We’re living in an age hospitable to conspiracy theories. Surely everyone knows someone with these tendencies. Maybe it’s your wacky uncle who believes the pyramids were really built by aliens, or the taxi driver who takes the opportunity to explain how the entire world is really controlled by a cabal of seven Jewish families.
Or maybe you know the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.
Oren recently came under fire for questioning the identity of a Palestinian teen, Ahed Tamimi, who slapped a soldier in front of her home in occupied Nabi Saleh in the West Bank. Oren’s suspicions were raised because Ahed is “blond-haired” and “freckled” and wore “Western clothes”.
Due to these suspicious circumstances, Oren, who is now a member of Knesset, led an Israeli parliamentary investigation with the assistance of Israel’s security and intelligence services to determine whether Ahed was a real member of the Tamimi family and whether the Tamimi family was a “real” family at all. “Oren said his investigation looked into whether the protests were genuine or whether the family members were provocateurs, paid to send children to clash with soldiers,” according to the AP.
Some were surprised by Oren’s absurd suspicions. In a piece in Haaretz entitled “What in the World Has Happened to Michael Oren?” Allison Kaplan Sommer writes that “the Israeli deputy minister who now entertains conspiracy theories about Ahed Tamimi’s family not being ‘real’ was once a respected historian and skillful diplomat.” Oren’s most recent book, “Ally”, won praise from the New York Times, which called it “illuminating” as well as the Forward, which said it was “an irreplaceable trove of insight”.
But the truth is, nothing has happened to Michael Oren. Oren has a history of spouting such theories – a history that stretches back to when he was a contributor to CNN.
Furthermore, Michael Oren’s conspiracy theories past and present show us not so much one person losing the thread of reality so much as they show how much insanity is tolerated in the mainstream media when it comes to Palestine/Israel. Indeed, Michael Oren exposes the conspiracy theory at the heart of Hasbara culture.
Take his claims about Ahed. What makes Oren’s questioning of Ahed’s Palestinian authenticity absurd is not just that Ahed has been spotted alongside the Tamimi family’s routine protests in Nabi Saleh for over a decade. It’s that in Oren’s mind, it is plausible that Ahed Tamimi is really part of a 15 year plot concocted to place a random blond-haired child among other darker skinned Palestinians all to one day have her appear in pictures confronting Israeli soldiers.
Not only does Oren seem to believe this crazy scenario is plausible; he seems to believe it is more plausible than the idea that a Palestinian girl might have light skin and freckles.
This is racism, plain and simple. The idea that a certain nationality must have certain characteristics or they are imposters is utterly despicable. And yet, while this bizarre claim against the Tamimi family maybe the the most recent, it is far from the only instance of Oren’s penchant for conspiracy theories.
Take for example that time Oren went after President Barack Obama’s foreign policy by referencing his mother’s choice of partners. In a 2015 op-ed in Foreign Policy, Oren claimed that Obama’s “outreach to the Muslim world” was motivated by the fact that he was “a child raised by a Christian mother” who “might see himself as a natural bridge between her two Muslim husbands” and that his “abandonment by those men could lead him, many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.”
This insulting analysis was crafted of such a cartoonish stereotype that even Abe Foxman, then leader of the Anti-Defamation League, called it “borderline stereotyping and insensitivity,” slamming Oren’s “amateur psychoanalysis.”
It wasn’t just Foxman who was outraged. Oren’s analysis of Obama was widely panned, just like his analysis of Tamimi.
But even back when Oren was taken seriously, he was spouting conspiracy theories.
Before his theories about Obama’s and Ahed’s families, Oren took CNN viewers for a trip down a grassy knoll in Beitunia. On May 14th, 2014, two Palestinian children, Nadeem Nuwara and Mohamed Abu Thaher, were shot and killed by Israeli forces during protests marking the Nakba, the word Palestinians use to mark the experience of disposession in 1948. The boys were buried almost immediately thereafter in accordance with local customs. The funeral processions were widely attended and covered. And within a few days, Defence for Children International-Palestine released video footage from a nearby security camera showing the moment the children were shot and killed.
But the immediate response from the Israeli military was to deny any lethal force was used against the protestors, claiming instead that they only used “nonviolent means.” Another immediate claim made by the Israeli military was that the video was edited and misleading.
But then came another video, this one captured by CNN cameras from the same place, at the same time, showing the Israeli soldiers firing the lethal shots.
Oren, at this point the former Israeli Ambassador to the US and now a CNN contributor, appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s program alongside CNN reporter Ivan Watson, who was with the camera crew that captured the video. Watson’s report showcased Nadeem Nuwara’s father holding the Israeli steel bullet that took his son’s life, which he found in his son’s backpack after it passed through his young body.
Oren was asked to respond and immediately began muddying the waters, implying that the entire episode was staged. Wolf Blitzer tried to steer Oren back to the facts at hand.
“They are two boys,” Blitzer said. “Two teenage boys are dead.”
“Indeed,” said Oren. “We don’t know that for certain. The pictures are very disturbing. But the –”
“You don’t know these two boys are dead?” Blitzer interrupted.
“We don’t know anything right now,” Oren insisted.
There were two hours of film taken, but only two minutes were released, Oren argued. Two young people who were “supposedly shot” one to the chest, one through the back, both fell forward, “which is inconsistent with what we know about combat deaths,” Oren said.
He also complained that there was no bleeding in the picture. And then there was the mystery of the change of clothes. “You see a Palestinian young man who’s supposedly throwing a rock at Israeli forces,” Oren said. “You’re told that that’s the same Palestinian young man. And later he’s wearing different clothes, Wolf. You’ve got to ask some very serious questions.”
These, unsurprisingly, turned out to be not serious questions. Fast forward to last month, and Nadeem Nuwara’s killer, an Israeli officer named Ben Deri, recently plead guilty in an Israeli court to using live ammunition when firing the lethal shot at Nadeem.
But for Oren and a host of other hasbarists, it was easier to believe that Palestinian boys faked their own deaths and burials, which hundreds of people attended, in order to film a propaganda video to make Israel look bad, than it was to believe that agents of the Israeli military occupation shot and killed a Palestinian child – which is what happened.
The important point here, though, is not only that Oren’s history of creating conspiracies to justify Israel goes back to 2014. The crucial point is that when Oren appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s show, he wasn’t seen as a conspiracy theorist. He was seen as someone defending Israel.
What the example of Oren shows is not the crazy conspiracy theories of one man but the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories when it comes to defending Israel’s brutal policies toward Palestinians.
Oren was far from the only one spouting nonsense about Nadeem Nuwara’s killer. In a Facebook post, Danny Ayalon, also a former Israeli Ambassador to the United States and deputy foreign minister, alleged that the “propaganda video” showed “supposed deaths” and used the opportunity to demand revoking the tax exempt status of the children’s protection NGO that released the video “when it is revealed that this video is fabricated.”
And many other reflexive Israel supporters chimed in. The anonymous blogger turned forensics expert Elder of Ziyon concluded “that there is no possible way that Nadeem Nawara was shot and killed by Israeli forces.” The Times of Israel quoted an anonymous “senior defense official” who claimed “I saw the video – the chances of fabrication are high.”
Oren is far from the only culprit, even if he might be the most transparent. For the truth is that buried in Hasbara culture is a persistent element of conspiracy theory, or at least, the willingness to entertain improbable and false alternatives featuring large-scale deceptions in the name of protecting Israel’s reputation. Thus when Israel drops bombs in Gaza killing scores of children, we are told this happens because Palestinians want it to, because, as Benjamin Netanyahu put it, “telegenically dead children” are somehow useful for Palestinians.
This kind of conspiracism has become utterly commonplace in Hasbara culture.
And yet, it was not always this way. When Israel dropped a massive bomb to kill Hamas Commander Salah Shehadeh in 2002, killing 14 civilians, the George W. Bush White House condemned them. Ari Fleischer, now a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and then Bush Press Secretary, said the bombing was a “deliberate attack against a building in which civilians were known to be located” and that the strike was a “heavy-handed action that is not consistent with dedication to peace in the Middle East.”
And when Fleischer was asked what evidence the White House had that the Israelis knew that civilians would be in the building, he simply replied, “These were apartment buildings that were targeted.” When pressed to respond to the Israeli claim that these regrettable civilian casualties were the result of Palestinians using “human shields,” Fleischer was adamant: “This is an instance in which the United States and Israel do not see eye to eye.”
Looking back now, it is almost impossible to believe that a White House would so directly dismiss what has become the central Israeli talking point about bombing Gaza — that Palestinians use their children as human shields — and yet, there it is, from a Republican White House, no less.
And yet, no matter the extent of the depravity, there always seems to be a market for anti-Palestinian conspiracy theories. Take the Bakr boys for example, the four children who were killed while playing soccer on a beach in Gaza by an Israeli attack right in front of the hotel housing journalists who reported the attack to the world. Claims that the killings were made for TV by Palestinians who were the real culprits behind the deaths were featured on right-wing Israeli and American websites. These absurd and racist claims came even after the Israeli military acknowledged it had carried out the strike the killed the boys months earlier.
This idea is not fringe anymore but mainstream. So dehumanized are Palestinians in Israeli eyes, so internalized is the racism, that many are willing to believe we wantonly sacrifice our babies en masse, for the pictures.
And if you are willing to believe this about Palestinians, what won’t you believe? Or more importantly, what brutalities won’t you find a way to justify?
If it’s clear to any thinking person that Michael Oren has gone off the rails with his questioning of Ahed Tamimi, there are people out there right now who are still welcome in the mainstream media and who are still questioning the truth of Nadeem Nuwara’s death, still blaming masses of dead Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli bombs on Palestinians and still finding excuse after excuse to continue denying Palestinian rights.
Don’t fall for it.
Yousef Munayyer, a political analyst and writer, is Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights.