Truth, the new Hollywood flick about TV journalist Dan Rather’s downfall following his embrace of a forged scoop, could not have been released at a more provident time.
For beyond these days’ wielded knives, embattled pedestrians, ululating sirens and wrenched hearts lurks a war that is not about land, rights, resources, or faith: the war on truth.
Not the relative kind of truth, the one which pits, say, those who feel God is with them against those who feel God is with them. The war on truth targets this value in its most foundational sense – the bare facts; not only the facts of the past, but the facts of the present; the facts of eyesight, the facts of logic, the facts of cause and the facts of effect.
TRUTH has been on the defensive since the emergence of temptation, blame, envy and hate, when Adam denied his responsibility for tasting the forbidden fruit, and Cain lied when asked, “Where is your brother Abel?” People always have good reason to lie, certainly to others, but even more so to themselves.
And since truth can be very disconcerting people have gone to great lengths to deny, distort and altogether overturn the truth, at times with remarkable success.
That, it is widely believed, is how Dan Rather was fooled to accept as authentic forged memos in which a commander of the young George W. Bush ostensibly complained about his allegedly privileged treatment while serving in the Texas National Guard.
The forgery became apparent when it emerged that the memos’ ostensible writer, who died before their “revelation” on CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes, did not know to type, and that what he allegedly typed was word-processed by a version of Microsoft Word 2003 and printed by a laser printer, decades before the two were invented.
Some forgers, of course, have been less negligent, and in fact distorted truth not to manipulate justice, but to defend it. Such, for instance, was Hosni Mubarak’s foiling in 1984 of Muammar Gaddafi’s plan to assassinate in Cairo opposition leader Abdul Hamid Bakkoush.
The Egyptians intercepted Gaddafi’s plan and fooled him to unknowingly hire their agents as his target’s assassins. The hired Egyptians staged a shooting scene together with their intended victim, and then sent Gaddafi photos of his nemesis lying in a pool of blood poked with fake bullet wounds, all of which was quickly celebrated by the Libyan media as proof of what awaited Gaddafi’s foes.
Truth became apparent, and Gaddafi a laughingstock, the following day, when the reportedly slain Bakkoush emerged in a press conference in Cairo while displaying his own assassination’s photos to the media’s delight.
Clearly, successful lying takes such originality, sophistication and skill, as well as an understanding of the deceived and an imagination that will make lie appear like truth.
So much talent does lying ordinarily demand that one wonders what is more common, lies’ failure or success.
For instance, the mistakes made by the man who faked the memos about Bush were repeated in Turkey, where the regime charged generals with plotting a coup based on a document word-processed with software that didn’t exist when the soldiers allegedly plotted.
Here in Israel, too, such amateurish tinkering with the truth was quickly unveiled, when a forged document, aimed at creating the impression that a general was deploying a public-relations firm to promote his candidacy for chief of General Staff, was typed under a private firm’s logo that was cut and pasted from elsewhere.
Despite these risks, the urge to distort the truth at times involved things even larger than a big army’s command and much more voluminous than a single page.
Such were the 62 volumes of Hitler’s diaries, which were judged authentic by historian Hugh Trevor-Roper before proving to have been forged, page by page, by a charlatan who convinced Stern magazine that they were found on a downed Luftwaffe aircraft.
It took two weeks, but experts soon asserted that the forgeries were bound with glue from the 1950s, and that the wording of some of Hitler’s ostensible speeches included errors that did not appear in his actual speeches, and did appear in a postwar book of his speeches.
Less pretentious, but no less daring, was Michelangelo’s forgery of a Roman statue of Cupid which he buried somewhere and after having someone else unearth it tried to sell it as a precious archeological finding.
Even more audacious was a 19th-century antiques dealer from Jerusalem named Moses Wilhelm Shapira, who sold the Berlin Museum thousands of forged biblical-era statues, ceramics and text fragments. A new version of Deuteronomy he claimed to have found by the Dead Sea was soon exhibited by the British Museum and drew large audiences including prime minister Gladstone, only to soon be judged by scholars as a forgery, shortly before the exposed forger shot himself in the head.
Serious lying, in short, must involve an effort if it is to be effective, and even then its chances of success are questionable at best; unless, that is, you are a Palestinian lying about the Jews.
THE LIES Israelis faced this week put to shame all precedents of forgery, distortion, ruse and deceit.
The lie machine we face trickles its poison from top to bottom, and splashes it across the divides between government and rabble and between secularism and faith.
Up on top, President Mahmoud Abbas charged Israel with executing the 13-year-old who stabbed, and critically injured, a Jewish boy riding his bicycle in northern Jerusalem, while down in the stabber's house his father said his kid “did not know how to hold a knife.”
The fact – as opposed to opinion – that the “executed” boy is alive, and being treated in Hadassah-University Medical Center, meant nothing to Abbas, just like the video footage that shows the stabber wielding a knife meant nothing to that father.
It is a disparagement of truth, and a willing embrace of libel, with which we Jews have been familiar for centuries.
Lying, in this case, is not merely a momentary forgery, local plot or opportune ploy; it is policy, strategy, reflex and norm. These forgers don’t bother handwriting thousands of pages, industriously sculpting elegant statues, or scribing ancient-looking scrolls. This forgery emerges effortlessly from between unpursed lips and falls softly on attentive ears.
The absurd lie that Israel is out to destroy the Temple Mount’s mosques was invented years ago and has since been cultivated and spread systematically, despite its patent lack of evidence or logic. It is but part of a diet of lies which Palestinian children have been fed for generations, about the Jews being murderers, robbers and swindlers, and about the conflict having begun with the Jews on the attack and the Arabs on the defensive, a conscious inversion of well-documented facts.
This attitude toward truth is not the opportunism of someone out to momentarily benefit from a forged letter, photo, memo or book.
This is about a sweeping refusal to cope with truth, and a conscious choice to wage war on it as an enemy in its own right.
It is a complex that runs deep. The refusal to face truth is why Abbas has failed to abide by his own laws and hold the election for the office he has been holding unelected since his term’s expiration five years ago. An election might unveil truths with which he does not know how to cope. The same goes for the Palestinians’ other leaders, Gaza’s Hamas, who also haven’t held an election since the one that brought them to power.
The inability to handle truth, and the refusal to appreciate it as a moral value, are now major enemies of Western civilization. This is how, for instance, people say with a straight face that the Twin Towers were attacked by some combination of the CIA and the Elders of Zion, and this is why Turkish President Recep Erdogan, faced with the electoral truth that the Kurdish minority dared to not vote for him, responded by bombing it. Ours, therefore, is part of a broader war between those who believe in the power of truth and those who believe in the truth of power.
We Jews are the descendants of forebears who have been told for millennia what Moses made law: “You shall not... deal falsely, neither lie one to another.” That is why our norm is that truth is an aim and lying is a shame. A day will come, and it will be our enemies’ as well.