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Thought for the Day: Purim 2024

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“…it is our responsibility to look beyond the superficial and to educate ourselves before rushing to judgement.”



According to a survey this week, more than half the country has encountered conspiracy theories circulating online about The Princess of Wales. They range from suggestions that a body double was used to stage footage of her, to rumours that her absence can be explained by her involvement in a TV gameshow. Fortunately, the survey also shows that most of us dismiss these very harmful claims, but the number of people who readily believe a range of malicious conspiracy theories might surprise you.

A survey last summer suggested that almost a quarter of the UK’s population thought that the Coronavirus Pandemic was a hoax, and about one in three believe that the cost-of-living crisis is a government plot to control us. These are sobering statistics, especially since, in the same survey, one in seven adults said they believe that violence would be a fair response to such rumours.

In the age of the echo chamber, it’s critically important for our children to understand that not everything they encounter is necessarily as it first appears. This is the central theme of the festival of Purim, which is being celebrated by Jewish communities this weekend. Purim recalls the time when a malign conspiracy theory was spread from the corridors of power in ancient Persia.

The words of the conspiracy, recorded in the Book of Esther, are all too familiar. “There is a people scattered throughout the kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who are not loyal to the King.” Messengers were dispatched throughout the Persian Empire to spread the lie and to call for the genocide of the Jewish People.

That notion of a people who live among us but who are different, disloyal and deviant, is among the most recurrent historical tropes used to inspire hatred and fear.

On Purim, children wear fancy dress to teach them that just as in the Purim story, where the roles of villains, victors and victims are not necessarily as they might first appear, so too, it is our responsibility to look beyond the superficial and to educate ourselves before rushing to judgement.

Conspiracy theories and tropes, amplified by social media, have a deeply divisive and corrosive impact. They hollow out the moderate centre ground as people become more sceptical and extreme. Wherever they exist, they can spread like wildfire, unchecked and often unchallenged.

The story of Purim is a stark reminder to us that the consequences for a society which loses the capacity to distinguish between truth and conspiracy can be catastrophic.