If you surf the web, you may have encountered the claim that the Israeli spy agency Mossad warned 4,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Centre to stay home on 11 September 2001; or that a handful of Jewish lobbyists control US foreign policy; or the world is run by the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG). All these claims are patently false, yet they have devoted defenders.
The idea that a secret group of powerful people is conspiring to control world events is centuries old, and it is seeing a troubling resurgence on the political Left. Unlike most progressive theories about political power that stress systemic, institutional or structural analyses, conspiracy theories claim a handful of sinister plotters are mucking things up. This often devolves into charges that ‘The Jews’ are behind some sinister plan for global subversion. Where do these ideas come from?
Sticking to Protocols
In the early 1900s, Czar Nicholas II’s Okhranka (secret police) in Russia promoted a hoax document called the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion – claimed to be the minutes of a secret ‘cabal’ of Jews who manipulated world events through the Freemasons and other groups. The Protocols were translated into many languages and circulated around the world. Author Norman Cohn titled his study on this fake Warrant for Genocide, because it was used to justify pogroms in Russia and the scapegoating and murder of Jews in Nazi Germany.
The specific allegations change based on time and place, but the basic elements of destructive conspiracy theories remain the same:
The world is divided into a good ‘Us’ and a bad ‘Them’.
Our opponents are evil and subversive… maybe subhuman.
‘They’ are causing all our troubles – we are blameless.
Time is running out and we must act immediately to stave off a cataclysmic event.
Brenda Brasher, a sociologist at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, notes that in this model, ‘People are cast in their roles as either enemy or friend, and there is no such thing as middle ground. In the battle with evil, can you really say you are neutral?’
Conspiracy theory is sometimes called conspiracism. Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, contends that conspiracism attracts people because conspiracy theorists ‘claim to explain what others can’t. They appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing.’ There is an appealing simplicity in dividing the world sharply into good and bad and tracing ‘all evil back to a single source, the conspirators and their agents’. Barkun notes that ‘conspiracy theories are often presented as special, secret knowledge unknown or unappreciated by others’. For conspiracists, ‘the masses are a brainwashed herd, while the conspiracists in the know can congratulate themselves on penetrating the plotters’ deceptions’.
Conspiracism often gains a mass following in times of social, cultural, economic, or political stress. Immigration, demands for racial or gender equality, gay rights, power struggles between nations, and war can all can be viewed through a conspiracist lens. Conspiracism started as a way to defend the status quo, but it spawned a flipside where the conspiracy is perceived as controlling the government. This was a central motif of the 1950s ‘Red Scare’ when fears of global communist subversion were a common conspiracist script. Today, Arabs and Muslims are portrayed in a similar demonizing way as conspiring against Western culture. Sadly, as tensions in the Middle East have boiled over, an increasing number of Arabs and Muslims have grabbed onto antisemitic conspiracy theories to explain devastating struggles over land and power. This is evidenced by the popularity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the region where they have been repackaged into television series broadcast from Lebanon and Egypt.
Antisemitic conspiracism is aggressively peddled to progressives by several rightwing groups including the international network run by Lyndon LaRouche, a frequently unsuccessful US presidential candidate. While LaRouche rhetoric can seem bonkers, his followers are successful in recruiting students on college campuses and in networking with some Black Nationalist groups. Sometimes Arab publications circulate articles from LaRouche group analysts. When LaRouche publications condemn the neoconservative policy advisers to President Bush as the ‘Children of Satan’, it echoes historic antisemitic rhetoric about evil Jewish conspiracies tracing back to medieval Europe.
Why would progressives embrace conspiracism? In the 1980s, isolationists on the Right, and anti-war activists on the Left grew suspicious of President Ronald Reagan’s support for covert action overseas and political repression at home. As they interacted, some progressive groups began circulating allegations about ‘Secret Teams’, ‘Shadow Governments’, or ‘The Octopus’, that echoed historic antisemitic conspiracy theories found in rightwing publications. With the collapse of communism in Europe many rightists shifted scapegoats to claim a New World Order conspiracy was manipulating the US Government. Again, some leftists adapted this rhetoric. During the first Gulf War, some anti-war activists spoke of a ‘Jewish Lobby’ in ways that blended stereotyping with conspiracism.1
‘When we blame US foreign policy on Israel or some Jewish cabal,’ it ‘takes the heat off those who are the real decision makers,’ says Penny Rosenwasser, a board member of US-based Jewish Voice for Peace. ‘We need to aim our criticism at the proper targets. US foreign policy is influenced more by corporate interests, the Christian Right and the arms manufacturers than by the Israeli Government.’ Rosenwasser points out that it is US foreign policy that needs to be challenged: ‘Blaming scapegoats diverts us from our work for human rights and justice.’ She sees that some people ‘blur the distinction between the Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli Government’. That’s what happens with phrases like ‘the Jewish Lobby’ where the work of Jews seeking justice for Palestinians is simply erased.
The story about the Jews avoiding the Twin Towers on 11 September? Every aspect of this tale is false. Reporters traced it back to a series of rumours and claims by unnamed sources that bounced around the internet getting more elaborate with each retelling. To take this story seriously, you would have to be willing to assume that if 4,000 random Jews were told of an impending terrorist attack, not one would step forward with a public warning. To believe this about any religious, racial or ethnic group raises serious questions about lingering prejudice.2
Mad about ZOG
Out on the furthest conspiracist limb are race hate groups and neo-Nazis who are obsessed with the Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) – an idea that is the modern incarnation of the infamous Protocols.
But such ideas are by no means the preserve of the extremist fringe. Brasher says: ‘We tend to look at apocalyptic and conspiracist belief and laugh it off and push it aside. Yet in many ways it is pervasive. I came back to visit the United States after the attacks on 9/11 and was amazed to see apocalyptic rhetoric being spun out by elected officials and people on the Right and Left.’
There are powerful forces that shape our reality. Conspiracies do take place. How we approach the workings of élite groups and individuals, however, is crucial if we are to avoid traversing down the conspiracists’ path.
G William Domhoff, author of several books on how powerful élites try to shape political and economic policies, distinguishes his techniques for researching power structures from those used by conspiracists. Domhoff complains: ‘There is no falsifying a conspiracy theory. Its proponents always find a way to claim the élite really won, even though everyday people stop some things, or win some battles.’ Author Holly Sklar agrees: ‘When I write about influential élite planning groups such as the Trilateral Commission, I don’t portray them as omnipotent puppet masters manipulating politicians and policies in a vast conspiracy. When progressives grab on to conspiracy theories it undermines effective strategic analysis, planning and action.’
Even when conspiracy theorists proclaim they are not targeting Jews, conspiracism creates a milieu in which antisemitism can flourish. Many progressives, conservatives, New Agers – even UFO groups – have spoken out against antisemitic conspiracy theories. And an increasing number of activists suggest that conspiracism itself needs to be opposed, especially on the political Left. Lee Quinby, author of Anti-Apocalypse, complains that ‘Progressive thought falters under the weight of apocalyptic and conspiratorial thinking,’ because ‘disagreement and dissent are disallowed, democratic debate is precluded, and differences of opinion are penalized.’ Domhoff agrees: ‘Conspiracism is a disaster for progressive people because it leads them into cynicism, convoluted thinking, and a tendency to feel it is hopeless even as they denounce the alleged conspirators.’
‘In the battle with evil, can you really say you are neutral?’
Robert Alan Goldberg writes about this in Enemies Within: the Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America. He believes: ‘Healthy scepticism of authority is essential to democracy. The key is to maintain logical consistency while demanding evidence in support of an argument. Conspiracy theories are slippery in their logic and careless of facts and assumptions. They work from a premise or preconception of conspiracy and deny other possible explanations of events. Circumstance, rumour and hearsay serve as evidence and are deemed sufficient for proof.’
Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories, cautions that we should not fear popular activism or avoid finding simple ways to explain current political issues, ‘but don’t embrace them without understanding their downside risk. And always educate about the complex structures that affect what often appear to their victims as simple dynamics.’ Fenster warns that if our ‘simple, populist narrative slips and becomes racist or antisemitic or exclusionary, then its power to affect positive social and economic change disappears’.
Full length interviews with those quoted in this article and other resources on antisemitism and conspiracism are available at the PRA website: http://www.publiceye.org/antisemitism/newint.html
- For a detailed analysis of Right-Left alliances and conspiracism around the first Gulf War, see: Chip Berlet, Right Woos Left: Populist Party, LaRouchite, and Other Neo-fascist Overtures To Progressives, And Why They Must Be Rejected, http://www.publiceye.org/rightwoo/rwooz9.html
- For a detailed analysis of the origins of the 4,000 Jews libel, see: http://slate.msn.com/id/116813/ and: http://www.snopes.com/rumors/israel.htm
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