Avoiding antisemitism when discussing the Jewish billionaire family bankrolling antivaxxers Aaron Rabinowitz The Skeptic

For my final article about the Better Way antivaxxer convention in Bath, I want to discuss the relationship between antivaxxerism and antisemitic conspiracism. For years now I’ve written about the reverse Godwin effect and the overrepresentation of Jews in conspiracy narratives. In the eight months since I started this series, antisemitic conspiracism has had yet another moment, driven by the promotion of Hotep style antisemitism by Kanye West with individuals like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones. This has provided everyone with an object lesson in the Bill Cooper connection I wrote about almost two years ago.

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and his choice to superficially signal a commitment to free speech has further exacerbated the problem. By allowing many individuals, including West, back onto the platform, despite their previous advocacy for antisemitic conspiracism, Musk has contributed to a permission structure that will allow antisemitic conspiracism to further dominate mainstream discourse. It’s impossible to really assess the harm caused by such a large-scale platforming of antisemitic conspiracism as mere “heterodox” thinking, but the harm is impossible to deny. Musk ultimately chose to re-ban West for posting a Raelian symbol that includes a swastika, in what appeared to be an attempt at antisemitism, despite the group holding no antisemitic positions. This messy handling of antisemitic conspiracism doesn’t help anyone, and more likely contributes to the conspiracism.

The connections between antivaxxer conspiracism and antisemitism are well documented, along with their connections to anti-globalist conspiracism. Many of these tropes were on display at the Better Way conference, including repeated accusations that Schwab (who is Jewish) and Gates (who is often accused of being secretly Jewish) are using vaccines to microchip and/or murder large portions of humanity.

If these were the only connections between antivaxxerism and fearmongering about Jewish people, there’d be no need for this article. The problem is, there’s a much weirder connection that’s significantly more difficult to discuss. Namely, that the rise of the modern antivaxxer movement was heavily funded by the Jewish billionaire hedge fund manager Bernard Selz and his wife, via their philanthropic org The Selz Foundation. That’s right, both pro and antivaxxer positions are apparently secretly run by Jews. The plot thickens!

According to an exposé the Washington Post, in around 2012 The Selz Foundation shifted its focus from cultural and environmental philanthropy to antivaxxerism, particularly Andrew Wakefield’s defence fund and subsequent non-profits. That funding helped produce Wakefield and Bigtree’s 2016 movie Vaxxed, which arguably launched the current antivaxxer movement. In 2017, the Selz foundation provided three quarters of the funding for Del Bigtree’s Informed Consent Action Network, one of the main organisers for the Better Way conference. Lisa Selz herself served as the president of ICAN until 2018.

Around 2019, the Selz foundation stopped directly funding ICAN, though further reporting found that ICAN “received $2.46 million funneled through the donor-directed charitable trust investment firm T. Row Price”. In 2020, ICAN received two gifts of $150,000 from undisclosed donors. This funding is a significant part of why Bigtree sits at the heart of the antivaxxer movement, and it may have allowed the Better Way conference to rent a new venue on short notice when their original venue decided not to host the event.

So, how do we talk about Mr and Mrs Selz without succumbing to our own antisemitic conspiracism? The key is emphasising a fact that should be obvious, but always seems to bear repeating: Jews are not special. We’re neither the chosen people of God nor are we uniquely evil, cunning, stateless overlords. Judaism is not a uniquely weird religion, nor does our history of oppression make us special.

Evidence of Jews having higher than average IQs and being “overrepresented” in various fields is fraught with confounding variables. Ironically, claims of Jewish superiority have been heavily pushed by white-supremacist-style race realists, who push their political agendas by contrasting Jews as a “model minority” with communities they consider biologically inferior, particularly people of African descent.

The “specialness” of Jews is crucial to antisemitic conspiracism, because it explains both why and how Jews apparently control everything. Hitler, for example, went to great lengths to argue that the Jews represent a tremendous threat as an enemy, because of their high levels of cunning and global diaspora network, combined with their hatred of all things Christian and wholesome. The fixation on Jewish “specialness” also likely contributes to the reverse Godwin phenomenon, because of how it sets Jews up as the most plausible Big Bads of any conspiracy theory. So, when we discuss how the Selz family have funded antivaxxerism, we must emphasise that there’s nothing special about their Jewishness that leads them to cause these harms.

Take, for example, the question of their motives. Due to their family’s extremely private nature, there appears to be no information on why the Selz’s started funding antivaxxerism. The Washington Post was unable to make any progress explaining their behavior, and since then no one has provided a substantiated or even plausible explanation. Now, consider if the situation was reversed, and they were promoting vaccinations. In that hypothetical, their privacy would absolutely be used as evidence of malicious intentions. Yet, ironically, here in reality where they’re promoting something genuinely harmful, it seems far more reasonable to assume that their motives are genuine and their character no different than any other antivaxxers. That assumption yields a predictable and boring set of options, which is a good sign when you’re trying to avoid conspiracism.

There is no one path to antivaxxerism, though there are several character dispositions and beliefs that may put someone at higher risk of shifting in that direction. It’s possible that someone directly related to the Selz family was negatively impacted by genuine but rare vaccine side effects, or were diagnosed with autism at some point after receiving vaccinations, thereby giving the false impression of a causal relationship. However, no one has reported any such family connection.

Barring an inciting incident like that, we have to look to character and circumstances. Some research suggests that anti-vaccine attitudes are driven by psychological factors, like high levels of conspiratorial thinking, strong reactions to anything that impinges on personal freedom, and disgust sensitivity. Again, there’s no reported evidence of any of these factors in the Selz case.

Thanks to the promotion of antivaxxer conspiracism by right wing political leaders like former president Trump, there’s now some evidence of a correlation between political alignment and vaccine hesitancy. Trump was an early adopter of antivaxxer conspiracism, promoting Wakefield’s claims about an autism connection as early as 2007, nine years before Vaxxed premiered. Trump’s comments suggest he was heavily driven by disgust reactions, though he also has a long history of conspiracism. It seems unlikely that the Selz are motivated by political leanings, despite their wealth, as their previous philanthropy was largely aimed at progressive causes like the arts and the environment.

Another possibility is religious reasons, and this is where things are most complicated. Earlier this year, I argued that anti-transhumanist conspiracism in the gender critical movement was really laundered antisemitic conspiracism from Keith Woods, a literal Nazi. Woods argued that Jews are predisposed to support transhumanism because Jewish eschatology is aimed at turning humans into immortal beings in this material world. Setting aside the truth of that claim, how could we present an argument that the Selz’s are motivated to antivaxxerism by their religious beliefs, while avoiding Woods style antisemitism?

Again, the key is emphasising that Jews are not special in this regard. Researchers have found that parents typically cite one of four kinds of reasons for vaccine hesitancy: religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from healthcare providers. Many religious groups, including orthodox Jews, express higher rates of vaccine hesitancy for a range of reasons, from purity, to emphasising fertility, to belief in divine protection. If the Selz’s are motivated by their religious beliefs, it’s likely in the same ways they would have been if they were evangelical Christians.

Despite not knowing for sure which of these reasons actually motivated the Selz’s behavior, we’re still justified in believing it’s one of these reasons, rather than a malicious one, because of the real-world consequences for Jewish communities. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities suffered severe measles outbreaks in 2003, as well as in 2013 and 2018. Studies have found that ultra-Orthodox Israelis over 65 are dying from COVID at four times the rate of non-Haredi populations, and that religion is the central explanation for the difference and a potential key to the solution. Bigtree himself held a protest during the 2019 measles outbreak, arguing that people should be allowed to get measles if they want. It seems far more likely that the Selz’s simply agree with Bigtree and Wakefield than some undisclosed financial motivation, or even weirder some desire to see massive harm wrought upon Jewish communities.

Working in the conspiracism world, I often get asked “do these people really believe what they’re saying?”. Even amongst conspiracism trackers, the urge to wonder is unavoidable sometimes. But the answer is always the same: you can’t know, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the knowable, predictable harm that their actions cause.

I’ve sometimes wondered if knowing whether a conspiracism promoter is a true believer could impact how we approach them tactically, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t matter, because it’s unlikely that the solution is going to be to change their minds. We’re better off just assuming everyone is a true believer and working to quarantine their message so that it can infect as few people as possible.

Inoculate others against the misinformation as best you can, but don’t get distracted wondering why some Jewish billionaires would cause so much harm to their own community, because the answer is the same as with any other billionaires: it doesn’t matter, all that matters is constraining their ability to cause harm.

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While the Selz family may be Jewish – and may even be motivated by religion – we can criticise their funding of the antivax movement without repeating antisemitic tropes
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