Bear with me, please, while I attempt an answer at the following question: What is a conspiracy theory?
Generally speaking, a conspiracy theory is a theory that directly challenges the conventional, widely accepted, or official account of a particular event or series of events. If a politician is murdered, or if a public figure dies in an accident, you can be certain that someone, somewhere, will insist that what occurred was the work of a shadowy, unseen cabal. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, to take one example, and the death of Princess Diana in a car crash in 1997, to take another, have both given ample opportunity to conspiracists to advance the most outlandish theories concerning what really happened.
In politics, conspiracy theories are typically motivated by malice towards the subject in question. We've all heard the absurd stories about President Barack Obama being a secret Muslim, along with the claim that he wasn't born in America. In such cases, actual evidence plays second fiddle to the desire to believe that the conspiracy theory is in fact true.
Hence, to buy into a conspiracy theory, it helps if you're already predisposed to its conclusions from the beginning. Holocaust deniers are not serious researchers of the Second World War; these are people whose point of departure is hatred of Jews, which leaves them amenable to denying the existence of the Nazi gas chambers. Ditto for the conspiracy theories around the 9/11 atrocities, in which hatred of the United States coexists with anti-Semitism—remember the line about the absence of Jews from the Twin Towers on that fateful day?—and apocalyptic warnings about a New World Order run by bankers, media moguls, neoconservative intellectuals, and other sinister forces.
Ultimately, what nearly all conspiracy theories have in common is the conviction that those who govern us, those who "control" what we hear, see, and read, and those who run our economies, are ruthlessly engaged in a massive cover-up to prevent the truth from getting in the way of their base material and political motives.
Conspiracy theories, then, appeal to the emotions rather than the intellect. In a world of great complexity, such theories are comfortingly simple; at the same time, they have the potential—as students of anti-Semitism know all too well—to become lethal if enough people subscribe to them.
That's one key reason why it's imperative to understand the difference between a conspiracy theory and a legitimate theory that goes against prevailing orthodoxies. Here in America, both types of theories are rightly protected by free speech laws, but only the latter kind should be dignified with a respectful reception.
Sadly, this vital distinction has been ignored by, of all organizations, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which has spent more than a century bravely combating anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of bigotry. (Full disclosure: Since I'm about to criticize the ADL, readers should know that I worked for that organization from 2005-2007.) Moreover, the ADL has done so in the context of an attack upon, of all people, Michael Oren, the renowned Israeli historian and former Israeli envoy to the U.S., whose memoir "Ally," an account of his 2009-2013 ambassadorial stint in Washington, has just been published.
Since I favorably reviewed "Ally" last week in this column, there's no need to say anything additional about the book. But there is a great deal to say about the hysterical response—most of all from the ADL—to the assertions that Oren made about Obama in the book, as well as in a recent article for Foreign Policy magazine.
Examining the social and cultural influences that have affected Obama's outlook in the Middle East, Oren speculates—and let me stress this point: he speculates, and nothing more—that Obama's burning ambition to harmonize relations between America and the Islamic world might partly be the result of his personal interactions with Muslims, positive and negative, while he was growing up. In that regard, relying heavily on Obama's autobiographical "Dreams from My Father," Oren wonders whether Obama's abandonment by two Muslim father figures led him "many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists."
The worst you can say about this, as Oren himself acknowledges, is that it's "armchair psychoanalysis." In my view, it isn't the greatest of insights in a book that is otherwise full of them, but it's certainly not offensive or insulting. After all, Oren is not the first writer to examine the influences of parents on their politician offspring—growing up in the U.K. in the 1980s, I constantly encountered the refrain that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's distaste for welfare state economics was down to the influence of her conservative father, a grocery store owner with a strong work ethic—and he won't be the last.
What Oren wrote certainly didn't warrant the frothing response of Abe Foxman, ADL's outgoing national director. According to Foxman, Oren engaged in "borderline stereotyping and insensitivity"—the two cardinal sins in the ADL worldview. Quite how he did so isn't explained. Also unexplained is Foxman's claim that Oren "veers into the realm of conspiracy theories."
In defaming Oren as a conspiracy theorist, Foxman and the ADL not only aligned themselves with some of the more insidious, axe-to-grind Israel-bashers out there, like James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine and Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Far worse, they portrayed Oren, a man who served Israel with distinction, as mentally inhabiting the same poisonous hinterland as Holocaust deniers and 9/11 truthers. It is simply, to use the ADL's favorite word, "outrageous."
What's most disturbing is Foxman's depiction of something he doesn't agree with as a "conspiracy theory." If he really believes that Oren's musings on Obama amount to conspiracy theory, then what term will the ADL use to describe vicious falsehoods like the claim that the Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis, or that Jews are stirring up African-Americans in a war against the white race?
The ADL needs to remember that the truly dangerous conspiracy theories are the ones it deals with every day. If the crucial talks on Iran's nuclear program fail to arrive at a deal by the June 30 deadline or soon afterward, despite the Obama administration bending over backwards to accommodate the Tehran regime, get ready for a slew of accusations that it was the "Israel Lobby" that wrecked the talks.
Those Jewish leaders leaping to Obama's defense in the face of Oren's critique should ask themselves whether the White House will return the favor when the Iran-related venom comes in their direction. Somehow, I doubt it.