What we can learn from conspiracy theories

QAnon, the viral, discredited conspiracy theory whose believers were prominent in the assault on the Capitol, is recognizably anti-Semitic. The theory’s focus on a secret elite that sacrifices children, drinks their blood, and aims at world domination is a souped-up version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Its attacks on “globalists” — a venerable stand-in for Jews — and on actual Jews, like the Rothschild family and George Soros, were part of what made Q popular with neo-Nazis. That is why I was shocked to discover that more and more people I know, many of them Orthodox Jews, had embraced Q and its bizarre beliefs.

Some of these Q-Jews were not only believers, but super-spreaders as well. Take Rabbi Alon Anava, a tall, black-coated and impressively long-bearded preacher from Safed who “returned” to Judaism after a near-death experience. His YouTube lecture, The End of the New World Order, a hodge-podge of Q inspired assertions, has nearly 168,000 views at the time of this writing, and admiring comments on the video are from Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. Mixing dubious interpretations from the Talmud and Midrash together with messianic apocalyptic predictions, Anava even throws in a passing reference to the idea that the elite are lizards from outer space disguised as human beings — a notion spread by the openly anti-Semitic David Ickes.

Although QAnon started on the far right, the coronavirus has added fuel to the fire — bringing other groups, such as anti-vaxxers and new age “conspiritualists,” who are deeply suspicious of modern science and media, into the conspiracy orbit. The evil elite, led by Bill Gates, in this coronavirus-inspired addition, have engineered the COVID-19 pandemic to inject everyone else with a microchip-infused vaccine that, activated by the new 5G network, will put all firmly in their control.

A key prediction of Q, frightening because it seemed designed to prime followers for a coup, was that then-president Trump, in an action called “The Storm” was about to arrest and execute thousands of Democratic party leaders, including the Clintons and Biden, along with Hollywood personalities such as Oprah and Tom Hanks. Trump would “prove” that those arrested were part of a network of pedophiles who kept themselves preternaturally young by extracting and ingesting a substance called adrenochrome from the blood of tortured children.

With Trump out of power, and “the Storm” unlikely to happen, QAnon has suffered a perhaps fatal blow. Some former believers have realized that they were taken in. Yet others are already generating new kinds of toxic “theories.” Conspiracy theorists such as Congresswoman Marjorie Greene have a not inconsiderable power base within the post-Trump Republican party.

Why are millions of people across the globe believers in these malignant narratives? How can we prevent insane beliefs from threatening democracy again? If conspiracy theories are like infections in the body politic, what is the cure?

One key insight is that conspiracy theories can thrive only in an atmosphere of deep distrust. The notion that Trump’s victory was stolen from him in 2020, for example, has been a focus of conspiracy theorists since November. Yet believing it to be true means believing that the Justice Department, the FBI, local Republican politicians, and the media are all partners in a massive effort to deprive Donald Trump of four more years. Or take the belief that the coronavirus vaccine is meant to do harm, or that the number of coronavirus deaths has been massively exaggerated. For any of these to be true, thousands of scientists, doctors, and hospital administrators would have to be colluding in the conspiracy.

Here’s the twist: what makes the battle against conspiracy theories complex is that there are good reasons for the erosion of trust in our economic and technological systems. There is something wrong with a system in which the richest got richer by hundreds of billions of dollars during the pandemic, while thousands of small businesses were destroyed. There is something amiss when decision-makers bail out banks that were complicit in the mortgage disaster to the tune of $700 billion, while allowing millions to lose their homes. Burgeoning inequality in the United States and Israel and the failure to create an economy guided by the common good is, at least in part, the wound in which conspiracy theories are the opportunistic viral infection.

The speed at which new technologies are deployed also erodes trust. Everyone understands that gene-editing and GM crops, artificial intelligence and a host of new scientific discoveries stand to radically change humanity. Yet there has been little effort to educate citizens as to the implications of the new technologies, much less include the public in the decision-making on how new technologies should be regulated. It feels as if we are all strapped into a wild ride whose destination we never chose.

Moreover, some of these technologies — facial recognition, the culling of private information from social media accounts — are designed to manipulate and control. It is no coincidence that the Gates-Corona Vaccine microchip-5G conspiracy theory is one of the most widespread — it combines the truth of massive economic inequality with the knowledge that science and technology are increasingly being used for surveillance and control.

We cannot instantly change the way our society functions. But one thing we can do to restore trust is to create transparency and allow real input from citizens on the issues that define our world. Our democracy urgently needs updating; it was created when communities were smaller and more cohesive, and citizens knew their mayors, congressmen, and police chiefs. In Israel, people were connected through their neighborhoods, unions, youth movements, or kibbutzim to political parties and Knesset members. Face-to-face meetings between politicians and citizens must be prioritized.

As the government gathers more information about citizens, citizens must demand more transparency from the government. New ways must be found to include citizens in decision making; voting every few years is not enough anymore when information and the possibility of responding to it are only a click or two away. We face a crucial choice: Intensify democracy or lose it.

Why have many Orthodox Jews embraced conspiracy theories? The Talmud tells us that the Torah can be an elixir of life or a poison. It can help illuminate existence with its light, but it can also help create an alternative reality. When the charisma of the Torah is utilized to escape into an ecstatic state disconnected from reality, we will inevitably end up slipping down rabbit holes.

We need a new Talmud alongside the old one, a Talmud that addresses the challenge of democracy, and the income inequalities created by the new global economy, among other dilemmas of postmodern life. “The Storm” will not catalyze redemption, but our profound tradition, which has addressed issues of injustice for centuries, can help us forge a language through which to envision a more just and beautiful world for everyone.

Micha Odenheimer is a journalist, rabbi, and social entrepreneur. Micha founded the Israel Association or Ethiopian Jews, the first advocacy organization dedicated to changing absorption policies, and Tevel b’Tzedek, an Israeli organization working with impoverished subsistence farmers in the Global South. Micha has written for numerous publications, including Haaretz, the Washington Post, and the Jerusalem Report from Ethiopia, Somalia, Iraq, Burma, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries.

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