Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

The QAnon-style in anti-Israel conspiracy theories

Credit: Getty Images

On Boxing Day pro-Palestine demonstrators met customers at the Zara sale in the Westfield shopping centre, in Stratford, east London. They were not there to wish them the compliments of the season.

‘Bombs are dropping while you’re shopping’, they chanted, as police stood by to make sure the protests did not turn violent. ‘Zara is enabling genocide’, their placards read.

Quite what they wanted bargain hunters to do about the Israeli forces bombing the Gaza Strip, they never said. Lobby their MPs? Politicians are on their Christmas holidays. Join the Palestinian armed struggle? It was unclear whether the shopping centre had a Hamas recruitment office.

But on one point the demonstrators were clear: no one should be buying from Zara. Even though the fashion chain has not encouraged Israel’s war against Hamas, profited from it, or supported Israel in any material way, it was nevertheless ‘exploiting a genocide and commodifying Palestine’s pain for profit’.

Zara, in short, has become the object of a paranoid fantasy: a QAnon conspiracy theory for the postcolonial left.

The Zara conspiracy is an entirely modern phenomenon. It has no original author. Anti-Semitic Russians sat down and wrote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20th century. There was an actual Q’ behind the QAnon conspiracy: a far-right activist who first appeared on 4chan message boards in 2017 to claim that a cabal of child abusers was conspiring against Donald Trump.

The Zara conspiracy was mass produced by social media users: an example of the madness of crowds rather than their supposed wisdom. The cause of the descent into hysteria was bizarre. In early December Zara launched an advertising campaign featuring the model Kristen McMenamy wearing its latest collection in a sculptor’s studio. It clearly was a studio, by the way, and not a war zone in southern Israel or Gaza. McMenamy carried a mannequin wrapped in white fabric. The cry went up that the Spanish company was exploiting the suffering of Palestinians and that the mannequin was meant to represent a victim of Israeli aggression wrapped in a shroud. 

The accusation was insane. No one in the photo shoot resembled a soldier or a casualty of war. Anyone who thought for 30 seconds before resorting to social media would have known that global brands plan their advertising campaigns months in advance. 

Zara said the campaign presented ‘a series of images of unfinished sculptures in a sculptor’s studio and was created with the sole purpose of showcasing craft-made garments in an artistic context’. The idea for the studio setting was conceived in July. The photo shoot was in September, weeks before the Hamas assault on Israel on 7 October.

No one cared. Melanie Elturk, the CEO of fashion brand Haute Hijab, said of the campaign, ‘this is sick. What kind of sick, twisted, and sadistic images am I looking at?’ #BoycottZara trended on Twitter, as users said that Zara was ‘utterly shameful and disgraceful’.

To justify their condemnations, activists developed ever-weirder theories. A piece of cardboard in the photoshoot was meant to be a map of Israel/Palestine turned upside down. Because a Zara executive had once invited an extreme right-wing Israeli politician to a meeting, the whole company was damned.

Astonishingly, or maybe not so astonishingly to anyone who follows online manias, it worked. Zara stores in GlasgowTorontoHanoverMelbourne and Amsterdam were targeted.

What on earth could Zara do? PR specialists normally say that the worst type of apology is the non-apology apology, when a public figure or institution shows no remorse, but instead says that they are sorry that people are offended. Yet Zara had not sought to trivialize or profit from the war so what else could it do but offer a non-apology apology? The company duly said it was sorry that people were upset.

“Unfortunately, some customers felt offended by these images, which have now been removed, and saw in them something far from what was intended when they were created,” it said on 13 December, as it pulled the advertising campaign.

That was two-weeks ago and yet still the protests in Zara stores continue. On 23 December activists targeted Zara on Oxford Street chanting , ‘Zara, Zara, you can’t hide, stop supporting genocide’, even though Zara was not, in fact,  supporting genocide. On Boxing Day, they were at the Stratford shopping centre.

Zara has apologised for an offence it did not commit. There is no way that any serious person can believe the charges against it. And yet believe them the protestors do. Or at the very least they pretend to believe for the sake of keeping in with their allies.

Maybe nothing will come of the protests. One could have argued in 2017, after all, that QAnon was essentially simple-minded people living out their fantasies online. Certainly, every sane American knew that there was no clique of paedophiles running the Democrat party, but where was the harm in the conspiracy theory?

Then QAnon supporters stormed the US capitol in January 2021. Will the same story play out from the Gaza protests? As far as I can tell, no one on the left is challenging the paranoia. I have yet to see the fact-checkers of the BBC and Channel 4 warning about the fake news on the left with anything like the gusto with which they treat its counterparts on the right.

To be fair, the scale of disinformation around the Gaza war is off the charts, and it is impossible to chase down every lie. But when fake news goes from online fantasies to real world protests, from 4chan to the Capitol, from Twitter to the Westfield shopping centre, it’s worth taking notice.

Sensible supporters of a Palestinian state ought to be the most concerned. No one apart from fascists, Islamists and far leftists believes that Israel should not defend itself. And yet the scale of its military action in Gaza is outraging world opinion. Mainstream politicians, who might one day put pressure on Israel, remain very wary about reflecting the anger on the streets.

They look at the insane conspiracy theories on the western left and see them as no different from the insane conspiracy theories that motivate Hamas, and they back away.

The Palestinians need many things: an end to the Netanyahu government, and an end to Hamas. But they could also use allies in the West who do not discredit their cause with dark, gibbering fantasies.