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The Canadian magazine Adbusters sparked the Occupy Wall Street movement. It also has a weakness for Israel-bashing conspiracy theories.

Michael Moynihan
December 06, 2011
The January-February 2012 Adbusters.(Photo: Tablet Magazine)
The January-February 2012 Adbusters.(Photo: Tablet Magazine)

Kalle Lasn, the founder and editor of Adbusters, doesn’t have the matinee idol looks of Che Guevera, nor the clenched-fist ardor of Tom Hayden. Indeed, until very recently, the 69-year-old was an obscure figure who spent his days on a farm outside Vancouver producing an art magazine-cum-radical political journal—$8.95 an issue; no ads, natch—with a modest following on the anti-globalization left. But in September, the former ad man midwifed the Occupy Wall Street movement, sending an email blast to Adbusters readers advising them to set up camp in lower Manhattan and begin the “seizure of the financial district.”

While Adbusters’ editors don’t pull the strings of Occupy—Lasn only dispenses advice to the leaders of the leaderless group—the magazine is currently enjoying a torrent of mainstream media attention for its catalyzing role in the movement. In the past month, Lasn and Adbusters Senior Editor Micah White—Trotsky to Lasn’s Lenin—have been treated to generous profiles in The New Yorker, the New York Times, NPR, and the New Republic.

While Adbusters is “not the only radical magazine calling for the end of life as we know it,” wrote Mattathias Schwartz in a November profile of Lasn in The New Yorker, “it is by far the best-looking.” The same week, the New York Times rhapsodized that Lasn “had spent much of his career skewering corporate America, creating ‘subvertising’ campaigns like ‘Joe Chemo,’ which deftly mocked the Joe Camel cigarette ads of the 1990s.” It’s a tub-thumbing, deeply ideological magazine but “with its vivid artwork and photography, snippets of poetry and glossy fake ads … Adbusters feels less like a manifesto than an evocative brochure,” the Times commented.

Yes, Adbusters offers endless finger-wagging about the evils of McDonald’s and moralizing photo spreads of skinny models—the sort of pop activism that the mildly foolish regard as deeply clever. But there is more to Adbusters than the clichéd mocking of mega-corporations and capitalism. Sometime after the Sept. 11 attacks, Lasn, once single-mindedly focused on the supposed psychological terrorism of corporate advertising, expanded his coverage to include the problem of actual terrorism. In the era of Iraq and Afghanistan, Adbusters developed a foreign policy—one that centers on outlandish and viciously anti-Israel conspiracy theories.

Thus when the streets leading to Zuccotti Park, the site of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, were sealed by New York City police on Nov. 15, preventing journalists from covering the eviction of protesters that night, it “made Lasn think of the bloody uprising in Syria,” according to The New Yorker’s Schwartz. Tahrir Square, the seat of the Egyptian revolution, is invoked frequently by the Occupiers; The New Yorker quotes one organizer who visited Egypt during its revolution saying that “It was the same [in Cairo] as here.” The current death toll in Egypt is close to 1,000. In Syria, it’s over 4,000.

For regular readers of Adbusters, this type of breathless overstatement will be familiar. But its profilers have mostly overlooked the magazine’s frequent flights of extreme hyperbole and its writers’ penchant for conspiracy theory. “In only the last few months,” an Adbusters writer fretted in 2003, “America has advanced tremendously from emerging to realized fascism.” In 2006, the magazine continued tracking the National Socialist takeover of the United States with an article titled “Is Right-Wing America Becoming Fascist?” While in the post-Bush era, discussions of Hitlerism have disappeared from the pages of Adbusters—fascist powers, after all, tend not to change leaders via democratic elections—Lasn has shifted his focus to the supposed Nazism of another sinister government: Israel.

In 2010 Adbusters ran a photo essay comparing the situation in Gaza with the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising: Pictures of dead Palestinians and burning buildings were juxtaposed with images of Nazi brutality. The accompanying text explained that in the Warsaw Ghetto, “Acts of rebellion … were brutally suppressed and German retaliation was often strikingly disproportionate.” In response to criticism from Canadian Jewish groups, Lasn declared that there are “striking similarities between the Warsaw ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland during World War II and the open air prison of Gaza,” illustrating the point with photos from the United States Holocaust Museum. (The museum later sent the magazine a cease-and-desist order.) As was the case with his sloppy Syria comparison, Lasn didn’t mention that the Warsaw Ghetto uprising precipitated the murder of 70,000 innocents, most of whom were carted off to extermination camps.

Much of the recent media coverage of Adbusters makes glancing reference to Lasn’s now infamous 2004 “list” of Jewish neoconservatives. Among a list of 50 Bush Administration officials and prominent conservatives, the magazine denoted those he believed were Jewish with an asterisk next to their names. Lasn apparently sees ethnicity as a key data point, essential for understanding U.S. foreign policy. “Why won’t anyone say they are Jewish?” Lasn wrote. “Some shape policy from within the White House, while others are more peripheral, exacting influence indirectly as journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks. What they all share is the view that the US is a benevolent hyper power that must protect itself by reshaping the rest of the world into its morally superior image. And half of them are Jewish.” These Learned Elders were, of course, concerned not just with the reshaping of the world in the image of the United States, Lasn implied, but with the survival of Israel.

To Lasn, there is an obvious moral equivalence between the mullahs in Iran and the government in Jerusalem, between the cave-dwelling terrorists of al-Qaida and the elected government of the United States. A 2004 double-page spread in Adbusters showed two photos—one of President George W. Bush, one of Osama Bin Laden—accompanied by the question, “Who is morally superior?” In the same issue, two photos of Hamas leaders killed by Israel, Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, were contrasted with Bush and Ariel Sharon: “If Yassin and Rantisi, why not Sharon and Bush?”

Most Americans don’t see the moral parallels between Hamas’ spiritual leader and the former president, according to Adbusters, because newspapers like the New York Times are “perniciously biased” in favor of Israel, offering the opinion of Richard Falk, a Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist and former booster of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, as supporting evidence. The Times correspondent in Jerusalem, Ethan Bronner, is hopelessly pro-Israel, since he has “a son who served in the Israeli army.” Nor will it “be a surprise to learn” that the Times’ other Jerusalem reporter, Isabel Kershner, is “an Israeli citizen who is married to an Israeli citizen.” Both journalists, Adbusters fretted in a November blog post, have “deep ties to the Israel of today” and, therefore, cannot be trusted to report news objectively. Can Catholic journalists cover the Holy See? Or those with relatives on active military service in the United States cover the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan? Or is there perhaps something particularly tribal about Jews?

A more trustworthy Israeli writer, according to Adbusters, is the Israeli-born jazz musician Gilad Atzmon, a self-identified “proud self-hating Jew” who has, in essays posted on his own website, praised the “prophetic qualities” of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and wondered “if the Nazis ran a death factory in Auschwitz-Birkenau, why would the Jewish prisoners join them” on a death march at the close of the war. Lasn has published multiple pieces on Israel by Atzmon, despite a history of extremism that has made the Israeli anathema even to many on the anti-Zionist left (the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the United Kingdom recently disassociated itself from him).

Leafing through back issues of Adbusters, a reader is introduced not just to the notorious Atzmon, but also to a largely unknown team of cranks and risible “experts” expounding on the dual threats of American and Israeli power. An author named Jim Kirwan opined in the May/June 2005 issue of Adbusters on America’s “dreams of empire” in a piece first published on the Holocaust-denial website Contributor Ken O’Keefe, an anti-Zionist activist who, like Atzmon, was recently disowned by many of his former comrades, recently told Iranian state television that Israel was behind Sept. 11 and argued, on Twitter, for the expansion of the OWS brand to include “Occupy Rothschilds.” An article in the July/August 2010 issue on the “imperial decline” of the United States cites as an expert the Jew-obsessed conspiracy theorist Wayne Madsen, who recently claimed that the Mossad was behind Anders Breivik’s gruesome terrorist attack in Norway. Michael Hey, a former associate editor of Adbusters, offered a short piece in the March/April 2007 issue with the punchy title, “Not in the news: 9/11 was an inside job.” And so on.

Lasn frequently published the work of husband-and-wife team Bill and Kathleen Christison, Sept. 11 “truthers” obsessed with Zionism’s “global political and financial power,” who impute almost Rasputin-like powers to Jewish neoconservatives. (Bill died in 2010.) A 2007 article by Kathleen Christison subtly titled “Elliot Abrams: Dual Loyalist and Neocon Extraordinaire,” claimed that the former deputy national security adviser was “a key figure behind the fighting going on … at the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon” and “engineered the Hamas-Fatah split that erupted into fighting in Gaza.”

Such is the apocalyptic vision of Adbusters, in which the ravages of capitalism and corporate power compete only with Zionism to cause the most harm to planet Earth.

Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

Michael Moynihan, Tablet Magazine’s “Righteous Gentile” columnist, is the cultural news editor of Newsweek/The Daily Beast.

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