Richard Landes: The Real ‘Poison’ in the Middle East Conflict

Cross posted by Richard Landes, who blogs at Augean Stables

The New York Times ran the following cartoon, allegedly about the poisoning of Yassir Arafat by Patrick Chappatte (HT/BR).

Some think this is an outrageous cartoon that supports the libel that the Israelis poisoned Arafat. And it may be just that. After all, either Chappatte is an advocate of the destruction of Israel, or he’s in total ignorance of what’s at stake, as in this cartoon (HT/DG)

But, unintentionally or not, it actually makes a very different and critical point. From the outset, the relationship between Israel and her neighbors has been poisoned by what Nidra Poller has called lethal narratives,” stories accusing (in this case) Israel of intentionally murdering innocent civilians, preferably children. Lethal narratives are key elements in cognitive warfare designed at once to create hatred and a desire for vengeance among “us” (whose children are being murdered), guilt and self-loathing among “them” (whose soldiers are doing the killing), and hostility among bystanders (the Westerners whose judgments play a critical role in determining policy).

The most powerful lethal narrative, the Muhammad al Durah story, was a nuclear bomb of cognitive warfare. It aroused Muslims throughout the world; it filled Israelis with horror and sapped their ability to defend themselves against accusations; and it thrilled various groups, primarily Europeans and Leftists, who saw it as a “get-out-of-holocaust-guilt-free” card, which freed them from any commitment to be fair to Israel.

The move was a masterstroke of cognitive war. Jihadis got the Europeans to play their lethal narrative repeatedly on their TVs during the early intifada, waving the flag of Jihad in front of their immigrant Muslim population. And as a result, Europe, in the 21st century, got a “Muslim Street.”

The mainstream news media’s laundering lethal narratives and presenting them to the public as “news” plays a critical role in Palestinian (and beyond that, Islamist) cognitive warfare. Once they had gone wild over the al Durah poison, the mainstream news media believed any claims that Palestinians made that Israelis had killed children until proven wrong, and doubted any Israeli claims to innocence until proven right. And if that happened (long after the initial lethal narrative had been spread), the press mumbled corrections and moved on to the next lethal narrative.

I personally had a direct experience of this dynamic when I gave a talk at a conference in Budapest in 2007 on millenarianism. I presented al Durah as a key element in the “going viral” of Muslim apocalyptic memes, and referred to the story as a “blood libel.” The organizer of the conference noted:

“I’ve warned against sloppy use of terminology at this conference [I had previously suggested that Marx was a millennialist], and your use of blood libel is a prime example: it’s just simple murder of children,which we know for a fact Israelis are doing every day. (Italics mine)

In her very “statement of fact” the speaker proved the efficacy of the blood libel she denied.

One of the key functions of the mainstream news media is to serve as a dialysis machine, filtering out the poisons that can weaken the civil polities in which they operate. At least in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have, alas, played the role of injecting the poisons of lethal narratives into the information stream of the West.

We are all the weaker for it. Indeed, we find traces of poison in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, and the ludicrous story of Israel poisoning Arafat is only the most recent example, and the above cartoon, a pathetic illustration.

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