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August 22, 2016 5:00 am

Calling Out the Conspiracy Theories

avatar by Judith Bergman

Smoke billows from the World Trade Center following the September 11th attacks.

Smoke billows from the World Trade Center following the September 11th attacks. Photo: Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories flourish and spread, aided by the ubiquitous internet, on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. The term “conspiracy theory” appears to have become especially ‎popular and mainstream since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — which generated an astounding number of conspiracy theorists. In fact, the term has become so popular that these days it is frequently used in politics, particularly in the context of the current US presidential race, as a means of fending off criticism.

This method is particularly efficient, because accusing someone of making up conspiracy theories has the same effect as calling someone a ‎racist: It immediately reduces the other person to one who is not worth debating or ‎listening to — someone beyond the pale, so to speak.‎

Jews have historically featured in an astonishing number of conspiracy theories, ‎including downright blood libels. As recently as this summer, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas received a standing ovation after presenting one such blood ‎libel story to the European Parliament. A longer-lived ‎conspiracy theory, which continues to enjoy immense popularity, is the Protocols of the ‎Elders of Zion, which claims that the Jews plotted world domination. The story of the protocols has enjoyed incredible approval in both the West and the Arab world ever since it was first invented in ‎czarist Russia in 1903. Henry Ford helped spread it by funding the printing of half a million ‎copies, which were distributed in the United States in the 1920s. Adolf Hitler, of course, was ‎one of the theory’s greatest devotees and made it a focal part of his unspeakable crimes against ‎the Jews. ‎

These facts, however, do not stop completely ordinary people today from entertaining ideas that ‎are eerily similar to those promulgated in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The only difference ‎is semantic, namely that the word “Jews” has now been replaced with the word “Israel.” ‎

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Some of the most stubborn and popular conspiracy theories in the world today are those that ‎center on Israel and its actions. However, these conspiracy theories are rarely called out as such. ‎Instead, we speak in terms of antisemitism, lies and Israel-bashing. All those terms are valid and ‎appropriate, but arguably, they have lost much of their ability to ‎impact a public that has grown so used to hearing them that they evoke few, if any, reactions. ‎

Furthermore, speaking in the “old” terms of antisemitism and Israel-bashing almost ‎automatically comes with the habitual mistake of Israel advocacy, namely that it is almost always ‎defensive, reactive, and too polite to make any kind of lasting difference, especially since ‎Israel’s opponents in this war of words are themselves extremely aggressive, offensive and with ‎no limits as to how low they will go. While Israel advocates should not stoop to the bottomless ‎pits of their opponents, it makes no sense to always be on the defensive and acting like the ‎teacher’s pet, bending over backward in an attempt not to offend anyone. It is an information war, and one should fight without both hands being tied behind one’s back.‎

This, then, means that one should not be afraid to use language that places the burden of proof on the opponent. Israel’s advocates, whether in Israel or abroad, should not even have ‎defended themselves against one of the most widespread conspiracy theories — that ‎Israel is sinisterly practicing apartheid against Arabs. This theory is so outlandish, so asinine and ‎obviously fabricated, as anyone who knows even a little about Israel or has been here can clearly ‎see, that it should not be entertained at all. Because by even engaging in the slightest with this ‎outrageous accusation it becomes elevated to the status of a legitimate ‎topic of civil discussion.

Nevertheless, it has been given ample and prominent attention in international public debate. If, at the outset, this theory had been correctly termed a conspiracy theory propagated by ‎raving lunatics who clearly have no clue about the true nature of the situation in Israel, it would ‎not be Israel sitting in the dock defending itself against the lunacy. Instead, it would be those ‎propagating the craziness, as proponents of a mad conspiracy theory, who would be under ‎pressure to explain the factual merits of their theory.

The importance of how we frame an argument cannot be underestimated. By defending oneself against outlandish accusations that amount to nothing but conspiracy ‎theories, one gives them credence just by acknowledging their existence, and in this way, one unwittingly contributes to their spread.

Words matter immensely, and how we term something has an impact on how it is perceived. It is therefore imperative to recognize when an attack against Israel constitutes a ‎conspiracy theory, and to call it out as such. Few people wish to be seen as the purveyors of ‎conspiracy theories, as this immediately reduces them to being seen as lunatics who cannot be taken seriously. Not only that, but it also forces them to go on the defensive and explain what makes ‎their insane accusations true.

This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.

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