New Internationalist - Antisemitism and Conspiracism Supplement for New Internationalist Magazine Article by Chip Berlet - September 2004 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ The Complete Interviews: Michael Barkun I certainly acknowledge that there have been conspiracies. They simply don't have the attributes of almost superhuman power and cunning that conspiracists attribute to them... Brenda E. Brasher ...apocalypticism leaves no room for ambiguity...[it] is not a disagreement, but a struggle with evil incarnate, so there is no structure for a peaceful reconciliation... G. William Domhoff 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... Mark Fenster Don't fear populism, don't fear relatively simple ways of understanding the causes behind prevalent political issues, but don't embrace them without understanding their downside risk... Robert Alan Goldberg In a culture of conspiracism, opponents become traitors and enemies are stripped of their humanity... Lee Quinby Progressive thought falters under the weight of apocalyptic and conspiratorial thinking... Penny Rosenwasser Antisemitism has been historically used to divert attention from the people who really make the decisions... Holly Sklar When progressives grab onto conspiracy theories it undermines effective strategic analysis, planning and action... ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Interview: G. William Domhoff New Internationalist: Don't you study how power elites conspire? How can someone tell the difference between conspiracism and criticism of the status quo based on power structure research? Domhoff: I think I study how elites strive to develop consensus, which is through such publicly observable organizations as corporate boards and the policy-planning network, which can be studied in detail, and which are reported on in the media in at least a halfway accurate manner. I think this is the opposite of a small, secretive, illegitimate conspiracy because this large group called the power elite is known to the public, clearly states its aims (profit, profit, and more profit, and less government), publishes its policy suggestions, and is seen as legitimate by a great majority of the public. I also study the way in which elites in the United States and other democracies have agreed for a few hundred years now to settle the issues where they can't reach complete consensus, namely, through elections, which are also public and legitimate, and which can be observed by researchers in a fair amount of detail, including on the issue of campaign finance, and which are reported on fairly well in the media. The interesting thing with elections, in terms of addressing the conspiracy kind of stuff, is that rival elites have in effect agreed not to get into all out violence and war with each other, although Americans elites did so only 144 years ago in the bloody Civil War. Political scientist John Higley talks of elites coming to "settlements" or "pacts" that lead to elections, but this is not through conspiring, historically speaking, but through sitting down to talk in frustration and exhaustion, usually after fighting each other to a draw over decades. For the U.S., where there was no fight among elites in the 18th century, partly because they had a bigger common enemy in King George, the elite pact is the Constitution, which cuts all the key deals on property and slaves and government structure, and which is well known for the process of its creation, and was put to the people for a vote, which forced a Bill of Rights, so this is a very visible and legitimate elite pact. Within its context they agree to disagree. Once again, this is just about the opposite of a conspiracy. Within that broad context, we all know that all of us plot and plan to further our interests on specific issues, not just elites, and we sometimes try out ideas in confidentiality. And within government there are discussions and plans that we do not know about, and there is often an attempt to mislead us, but that is not what I would mean by a conspiracy. One of the great mistakes of conspiracy theorists is to take these everyday machinations as evidence for some grand conspiracy at the societal and historical levels. These theorists ignore all the evidence that such planning is usually discovered, whether in the media or by elite opponents, and sometimes leads to prosecutions. There is no falsifying a conspiracy theory. Its proponents always find a way to claim the elite really won, even though everyday people stop some things, or win some battles, or have a say so through elections in which factions of the power elite win political power. How to tell the difference from power structure research? We study visible institutions, take most of what elites say as statements of their values and intentions, and recognize that elites sometimes have to compromise, and sometimes lose. Conspiracists study alleged behind the scenes groups, think everything elites say is a trick, and claim that elites never lose. New Internationalist: Why should progressive people be sensitized to the issue of conspiracism? Doesn't conspiracism help build a constituency that challenges that status quo? That's what people like Michael Parenti argues. Domhoff: 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. Conspiracism is so contrary to what most everyday people believe and observe that it actually drives people away because they sense the tinge of craziness to it. What social psychologists who study social movements say is that a social movement definitely needs a clear and visible opponent that embodies the values that are opposed, and which can be vilified and railed against. But in opposition to the conspiracists, these opponents are readily identifiable and working through visible and legitimate institutions. So, I would say that the opponents are the corporate conservatives and the Republican Party, not the Council on Foreign Relations, Bilderbergers, and Bohemians. It is the same people more or less, but it puts them in their most important roles, as capitalists and political leaders, which are visible and legitimate...If thought of this way, then the role of a CFR as a place to try to hear new ideas and reach consensus is more readily understood, as is the function of a social club as a place that creates social cohesion. Moreover, those understandings of the CFR and the clubs fit with the perceptions of the members of the elite. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Interview: Penny Rosenwasser Penny Rosenwasser is active with Jewish Voice for Peace and the Middle East Children's Alliance. New Internationalist: How do we find the proper balance between our concern for justice in the Middle East and resistance to antisemitism and anti-Jewish conspiracy theories? Rosenwasser: Both Jewish Israeli people and the Palestinian people have a right to land, resources, dignity, security, peace, and most important…justice. It is important to understand why some Jews, in Israel and around the world, are terrified. There is a very real legacy of historical persecution, and the resulting fears have been carried down through generations. And there are reminders. In downtown Berkeley I recently learned of graffiti that read "kill the Jews," and saw swastikas, and that is disturbing. These fears have been manipulated by us Jewish leaders and Israeli Jewish leaders and right-wing leaders (obviously only use this if you want to) reinforcing a Jewish victim mentality. But we are no longer victims- and believing we are victims keeps us from healing our historical fears, and distorts our present thinking. This is not our fault, but I do think it is incumbent on us as Jews to examine and heal those fears. This will make our lives much better and will also make us more effective community leaders and teachers and activists. I have a friend, Irena Klepfisz, who teaches Jewish studies at Barnard, and who is a holocaust survivor. Her father was a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and he died in that struggle. So I take it to heart when she says that our fears as Jews are real, but we cannot let these fears get in the way of doing justice. For me, this obligation to seek justice is drawn from our Jewish prophetic tradition. It is important to me as asocial justice activist to not only speak out against any kind of oppression or bigotry against Jews, but also to speak out for justice for all people, including speaking out against ant-Arab and anti Muslim racism. And this is an obligation, in part, because as Jews, we know what its like to be targeted, deported, and attacked. In that same vein, just as I will always stand against real antisemitism-the blanket condemnation of Jewish people just for being Jews-I don't believe that criticizing Israeli policies is inherently antisemitic. In fact as progressive Jews were are called upon to speak out against any human rights abuses against any people; and to speak out against any violations of international law including violations by the U.S. government. I feel it is important to speak out against any anti-Jewish bigotry and important for us as U.S. Jews to speak out against ant-Arab and anti-Muslim bigotry. Sometimes when people on the left criticize Israeli government policies they step over the line. I think it is mostly because of ignorance, of being misled. I was at a peace demonstration recently and I saw someone with a sign that had a Nazi swastika inside a Jewish Star of David. It breaks my heart what the Israeli government and army and settlers are doing to Palestinians. Some of these things are similar to what was done to Jews by the Nazis-but it's not on the same scale as the Nazi genocide. And this is an example of how some people blur the distinction between the Jewish people and the policies of the Israeli government. So I try to make it a teaching moment, and I went up to the person and pointed this out and explained that it doesn't help anyone or anything to have those types of hyperbolic signs. Some people have even started blaming a Jewish cabal for us foreign policy. They point out that some prominent neoconservatives in the Bush administration are Jews. Hey, there is nothing new in blaming Jews for a worldwide conspiracy-but now some people on the left buy into it, and they should know better. This is scapegoating, and it confuses people because it shifts the focus away from where the real power is, which is not held by some mythical Jewish cabal. Antisemitism has been historically used to divert attention from the people who really make the decisions. Historically Jews have often been set up as buffers, as the visible faces of the oppressor--whether as tax collectors, small landlords or business owners, teachers or social workers (and sadly, sometimes individual Jews have colluded in making unjust decisions). When we blame U.S. foreign policy on Israel or some Jewish cabal it divides the left and takes the heat off those who are the real decision makers. We need to aim our criticism at the proper targets. U.S. foreign policy is influenced more by corporate interests, the Christian right, and the arms manufacturers than by the Israeli government. It's U.S. foreign policy that has to be changed. Blaming scapegoats diverts us from our work for human rights and justice. At the same time, when all protests of Israeli government policy are called antisemitic, I think it takes something away from facing real antisemitism-real targeting of Jews, real bigotry and scapegoating. Since 9/11 I have been deeply upset at the increase in the scapegoating of Jews, along with anti-Arab and anti-Muslim scapegoating. We need to challenge oppression, injustice, and bigotry wherever we see it, and support human rights for all people. That is what Tikkun Olam- the healing of the world-is all about.