How come Jacob Rees-Mogg’s antisemitism goes unnoticed?

JVL Introduction

Antisemitic tropes don’t seem to trouble the guardians of Jewish communal interests if they come from the right.

A clear example from no less a worthy than Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, hidden in plain sight, has slipped quietly below their radar.

Prof Michael Berkowitz shines a little light.

This article was originally published by UCL European Institute on Thu 5 Sep 2019. Read the original here.

Jacob Rees-Mogg’s alarming cry of “Illuminati”

Reprinted with permission of the author

Few seem to have noticed an expressly antisemitic sentiment articulated by Jacob Rees-Mogg in the vociferous Brexit debate during the evening of Tuesday, 3 September 2019. As a historian of antisemitism who has published on the stereotype of “Jewish criminality” used by the Nazis and their accomplices, it was extremely unsettling for me to hear Rees-Moog castigate his opponents, particularly his two fellow Tories of Jewish background, Sir Oliver Letwin and Speaker John Bercow, as “Illuminati who are taking the powers to themselves.”

I assume that Rees-Mogg was in full control of his rhetorical senses in crafting such a charge, and he was aware of how it would be understood. Rees-Mogg was expressing his displeasure and disgust – not respectful disagreement – with the motion proposed by Letwin to eliminate the possibility of a “no deal Brexit”, and challenging the Prime Minister’s attempt to prorogue Parliament. Rees-Mogg sternly lectured MPs that those who supported Letwin’s motion “risk subverting parliament’s proper role in scrutinising the executive”, while scolding Letwin that he was guilty of “stunning arrogance”. “I wish to be clear”, Rees-Mogg proclaimed, “what is proposed today is constitutionally irregular”. It is in this context that he depicted the supporters of the emergency motion as “Illuminati”.

Superficially, the term “Illuminati” refers to a short-lived Central European fraternal organisation of the late eighteenth century. But far more significant than the actual, inconsequential history of this small organisation is the afterlife it has assumed in a number of conspiracy theories, which have been frequently used as justification for violence. Writing in the New York Review of Books (1995), Jacob Heilbrunn identified the “Illuminati” as one of the antisemitic “sources” used by the right-wing TV evangelist, Pat Robertson. The English pseudo-historian of the 1920s, Nesta H. Webster, uses it in her notorious World Revolution: The Plot Against Civilization and Secret Societies and Subversive Movements. It is also to be found in the poisonous diatribe of the American conservative, Eustace Mullins, who in 1952 deployed the term in his Secrets of the Federal Reserve.

Common to all these works is the allegation that the “Illuminati” infiltrated the ranks of European Jewish bankers in the nineteenth century. Following the lines of the notorious forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, these books assert that the bankers/Jews/Illuminati were behind the Bolshevik Revolution—as well as the creation of the Federal Reserve system in the United States. They then, so the tale continues, went on to form the influential American think tank Council on Foreign Relations and subsequently what the far-right refers to as The New World Order—whose tentacles are said to be comprised of institutions such as the United Nations and the European Union.

There is no other, anodyne usage of this term in current political discourse. That is why, in March 2018, Jeremy Corbyn had been excoriated—by those within and outside of the party–for not objecting to a mural that supposedly employed “Illuminati” imagery. With his nod to “Illuminati” – pointed at Letwin and Bercow – Rees-Mogg is knowingly trafficking in the portrayal of Jews as underhanded and sinister. As Heilbrunn wrote of Pat Robertson, it can be said of Rees-Mogg, in 2019, that while studiously avoiding the word “Jew”, he has exhumed, embellished, and rebroadcast one of the most poisonous antisemitic canards in all of history.

Michael Berkowitz is Professor of Modern Jewish History at UCL.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL


Comments (10)

  • dave says:

    I have no desire to defend Rees-Mogg but to claim he was knowingly using an antisemitic slur is a stretch, as the Illuminati allusion is by no means only Jewish, just as that mural was by no means only Jewish. It’s important to distinguish between criticising people who happen to be Jewish and because they are Jewish – that’s the definition of antisemitism after all. We can’t reduce a global criticism (say ‘greedy banker’) to an antisemitic trope unless the antisemitic intent is clear. To do so would be the opposite – othering Jews as better than others.

  • Jonathan Coulter says:

    The talk of the “Illuminati” reminds me what I learned about a 16th century group of Spanish priests at the University of Baeza called “Los Alumbrados”, and who promoted a form of Christian mysticism. A number of them were of Jewish ancestry, and this aroused the suspicions of the Spanish Inquisition, setting back their careers. See

    Notwithstanding, I totally agree with Dave’s comment above. Jacob Rees-Mogg may have been using words rather loosely and we are in no position to infer antisemitic intent. Indeed, we should keep clear of the tactics that people use to discredit anyone who dares criticise Israel.

    • Mike Cushman says:

      The point is not so much whether Rees Mogg was antisemitic but to note that many Labour politicians and members have been slated for statements that carry far less antisemitic potential than his. He is given a free pass for his casual language. The usual suspects did not take offence to this when they raised hue and cry of pain for far milder mis-statements.

      He said, “The motion would allow a designated Member—or a few of the Illuminati who are taking the powers to themselves—to give notice of the presentation of this Bill on the first day of a new Session and then provide time for debate on this Bill on the second day of the new Session, interrupting the Queen’s Speech.”

      Maybe it was just coincidence that the person seeking the ‘powers’ was a Jew, Oliver Letwin, and was being enabled by the contested actions of another Jew, The Speaker John Bercow. However those on the left have had to train themselves to be alert to such ‘coincidences’ or suffer grave consequences, those on the right can, it seems, be insouciant without fear of consequence.

  • Rees Mogg is very calculating and most poisonous as he employs very polished diction to enhance the vile claims and lies he peddles to make them more valid ! Everything is perfectly reasonable that he projects it’s just the content is pure bile lysed distortions and untruths.

  • dave says:

    “The point is not so much whether Rees Mogg was antisemitic but to note that many Labour politicians and members have been slated for statements that carry far less antisemitic potential than his.”

    We can all agree on this but that wasn’t the point of the article though – the author said: “There is no other, anodyne usage of this term in current political discourse.” It is only about R-M being antisemitic.

  • John says:

    It seems “the” debate has moved on on a number of fronts.
    We are used to hearing accusations of some being the wrong kind of Jew.
    Now – it seems – there are right and wrong antisemites, depending upon – presumably – the extent to which they side with racist supremacists like Trump, Orban and Netanyahu

  • Simon Dewsbury says:

    Dave, Jonathan, if the Board of Deputies etc had treated him in the same way that they have with anyone on the left who says anything that might be twisted into faintly resembling an antisemitic trope, then he might have had to give an explanation, and we might have a better idea of why he used the word. It may be that he was not aware that Letwin and Bercow are of Jewish background. As it is, perhaps we should be alert to whether it remains an isolated incident or becomes part of a pattern on his part.

  • Carmen Malaree says:

    Very interesting article. Many thanks for clarifying the meaning and use of the term ‘illuminati’.

  • R. Clarke says:

    This is pushing argument as much as Rees-Mogg is in claiming to represent the people against the Elite.

    The illuminati as pointed out in the article refers to an 18th century Germany movement of the enlightenment very far from Judaism, a group formed to fight the influence of the Jesuits in German universities. In its modern form we can think of groups like the Skull and Bones club of the “Wasp” elites at Yale in the USA and the Bullingdon club here – “Masters of the Universe” as described by Tom Wolf in Bonfire of the Vanities, groups that have intentionally excluded Jews.

    It is important not to claim antisemic intention by convoluted argument. Most of the Super Rich, be they bankers or otherwise are not Jewish. It would be terrible if criticising the Super Rich elites became confused with antisemitism which by linking the Illuminati to Jews professor Berkowitz does here.

    In the US there is a fight between the NeoCons like Bush/Chenney/Kagan and the equally far right populists libertarians like Breitbart/Solov/Alex Jones both sides accuse each other of conspiracies.

    The “Thirdway” left made the space for the libertarian or populist right by failing to oppose austerity and generally failing to represent the majority on wages and conditions. The idea of the Thirdway is that the actual left would just have to hold their noses and vote for a Clinton or a Blair while they shifted ever further to the right to pick up votes from the “centre”. They pushed this so far that Obama voters voted for Trump in the US rust belt – out of desperation.

    Now we have Rees-Mogg, a hedge fund owner, claiming to represent the people against the “Elites” while using the trope of “the other” coming to take your jobs to advance Brexit. Rees-Mogg does not go down well in Sunderland nor does Johnson all we need to do is show them for what they so obviously are.

    Rees-Mogg and the right are using racism and should be called out for it but I think this article tends to make it seem absurd and confuse the issues.

    The Labour party have rejected the “Thirdway” giving us a real prospect of changing society. The manifesto is popular, there is almost nothing to attack Labour on so first they tried calling Corbyn supporters anti-Lesbian which got nowhere then they tried anti-semitism which because the left tends to care about Palestinian rights got some traction.

    We should not also throw around dubious claims of anti-semitism like the entire anti-Corbyn main stream media.

  • Gerry Dominey says:

    Isn’t JVL missing a trick here? Surely, instead of vainly expecting the right wing to denounce one of it’s own, it should denounce him instead.

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