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Haddy the Hebrew: The antisemitic origins of “cabal”

Antisemitism is known as a hatred as old as time. Because of this, antisemitism is so ingrained into our culture that we may not even realize it. From characters in our favorite childhood movies to some common words or phrases we say every day, many things may have a surprising antisemitic origin or implication. 

The enormity of this struck me when I was in class the other day. During class discussion, someone described something as a “cabal.” I know that this person did not mean to use antisemitic language, which is what made the issue even greater. The word cabal comes from the Hebrew word “Kabbalah,” which is defined as Jewish mysticism. Cabal in modern English is a noun that means “the contrived schemes of a group of persons secretly united in a plot (as to overturn the government)” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. 

The use of the term to denote something wicked was first used in “A Child’s History of England” by Charles Dickens. He uses the word as an acronym for five English government ministers who served during King Charles II’s reign. The first letters of the ministers’ last names (Thomas Clifford, Lord Arlington, the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Ashley and Lord Lauderdale) can be arranged to spell cabal. Although this is purely coincidental, it still gave way and reason for the word’s insidious usage, especially because the ministers were the signatories of the “secret” Treaty of Dover, which allied England and France in a prospective war against the Netherlands by way of requiring King Charles II to convert to Roman Catholicism. 

Although the word was used already at that time, the coincidence was noted and then popularized by Dickens. After Dickens coined this use, antisemitic publications like “Protocols of the Elders of Zion '' used the term cabal to denote Jews as a conniving conglomerate, a small group seeking or achieving world domination. This is also seen in the New World Order theory, an antisemitic idea that sees Jews as having power over everything, controlling things like the media, economy and politics. 

Conspiracy theorists are no strangers to using Jews as scapegoats, so it’s almost no surprise that cabal is antisemitic in origin. Today, the word can often be seen being used by neo-Nazis and other antisemitic groups, usually as “Jewish” or “Zio/Zionist” cabal. This use of the word can be automatically seen as antisemitic. It is a term that is used for any number of things which involves a small group operating in the background. It is usually attributed to politics, but can also be used to describe apolitical issues. The word’s usage is complicated, as it could be interpreted as a dog whistle, but could also be used by someone who simply doesn’t know the origins.

This isn’t a call-out, necessarily. I am not asking everyone to stop using the word “cabal.” It can be very helpful and apt. However, I do think it’s important to know the history of the word. Its etymology has large implications, showing how many things in our contemporary world are left over from a time when Jew hatred was much more commonplace. It’s a relic that reminds us of darker times and can still be used in the antisemitic way it was intended. 

Hadass Galili is a senior studying political science pre-law at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Do you agree? Tell Hadass by tweeting her at @HadassGalili.

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