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June 26, 2015 12:39 am

ADL vs. Michael Oren: Conspiracy Theory or the Truth?

avatar by Ben Cohen / JNS.org

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Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

JNS.org – Bear with me, please, while I attempt an answer at the following question: What is a conspiracy theory?

Generally speaking, a conspiracy theory is a theory that directly challenges the conventional, widely accepted, or official account of a particular event or series of events. If a politician is murdered, or if a public figure dies in an accident, you can be certain that someone, somewhere, will insist that what occurred was the work of a shadowy, unseen cabal. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, to take one example, and the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997, to take another, have both given ample opportunity to conspiracists to advance the most outlandish theories concerning what really happened.

In politics, conspiracy theories are typically motivated by malice towards the subject in question. We’ve all heard the absurd stories about President Barack Obama being a secret Muslim, along with the claim that he wasn’t born in America. In such cases, actual evidence plays second fiddle to the desire to believe that the conspiracy theory is in fact true.

Hence, to buy into a conspiracy theory, it helps if you’re already predisposed to its conclusions from the beginning. Holocaust deniers are not serious researchers of the Second World War; these are people whose point of departure is hatred of Jews, which leaves them amenable to denying the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. Ditto for the conspiracy theories around the 9/11 atrocities, in which hatred of the United States coexists with anti-Semitism—remember the line about the absence of Jews from the Twin Towers on that fateful day?—and apocalyptic warnings about a New World Order run by bankers, media moguls, neoconservative intellectuals, and other sinister forces.

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Ultimately, what nearly all conspiracy theories have in common is the conviction that those who govern us, those who “control” what we hear, see, and read, and those who run our economies, are ruthlessly engaged in a massive cover-up to prevent the truth from getting in the way of their base material and political motives.

Conspiracy theories, then, appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect. In a world of great complexity, such theories are comfortingly simple; at the same time, they have the potential—as students of anti-Semitism know all too well—to become lethal if enough people subscribe to them.

That’s one key reason why it’s imperative to understand the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate theory that goes against prevailing orthodoxies. Here in America, both types of theories are rightly protected by free speech laws, but only the latter kind should be dignified with a respectful reception.

Sadly, this vital distinction has been ignored by, of all organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has spent more than a century bravely combating anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry. (Full disclosure: Since I’m about to criticize the ADL, readers should know that I worked for that organization from 2005-2007.) Moreover, the ADL has done so in the context of an attack upon, of all people, Michael Oren, the renowned Israeli historian and former Israeli envoy to the U.S., whose memoir “Ally,” an account of his 2009-2013 ambassadorial stint in Washington, has just been published.

Since I favorably reviewed “Ally” last week in this column, there’s no need to say anything additional about the book. But there is a great deal to say about the hysterical response—most of all from the ADL—to the assertions that Oren made about Obama in the book, as well as in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine.

Examining the social and cultural influences that have impacted Obama’s outlook in the Middle East, Oren speculates—and let me stress this point: he speculates, and nothing more—that Obama’s burning ambition to harmonize relations between America and the Islamic world might partly be the result of his personal interactions with Muslims, positive and negative, while he was growing up. In that regard, relying heavily on Obama’s autobiographical “Dreams from My Father,” Oren wonders whether Obama’s abandonment by two Muslim father figures led him “many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.”

The worst you can say about this, as Oren himself acknowledges, is that it’s “armchair psychoanalysis.” In my view, it isn’t the greatest of insights in a book that is otherwise full of them, but it’s certainly not offensive or insulting. After all, Oren is not the first writer to examine the influences of parents on their politician offspring—growing up in the U.K. in the 1980s, I constantly encountered the refrain that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s distaste for welfare state economics was down to the influence of her conservative father, a grocery store owner with a strong work ethic—and he won’t be the last.

What Oren wrote certainly didn’t warrant the frothing response of Abe Foxman, ADL’s outgoing national director. According to Foxman, Oren engaged in “borderline stereotyping and insensitivity”—the two cardinal sins in the ADL worldview. Quite how he did so isn’t explained. Also unexplained is Foxman’s claim that Oren “veers into the realm of conspiracy theories.”

In defaming Oren as a conspiracy theorist, Foxman and the ADL not only aligned themselves with some of the more insidious, axe-to-grind Israel-bashers out there, like James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine and Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Far worse, they portrayed Oren, a man who served Israel with distinction, as mentally inhabiting the same poisonous hinterland as Holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers. It is simply, to use the ADL’s favorite word, “outrageous.”

What’s most disturbing is Foxman’s depiction of something he doesn’t agree with as a “conspiracy theory.” If he really believes that Oren’s musings on Obama amount to conspiracy theory, then what term will the ADL use to describe vicious falsehoods like the claim that the Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis, or that Jews are stirring up African-Americans in a war against the white race?

The ADL needs to remember that the truly dangerous conspiracy theories are the ones it deals with every day. If the crucial talks on Iran’s nuclear program fail to arrive at a deal by the June 30 deadline or soon afterward, despite the Obama administration bending over backwards to accommodate the Tehran regime, get ready for a slew of accusations that it was the “Israel Lobby” that wrecked the talks.

Those Jewish leaders leaping to Obama’s defense in the face of Oren’s critique should ask themselves whether the White House will return the favor when the Iran-related venom comes in their direction. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • Harold Moskowitz

    Today Foxman and the ADL are nothing more than adjuncts to the Democratic Party. Compare the vituperative criticism of Oren with the near silence when Obama had Netanyahu called a chickens*** and a coward. Which musing was worse? Where was Foxman when the jewish Kapo Martin Indyk blamed everything but the ending of the DOT on Bibi and nothing against Abbas. He and his buddies are the real reason why Obama acts with impunity against Israel.

  • Dov

    Abe Foxman is becoming old and afraid. He is not any longer the leader he was once, where he stood up for what is right, popular or not. As a feeble old man, he is afraid…

  • melvin turetzky

    The meaning of the oblique comments in the penultimate sentence are not clear. Simply put — what is the author trying to say there?

  • Yale

    The alternative to denouncing Oren is to admit that Obama has an anti-Israel animus, which those Jews who have supported him are loathe to acknowledge.

  • IKE SEMAYA

    A deal with Iran can NOT be completed WITHOUT full inspections of all military and nuclear facilities at any time the West demands. Sanctions can not be lifted as demanded by Iran. They should be lifted at the behest of the inspectors. It would be better for the world if Iran would comply. I do not believe they will accept these terms. Therefore it would be better that Mr. Obama walk away. Then let the chips fall where they must.

  • robert borns

    abe foxman is rapidly destroying his past reputation as a clear thinking defender of all people. he is now playing the historical role of the old court jew and he is destroying his well earned wonderful reputation. what a pity.

  • elizabeth wajnberg

    Fifteen years ago I called the ADL after passing through the vicious posters of anti-Israel week on the UC campus in my neighborhood. I asked whether there would be some sort of educational reply to tell the other side of the story. The answer I got was: “We don’t want to stoop to their level.”

  • Steven Kalka

    I disagree with Abe Foxman’s analysis. Michael Oren presents some valid points to substantiate his beliefs. Abe Foxman exhibits a jewish ghetto mentality. He acts like American Jewry is still so marginalized that we can’t criticize a US President who so blatantly acts against Israel’s interests in his craven peace with Iran at any price.

  • The trouble with people who write about “conspiracy theories” is that they lump ridiculous or biased “theories” that are built on the basis of prejudice, ignorance, etc. with genuine interpretations of what really happened. That is why I hate the term “conspiracy theory”. Foxman is indeed obsessed but that is not a “conspiracy theory” that is just Foxman desperately trying to hold on to his job.

  • Vivarto

    There is nothing “absurd” about the notion that Obama is a secret Muslim. Neither is it absurd to question his birth certificate.
    Plenty of evidence to support the doubts.

  • Jean Stevens

    It is and always has been Abe Foxman who is “outrageous.” His blind support of Obama from the very beginning and his continued support now, knowing that Obama has and is doing everything to jeopardize the existence of Israel, continues to baffle me.

  • Am reading Mr Oren’s book – there’re no conspiracy theory or deliberately made-up events.

  • Douglas Brown

    Everyone knows Michael Oren is a good man. He is known and supported. Everyone knows his account is both truthful and underplayed, and if the full extent of the facts were brought to light concerning Obama and his private sentiments toward the Jewish people, the real story would cause upset. The average guy and gal on the street are getting plenty fed up, too, with a lot of things. Here we have the Pope delivering an Encyclical about Climate when men and women are being fed to lions, children crucified, buried alive, and pre-teen sex slave markets running rampant. What’s more, the President of the United States is somehow complicit, in dark and underhanded ways, his being so supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood and their fire brand fanaticism. Is here no leadership anywhere? Is there no man besides Mr. Putin on this earth any real governing sense or ability? Of course, there’s Bibi, one of the greatest men of this century. But generally, there is a rash of cowards directing policy now-a-days, and Michael Oren isn’t one of them.

  • ADL Foxman was paid $$687,100 in 2013, 50% more than US president. He is following the leader, Barack Hussein Obama. The idea is to KILL the Messenger, Michael Oren. If he cannot fight an anti Israeli administration it is safest to kill the messenger…..

  • art

    When will we ever learn, being the Court Jew rarely works.+After all these years it is hard to understand Foxman. Is he looking for a think tank job? He has certainly been well paid by ADL

  • Barry

    The author lost me with this quote. “We’ve all heard the absurd stories about President Barack Obama being a secret Muslim, along with the claim that he wasn’t born in America. In such cases, actual evidence plays second fiddle to the desire to believe that the conspiracy theory is in fact true.”

    I don’t know what a secret Muslim is but Obama is most certainly a Muslim, having been born to a Muslim father. Had he left Islam as is claimed, he would be subject to death for apostasy.

    He certainly may have been born in America but he hasn’t proven it. Both of his birth certificates are thought to be frauds and no one, I repeat no one, has proved otherwise. In fact the evidence is compelling that the long form birth certificate is in all likelihood a counterfeit. You’re not aware of that? Then you haven’t studied the issue thoroughly.

    So the rest of the article didn’t really resonate. As for Foxman, he lost his credibility when a video recording of him made for a documentary made him out to be a first class idiot.

  • nelson marans

    While the stated mission of ADL is admirable, unfortunately its policy has been a one man show. Ever since Abraham Foxman became head of that organization, with now having a salary of over $600,000 plus perks, he has acted independently and sometimes with antipathy towards those who are concerned about the security of Israel.
    Whether his actions have been to appease the current administration or to express his own innate views, many times it has not furthered the security of the State of Israel.

  • Elliott Sadle

    Most of these so called “theories” are no ore than conjecture. To qualify as a theory, there must be substantial supporting evidence. The theories of evolution & relativity are examples of theories. Most of the “theories” mentioned are either have little to no factual evidence to support them or in many cases there is overwhelming factual evidence to refute them.

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