Within the first twelve verses of Sh’mot we quickly move from the nomadic patriarchal and matriarchal clan of Jacob’s sons to the Community of Israelites living in Egypt. Without any details or explanation, the narrative describes a new ruler who asserts that the number of Israelites is inherently a danger during a war. There is no effort to develop the actual circumstances of either the size of the community nor the threat they represent. An unknown leader informs his people that there are ‘aliens’ among them that are now a danger, fear and ignorance of these ‘aliens’ are the only ingredients needed for this ancient conspiracy theory.
Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propagandist said and practiced: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph or all the value that the Israelites had brought to Egypt, was an ancient example of Goebbels’ maxim, and the biblical text’s brevity affirms that the use of both coerced labor and infanticide only required the simplest assertions of the ‘big lie’.
We read these same verses long after the ancient Pharaoh and the Nazi Propagandist, even as we too face threats created by lies cultivated by conspiracy theories. The influence and systemic presence of social media enhances the power of the most ridiculous of lies, even the most outlandish cannot be ignored. As I write this the US is engaged in a serious public struggle over the legitimacy of the 2020 Presidential election results, challenges that are completely false but supported by people refusing to accept the results as primarily articulated by the loosing presidential candidate, Donald J Trump. He continues to proffer assertions that are false and intended to delegitimize the emerging presidency of Joseph R. Biden. Democracy requires the communal acceptance of political grace for the sake of trust and goodwill. Those who engage in the use of fear and the ‘big-lie’ to destabilize the people, reject this vital aspect of political values.
During the Constitutionally mandated joint session of Congress, there was an armed insurrection which took over the United States Capitol. Incited by a rally during which the President reminded them that the 2020 election was stolen from them. People were injured, public property destroyed and people inside the House and Senate hidden in the building and evacuated. For the first time in American history, the formalities of the democratic process have been intentionally challenged. People led into the frenzy of rage, fueled by lies about the election being ‘stolen’. Capitol security was not prepared for being overrun by the Trump supporters. In a video, the President told people to go home and be peaceful, adding ‘Our election was stolen from us!’. This is an affirmation of the power of a vulnerable community of angry fearful people.
As the 117th Congress of the United States begins, at least one new member of the House of Representatives brings her alliance with Qanon into the chamber, described by some as the new version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. “…the Qanon conspiracy theory which alleges “that a cabal of Satan worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US president Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal.” (TOI, Boonie Levine) The nature of such a bizarre fantasy defies all rationale analysis, but its tropes stimulate classic antisemitic fantasies which links memes of “Jewish cabal” ‘Christian children in danger from a secret society’. Do you respond to insanity or ignore it so as not to affirm its reality? The instability of our times is being cultivated by fear which is used intentionally to sustain instability. This conspiracy theory has now been credentialed as a member of the US Congress.
In the days ahead as one presidency ends and another begins, a deeply divided America is a chastened democracy. Now is the time when leaders of each category, must speak in unity with clarity that freedom requires responsibility. Indifference to the ‘big-lie’ is not permissible, we have historical facts about the results of neutrality, silence leads to greater violence. The biblical text offers us a narrative in which no one responds to the Pharaoh’s lie about the Israelites. When public servants add to the fear and anger with their silence, they become essential to the force of the lie. In Charlottesville there were not good people on both sides. People who support Qanon and Trump are not people who care about children. The Israelites were not a danger to Egypt, but no one defied the ancient ‘big-lie’, which should remain a lesson for those of us who believe in the resilience of democracy.
Today, I watched in horror as other Americans used violence to challenge the most significant symbol of democracy, the Capitol. I have been in those halls, those chambers and walked up and down those steps. Now the lies and conspiracies have moved beyond politics and social media into armed insurrection. I have never imagined how the Israelites became slaves in such few verses, today my imagination was darkened by enraged ‘great patriots’ incited by an autocratic narcissist. The ‘big-lie’ continues to take civility to the very edge of chaos.