November 5, 2022

Antisemitism: The Malevolent and Deadly Memeplex

by Hal Gershowitz

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Memeplex a set of memes that interact to reinforce each other.

Julius Streicher, Publisher of the virulently anti-Semitic pro-Nazi publication Der Stürmer was dispatched to the dustbin of history over seventy years ago at Nuremberg, but not before wreaking deadly havoc on German Jews by circulating unrelentingly, crude, vicious and cartoonish characterizations of the Jewish People.

Today, there are thousands of Julius Streicher’s in the persons of internet trolls who create and publish, on social media, vicious anti-Semitic memes. By memes, I’m not referring to those easily recognized images like deviously grinning or pouty faces that are copied and circulated repeatedly online. I’m referring to the meme phenomenon first identified by Richard Dawkins in his landmark 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, written long before the internet, let alone social media.

Dawkins wasn’t suggesting that memes were genes but rather packets of spoken, written, or broadcast messages that are generally simple, attention-grabbing, easily remembered, and, subsequently, liberally passed along or replicated.

The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony have become a famous meme because they are memorable and often repeated and suggest that something ominous is about to happen. Those four notes invariably create the same impression on all who hear them.

Thus, memes, in effect, replicate, create an impression, and influence in much the same way genes do, often with equally dramatic and sometimes devastating impact. They spread through the behavior they generate, which others observe and copy. A vicious meme such as anti-Semitic messaging by trolls can become and is in danger of becoming, a social contagion.

Social media has supercharged the creation, replication, and impact of abusive and highly dangerous messaging. Antisemites are having a field day, and, as is true with all successful memes, anti-Semitic messaging floods the blogosphere every minute of every day. As a result, anti-Semitic incidences in America are at the highest level ever recorded since the Anti-Defamation League began keeping records of such incidents over forty years ago. Violence has followed the message as it always does. The hate genie is out of the bottle.

Anti-Semitic behavior is a symptom of anti-social pathology. It is not simply a passing flirtation with boorish behavior among miscreants. It is a carefully curated contagion, the impact of which can be deadly.

Everything we consume as information, whether true or false, leaves a mark on our brains. In time, those exposed to this curated antisemitism will physically internalize the message. As Nobel-prize winner in physiology, Dr. Eric Kandel discovered and wrote about in his landmark book In Search of Memory new information spurs new neuron growth.

Whether fanciful or factual, information impacts our brain’s physical structure. Thus, we are well advised to contemplate the destructive nature of carefully curated misinformation and noxious calumnies with which we are bombarded throughout our waking hours.

Absorbing and pondering information, especially information designed to agitate, literally has a physical and neurological impact on the brain. Enough of it changes and influences who we are, thought by thought, utterance by utterance, neuron by neuron.

Antisemitism may be the cruelest and most deadly meme ever evolved by man. It is, and has been for millennia, passed along from generation to generation, sometimes unthinkingly, often very deliberately, and invariably, with devastating impact.

Infants, prepubescents, teenagers, and adults are exposed to sometimes subtle, often cutting, slurs uttered unthinkingly or, quite often, very deliberately. Far too often, insults have been uttered either as background noise or carefully calculated affronts that, over time, have consigned boys and girls and men and women to that dreadful status of the other.

The collective impact has been and continues to be, the perpetuation of the greatest and deadliest of historical slanders and libels. Whether it manifests itself in the inane ramblings of a Kanye West, a calculated insult of a Margorie Taylor Greene, a deadly harangue of an Adolph Hitler, or by miscreants who hang banners over freeways, or internet trolls who create and pass along hateful calumnies, antisemitism is a corrosive mutation within the human condition. It leaves misery and often death in its wake and, ultimately, enfeebles the perpetrators as well as the victims.

As American Historian Timothy Snyder explains in his influential book, On Tyranny, “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

It is, as Snyder explains, what happens when reason is rejected in the name of will, when objective truth is rejected in favor of a myth articulated by so-called leaders who claim to give voice to the people. They invariably claim a conspiracy against the nation; a time-tested prevarication injected into the body politic from time immemorial with devastating impact.

Invariably, the conspirators become architects of movements to turn a nation against itself; teacher against student, employer against employee, neighbor against neighbor.

Antisemitism is often described as the oldest hatred. Perhaps, it was first sparked when Abraham smashed the idols. Idol worship was de rigueur when fear dictated one’s religious fervor. No one wanted an angry sea god when setting sail.

The world has been plagued by political antisemitism, a sort of tribal ostracization of those who are viewed as the other, and by religious antisemitism, which is a remnant of the ancient deicide calumny.

Factually, all of the early Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus. To be a Christian during much of the first century, one had to be Jewish. All early Christians were Jews. That was until Saul of Tarsus (Paul) determined that one didn’t have to be a Jew to become a Christian. Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed in Jerusalem, became the first non-Jew to convert to Christianity. Jews who refused to trade their Judaism for the new Christianity were (and in many instances, still are) held in contempt.

The hatreds are old, but with social media, the weapons for stoking that hatred are new. The hateful meme is the weapon. The human brain is the target.

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2 responses to “Antisemitism: The Malevolent and Deadly Memeplex”

  1. Irwin yablans says:

    Intellectual commentary, well researched. Would have been useful before you “GaveTrump a chance”Did the words”Weimar” have any resonance in2016?
    May be too late now for history lessons. god help us,

  2. Intellectual commentary, well researched. Would have been useful before you “GaveTrump a chance”Did the words”Weimar is” have any resonance in2016?
    May be too late now for history lessons. god help us,

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