Brian Goldfarb on conspiracy theory.

Why write an article on conspiracy theory? Hopefully, that will become clear as this article unfolds, but, basically, because so many members and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement indulge themselves in a variety of conspiracy theorists.

So, how am I to use the notion of conspiracy theory? It’s easy enough to decide what it isn’t: it isn’t outright fabrications such as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, produced by the Tsarist secret police in the late 19th Century in the full knowledge that they were telling lies. It isn’t the tendentious rubbish (even if based vaguely on a truism) produced by someone like Tom Hickey as a superficial justification for an academic boycott of Israel (but more of that later). Rather, it is the decision to assign the cause of some event or events to a person or group of people without resorting to seeking evidence of a link between the event(s) and the people blamed. It follows that there is no process of considering evidence, weighing the likelihood of this evidence actually demonstrating a link between event and people, and it further follows that no process of logical thought is employed anywhere in this sequence (even if something vaguely resembling the process known as “thinking” appears to have taken place).

The advantage for the believer of a conspiracy theory is that it saves them having to think, reason and seek facts and other forms of evidence to support their previously arrived at conclusion, as just argued. Any efforts made to introduce logic and reason by those of the rest of us who prefer evidence to assumption and argument to assertion tend to be met with statements along the lines of “well, that’s what ‘they’ want you to believe”. As the Observer reviewer of David Aaronovitch’s book “Voodoo History” put it, “you might not want to be trapped in a lift with the Duke of Edinburgh, but that doesn’t mean he murdered his daughter-in-law.” Regrettably, no amount of cast-iron evidence (sufficient, note, to convince even the most paranoid of intelligence officers) that Prince Philip was a thousand miles away at the time of Princess Diana’s death and, anyway, hasn’t talked to anyone in intelligence circles or even anyone who might have the slightest contact with such circles in several decades, will convince anyone who believes otherwise and will merely elicit the response already noted above about what “they” want you to believe.

Conspiracy theories are comforting, for all the reasons already given. They are a blanket, keeping the cold light of rationality away from the believer. This matters little (other than to those immediately affected, such as family, friends, etc) when the conspiracy concerns whether or not Princess Diana was “targeted” by the (or a) secret service. It matters a little (though at this distance in time not that much) more when there is still speculation, 46 years and several investigations later, as to whether Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone, mentally unstable, assassin (or was there a second, or a third, shooter on the “grassy knoll” – Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists know exactly what this is all about), or whether Oswald was wound up and set off by…who? The CIA? The Mafia? The KGB?

However, it is far more worrying, and potentially dangerous, when conspiracy theory reaches out to embrace as the villains whole groups of easily identifiable people, such as the Jews, the Moslems, the Blacks, homosexuals, gypsies…

And this is what we are facing here on Engage and in similar forums, in the real world, when conspiracy theory as to the cause of all “our” ills is made concrete with the threats to boycott Israeli universities and Israeli goods, and with threats (and actual occurrences) of attacks on Jews world-wide for the alleged sins of Israel. This becomes ever clearer every time those who are members of the BDS movement and others of their ilk post here. No matter how often and how strongly they are asked for evidence to support their claims (assertions, in actuality) that Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto, that genocide is being committed on the West Bank, they merely repeat these assertions (possibly in different words, but it is still repetition) as though this was evidence. They may introduce new topics and assertions, as though this is evidence (perhaps they believe it is) or possibly to distract us. Eventually, they go away, for the time being (unless I’m maligning the moderators, who get tired of reading such repetitive material and decide not to reproduce it).

Occasionally, it dawns on one or other of these people what is being requested of them. One such person (let’s call them “Z”), some months back, actually asked me where they might find the evidence I kept demanding of them. I pointed out to them (quite gently, I thought) that as it was “Z” who was trying to get us to change our minds, they were the one who was under an obligation to find it for themself: I certainly wasn’t going to, especially as I was and am dubious that such evidence actually exists. I may be being too hard on “Z”: “Z” did appear, at least some of the time, to want to understand the arguments, not just assert a contrary view and maybe there was a misunderstanding as to what was being asked of them, not just about evidence, but also about the rules of debate.

However, “Z” appears to be an exception. Consider, for example, Tom Hickey, UCU member, (still) elected to its Council and prime exemplar of conspiracy theory. When “debating” the question of a boycott of Israeli universities in the pages of the online version of the British Medical Journal, 27 July, 2007, he wrote (in response to a self-posed question, why boycott Israeli and only Israeli universities): “And we are speaking of a culture, both in Israel and in the long history of the Jewish diaspora, in which education and scholarship are held in high regard. That is why an academic boycott might have a desirable political effect in Israel, an effect that might not be expected elsewhere.” This is where the basis of a vague truism referred to in the first paragraph comes in: it is true that Jews, generally, venerate formal education. But so do vast swathes of the rest of humanity: not many parents declare, hand on heart, that they wish their and everyone else’s children to be ignorant, or at least no better educated than themselves and others like them.

But what is notable here is that Israel and Jews are conflated as though they are one (which is, in itself, an antisemitic attitude), and no other regimes which might conceivably upset Hickey and his fellow believers care anything like as much (if at all) about education as Israelis and Jews (so much for the Chinese, Saudis, Syrians, Sudanese, Zimbabweans, et al): arguably, a racist view. And why should he care about Israel and Jews? Well, he and his fellow boycotters are frequently equating Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto; claiming Israel is committing genocide on the West Bank and/or in Gaza; is starving the Gazan Palestinians to death; stole Palestine from its previous inhabitants – all with nothing that would pass for evidence in the hallowed halls of the academe of which he and many like him are members, and only passes muster as a real argument in the fevered minds of the members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee, the Socialist Workers Party, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, JBIG and all the other components of the BDS movement. And all of them, of course, dismiss, or more likely just ignore (“well, that’s they want you to believe, isn’t it?”) all evidence to the contrary. Evidence such as the Palestinian refugee population increasing seven-fold in 60 years (some “genocide”), that the standard of living of the population of Gaza is no lower now than when the Israelis occupied it, or that no-one has found any evidence for mass graves on the West Bank.

And this is a resort to a conspiracy theory on a massive scale: Israel must be punished for what is happening in Gaza and on the West Bank. Further, no reference must be made to the ideologies of Hamas and Hezbollah; no examination of the actual history of the area the Romans, after the last revolt of the Jews against their rule, renamed “Palestina”; no consideration of the opposition of Palestinians to legitimate settlement by Jews in the Turkish-ruled Palestine; no thought as to the unprovoked violence showed by Palestinians towards Jews in the Palestine of the British Mandate; no study of the repeated rejection by Palestinians and their Arab backers of the United Nations, and later, plans for two states. None of this, because this would demand thought, reflection, logic, open argument: all the hallmarks of rationality and the intellectual process.

Rather, the whole BDS movement prefers to keep the blanket of conspiracy theory around itself and talk, in effect, only to each other: after all, the bright light of rational discourse can only hurt the eyes of the true believer.

So what are we to do in the face of this massive example of anti-intellectualism? In the immortal words of Winston Churchill during World War 2, “keep buggering on”. Not to do so is to surrender the pass to the barbarians. Anyway, it’s not them we’re talking to: it’s those seeking evidence and arguments to confront their own local conspiracy theorists and those not yet convinced either way, but open to evidence, argument and rationality. Whatever we do, we mustn’t let conspiracy theory and irrationality rule the debate or allow those who prefer not to think to get away with not thinking, and by so doing, think that they have “won”.

And by the way, if anything I have said makes anyone who posts comments (or whose bon mots get reported) here feels that I’m talking to them, well, if the cap fits, wear it (but hardly with pride!).

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