“A Conspiracy!” cried the delighted lady, clapping her hands. “Of all things, I do like a Conspiracy! It’s so interesting!”

– Lewis Carroll, My Lady, Sylvie and Bruno (1889)

Conspiracism is probably best characterized as a form of mental illness. Some researchers in psychiatry plainly agree. It is the attribution of control of world events to a hidden cabal of omnipotent conspirators. It is the claim that an organized “hidden hand” lies behind world developments. It is probably best treated in clinics with padded walls.

Perhaps the best example of conspiracism in recent years has been the attempt to dismiss the fact that thousands of eyewitnesses saw passenger planes full of civilians crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11 and that the hijackers were all Arab al Qaeda operatives. Crank conspiracists insist instead that the CIA, the Mossad, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Jews, or some other nefarious group was really behind the attacks.

Many of us have a tendency to dismiss people making such conspiracist claims as harmless lunatics and amusing eccentrics. This is all the more true because quite a few conspiracy “theorists” also endorse claims about UFOs and abductions by space aliens. But conspiracism can be quite dangerous, and conspiracism in Israel has played a particularly harmful role in recent years.

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss all such people as harmless buffoons. Outside Israel, conspiracism is closely linked with anti-Semitism, and many of the “grand cabal” theories of the conspiracists involve supposed plots by Jews (or “Zionists”) to take over the world, or at least American foreign policy.

Conspiracists see “evidence” of an invisible cabal and plotting where none exists. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” Belief in a powerful cabal seems to serve a psychological need for some people. It provides them with an explanation and excuse for their own failures in life. After all, how can one succeed when up against such an omnipotent adversary? It also allows them to pretend to understand a complex world, without the nuisance of having first to study, research, and master analytic tools.

Perhaps the best analysis of the conspiracist mindset is that by Daniel Pipes in his seminal book Conspiracy: How the Paranoid Style Flourishes and Where it Comes From (Free Press, 1997). Pipes defines “conspiracist theories” as “fear of a nonexistent conspiracy” and shows that nonsensical theories of a single institution or cabal plotting to take over the world go back at least 250 years.

Conspiracism, according to Pipes, is a form of paranoid delusion that tends to take over the entire lives and personalities of believers. Embracing conspiracism strongly resembles the totalitarian immersion of cult members into herd thinking. Conspiracism feeds on misrepresentation of facts, outright lying, and tendentious twisting of unrelated factoids into a grand theory.

The Internet is full of websites claiming that footage of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center reveals explosions of bombs inside the buildings before the planes struck, thus proving the buildings were brought down by controlled explosions” from the inside. Suggesting that Elvis can be seen on the 70th floor in photos of the collapsing WTC would just as thoroughly convince these people that he really was there in his blue suede shoes.

In Israel, a number of conspiracy theories have long enjoyed popularity. Quite a few Israelis grant credence to stories that in the 1950’s the country’s socialist leaders kidnapped Yemenite Jewish babies and turned them over for adoption to Ashkenazi Jews. Not a scrap of real evidence has ever been produced – though journalists and more than one state commission of inquiry have investigated the claims. What actually happened was that some Jews coming to Israel from Yemen, a country with one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates, gave birth in Israel to babies who died in the hospital and records were lost due to the chaotic state of record-keeping at the time.

Most recent “theories” of conspiracists in Israel have focused on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Yigal Amir. The “theorists” use precisely the same “tools of analysis” as those used by their cousins overseas, mainly the non sequitur. While a number of copycats have emerged, the leading conspiracist about the Rabin murder is the Canadian-born Israeli Barry Chamish, who insists that Amir fired blanks at Rabin, serving as a “patsy” in a plot on the part of the Israeli secret service and intelligence agencies to murder Rabin at the behest of Shimon Peres. At this writing, Chamish’s website features a cartoon of Shimon Peres with blood on his hands and dripping from his mouth, and banner headlines proclaiming him a murderer.

While he himself is not a Holocaust denier, his articles appear on neo-Nazi and Holocaust revisionist websites including the Australia-based Adelaide Institute, whose home page last month wished readers “Merry Christmas from Adolf Hitler.” The Adelaide Institute website carries more than 40 articles and citations from Chamish.

Before taking on the Rabin assassination, most of Chamish’s “theories” on politics involved supposed conspiracies involving the Council on Foreign Relations or CFR (a bipartisan foreign policy debating society with offices in New York and Washington that publishes the journal Foreign Affairs). Chamish claims that most Israeli leaders are secret agents of the CFR, and that the CFR itself blew up the World Trade Center from the inside. Because of Daniel Pipes’s work against conspiracism, Chamish claims Pipes is an “agent” of the CFR, a group that in fact has no agents. Because I myself have dismissed Chamish’s “theories” as rubbish, Chamish has published a claim that I am an “agent” of the Federal Reserve Bank (which also has no “agents”), sent to Israel to disrupt the economy.

Chamish, who’s spent years “documenting” the presence of UFOs on earth, sees conspiracies almost everywhere. He believes that most Israeli politicians are secret worshipers of the 17th century false messiah Shabbtai Zvi; that Shimon Peres engineered the crash of the plane flown by John Kennedy Jr.; that the accidental drowning of former Israeli cabinet minister Rafael Eitan was a “hit” ordered by Ariel Sharon; that the singer Ofra Haza was infected with AIDS on the orders of Shimon Peres, who, Chamish implies, was Haza’s lover. He’s also claiming that Ariel Sharon’s recent strokes were – you guessed it – part of a conspiracy.

Shortly after Rabin was assassinated, Chamish started spinning theories about the murder. Over time, segments of the Israeli public, especially among the anti-Oslo Right, were taken in by these claims. As a result, a number of mainstream journalists, notably Tom Segev, have called for the release of all records and materials related to the assassination, if for no other reason than to silence the conspiracists. Some of the records, especially minute details about Rabin’s injuries and medical condition, have been withheld to date, mainly out of respect to Rabin.

All the facts concerning the assassination were weighed carefully by an Israeli state commission of inquiry headd by retired chief justice Meir Shamgar, a non-partisan and extraordinarily distinguished jurist. After carefully reviewing the evidence, including the charges raised by the conspiracists, the commission saw no evidence of any conspiracy, dismissed the innuendos and “theories” of the conspiracists, and pointed the finger at Yigal Amir alone.

In contrast, Israeli conspiracists, obsessed with proving that some manner of conspiracy was behind the Rabin assassination, have never produced a single shred of real evidence to back their arguments. Instead, their investigations consist of combing through public records, photos, and reports about the assassination and asking questions about seeming inconsistencies. The problem is that asking a question about a “seeming inconsistency” is not the same thing as producing evidence to back a conspiracy theory, and all such seeming inconsistencies were considered and dismissed by the Shamgar Commission.

Virtually every “question” raised by the conspiracists about the Rabin assassination has by now been fully explained away and answered:

• The conspiracists make much of the fact that someone at the scene of the murder supposedly yelled “blanks!” The conspiracists believe that this alleged shout proves that Amir fired blanks. Talk about non sequiturs! In fact, if there really was such a shout, it just shows that some people nearby thought the gunfire was blanks. People commonly mistake real gunfire for blanks; in any case, it may have been Yigal Amir himself, afraid of being gunned down by guards, who yelled it. The conspiracists also claim that Amir had no gunpowder residue on his hands, proving that he fired blanks. But blanks actually leave more residue than real bullets.

• The conspiracists have erected much of their theories on the question of whether Rabin was struck by two or three bullets. The initial hospital admissions records said three, no doubt based on the extent of Rabin’s injuries (he was shot with hollow-point bullets). Amir only shot twice. Hence the conspiracy is “proved,” claim the conspiracists. As it turns out, Rabin was only struck by two bullets. The initial hospital report was mistaken and written before thorough examination, but the final report was correct.

• The undershirt Rabin was wearing was later found to have a third hole. Aha, proclaim the conspiracists. This past fall Israel’s Channel Two took the shirt in question to a forensics lab in the UK for analysis. It turns out the third hole was from a cigarette. Rabin was a notorious chain smoker. There were three holes in the undershirt but only two entry wounds in Rabin.

• The car carrying Rabin to the hospital took “too long” to get there and did not use the previously planned evacuation route. Gotcha, proclaim the conspiracists. In fact, the driver, upon seeing that large numbers of people from the rally attended by Rabin were crowded into the alleys designated as the evacuation route, chose to try an alternative route to the hospital, also crowded. No conspiracy.

• In footage of the murder, Rabin walks away from Amir after being shot. How could Rabin be walking if his spine was snapped, as hospital records indicate? Eureka, crow the conspiracists. The truth, however, is that Rabin’s spine was not snapped. One bullet bounced off a vertebra. The initial hospital admissions records saying otherwise guessed incorrectly, and later the full extent of injuries was correctly understood.

• Rabin’s guards did not stop the young Yemenite with the yarmulke from getting close to Rabin? They were in on it, chant the conspiracists. But all this proves is error in judgment or incompetence after the fact – hardly unknown in the Israeli security forces in countless other matters.

One can go on and on. The conspiracist case breaks down even faster when the same method of asking questions about seeming inconsistencies is turned against the conspiracists themselves. If Yigal Amir fired blanks or was a patsy, why does he still insist that he alone murdered Rabin? If there are people who supposedly have “real” information about an assassination conspiracy – a conspiracy that would amount to the greatest scandal in Israeli history – why have they not turned their material over to real journalists or to the police or to Shamgar?

The conspiracists are not above outright lying. They regularly claim their theories have been endorsed by members of the Rabin family themselves. False. They claim Amir at first told the police the assassination was a mere staged show. False. They claim Amir had once been employed as a Shin Bet agent. False. They claim that after the assassination, witnesses and Shin Bet agents were murdered by the Shin Bet. False.

They claim Rabin’s driver was nefariously “switched” at the last minute. False. (Actually, Rabin had several drivers and no one was switched.) They claim the lone person recording the events on a camcorder was a Shin Bet agent. False. They claim the film of the shooting was “suppressed” by the Israeli government for years. False. They claim one can see on news tapes mysterious additional people getting in and out of Rabin’s car. False.

What about Avishai Raviv, the “mole” police agent running the radical right-wing organization (Ayal) to which Yigal Amir belonged? Did not the conspiracists do remarkable work in exposing Raviv?

Actually, the conspiracists had nothing to do with the exposure of the role of Raviv. The story was a scoop by journalists at the left-wing newspaper Haaretz – proving that the Israeli media are perfectly capable of uncovering real misdeeds, as opposed to imaginary ones. Raviv’s role was to infiltrate far right and potentially violent groups in Israel. Given Amir’s later behavior, such surveillance was clearly justified.

Raviv evidently was also improperly used to conduct Nixon-style “dirty tricks” to discredit the Israeli Right. However, Raviv’s only “role” in the Rabin assassination was that he misjudged Amir’s talk about “getting Rabin” as mere bravado. Raviv was cleared of “failure to stop the assassination” by an Israeli court, as indeed he should have been. Whether he and his bosses should have been investigated for the “dirty tricks” campaign is a separate issue (I happen to think they should have), but the answer to that is unrelated to the lunatic theories of the conspiracists about the assassination.

What about the conviction of Amir’s girlfriend, Margalit Har-Shefi, for “failure to stop a crime”? She should not have been convicted, but her arguably unjust conviction hardly proves that the conspiracy theories have any validity at all.

Ultimately the real damage done by Israeli conspiracism is significant. The failure on the part of many in the movement opposed to the Oslo peace process to disassociate themselves from and renounce the conspiracist nonsense has served to discredit all opposition to the policies of the Left, and has resulted in the perpetuation of those policies.

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.