August 31, 2006
Conspiracy Theories Continue to Blame Jews and Israel Five Years After 9/11
The Lie That Won't Die
As the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches, the date has become synonymous with the image of wanton destruction. And in addition to the massive loss caused by the attacks, they spawned another form of unrelenting damage -- a host of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories implicating the Jews and Israel in the bloodshed.
These canards have not been fleeting expressions of paranoid fantasy that dissipate once they have been debunked. On the contrary, even today the various "Jews-did-it" scenarios emanating from the wreckage of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have proven stubbornly resilient.
"If anything, they're flourishing," said Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a liberal think-tank based in Somerville, Mass. The idea that Jews were somehow involved in Sept. 11 has now become a permanent feature in the conspiracy pantheon, like the JFK assassination and the Oklahoma City bombing," said Mark Pitcavage, director of fact finding for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
The Internet is the chief incubator and disseminator of apocryphal Sept. 11 story lines, and cyberspace remains awash with chatter purporting to link the Jews with America's worst terrorist attacks, according to Pitcavage. But the same message, he added, also is being spread through books, pamphlets, videos and speakers. The practical impact of this phenomenon remains unclear.
The purveyors are an eclectic aggregation that spans the geopolitical spectrum. They include neo-Nazis and other white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere, anti-government zealots, young anti-war activists, Holocaust deniers, Lyndon Larouche supporters, New Age ideologues, propagandists and journalists within the Arab and Muslim world, as well as assorted devotees of the early 20th-century forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which purports to document a Jewish plan to dominate the world. Efforts to connect the Jews with Sept. 11, however, are not limited to fringe groups talking with one another.
Contributors to Wikipedia, the popular and influential online encyclopedia, have tried repeatedly to insert anti-Jewish Sept. 11 theories into Wikipedia's pages and represent them as fact or at least plausible versions of reality, according to Berlet.
The insertions -- which represent one of countless pieces of potentially suspect information submitted to Wikipedia almost daily -- have been promptly excised by the encyclopedia's volunteer editors, said Berlet, himself a Wikipedia editor, "but it requires constant attention."
It's impossible to determine how many viewers see these postings before they are removed from the Wikipedia Web site, which has a daily viewership of roughly 30 million, according to a company spokesman.
The Sept. 11 assaults triggered an almost immediate outpouring of conspiracist conjecture, in part because of the bizarre, almost implausible nature of the attacks, according to Michael Barkun, a professor of political science at Syracuse University who has studied extremist movements and their philosophies.
"These events cried out for some sort of explanation," Barkun said. "This was a golden opportunity for conspiracy theorists to introduce their theories to a broader audience. The thing to remember about conspiracy theories is that they are profoundly psychologically comforting. They give sense and meaning to the world. Nothing is arbitrary or accidental or coincidental."
Not all of the explanatory hypotheses stemming from Sept. 11 implicate Jews. Some accuse the United States government, for example, of being aware of the attacks and doing nothing to stop them in order to justify military intervention in the Muslim world.
But early on anti-Semitic finger pointing came to dominate the revisionist view of Sept. 11, according to a report issued in 2003 by the ADL. These accusations brought "'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' into the 21st century," updating a familiar theme -- that "Jews are inherently evil and have a 'master plan' to rule the world," says the report, which profiles the Sept. 11 conspiracists' cast of suspected plotters and other scapegoats.
These assertions either have been laughed off as preposterous -- or investigated and discredited. The "spy ring" story, for example, may have emanated from a disclosure that a number of young Israelis who violated their visas had been deported from the United States. Subsequent reports intimating that the deportees had been engaged in sinister, clandestine activities were examined by The Washington Post, among others, and found to be "nothing more than an urban myth," according to the ADL report.
But the fact that conspiracy theories have been disproven is largely irrelevant to the theories' adherents, according to Barkun. The reason, he said, is that die-hard conspiracy mongers are united by their embrace of what he calls "rejected knowledge."
"These people are profoundly distrustful of authority. It seems absurd to the rest of us, but in the mirror world that conspiracy theorists live, anything that is rejected by mainstream institutions must therefore be true," Barkun said.
A conspiracy-tinged view of world events seems to be gaining traction in America and elsewhere, according to Lou Manza, chairman of the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. As evidence of this trend, he cites polls indicating that suspect theories of all kinds have gained popularity over the past 10 to 15 years.
Among the possible explanations for this emerging worldview: In today's information-bloated environment, the conviction that all-powerful forces control global events makes life easier for believers by obviating the need to think critically about complex issues.
"Our environment today is not conducive to a critical-thinking approach, especially with the instant access we have to so much information," Manza said. "If it's on the Internet and the graphics are good, it must be true." But why does it necessarily follow that the Jews in particular were the unseen hand behind America's most infamous terrorist attack?
Because they had something to gain from Sept. 11, according to conspiracists, who contend that military retaliation against Arabs was its own reward for the Jews and Israel.
Asked why the Jews were implicated in the attacks, Barkun said, "You might as well ask, 'Why does anti-Semitism exist?' Unfortunately, the concept is deeply rooted in Western culture. And like a lot of conspiracy theories, it's a closed system of ideas that is structured so that it's impossible to disprove."
In a sense, the extremist explanations for Sept. 11 are merely an update of conspiracy theories that have been evolving ever since the Crusades, according to conservative columnist and analyst Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, who has written two books examining conspiracy theories.
Virtually every major conspiracy theory hatched over the past 900 years has featured one of two key elements, Pipes said. One is so-called "secret societies," such as the Trilateral Commission -- an influential coalition of influential private citizens -- as well as suspected government cabals; the other is the Jews.
Anti-Semitic Sept. 11 scenarios have staying power, but it's unclear how widely they're embraced. In the West, according to Pipes and others, Sept. 11-related Judeophobia seems to have a limited constituency among both ordinary people and those in positions of power and influence.
No American office holder, for example, has tried to score political points by blaming the Jews for Sept. 11 -- although recently defeated Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) made a name for herself by repeatedly taking anti-Israel stands and alleging that the federal government was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Pipes believes that all told, the Western strain of Sept. 11 revisionism seems dominated by conspiracy buffs rather than bona fide anti-Semites who pose a real danger to Jews.
Berlet takes a less benign view.
"Any form of conspiracy theory is toxic to the democratic process," he said. "How can you reach compromise with those 'evil people' who bombed the World Trade Center? That sort of thinking could flare up in hard times and affect policy."
Overtly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories stemming from Sept. 11 appear to be more widely accepted and tenacious in the Arab and Muslim world than in the West.
"The implications in the Middle East are quite profound," Pipes said. "It's one more brick in the edifice of fear and loathing of Israel and the Jews.''
Eavesdropping on the Conspiracists:
Here's a representative selection of recent (or at least still-extant) Web postings from individuals who maintain that the Jews or the Israelis had a role in America's deadliest terror attack -- or its supposed cover-up.