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August 2016

Inland American Conspiracies


outside Colorado Springs

A shorter version of this piece was published at the New Arab.

From the canyon walls of Manhattan island to science-fiction California, coastal and urban America is more diverse and sophisticated than almost anywhere else in the world.

As for inland America, the stereotypes are true, but other things are also true.

In April we were travelling to talk about our Syria book, in New Jersey, then Boston, then over to LA. From there inland to Colorado, high desert at the mountains’ beginning where you can suffer sunstroke and frostbite in the same afternoon.

The cities here exemplify American modernity. They are clean, bright, spacious, and architecturally befuddled. At the same time they bear an emotional trace of the recent Wild West past. One of our talks was in a town called Golden (for the metal, and the craze), at the Colorado School of Mines.

Another was at a liberal arts college in Colorado Springs, a conservative city boasting a US Airforce Academy, lots of retired soldiers, weapons factories, and a concentration of evangelical churches. It also houses the 47-acre HQ of Focus on the Family, a media and lobbying organisation which militates against abortion and gay marriage and promotes creationism instead.

Before we spoke a woman came up and introduced herself as “an international poet”. She told us she cared about Syria very much. “And it’s so obvious what the solution is! An international Sunni-Shia peace conference.”

Later a crag-faced man pursued the same theme. “They have to solve their religious problems,” he decreed. “At base, this is about Sunni and Shia. It’s the same conflict that’s raged since the start of Islam.”

I tried to explain that the conflict at base was between a revolution and a tyrant, and it didn’t go back all those centuries, though of course powerful actors on all sides had instrumentalised sectarianism to serve their interests, particularly in the regime’s case, to divide and rule. Those in power will always exploit communal tensions when they need to disarm a challenge, and every society suffers such tensions. “In America, for example, there are racial divisions. Isn’t that so?”

A profound and lasting silence in response to my question. Wrong audience for this.

My co-author Leila overheard a conversation at a shop front. “That guy’s bringing Syrians in,” said one man, perhaps referring to Obama, under whose rule a mere 2500 Syrians have been granted shelter. “Well they won’t be coming here,” his companion replied. “And if they do we’ll soon make them wish they were back at home in Syria.”

In the city council, councilor Andy Pico had proposed a resolution declaring “opposition to the relocation of refugees to the city.” “We have a responsibility to our citizens to ensure their safety,” he said. “We need to be sure the people coming here have been screened.”

And so he did his bit to feed the election season hysteria that has cast every Syrian, every Muslim, every immigrant as a potential criminal or terrorist.

This version of WASP America was not at all comforting, yet we were staying with friends who didn’t fit the ethno-ideological bill, and who were happy living there, moving unharrassed within their own networks. It seemed to sum up America: even inland, very different people coexist. Communities and their subgroups, in one way at least, enjoy more autonomy than they would in Europe. There’s a suburb of Colorado Springs called Manitou Springs, once home to hippies, now less counter-cultural but still full of crystal healing shops and (legal) marijuana dispensaries.

Next we flew to Chicago, brutally post-industrial, wind howling between its towers. Between the gusts you can hear the ghosts of the proletarians washed up here from Poland, Russia, Ireland, the American South. Parts (not Downtown) looked like parts of London or Manchester. A kind of normality, as far we were concerned, until we caught the bus to Madison, Wisconsin.

We were hosted very kindly, and in way that seemed deeply protestant. “Thank you for your witness,” one woman told me, though she didn’t attend our talks and therefore didn’t know precisely what we were witnessing.

We gave a talk in a radical bookshop, then answered questions.

The first came from somebody who believed the United States had installed Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran. Another speaker focused on the New Yorker’s recently published report on documents incriminating the Assad regime in war crimes. “Why are they talking about it now?” she wanted to know. “They’re planning something. It’s boots on the ground, regime change, something…” This habit of thought – whereby the real torments of far-away people are dwarfed in significance and impact by the imaginary machinations of the only state that matters, the American one – is depressingly common.

A third speaker argued (against my cynicism) that you don’t need to believe in conspiracy theories, you only have to read the documents published by the Project for a New American Century. These writings call for Syria to be dismantled. Surely that’s the cause of what’s happening there now.

It’s a strange analysis that prioritises the fantasies projected by a neo-con, Zionist thinktank (which folded in 2006) over the current concrete acts of millions of Syrians (and Russia and Iran). Strange and part-way racist, as if white people’s (especially Jewish) words enter the cosmic fabric so inevitably as to determine brown people’s history for years to come. The writings, protests and battles of Syrians mean nothing in comparison.

That’s what I said in response. The speaker left the bookshop.

Our hosts took us for a drink, kept bending our ears. “Most Americans don’t realise that they live in a dictatorship,” one said, “that every move they make is being watched.” Someone warned Leila to beware of Amtrak (the train company), because once you’ve been in one of their carriages they have your image, they follow you everywhere. Someone else drove off in a car with ‘9/’ stuck on its bumper.

A few days later Democracy Now, America’s flagship leftist channel, spent an hour sycophantically interviewing journalist Seymour Hersh, a man who can’t be bothered to make up sensible names for those who feature in his conspiracy theories (Hersh told Russian TV that Syria’s rebels are led by a group called ‘shawarma al-shawarma’, or ‘the meat sandwich of the meat sandwich’).

Of course, conspiracism is not just an American problem. After a talk in Montreal, Canada, a student approached: “Why didn’t you talk about the Rothschild bank?”

“What should we have said?”

“That the Rothschild bank controls all global finance, and Assad refused to do business with them, so they attacked him.”

Wrong on so many levels, I didn’t know where to start. I said something about Assad’s neo-liberalism, his obvious desire to do business with the world’s banks.

The boy’s reply was swift: “Why didn’t you talk about the Qatari pipeline?”

Neither is conspiracism an issue only with rustic, or poorly-educated, or youthfully enthusiastic types. The bourgeois-intellectual pages of the London Review of Books, at least when they treat the Middle East, are dripping with it too.

Much of the British left is convinced that the revolutionary communities of Damascus gassed themselves in August 2013, that there’s a Western regime-change plot afoot against President Assad, that Putin is the victim in the Ukraine, that the Turkish coup attempt was a false flag operation. It was the left which spread the idea that Syrian revolutionaries were ‘all al-Qaida’ before the right applied the slur to Syrian refugees. And the right is as prone to its hyper-nationalist and Islamophobic conspiracies as ever. To some extent the Brexit vote was mobilised by such myths as the supposedly imminent arrival on British shores of 70 million Turks.

Arabs and Muslims are notoriously vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking, in part because in a previous generation so much politics was actually done by conspiracy, and in part through intellectual laziness. It’s always been simpler to blame ‘the Jews’ or ‘the Shia’ for all ills than to actually address the ills. But not really simpler. Conspiracy theories don’t merely promote complacent inaction, they create new tragedies too. In north western Pakistan, for instance, where word spread that the polio innoculation was a UN poison to render Muslims infertile, a new generation has been stunted by the disease.

Perhaps there’s more excuse for conspiracism in regions where the people are subject to the traumas of poverty, dictatorship and war. If so, its increasing prevalence in the educated, prosperous West is more difficult to explain.

Could it be that technical and economic developments are undermining not just our political culture but even our intelligence? The huge expansion of media production, moving our fantasy worlds as well as our historical and personal memories onscreen and online, means we need use less of our brains. No need to remember a phone number or a line of poetry, no time to mull over a novel. We follow updates and let the algorithms do the thinking. Because most of us are more comfortable now with mobile phones and websites than books. Books are generally fact-checked before publication, while internet success is measured only in clicks. Books demand reflection and sustained concentration, an attention to nuance. With the new technology, by contrast, gratification – informational, emotional, sexual – is only a thumb-click away.

There’s nothing more gratifying than a total theory which explains the whole world in under a minute. And nothing easier. You don’t need to study detail, there’s no need for rigorous logic, not even for coherence. As with Trumpism (or Trumpery?), you only need a slogan, a meme.

The internet is growing into our collective brain. An internet search for ‘the illuminati’ provides almost 13 million results. ‘Syrian revolution’ comes up with about half that (and half of those will be conspiracist approaches). This is the problem we’re up against.


We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind

Our connections to Israel flourished, faltered and finally ended even though we grew up, live and work in the heart of the American Jewish community.

Hasia Diner and Marjorie N. Feld Aug 01, 2016 4:45 PM

Hasia Diner: The Israel I once loved was a naïve delusion When I was asked to run as a delegate on the progressive Hatikva platform to the 2010 World Zionist Congress, I encountered my personal rubicon, the line I could not cross. I was required to sign the “Jerusalem Program.” This statement of principles asked me to affirm that I believed in “the centrality of the State of Israel and Jerusalem as capital” for the Jewish people. It encouraged “Aliyah to Israel,” that is, the classic negation of the diaspora and as such the ending of Jewish life outside a homeland in Israel.

The “Jerusalem Program” also asked me to declare that I wanted to see the “strengthening [of] Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state.” As to democratic, I had no problem, but the singular insistence on Israel as a Jewish and Zionist state made me realize that, at least in light of this document, I could not call myself a Zionist, any longer. Does Jewish constitute a race or ethnicity? Does a Jewish state mean a racial state?

The death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people, robbing us of these many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization. The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America.

The socialist Zionism of the Habonim youth movement was central to my early years, providing my base during the 1970s when the Jewish settlement of the Occupied Territories began. I need not belabor the point that from that date on, the Palestinian land that has been expropriated for Jews has grown by leaps and bounds and that the tactics used by the State of Israel to suppress the Palestinians have grown harsher and harsher.

Nor do I need to say that the exponential growth of far right political parties and the increasing Haredization of Israel, makes it a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it.

I have read too much about colonialism and racism to maintain what I now see as a naïve view, that only the events of June 1967 changed everything. The Israel that I loved, the one my parents embraced as the closest approximation to Eden on earth, itself had depended well before 1967 upon the expropriation of Arab lands and the expulsion of Arab populations. The Law of Return can no longer look to me as anything other than racism. I abhor violence, bombings, stabbings, or whatever hurtful means oppressed individuals resort to out of anger and frustration. And yet, I am not surprised when they do so, after so many decades of occupation, with no evidence of progress.
I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, “We Stand With Israel.” I just do not go and avoid many Jewish settings where I know Israel will loom large as an icon of identity.

Marjorie N. Feld: The moment I began my reeducation

In all facets of my very Jewish upbringing I was immersed in Holocaust education. It was made absolutely clear to me that only Israel could prevent the concentration camps, right-wing anti-Semitism and genocide, from reappearing. Friends and I travelled throughout Israel on a summer high school program in 1988, hitting the Jewish tourist spots (Masada, the Western Wall) that reinforced both Jewish nationalist triumphalism and the co-constitutive invisibility of Palestinians, their history, the violence and ethnic cleansing that created the Jewish state.

I now call it my propaganda tour, but I learned this language only later. From non-Jews I met in liberal and left organizations in college, I first heard strong critiques of Zionism as Western colonialism, as a militarist project, as racism. Very smart friends of mine were articulating these critiques, and they made me terrifically uncomfortable.

A feminist scholar I met at a conference asked me directly if I considered myself a Zionist, and I gave an indirect answer. Her anger became palpable. She nearly shouted: “You’ve read Chomsky, haven’t you?” I had not yet read Noam Chomsky’s writings on Israel, I confessed. As I recall she turned away and didn’t speak to me again that evening. That might be hyperbole, or more likely my own sense of shame.
I reeducated myself, stopping to look at all of the facts that I had bumped up against for years. The 1948 radio broadcast of the votes at the UN that declared the Jewish people had a home and would never face genocide again: I had listened to this recording and this interpretation dozens of times in the sites of my Jewish education. Now I interpreted it anew. The founding of Israel was the Nakba, the great catastrophe, for Palestinians, with ethnic cleansing, destruction, and no right of return.

In short, I no longer found common ground with those who saw an anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist bent, or even conspiracy, on the left. I saw that that Israel fit neatly into my broader understanding of Western colonialism. How could Israel be the antidote to genocide when it was the product of imperialism and ethnic cleansing?

Like Hasia, I often feel marginalized. I travel across several towns, driving past many other synagogues, to my synagogue precisely because I too refuse to enter to any institution that flies the “We Stand with Israel” banner.

‘Before’ and ‘after’ Zionism in the U.S. Jewish community
Our journeys from “before” to “after” identifying with Zionism have been painful, and we’ve searched for allies and institutions. We have both found Jewish Studies a difficult space in which to criticize Israel, to stand against the Occupation or even Zionism. Though we certainly do not claim to speak for all American Jews, as scholars we know we are a part of something much larger, something that, we assert, should be shaking the foundation of American Jewish leaders. Closing down all conversations on Israel/Palestine, demonizing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, marginalizing or silencing those who dissent from the Zionist “consensus”: there is a growing gap between these leaders and the people for whom they claim to speak.

Hasia Diner is a professor of American Jewish history at New York University. She is the author of “We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust” (NYUP, 2010).
Marjorie N. Feld is professor of history at Babson College and the author of “Nations Divided: American Jews and the Struggle over Apartheid” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

Hasia Diner
Haaretz Contributor
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