Natan Odenheimer

The Life of Israel's Conspiracy Theorist

Natan Odenheimer
The Life of Israel's Conspiracy Theorist

Soon after Barry Chamish died on August 23rd at the age of 64, rumors spread across the Internet that he was assassinated.

Published in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, Spetember 6th, 2016

That his death kindled suspicion of a plot is only appropriate. Chamish, a Canadian-born Israeli, was a prolific author, a journalist, and a Scrabble champion, yet he is most famous for crafting a conspiracy theory about Rabin’s assassination, a theory that is remarkably popular with the Israeli public.

In fact, it’s hard to find an Israeli who hasn’t been exposed, directly or indirectly, to Chamish’s claim: that Rabin was assassinated not by a Jewish right-wing religious zealot, but by powerful covert forces that ran the show behind a curtain.

There are two ways to treat a conspiracy theory.

One option is to critically consider the story presented, then accept or dismiss it. The second option is to put aside our judgments on the theory’s truth and ask what its popularity could tell us about society.

Chamish’s theories don’t necessarily make sense to everyone. But like it or not, Chamish has had a hand in shaping Israeli society. Now that he is gone, it’s time to ask why his explanations are so prevalently embraced.

Barry Chamish was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1952 and raised there. He showed a knack for writing fiction from an early age. In a 1989 Jewish Post interview he said, “I was the best storyteller in my class.”

He studied English at the University of Manitoba and published, among other books, “anti-establishment themed” novels that were printed on a small scale.

He even won a local prize for one of them. In 1975 he moved to Israel and studied for an MA in English at the Hebrew University. Four years later he enlisted in the IDF and participated in the 1982 campaign in Lebanon. In the aforementioned interview, Chamish says that he was still haunted by some of his memories from the fighting. “You need to have a very special personality to survive in Israel,” he remarks, “It’s not for the weak-hearted.”

Through the 1980s Chamish tried to make a living as a freelance writer while working as a guard at a factory.

He also became obsessed with the presence of aliens and UFOs in the Land of Israel and tried to tie biblical stories to contemporary reports of unidentified flying objects.

For instance, as he writes in his book The Return of the Giants, he considered it no coincidence that a wave of UFOs washed Israeli skies after the signing of the Oslo agreement in 1993. He suggested that the giants mentioned in the Genesis were now helping the Palestinians in a long-term plan to destroy Israel.

After the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995, Chamish found a new target.

He was one of the first people to form a comprehensive speculative theory that suggested an alternative version to the official explanations.

The accepted version is that the killer, Yigal Amir, 27 at the time, acted on his own, and was driven purely by a religious zeal that convinced him that this was the only way to stop a peace agreement that would bring an end to the Jewish state.

Chamish thought otherwise. He underlined what he thought to be ambiguities, even falsities, in the explanations given by the government committee that investigated the security breach.

Similar to the theories around president John F.

Kennedy’s assassination, Chamish’s theory too, is astonishingly detailed. For example, he pointed out that it’s unreasonable that Amir could get so close to Rabin without an insider’s help, that the ballistic and the medical report are flawed, and that it’s very strange that as Amir squeezed the trigger someone shouted “srak, srak” (Hebrew for a blank bullet).

Piecing together these “suspicious flaws” in the government’s version, he concluded that it was not Amir but someone sent by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) who killed Rabin.

In his book Who Murdered Yitzhak Rabin? and in various interviews and publications he went even further, accusing Shimon Peres of directing this ploy – obeying the orders of a secret society that is based in the United States, most of whose members are former American presidents, with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger serving as one of their main leaders.

IT IS easy to see why it’s hard to take him seriously: UFOs, biblical giants who help the Palestinians, and an American secret group that uses Shimon Peres as a puppet for cynical geopolitical games are not the kind of things we expect to find in history books.

Since conspiracy theories aren’t only an Israeli phenomenon but rather a global one, many scholars have tried to understand them. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, Prof. Anita Watters of Denison University in Ohio says that these kinds of theories can point to how mainstream news coverage is viewed by general society. “On the very basic level, the proliferation of conspiracy theories tells us that the public distrusts the government and the media.”

Watters researched conspiracy theory in black communities in the US. She said that the main commonality among those theories is that they provide “alternative explanations for inequality.”

One of the best-known conspiracy theories among black Americans is that HIV was created by white men and purposely introduced into the black community.

While these claims were effectively discredited, they do tell how many black Americans tried to make sense of the fact that they suffered far greater losses from the deadly virus than white people.

In some ways, conspiracy theories are complex metaphors for how a certain population understands its relationship to authority.

Israeli author and journalist Eli Eshed is the unquestionable expert on Israeli conspiracy theories and popular culture. He has followed the spread of the phenomenon for over 20 years. Eshed told the Magazine last week that the Rabin’s assassination dominates the world of Israeli conspiracy theories because “it touches an open wound in Israeli society. It is at the crux of the political situation. For the left it’s very easy to blame Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] and Religious Zionism [Amir was Orthodox].

“Chamish’s theory turns the tables. Suddenly the blame is on someone else’s shoulders. The popularity of the theories demonstrates that the public is wary of, even distrusts, the media and the institutions both from the left and the right side of the political map,” says Eshed.

Eshed also warned that these theories are potentially very dangerous.

“Part of the reason that the Arabs cannot own up to their failures is because they always blame a greater force for making the playing field uneven.”

In the past few years, around the anniversary of Rabin’s death, Israeli media has reported on the rising popularity of Rabin assassination conspiracy theories. A poll from 2014 suggested that 55 percent of the Religious Zionist public and 14% of the general public believes that Yigal Amir didn’t kill Rabin. A poll from 2015 showed that this number increased and 19% of the general public now holds that opinion.

Israel isn’t the only country to struggle with conspiracy theories, and the tools to cope with them are underdeveloped. Already seven years ago, Jamie Bartlett, director of a cross-party London-based think tank, The Center for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, wrote in The Guardian that, “In recent years they [conspiracy theories] have become a widespread and influential cultural phenomenon. In some contexts, they may have serious social implications.” Based on a study, he argues that these theories are prevalent in extremist groups across the political spectrum and that they function as a “‘radicalizing multiplier,’ which, when combined with extremist ideology, can push groups and individuals in a more radical direction.”

Prof. Karen Douglas from the University of Kent studied the psychology of conspiracy theories and their potential consequence on society. When she spoke with the Magazine last week she said, “Some scholars argue that conspiracy theories could be empowering for people because they allow them to feel that they are in possession of valuable knowledge that others may not have.

Believing in conspiracy theories may also reduce feelings of uncertainty.

“However, in some of our own research, we have found that exposure to conspiracy theories can actually lead to feelings of powerlessness and uncertainty. On topics such as climate change, vaccination and politics, reading about conspiracy theories can make people feel more powerless and uncertain about what is going on, and influence their intentions to engage in these areas... people [become] less likely to want to vote, take action against climate change, and get their children vaccinated.”

Barry Chamish lived to see his theory widely spreading in Israel.

According to Chamish, Who Murdered Yitzhak Rabin? sold over 40,000 copies, and it was translated into three languages. In interviews, he reported that he was a sought-after lecturer and that the Shin Bet was after him too.

In an interview with Eshed in 2005, he mentioned that there were two attempts on his life. Nine years ago he left for the US, explaining that he had fled Israel because he feared for his life.

Chamish died last week in his home in Florida from heart failure with no evidence of foul play. Some of his followers speculated that at last, “they got to him.” Chamish left behind a son and daughter, 28 and 24, both live in Israel, and a wife in the US.

His daughter, Sally Chamish told the Magazine that his body was shipped from the US to Israel last week. He was buried in Modi’in.

Chamish is perhaps gone, but his ideas are very much alive. His death might be a good time to consider how to cope with the fact that a growing number of Israelis believe that the media and the government are conspiring to blind the public from the truth, or in Chamish’s somewhat cryptic words in an interview to Eshed, “No one is on our side and it’s something we must understand.”