Sisterly hatreds

Why are transphobes so often antisemitic?

Sisterly hatreds
Rachel Riley (left) and JK Rowling. Credit: Alex Diamond-Rivlin

Earlier this week, Rachel Riley defended JK Rowling against criticisms of her anti-trans views, claiming that people unfairly vilified her due to her defence of the Jewish community against Jeremy Corbyn’s antisemitism. Not incidentally, Rowling has herself been accused of featuring antisemitic motifs in the Harry Potter series; though these are somehow redeemed by her philosemitic defence of Jews in Britain. If, as the saying goes, a philosemite is just an antisemite who loves Jews, Riley is not wrong to draw a connection between Rowling’s philosemitism and her gender-critical ideology. In fact, there is a deep and historic connection between antisemitism and anti-trans hatred.

The first time “trans” emerged as a distinct sex/gender category, it was understood as a Jewish phenomenon. The man who coined the term “transvestite” was the German-Jewish socialist doctor Magnus Hirschfeld.

Hirschfeld’s theories of homosexuality and transness were based on biological conceptions of a third sex. He advocated for social emancipation and rights for homosexuals and trans people on the basis of natural difference. He also oversaw the first attempts at hormone replacement therapy and gender affirmational surgeries.

For antisemites at the time, Hirschfeld’s ideas and medical practices were a pernicious arm of the Jewish conspiracy aimed at spreading sexual degeneracy in order to undermine the health of the German nation. Hirschfeld’s research was the main target of the first major Nazi book-burning. Today, these joint hatreds are resurgent.

The gender-critical movement is one of the primary vehicles of antisemitic conspiracy theory across the world today. These theories are rarely explicitly antisemitic, but we can recognise some age-old styles of thinking.

Central to gender-critical ideology is the idea that if one simply “follows the money”, one discovers a cabal of Jewish billionaires – namely George Soros, the centre of gravity for contemporary antisemitic conspiracy theories – funding the spread of “gender ideology”, brainwashing people into getting expensive gender affirming healthcare. These theories, originally expounded by fringe US blogger Jennifer Bilek, have since found their way into the mainstream, from Sunday Times bestseller Helen Joyce’s 2021 book Trans to Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson’s nightly political talk show. We have even seen a resurfacing of the blood libel.

The blood libel originated in 12th-century England, with the false accusation that a 12-year-old boy (later canonised as Saint William of Norwich) was been kidnapped and ritually sacrificed by local Jews, sparking a wave of pogroms and state-sanctioned executions in which dozens of jews were killed. “Children sacrificed to appease trans lobby,” claimed gender-critical Times journalist Janice Turner in a 2017 column; a “children’s blood cult” was how Fair Cop, a group established to resist the policing of socially unacceptable views including gender-critical ones, referred to trans children’s charity Mermaids. Gender-affirming surgeries are “ritual cutting” arising from the Jewish practice of circumcision, itself seen as sublimated child sacrifice. Over and again we see children’s bodies figured as needing protection from corruption and mutilation by a “transgender industrial complex” with thinly-veiled Jewish origins.

In the UK and across Europe, the “gender ideology” moral panic has been levied against what is considered to be an excessive intellectualism which runs counter to the common-sense perspective of two immutable sexes. Gender studies as an academic discipline has been attacked the world over as and banned by antisemitic government of Hungary. Judith Butler, the Jewish academic often credited for founding contemporary gender theory when they argued that our ideas of biological sex are informed by our concepts of gender, has been burned in effigy in Brazil. Butler is for many in the gender-critical movement the Jewish intellectual who works alongside the Jewish doctors and the Jewish billionaires to put into action their evil plan of erasing biological sex.

Where does this connection between transphobia and antisemitism come from? For one, the recent breakthrough of trans identities into the mainstream is a social change whose causes many do not understand. There is a long history in the west of attempting to provide simple explanations for complex phenomena by attributing them to the Jews. From the Black Death to the rise of industrial capitalism, the Bolshevik revolution to the 1929 financial crash, Covid-19 to large-scale migration, Jews have been blamed for it all. It is unsurprising, then, that a substantial change in recognition of gender variance is also understood to be the result of Jewish influence.

The gender-critical conception of society is steeped in conspiracy theory. For gender-critical feminists, social change occurs through the implementation of nefarious plans by shadowy elites. For them, to understand the mainstreaming of gender variance can be understood only through the lens of “following the money”. By flattening the discourse, anti-trans movements appear to uncover what shadowy interests lie behind this complex process of social liberation. But there’s something else happening here, too: it’s that trans and Jewish people spark similar anxieties about the visibility.

Trans people, particularly women, are at the centre of anxieties about infiltration of supposed single-sex spaces. Fears of trans people moving unnoticed among us or as harbouring secret motives reflects an attitude rooted in antisemitism, much of whose history has been a struggle to render Jews visible: think yellow stars, pointed caps. Paranoid assertions that “you can always tell if you look closely” are commonplace among gender-critical fanatics, often accompanying theories that cis public figures are crypto-trans. These same modes of paranoid thought are characteristic of the antisemite who sees hidden Jews wherever they look.

What is terrifying is that while people will rightly be dismissed as tin foil hatters for applying this logic to Jews, to transfer it to trans people – as those like Rowling do – is wholly acceptable in British society. The threat this poses to trans lives in the UK is as palpable as it was for the Jews of Norwich – and must be resisted with the same vigour. The antisemitic imagery used by anti-trans activists to feed murderous hatred of trans people is paving the roll-back of what limited rights we currently hold, and justifying the suppression of trans life across the world.

Naomi Cohen is a contributor to Vashti.