrate the Jews’ dominance over the United States. Lastly, the picture features fake quotes from the Talmud, a Jewish sacred text, that “authorize” the murder, rape, and enslavement of gentiles. Hence, the image uses misinformation to demonize Judaism and “prove” that the Jews are a threat to the United States and its Christian population.
Since the creator of “Oy Vey 6 Billion” and the site on which it originally appeared remain unclear, it is impossible to know precisely why the image was made other than to stoke antisemitic sentiment online. However, given its focus on the Jewish oppression of white people and Christianity, as well as implying that the Jews are conspiring to take over the United States, it is likely that “Oy Vey 6 Billion” was created by an American white supremacist. Given its origin and spread on 4chan and iFunny, this hypothesis makes sense. White nationalists and Christian conservatives have used 4chan and iFunny as platforms to spread antisemitic memes and propaganda, categories into which “Oy Vey 6 Billion” fits perfectly.
“History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion” share important similarities. First, both artworks establish an irreconcilable and populist distinction between “the Jews” and “the American people.” These images portray the Jews as malevolent “others” who are constantly scheming against, and want to dominate, America’s non-Jewish population. By depicting Jews in an overwhelmingly negative way, both artworks use the tactic of demonizing the Jews to present them as “purely evil.” Second, both pieces of propaganda illustrate the consequences of a successful Jewish conspiracy against the United States. The images imply that if the Jews achieve their objectives, they will control America and use its economic and political systems to make life miserable for gentiles. For instance, both artworks claim that Jewish domination of the United States entails the theft of the American people’s wealth and the destruction of Christianity. Therefore, both “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion” impel their respective audiences to action against the Jews. By preventing Jewish control over the United States, the American people will be able to thrive and preserve their freedoms.
Thus, “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion” demonstrate the disturbing continuity of American antisemitic populism over the course of 122 years. Despite emerging from both sides of the political spectrum, the two images depict the Jews as malicious elites with vast financial and political resources who use them to subjugate and inflict pain on an innocent, hard-working gentile American public. They envision the Jews as masters of the US government, both major political parties, and the economy, as well as the ultimate enemies of Christianity. Hence, “History Repeats Itself” and “Oy Vey 6 Billion” paint a bleak picture of American life that can only be remedied through populist mobilization. Unless the American people rise up together and destroy the Jewish elites that exploit them, they will forever remain crushed under Jewish systems of domination.
The Social Psychological Roots of American Antisemitism
While American antisemitism is a historical and political phenomenon, it is also a psychological one. Indeed, the ideology’s core tenets, including its populist binary of “the Jewish elite” versus “the American people,” stem from the social psychological concepts of intuitive thinking, magical beliefs, and group identity. Each of these concepts are interrelated and helps explain the prejudices, conspiracism, and in-group versus out-group dynamic present in American antisemitism.
As mentioned previously in this paper, intuitions are quick, nondeliberative judgments that are emotionally-based. The emotional judgments contained in intuitive thinking are split-second reactions to situations and information. These reactions are not based on any extensive empirical evidence since they occur so quickly. Put simply, “intuitive thinking is emotional thinking,” and intuitive thinking is frequently linked to visceral, evolutionary feelings such as anxiety and fear. It is this anxiety, fear, and the immediacy of intuitive judgments that can lead people to develop prejudices against perceived “out-groups,” including Jews. Antisemitic beliefs about Jews, such as their supposed control over the US government and economy, are grounded in one’s emotions and are therefore illogical. Such extreme emotions make antisemites unable to think critically about Jews and reexamine their own prejudices. Social psychologist Florette Cohen Abady elucidates the emotional and irrational nature of antisemitism, writing, “Antisemitism is not logical; it is emotional. Attitudes stemming from antisemitic emotion are no longer reasonable, causing a prejudiced person to distort challenges to their beliefs.” Furthermore, a person’s antisemitic beliefs, which are grounded in overly negative feelings and intuitions towards Jews, often involve gross generalizations that vilify Jews as a group. Abady observes, “Antisemitic people direct their prejudice towards all Jews as a whole, ignoring individuating characteristics of members of Jewish communities.” Psychologist Noach Milgram echoes Abady’s findings, asserting that “Antisemites make more generalizations about Jews, primarily negative, than they make of other groups. They believe that what some Jews do is an inherent trait of Jews in general. If Jews are successful in business, it is because they are avaricious and that they accumulate their wealth at the expense of others.” Hence, predominantly negative generalizations about Jews are central to a person’s antisemitic beliefs. However, such generalizations are grounded in one’s negative intuitions towards Jews. Oliver and Wood argue that intuitions are “expedient generalizations” because they provide an emotionally-fueled, quick impression of any given phenomena. Thus, antisemitism, including the American context, is a profoundly intuitive ideology because it relies on emotional, negative, and irrational impressions about Jews that are generalized into prejudices.
The intuitive prejudices that American antisemites have towards Jews are inextricable from the psychological concept that turns their Jew-hatred into conspiracy theories: magical beliefs. According to Oliver and Wood, magical beliefs “[invoke] an invisible force” to explain uncertain or “unexplainable” events, and they also “[contradict] an alternative, empirical explanation” to such events. Magical beliefs enable people to “cope with the stress of uncertainty” and “give [them] the illusion of control” over the world around them, especially during periods of instability and chaos. However, magical beliefs also undergird conspiracy theories because they attribute power to an unseen force that plots against its victims and oppresses them. The ideology of American antisemitism perfectly subscribes to this logic. It espouses the magical belief that a shadowy, often invisible force, “the Jews,” are conspiring against “the American people.” The ideology gathers the negative emotions and intuitions that Americans possess during times of real or perceived crisis and directs them against a scapegoat, “the Jews,” whose sole purpose is to plot against and subjugate all aspects of the United States and its population. Therefore, magical beliefs constitute the basis of the populist conspiracy theories that are at the heart of American antisemitism.
While magical beliefs transform the intuitions and prejudices of American antisemites into conspiracy theories, the social psychological notions of in-groups and out-groups solidify the populist distinction between “the Jews” and “the American people.” The term “in-group” denotes a social group with which one identifies, and an “out-group” is a social group with which one does not identify. People identify with members of their in-groups and tend to see themselves as separate from members of out-groups. In the case of American antisemites, they identify as members of “the American people” and see themselves as separate from “the Jews.” However, American antisemites not only see themselves as distinct from the Jewish out-group: they despise it as well. According to social psychologists Anni Sternisko, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Jay J. Van Bavel, this tendency to “hold positive beliefs about [one’s in-groups] and negative beliefs about [one’s out-groups]” is common, though not universal, among members of social groups. Such a tendency produces antagonisms between perceived in-groups and out-groups, thereby serving to further differentiate them. American antisemites actively engage in this psychological behavior. They use positive beliefs about “the American people” to elevate their in-group and employ negative beliefs about “the Jews” to demean the out-group. American antisemites conceive of “the American people” as non-Jewish, hardworking, virtuous, and the victims of Jewish exploitation. Meanwhile, “the Jews” are cast as a wicked out-group that conspires to achieve complete control over “the American people” and their country. In this way, American antisemites’ negative intuitions and magical beliefs influence how they construct in-groups and out-groups. They conceive of “the American people” as a separate social group from “the Jews” precisely because of their prejudices and magical conspiracy theories about Jewish immorality and dominance over the United States.
Antisemitism has a long legacy in the United States. It has permeated America’s historical and political landscape for centuries, proving itself to be a favorite tool of politicians, propagandists, and citizens of all parties to demonize their enemies and blame social, political, and economic problems on “the Jews.” Yet, what are the traits and psychological roots of American antisemitism that have contributed to its prevalence? I have employed historical, political, and psychological analyses to posit a two-part answer to this question.
First, American antisemitism is a populist ideology that is based on the conspiracy theory that “the Jews” are plotting to undermine and subjugate “the American people.” This conspiracy theory is grounded in the populist distinction between “the American people” and “the Jews.” American antisemites conceive of “the American people” as the non-Jewish, hard-working, virtuous masses of the United States, while “the Jews” embody corrupt political and financial elites who seek to control the United States, exploit “the American people,” and make their lives miserable. In this way, “the American people” and “the Jews” respectively fall into the populist categories of “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” as articulated by Mudde and Kaltwasser. This distinction between “the American people” and “the Jews” has existed since the 19th century, and antisemitic pieces of propaganda such as “History Repeats Itself,” which was produced in 1896, and “Oy Vey 6 Billion,” which was created between 2017 and 2018, illustrate American antisemitism’s ideological continuity. Despite the fact that they were created 122 years apart, both images convey a strikingly similar message: unless the American people rise up against the Jewish elites who control their government and economy, steal their money, and despise Christianity, Americans will remain subjugated forever.
Second, American antisemitism is grounded in the social psychological concepts of intuitive thinking, magical beliefs, and group identification. American antisemites have extremely negative intuitions towards Jews, and these irrational, emotionally-based judgments influence antisemitic prejudices and pejorative overgeneralizations about Jews. Consequently, magical beliefs transform these antisemitic prejudices and overgeneralizations into conspiracy theories that blame the Jews for the American people’s problems, especially during periods of instability and uncertainty. Lastly, American antisemites use their prejudices and conspiracy theories about Jews to define “the American people” as an in-group that is distinct from a Jewish out-group. Given the social psychological tendency for members of social groups to promote positive beliefs about their in-groups and negative ones about out-groups, American antisemites imagine “the American people” as a righteous, morally pure in-group that opposes the oppression of a morally bankrupt Jewish out-group. Thus, American antisemitism is a mode of psychological thinking that uses intuition, magical beliefs, and antagonistic group identities to reify populist hatred of Jews in the United States.
While I feel that this paper has put forth a strong and convincing argument about the nature and psychological roots of American antisemitism, it is by no means perfect. For instance, it does not discuss the interpersonal distinctions between American antisemites, such as race, religion, and socio-economic status, that could cause their conceptions of antisemitism to differ. Furthermore, this paper is not a comprehensive study of American antisemitism, so it cannot account for every nuance, difference, or detail of this hatred throughout American history, politics, and psychology. I hope that future research will address these shortcomings, producing scholarship that attempts to illuminate the complexities and variations of American antisemitism. Such research is necessary because of antisemitism’s continued pervasiveness in the United States. From the 19th to the 21st centuries, Americans have used similar antisemitic tropes to demonize and harm Jews. The fact that antisemitism has remained such a popular aspect of American society shows that many Americans continue to consume and adopt antisemitic beliefs. If Americans found antisemitism a less convincing hatred, antisemites would stop using it as a rhetorical tool. Thus, scholars must conduct more research on American antisemitism in order to better understand and stop the spread of this bigotry. If such research does not continue, antisemitism will grow in its influence and further permeate American society.
Figure 1: “History Repeats Itself,” by Watson Heston (1896)
Figure 2: “Oy Vey 6 Billion,” by Anonymous (2018)
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 Both pieces of propaganda are featured at the end of this paper under the section heading “Figures.”
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 “Oy Vey 6 Billion,” iFunny, May 2, 2018, https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ntIU6wk8XGsdhCR6JyQHZ5gZX1tQkaDY/view?usp=sharing.
 Asta Zelenkauskaite, Pihla Toivanen, Jukka Huhtamäki, and Katja Valaskivi, “Shades of hatred online: 4chan memetic duplicate circulation surge during hybrid media events,” First Monday 26, no. 1 (2020), https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i1.11075.
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-Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
-Oliver, J. Eric, and Thomas J. Wood. Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018.
-“Oy Vey 6 Billion.” iFunny. May 2, 2018. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ntIU6wk8XGsdhCR6JyQHZ5gZX1tQkaDY/view?usp=sharing.
-Singh, Kanishka. “Watchdog reports record number of anti-Semitic incidents in U.S. last year.” Reuters. May 12, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-antisemitism/watchdog-reports-record-number-of-anti-semitic-incidents-in-u-s-last-year-idUSKBN22O1LK.
-Sternisko, Anni, Aleksandra Cichocka, and Jay J. Van Bavel. “The Dark Side of Social Movements: Social Identity, Non-conformity, and the Lure of Conspiracy Theories.” PsyArXiv. February 1, 2020. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/wvqes.
-Trujillo, Krissy Lunz. “Propaganda Analysis.” Moodle. Last accessed June 2, 2021. https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://ma02202349.schoolwires.net//cms/lib/MA02202349/Centricity/Domain/1181/Propaganda+Analysis-Common+Tools+Word+Doc.docx.
-Wegener, Friederike. “How the Far-Right Uses Memes in Online Warfare.” Global Network on Extremism and Technology. May 21, 2020. https://gnet-research.org/2020/05/21/how-the-far-right-uses-memes-in-online-warfare/.
-Zelenkauskaite, Asta, Pihla Toivanen, Jukka Huhtamäki, and Katja Valaskivi. “Shades of hatred online: 4chan memetic duplicate circulation surge during hybrid media events.” First Monday 26, no. 1 (2020). https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v26i1.11075.