Ben-Gvir and the Danger of Kahanism in Israel

MK Itamar Ben-Gvir’s promise, in an interview with Sefi Ovadia and Yanir Cozin on Army Radio, to expel MK Ofer Cassif from the country, might at first glance be seen as an encouraging sign – at least he’s not singling out Arabs.

Kahanism is etched in the public memory as a abominable racist doctrine on an ideological par with the Nuremberg Laws. Rabbi Meir Kahane proposed segregating Jews and Arabs at beaches, banning marriage between Jews and Arabs, denying Arabs the right to vote and to be elected and making Jerusalem, by law, a city in which Jews alone could reside.

Racism was indeed a central pillar of Kahane’s ideology, but it was not the sole basis of his philosophy. At the heart of Kahanism lie two additional concepts: the rejection of secularism, liberalism and democracy; and the desire for vengeance on the goyim. All of which are currently propounded by Ben-Gvir.

When Kahane was sworn into the Knesset, he added the following verse from Psalm 119 after the traditional text: “So shall I observe Thy law continually for ever and ever.” He admitted that his intention was to say that, to him, the laws of the Torah would supersede the laws of the state. In his worldview, the democratic and secular State of Israel was an illegitimate entity destined to be replaced by a state governed by halakha (Jewish religious law).

In his final book, “The Jewish Idea,” Kahane wrote that democracy is an alien, non-Jewish concept and that “the Torah does not abide this nonsense.” In his view, a secular government has no authority because “the duty to honor and obey the natural government depends upon the extent to which this government honors and obeys the Torah.”

Kahane goes on to assert that there must be “no king or government made up of people who are not God-fearing,” and that the will of the majority is completely irrelevant, since “there is no authority to any law or decision or decree by a government of evildoers that opposes the Torah, and it is a mitzvah to reject their authority, and totally prohibited to accept the decision of the evil majority.” Essentially, according to Kahane, in Israel there is “one view only and no more, and whoever disputes the one view of God’s Torah, even if it be a majority of the Jewish people, holds a perverted view.”

According to this stance, the current State of Israel is illegitimate and should be dismantled as soon as possible. Kahane envisioned a halakha state, which he felt was the only thing that could truly be called a Jewish state. This state would be ruled by one person, a dictator. As he writes: “There is a need for a regime of one man, one word, a president, not the chaos of dozens and hundreds of representatives and parties.”

But wait, that’s not all. Not only is a government that does not obey the Torah illegitimate, so are any disobedient citizens: “Any person who does not obey the Torah has lost his rights and status.” In the Kahanist dictatorship, the rights and status of secular citizens will be inferior to those of religiously observant citizens. And what about those Jews whom Kahanism considers to be abominable sinners? They won’t be here, apparently. As Ben-Gvir said in 2016 about the LGBTQ: “They have no place here, not in Jerusalem or anywhere in Israel.” “The state must have a Jewish character,” he explained.

Here is where hatred of the left comes into the picture. Ben-Gvir’s attack on Cassif is the continuation of a long-standing Kahanist tradition. In his first book in Hebrew, “The Challenge,” Kahane called for “isolating the disturbed left and pseudointellectuals, whose hatred for religion reflects their sickening inner world.” In “The Jewish Idea,” he wrote that the state’s leftist founders were “evil people … who will forever pay for their vicious crimes.”

Isn’t it at least possible to show gratitude to the old Labor Party for the state’s establishment? No. The state did not come into being thanks to their efforts, but only thanks to God, and only for the sake of vengeance on the goyim. According to Kahane, “The State of Israel is first of all God’s wrath that is aroused from the dust of the desecration of the Divine Presence. Israel [came into being] for the sake of God wreaking vengeance on His enemies the goyim (from his book, “On Faith and Redemption”).

And here we come to the third pillar: vengeance, as an ideal. “There is no loftier and more just virtue than that of vengeance,” Kahane wrote in “The Jewish Idea.” And why? Simple: “Vengeance is great because it revives God.” In other words, God is weak and enfeebled and requires violent acts of vengeance to restore Him to full life. Without the sacrifice of non-Jewish blood, the good Lord cannot regain His full might.

The purpose of the State of Israel is vengeance on the goyim, “and whoever relents from vengeance on Israel’s enemies is essentially forgoing God’s vengeance.” Kahane asserts that vengeance is a prerequisite for the reestablishment of the Jewish people and its God. Redemption is not possible without slaughtered and bloody non-Jewish sacrifices.

This explains why Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Kiryat Arba resident who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded over 100 more at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, is one of the great saints in the Kahanist pantheon. Is there any better example of blind, brutal and insane Jewish vengeance in our times?

Now recall the picture of Goldstein that was proudly hanging in Ben-Gvir’s living room until two years ago. Above the portrait of the mass murderer was the verse (Numbers 25:13), “because he was jealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel,” which concludes God’s words of praise for the archetypical biblical zealot Phinehas.

Ben-Gvir did not hang Goldstein’s picture on his living-room wall because he admires doctors or thought Goldstein had nice eyes. The verse says it all: glorification of the act of revenge, praise for the massacre in the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Ben-Gvir also issues frequent calls for revenge. Just this year he did so after Barel Shmueli, a soldier, was killed on the Gaza border in August 2021; after Yehudah Dimentman was murdered near Homesh in December (“The incident must not end without the government taking revenge”) and during the wave of terror attacks in March.

Don’t act surprised. From beginning to end, Ben-Gvir is a Kahanist. Thus, his worldview comprises not only atrocious racism but also hatred of the left, rejection of the legitimacy of democracy, the aspiration to turn Israel into a state governed by halakha and, yes, a deep desire for vengeance on non-Jews. This is the DNA of Kahanism.

Has he “become more moderate”? Is Ben-Gvir no longer the young man who promised to “get to” Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin? Is Ben-Gvirism Kahanism-lite? Kahanism minus the extremism? Kahanism for the whole family ? A cuddlier, warm, fuzzy version of Kahanism?

Judge for yourselves. Seven years ago, in an interview with Hanoch Daum, Ben-Gvir said that the difference between him and Kahane was “not in views or attributes, but maybe in style. The style is a little different.” Five years ago, at a memorial for Kahane, Ben-Gvir said that “every word” of Kahane is “actual, sharp, meant for the reality we have today.” Three years ago he was interviewed in the Ynet studio and argued that the “big difference” between him and Kahane is that “they give us a microphone.”

Do they ever. A responsible media would at least confront the man with the ideas that motivate him. Instead, Israelis can’t avoid seeing his smiling mug everywhere, with journalists vying to outdo one another in their obsequiousness to him.

Why should he even think about moderating his positions? His path is assured. He is in the Knesset, and his standing is burnished daily by Benjamin Netanyahu and the Bibi-ist microcosmos. The man threatens to deport leftist MKs, dubs any Arab he doesn’t like a “terror supporter,” calls for vengeance, and Religious Zionism – party and community alike – welcomes him with open arms. He has no reason to change.

A public with moral backbone would vomit him out. The weakness of Israeli civil society is evident from the ease with which Kahanism has entered its veins and heart.


Published today in Haaretz


Meditation, Philosophy, and the Changing Image of the Person in the Jewish Tradition

A few weeks ago The Routledge Handbook on the Philosophy of Meditation was published, offering, among many other articles, an article of mine headlined “The End of Man: Philosophical Consummation in Jewish Meditative Tradition”.

The article examines the close connection between philosophy and meditation among two Jewish thinkers: Maimonides and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. Before and after I provide a background on the development of interest in meditation in the Jewish tradition, by examining various human models. I end with a few words on the situation today.

I want to bring in what follows a few passages from the article. These are individual paragraphs, and which have other parts between them, but I think they are interesting enough to bring them that way. The book itself is for sale on Amazon, but as usual with books like this, it costs quite a bit.

Here are the excerpts from the article.

… Ancient (Hellenistic) philosophers had no doubt that their quest for truth is undivided from special exercises which they must perform. Thus, the Pythagoreans, Cynics, Epicureans, Stoics, etc., all had their own spiritual paths, which they considered elemental to their philosophy.


Meditation, therefore, was directly connected to philosophy in ancient times. What changed with the transition to modernity was that access to truth was no longer contingent on personal transformation, but on intellectual knowledge alone. Foucault posits what he calls “the Cartesian moment” as the juncture through which the “care of the self”, in the form of meditative practice, was no longer required as a prerequisite for knowing the truth, and thus the imperative gnōthi seauton was understood not as a demand for self-transformation, but self-analysis.

In his examination of philosophy and spirituality, Foucault was greatly influenced by the early works of Pierre Hadot, who in his later book, What is Ancient Philosophy (1995), states much the same conclusions, and submits that throughout antiquity philosophy was “conceived as an attempt at spiritual progress and a means of inner transformation”. Theory, in other words, had its original meaning (Theōria): transformative contemplation.


Christians held a fundamentally different path towards perfection. The Philosopher reaches knowledge through self-transformation, the Saint seeks salvation through imitatio Christi. They also developed (more so as the centuries went by) an altogether distinct view regarding the path to truth: not self-transformation, not knowledge, but faith. While the ancient philosophers perceived the self as a political animal on the one hand and an entity examining itself and evolving on the other, for Christians the self was publicly a part of the Church, the body of Christ, and privately an entity sinful in essence and saved by faith. Moreover, for the Christians there was only one truth and one path to it. Believing it was life, denying it – death. Corresponding to the weight that Christianity attached to truth, Hellenistic philosophy was gradually seen as a collection of mere statements about reality, and its role as a way of life was forgotten. Philosophy schools were not taken as superior or inferior ways towards self-knowledge, but as heresy.


Rabbinical Judaism was not ancient Hellenistic philosophy, though in a different way than Christianity. It was not concerned with proclamations of faith, nor with the one and only truth, but with a communal commitment to a sacred covenant. Its conception of a commendable person was one that is bound to the word of God, not one that is transformed by meditative practices. It propagated an ethics of obligation, not one of virtue. As the Talmud instructs no less than four times, “Greater is one who is commanded [to a mitzva] and accomplishes it, than one who is not commanded [to a mitzva] and accomplishes it” (Kiddushin, 31a). Obeying God is important, not self-development.

Rabbinical Judaism, through community and Halakha (Jewish Law), gives structure to one’s life not by teaching methods for its transformation but by keeping it stable, that is by placing it rigorously within an elaborate framework of laws, customs, and rituals. For the Hellenistic philosopher, the self is to be cultivated, at times transcended. For the Jewish Sage, the self is to be subjected to God’s will and conquered.

This anthropological conception changed only when Hellenistic thinking was integrated into Jewish thought, beginning approximately in the 10th century. The study of Jewish mysticism acknowledged from its inception the immense influence of Neo-Aristotelian and especially Neo-Platonic philosophy on Jewish thought. The entire metaphysical edifice of Kabbalah owes its internal logic to Neo-Platonism, and non-kabbalistic Jewish philosophy, such as that of the later Geonim (the greatest rabbinical thinkers until the 11th century) and Maimonides, who was heavily influenced by Aristotelian thought, accessed through Arabic translations of Greek works and developed by Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1938), Ibn Bâjja (Avempace, d. 1139) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198).


In the contemporary Jewish world, the developmental anthropological model is ubiquitous, as is the integration of meditation techniques. Philosophy, however, at least in the form of systematic structures of thought, is almost non-existent. While Orthodoxy devotes itself to observing and elaborating the Halakhic code, and while the more progressive denominations have devoted themselves to cultural enrichment and moral activism (“Tikun Olam”), a broad spiritually-inclined public has, since the 1960s, branched out into varied paths of personal transformation, adopting the ancient philosophical conception of human development – albeit without the philosophy.

Rather, what can be found today is an amalgam of simple and all-encompassing axioms that have become obvious truths for today’s spiritual seekers, themes such as personal growth, human potential, inner truth(s), wholeness and oneness, “energy”, “natural” as authentic, the uniqueness of every individual, and the existence of a perennial wisdom. These ideas are not so much articulated as simply presumed, and what’s left for the individual is to base themselves on them and choose the meditative method that they prefer to practice.


Thus, while in the ancient past Jews had a theological structure but not a developmental model for the person, and in the middle-ages through early modernity prominent Jewish thinkers and movements adopted both Hellenistic philosophical frameworks and the ancient philosophical conception of human transformation, contemporary Judaism, when it does engage in meditation, accepts the paradigm of personal development and transformation, but does this with a bare-bones philosophical structure, if at all. Following the modern divorce of philosophy from spirituality, with some possible exceptions, today’s Jewish seekers prefer the latter and elect to subscribe to a spiritual and meditative path while abandoning any interest in philosophical thought and speculation, itself another broad cultural trend that far exceeds its applicability to its contemporary Jewish adherents.

Conspiracy Theories as Part of a move towards Depolitization

It’s been nearly 20 years since Gadi Taub assailed “Badulina,” the best-selling fantasy novel-cum-self-help book by Gabi Nitzan. Writing in Haaretz, Taub, a historian and public intellectual, deplored the worldview that Nitzan was promoting, likening it to the economic approach espoused by Benjamin Netanyahu in “a society that is privatizing itself to death.” Taub bemoaned the malignant, New Age-like individualism that Nitzan was inculcating in readers of “Badulina” as an excuse for withdrawal from society and for selfishness. “When there is no politics,” Taub wrote, “there is only a free market. There are no citizens, there are consumers.”

Today, some two decades later, Taub, who took a sharp turn into right-wing populism, would not dare to denigrate Netanyahu or condemn privatization. On the other hand, little seems to have changed for Nitzan. He’s editing a new newspaper, called Bereshit – the Hebrew title of the first book of the Bible and its first word – whose theme is the “crisis of democracy”; or, as he writes on the front page of the first issue, “individual rights, human dignity and liberty and freedom of expression.” In the meantime, however, that seems to mean being occupied obsessively with exposing the “lie” about the pandemic, the masks, the vaccines, the side effects and so on.

The coronavirus crisis changed the world in a variety of ways during the past two years, but no one foresaw how widespread and popular conspiracy theories would become. Economic and social uncertainty have always acted as a petri dish for superstitions, but we needed the social media to make it possible for individuals to spread fictions fast and wholesale; and even more important, for surfers to communicate among themselves and build ecosystems of alternative facts.

Of Sheep and Lone Wolves

Conspiracy theories are a riveting social phenomenon. As a widely used formulation by Karen Douglas puts it, they grant their followers three promises. The first is a secret, a hidden charm, which is not so much information as it is a framework of meaning. The second promise is a feeling of security: The possessors of the secret are prepared for a crisis, or are part of an inner circle that has been chosen for salvation, or they are the only ones who understand that there’s nothing to worry about. The third promise is community: Those who know the secret share a treasure and constitute a social circle. The community accords warmth and positions itself against a hostile or blind world.

These promises, it’s almost needless to say, are false. Conspiracy theory advocates know less about the world, not more. They are consumed with doubts and seek constant confirmation for their beliefs. They are not safer (they’re more likely to die from COVID, for starters), and the community they have found is fragile; it does not represent true friendship necessarily, but ad hoc relations. Arguably, these attributes are easy to find among anti-vaxxers.

But the story is bigger than that. Conspiracy theories are spawned in response to a particular need. The publication of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” at the turn of the 20th century, to take a famous and painful example, was aimed against a specific group of people, with the goal of vilifying them and relegating them to a place beyond the pale of legitimate society. Claims that the moon landing never happened or that President John F. Kennedy was not assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald offer a soothing explanation for events that many considered impossible.

In other words, like every myth or folktale, a conspiracy theory seeks to fulfill a psychological and social purpose. If we examine it and go down the sociological rabbit hole, we’ll reach the fuel that motivates it. Here we will grasp its essence, its raison d’être. And it won’t be the rule of the Illuminati.

What, then, do suspiciousness of the medical and political establishments, protests against restrictions and lockdowns, and ridiculing the public’s fear of the virus have in common? What is the joint platform for expressions of disappointment at politicians from the right and the left, parallels drawn between Israel and the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, the “development” of alternative medicines for the coronavirus and the consolation that is found in the community of the like-minded?

Let’s let the protagonist of “Badulina” answer: “To remind [people] that their fundamental obligation in this world is not ideological or nationalistic, but personal: to be happy.”

In a word: depoliticization. The conspiracy theory espoused by the anti-vaxxers affords a global context and social legitimization for turning one’s back on the state, the establishment, scientific research and society at large. If we can’t rely on the government, the health system or our next-door neighbors, all that’s left is to withdraw into ourselves, declare that everyone is crazy (or sheep), feel special (or persecuted), and feather, as they say, our own nest. Accusing the government of engaging in a totalitarian conspiracy constitutes an ultimate excuse for withdrawing from social involvement and provides an exemption from caring about the political sphere.

The conspiracy idea comes in response to a social need, but is far from exhausting it. The overall phenomenon extends far beyond the opponents of vaccination. They are only one stream in a raging flood that seeks depoliticization, social privatization and the acceleration of individualism.

The libertarian wave that has been inundating this country for a decade is another significant symptom of the phenomenon. People who see themselves as “citizens of the world” are also partners to it, but so too are those who seek personal solutions for public problems, like those who demand that people who are in favor of taking in refugees “should first take refugees into their home.” The cryptocurrency craze is also part of it. And when Yair Asulin writes in this paper that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is not a national war and that “the heroes [of this war] are we the spectators” (Haaretz, March 25), he is engaging in the same depoliticization as Nitzan in “Badulina.”

We are in the midst of an individualist, antisocial, antinational trend, one that began in the 1960s in the United States and Europe, and reached its peak before the coronavirus crisis. In light of the mobilization that was required of various countries to act against the virus, it seemed for a brief moment that the vital role of the nation-state would again be understood and appreciated. We received lifesaving vaccinations, for free and efficiently, because we are part of a particular country and not another, and the prestige of Benjamin Netanyahu (or Berl Katznelson) rose because of the quick arrival of the vaccines and their distribution by the health maintenance organizations. Yet it was precisely against the background of the clear and present need for a state that the anti-vaccination conspiracy spread.

The Invention of the Individual

In his visit to the young United States, the French statesman and aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was struck by the individualism that was flowering on America’s soil. In his book, first published in 1835, he explained to his readers that this was a “novel idea,” for “our fathers were only acquainted with selfishness.” Individualism, Tocqueville explained, “is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows, and to draw apart with his family and his friends; so that, after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself.”

Leaving society to its own devices means dismantling the public sphere. Accordingly, Tocqueville posits individualism against citizenship. By distancing people from participating in the public space, in politics, the individual is the enemy of the citizen.

It is the freedom of election and of being elected, argues Tocqueville, that saves America from individualistic fragmentation. People who live under despotism develop apathy and withdraw into themselves, but in a democracy the individual can find selffulfillment not only in the family fold but in political activity as well.

The idea that Tocqueville articulated so well is not new. Aristotle saw humans as political animals. Public activity was for him, as for the majority of the citizens of the Athenian polis and afterward in the Roman republic, a supreme realization of their humanity and their freedom. Individuals are transformed into full humans in the course of social and political interaction, because for them the joint creation of society is the complete expression of their humanity.

The individualism that Tocqueville first discovered in America in 1831 spread afterward to the entire Western world. It intensified, and various nations struggled in diverse ways against its results. The fragmentation that hovered as a permanent threat was described as the malaise of modernity, an expression of alienation that would give rise to a mechanistic approach, disassembling meaning, undermining the natural order of things, and violating the unity of the people.

One of fascism’s promises was that it would act as a cure for the process of individuation, and would reconstitute the organic nation and purge it of foreign, harmful restraints that were supposedly to blame for problems. Communism, too, bore a promise of a renewed, collective and communal existence – not by a return to national purity but by changing material conditions and progressing to a society without alienation, one that would be egalitarian and rest on solidarity.

Since the 1990s, liberalism, which innately placed the individual at the center, has become the only game in town. Its advantage, like its disadvantage, lies in not purporting to relieve the distress of modernity. However, whereas in the past the distress was at least declared as such – the Western citizen sought meaning and lamented its loss – in recent decades the lack of commitment to great ideals has been celebrated.

The Individual Kills the Citizen

We live in “liquid modernity,” as the philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman termed it in the 1999 book of that name. It’s the era in which a transition is taking place from a society comprised of individuals who see themselves as pilgrims seeking redemption, to one made up of tourists looking for experiences. “Liquidity” is a metaphor for the current legitimacy of mobility, for change and even for a revolution in our life, in our values, in our worldviews and in our identity.

According to Bauman, in the liquid modern era, the danger that the public will invade the private (as with fascism or bolshevism) is much diminished, whereas now it is the private that is encroaching on the public. Instead of acting for a common good, private persons are foisting on the public space the privatized logic of individualism. The public space is becoming a screen on which people project their personal distresses. Selfishness is becoming legitimate, and what Tocqueville feared is coming to pass: The individual is killing the citizen.

“Public space is increasingly empty of public issues,” Bauman writes. “It fails to perform its past role of a meeting-and-dialogue place for private troubles and public issues. On the receiving end of the individualizing pressures, individuals are being gradually, but consistently, stripped of the protective armor of citizenship and expropriated of their citizen skills and interests. Under the circumstances, the prospect of the individual de jure ever turning into the individual de facto (that is, one which commands the resources indispensable for genuine self-determination) seems ever more remote.”

These final words are most important. Our individualism is under threat from the commonalty, but the commonalty is also a condition for its development. No person is born with language, culture or autonomy. They must be learned, and we learn them from the society in which we live. A person is a social being not only because they live in society, but because without society they do not become a person.

Beyond this, without proper infrastructures and resources, individuals are incapable of fully realizing themselves; and without institutionalized political defense of our human and civil rights, we simply have no way to enjoy them. The withdrawal into absolute individualism is subverting our full self-realization as human beings, both in principle and pragmatically.


The Most Tempting Manipulation

In the first issue of Bereshit, alongside an article by TV-news anchor Oshrat Kotler applauding citizens who are protesting “Pfizer’s experimental treatment,” there is a photograph of a demonstrator holding a sign that reads, “To be a free people in our land” (quoting Israel’s national anthem). There is bitter irony here, for the demonstrators against vaccination or the restrictions of the green pass do not yearn to be a free people in their land, but free individuals in their homes. Their protest is not only apolitical in the political-party sense, it is antipolitical in the public sense. They want to be left alone.

“First of all, enough with that ‘we’ thing,” King Badulina says in Nitzan’s novel. “There is no ‘we.’ There’s only ‘I’ in the world, seven billion ‘I’s that keep joining together and breaking off according to various interests and external manipulations.” Well, one of the cleverest manipulations is the one that promises the individual that he knows a great secret that others don’t know, that she must resist the rule of a dastardly elite and that it is incumbent on them to disconnect from social solidarity and to withdraw into the home.

That’s a sweet and tempting manipulation. It is adept at flattering the selfishness of the individual, at legitimizing egocentricity, at blurring the need for an establishment, for a government in order conduct normal, safe life. It is skilled at forging an ethos of heroism and revolt in the face of a nonexistent dictatorship. That’s why it’s so popular. Bauman is dead-on when he asserts that the task we face today can no longer be only “the defense of private autonomy from the advancing troops of the ‘public sphere’… The task now is to defend the vanishing public realm.”


Published in Haaretz

In Ukraine, the Liberal Order is being Redrawn

The war joined the crisis of liberalism just in time. Western countries, whose satisfaction slid them into Baroque intricacies of morality and decadent consumerism, suddenly stand – again – before the threat of an armed dictator. Former President Donald Trump’s admiration for President Vladimir Putin, and the groveling sympathies of Trumpists like Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, now seem clearly deranged. So do the observations about the “extremists on both sides” of leftist groups like the Israeli Communist Party. Violence sharpens one’s values, for good and for bad.

Putin isn’t offering an ideology different from that of the West. He isn’t offering any ideology at all. He is neither a fascist nor a Bolshevik. The victory of liberalism does not permit him to formulate a distinct worldview. This is not “post-modernism,” but rather hyper-modernism, which manifests itself in rampant capitalism and extreme individualism. At its height, the 20th century proposed convictions in which individuals had to see themselves as inevitably part of a collective, whether ethno-national or in class based. This is now inconceivable. The individual is the distilled essence.

In this sense, if there’s a return to an earlier historical period, it is to the days of World War I, not World War II. Putin offers his people national pride, nationalistic emotion, and nothing more. The empowerment of individuals, not their coercion. A continuation of egocentrism in other ways. Putin doesn’t even promise economic improvement, because it is clear that Russia, whose economy is fragile, will collapse financially under Western sanctions.

On the other hand, it is the West will have to make sacrifices. If so far the democratic world has not interfered in autocracies’ internal affairs and has continued to maintain trade relations with them, now we are on our way to a different world. Russia’s aggression is compelling the West to restrict economic ties with it. Apparently, n the throes of side choosing, other autocracies, like Turkey or Hungary, prefer the West. Their interests are economic, of course, but the sharp division between economics and worldview is precisely that which is challenged here.

As an economic system, capitalism has been long victorious. But if until now, tyrannies like China or Russia have managed to take the economic part of liberalism while rejecting the other parts – individual liberty, equality before the law – the invasion of Ukraine ruined things for them, as well as for Europe and the United States. They all enjoyed (economically) the previous arrangement. The system – ignoring the oppression of populations while conducting robust trade – worked, and the stock exchange rose. Were the democratic bloc and its adherents to stand up clearly against Russia and its adherents, the system would break down.

The meaning of a bi-polar world is a world where globalization – at its heights before the COVID pandemic, allowing the passage of goods, people and capital in a manner unprecedented both in speed and extent – is taking a significant blow. Trade will continue, of course, but the global network will split into spheres of influence: perhaps Russia-China against the United States and Europe, or perhaps smaller blocs. The severity of the global shock will depend on the West’s willingness to sacrifice, as Russia and China will be happy to go on as usual.

It currently seems that the West is willing to sacrifice quite a bit, undoubtedly out of the sudden realization of the tangible Russian threat. But increasing pressure from the business sector, and just as importantly from democratic governments that fear a recession, can be expected to appear and push for sanctions to be lifted as early as possible, and certainly not for them to be deepened. Much depends on the extent of the Russian occupation’s brutality in Ukraine, but the dilemma faced by Western democracies will quickly become clear.

This dilemma will be a mirror image of the autocratic bloc’s. That is: Will a situation once again be acceptable in which only one part of liberalism – capitalism – is shared by all players, or is there perhaps no choice but to demand (with various levels of resoluteness and efficacy) the addition of that minuscule matter of human rights. Will democracies, like autocracies, seek to allow money to keep flowing, even when some of it is used to oppress various populations? Or perhaps the military threat concealed behind that oppression will demand the rearranging of values that will force the West to adopt commercial restraint.

We can also describe it this way: A protocol is being presently written for dealing economically with aggressive, anti-democratic states. If it succeeds, if the West shows willingness to suffer economically to deter aggression, in the future there will be those who seek to apply those same emergency measures of economic disengagement against other anti-democratic countries. The package of liberalism that a country adopts will have to be more complete. Such a development would present a powerful challenge to Israel, which has been mired for 55 years in military rule over millions of people. But the significance is broader: It will fundamentally redraw the liberal world order.


Published in the op-ed section of Haaretz

The Evolution of Atheism

At a certain point in his book “The Great Cat Massacre,” American historian Robert Darnton surveys the diary of the policeman-investigator Joseph d’Hémery, who surveilled intellectuals in mid-18th century Paris in search of atheists. “D’Hémery did not separate impiety from politics. Although he had no interest in theological arguments, he believed that atheism undercut the authority of the crown.”

D’Hémery’s problem with atheism was not that it contradicted the tenets of his own belief. He found atheism dangerous because it undermined the foundations of society. Those who denied the authority of the heavenly king could just as easily deny the authority of the earthly king. Police officers, who were responsible for preserving public order, considered it their duty to root out atheism, and atheists – or at least those who were brave or foolish enough to declare themselves as such – were imprisoned, tortured and executed.

Maximilien RobespierreIt wasn’t just a problem of over-policing. In 1793, while crushing the world order and shaping a new society on the battlefield of the French Revolution, the leader of the revolutionaries, Robespierre, declared that atheism was dangerous and “aristocratic” (the ultimate insult from his viewpoint). The constitution of the American state of Tennessee, which was signed around the same time, recognized freedom of conscience but nevertheless forbade appointment to public office of any “person who denies the being of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments.” The framers of the document were willing to accept any belief, but not the absence of any belief. Even Abraham Lincoln could declare that were it not for the Bible and the New Testament, “we could not know right from wrong.” Without belief, chaos reigns.

It is difficult for us today to grasp not only how rare denial of God’s existence was, but how frightening it was for our forebears several centuries ago. Atheists to them were what pedophiles are for us: not only repulsive individuals, but in a fundamental way completely unfathomable. How could anyone deny God’s existence? How could anyone reject what was self-evident, what was necessary for life as we know it to be possible? Could an upright, worthy life be lived without God? Atheists threatened not only belief but the entire framework of society. The horror they aroused did not stem from fear for the future of religion, it welled up from anxiety about the moral virtues, about the social fabric itself.

For countless generations, atheism terrified Europeans. How, then, did we arrive at a situation in which atheism is perceived as a legitimate stance, one that according to many constitutes the only realistic, rational and respectable point of view?

In attempting to explain the acceptance of atheism it would be easy to whip out the familiar argument about the scientific revolution and its revelations. It would be simple to explain that after it became known that the Earth revolves around the sun and is not itself at the center of the universe; after it was established that the world is billions of years old and not 5,000; after we discovered that the Torah is comprised of various documents and was not written by Moses; and after we understood that humankind came into being in an evolutionary process and not “on the first Friday” – that after all this, a trans-European process of “disenchantment” occurred, at the end of which was abandoned and non-belief was adopted.

According to this explanation, the Age of Enlightenment effectively marks the the completion of humanity’s maturation, its liberation from the shackles of mythology and fairy tales, and its emergence into rationality. Immanuel Kant, in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?,” from 1784, called on humanity to “Dare to know!” – and, seemingly, humanity responded to the challenge and truly dared to know. People acquired knowledge, and that in turn enabled them to cast off the “yoke of immaturity” (in Kant’s words) that they had brought upon themselves, and thus transformed themselves into secular folk. The most knowledgeable among them became atheists, of course.

This story, which is no more than the genealogical myth of the Enlightenment (“We were slaves until science released us into freedom with strong rationality and outstretched empiricism”), cannot explain completely the secularization process, nor why the concept of the necessity of God for a life of reason and morality is fading. In fact, the notion that knowledge cancels out belief is superficial even according to its advocates’ points of departure – for those who propose it will be the first to admit that human beings are capable of believing any nonsense, irrespective of what they know or don’t know. If new pieces of information were sufficient to unravel our long-held beliefs, we would switch worldviews in rapid succession.

Nor will it help if we assume that only authoritative and definitive knowledge will alter our views about the world, for knowledge of that sort has been available to humanity since ancient times. The Aristotelian, kabbalist or Buddhist worldviews presented “authorized” knowledge about the world and all that is in it, but it goes without saying that not every person who encountered those approaches has been persuaded and adopted them. Something more is needed to alter our fixed assumptions about reality; a good reason is needed for us to part with old premises and adopt new ones, and that reason cannot emanate from the new premises themselves.

Submission to Tradition

Matthew TindalThe foundations of the Enlightenment lie in the denial of the authority of tradition and the empowerment of humanity to the point of its becoming the supreme authority in every matter. Even before people turned to other structures of meaning, the self-evident awe of the Church – the inherent submission of Westerners to tradition – had been called into question. At the end of the fourth century, Augustine, one of the Church fathers, asserted that he “would not believe in the Gospel myself if it were not for the authority of the Catholic Church.” And at the beginning of the 18th century, the deist Matthew Tindal stated that “Reason was given to bring them [i.e. humanity] to the knowledge of God’s will” – and that nothing more is needed.

These two important thinkers believed that God’s existence was clear and self-evident, and neither dreamed of becoming an atheist. However, each of them shaped their religious world on the basis of loyalty to a different source of authority. For Augustine, the tradition does not only imbue faith with form and content, but it also validates it. For Tindal, not only are the interpreters of the tradition irrelevant, the tradition itself is of no relevance. God’s will is determined only according to reason, which is viewed as innate and universal.

VoltaireThe preference for reason antedates the loss of faith. Deism – a framework that grounded religion in reason and swept through the educated elite of Europe and North America in the 18th century – severed itself from the tradition and authority of the Church but not from belief in God. “O mighty God, I believe!” Voltaire, the champion of the French Enlightenment cried out – but added, “As to Monsieur the Son and Madame his mother, that is another matter!”

When reason becomes a source of authority, tradition can be called into question, and after reason is adopted as a source of authority, God’s existence can also be called into question. However, it’s important to understand: This additional stage is not a “natural” progression, another step on the path along which all those loyal to reason will tread. After all, for deists like Tindal and Voltaire, reason actually pointed to God’s existence in no uncertain terms. “It is perfectly evident to my mind that there exists a necessary, eternal, supreme and intelligent being. This is no matter of faith, but of reason,” Voltaire wrote. Simple, isn’t it?

To shift from certainty of God’s existence to denial that God exists we need another step, in which reason is directed against God. The question is, what impels reason to deny that God exists. The answer to that question is found not in the factual realm but the normative one.

Reason is God’s Image

The transition from traditional Christianity to deism stemmed from a moral reading: For the deists, rejection of the belief in miracles or in divine revelation was a matter of preserving human dignity. Let us return to Matthew Tindal (1657-1733). An English deist, Tindal was one of the most influential thinkers of the 18th century. In his 1730 book “Christianity as Old as the Creation,” which was accorded the status of a deist holy scripture, he dwells on the universal principles of religion and explains how “true” Christianity is perfectly rational.

For Tindal, human reason “for kind, though not for degree, is of the same nature with that of God’s; nay, it is our Reason which makes us the image of God himself.” Human beings are rational because they were created in the image of God. Otherwise, how could they even think? However, precisely because of this, the debasement of reason is an affront to human dignity: “Without this precedent Enquiry, our Belief… were to overthrow all the Laws of Nature, to Debase the Dignity of Mankind, and to efface the Image of God implanted in us.”

According to Tindal, to cling to reason is to cling to the image of God, and to stray from it is to debase it. It follows that to reject superstition (miracles, the virgin birth, and so on) is to preserve God’s image and therefore also to worship God. Thus, if in the past faithfulness to the image of God inculcated in humanity was achieved by refraining from sin and by obeying God, for Tindal faithfulness to God’s image is achieved by rejecting superstition, which from his perspective include what in the past were considered holy tenets of belief.

Tindal’s book generated a broad controversy in Europe, and more than a hundred essays were written in an attempt to refute his arguments. Of course the Church, which itself was viewed by Tindal as a debasement of rational faith, attacked him. However, notwithstanding his struggle against the Christian tradition, Tindal never for a moment denied that God existed. On the contrary, he thought that without God we would not be rational beings.

Deists as Cowards

Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'HolbachJust as Tindal sought to preserve human dignity, the first European thinkers who explicitly advocated atheism thought that belief should be rejected not because it was wrong but because it was an infringement of human dignity. A case in point is Paul-Henri Thiry d’Holbach, a leading figure of the French Enlightenment. He devoted his life to a struggle against religious belief and to the dissemination of atheistic thought. He financed the translation of essays, wrote more than 50 books, supported artists and young thinkers and established in his home a debating club for the Parisian intellectual elite, which became one of the important social institutions of the French Enlightenment.

D’Holbach was contemptuous of the deists and considered them cowards. From his point of view, they had gone only halfway and had not taken the use of reason as a criterion for examining religion to its logical conclusions. Although they sanctified reason, they did not cast off the final superstition – the source of all superstitions: the belief in the existence of God.

In the last lines of his most important book, “The System of Nature,” D’Holbach urges us to “inspire the intelligent being with courage; infuse energy into his system, that, at length, he may feel his own dignity.” D’Holbach wishes to augment reason and protect its dignity by rejecting all that is in opposition to it. As such, he seeks to preserve our dignity as human beings. Atheism, he maintains, is based on nature and on reason, no less and no more. It’s logical. We need only look at the facts unflinchingly. Regrettably, he notes, this minor condition is sufficient to prevent most people from becoming atheists, as they lack the courage to face the facts.

Unlike Tindal, for D’Holbach human dignity arrives not from protecting God’s image within, but from rejecting the very idea of the image of God and of God himself. Human dignity derives from sheer adherence to reason, from the decision not to surrender to comforting illusions and from mustering the courage necessary to those ends. A person’s reason shows them the truth and they are faithful to it and are not tempted by consoling beliefs. Sheer insistence on the truth imbues one with dignity.

God as a Threat

What leads to D’Holbach’s additional step beyond the deist position? It would be very easy to accept his account: The deists, all their education notwithstanding, lack sufficient courage, whereas he and atheists like him are not afraid to cope with either society’s vilifications (and, in their time, also the concrete danger to their well-being) or with the heartrending separation from the fictions to which they had become accustomed.

However, this answer, which remains popular to this day, misses an important element in the movement from belief to non-belief, an element that also constitutes a deep dimension in the development of the secularization process: the ethical element. This is a story at whose center stands our relationship with reason.

With the advent of the modern era, human reason ceases to be perceived as a reflection of the existing world/divine order (the logos, God’s laws, God’s wisdom) and becomes a private, procedural matter, a mode of thought. Descartes is a pioneering thinker in this transformation. For him and for his successors, to be rational means to think according to certain standards, and not to act according to the rationality that is ostensibly implanted in the universe. In plain words, reason moves exclusively to become located in the individual’s interiority.

However, as with Tindal, at this stage reason remains connected to and dependent on God: For Descartes and others, reason is God’s image in humanity. Only in the course of the 18th century is reason gradually severed from divinity and becomes exclusively a human capability. Reason changes together with the rise of individualism and becomes a human aptitude.

It is here that the significant transformation arrives: Humans’ self-perception as being disconnected from their surroundings and as autonomous, leads to this autonomy itself being morally charged. Reason is not only an efficient tool, but a value. The ability to think alone, precisely, clearly and impartially, is now a virtue to be preserved and cultivated. Our rational autonomy becomes an ideal. In plain words: Autonomous thinking is now a moral action.

Charles TaylorIn his book “Sources of the Self,” the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains that the next, critical, stage arrives when the connection with divinity is transformed from being a necessary condition for morality into an obstacle to morality. This happens when the dependence on divinity, or even its very existence as a higher authority, threatens human autonomy and humans’ ability to arrive at moral decisions. Not only is the inner imperative crucial, but one must not accept a reality in which that imperative can be overridden by an external authority. Think about it: If autonomy is a condition for morality, and is a value unto itself, everything that undercuts it constitutes a moral wrong and even subverts the basis of morality. This is the precise point at which God is transformed from being the necessary condition for every moral system into being the greatest danger to morality.

“Materialism as it appears in the 18th century… is no mere scientific or metaphysical dogma; it is, rather, a moral imperative,” the German-Jewish philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) writes. The individuals forged by the Enlightenment saw themselves as moral subjects only on the condition that their decisions were autonomous and free. They were unwilling to accept a moral authority that threatened their autonomy, or that was above it. Their problem with a supreme authority wasn’t only that it would affront their pride, but also that it would affront their morality, their possibility to be ethical. Thus, from the loftiest motives, human beings reached a state in which it was no longer only possible, but now also morally essential, to reject God’s existence.

The Ethos of Atheism

If for Tindal at the end of the 17th and start of the 18th centuries, our human dignity depends on our rejecting superstitions that debase our reason (which is the image of God), for D’Holbach, in the second half of the 18th century, human dignity is no longer the derivative of a divine gift. On the contrary: Dignity is preserved through the denial of all belief in a divine gift, through not bowing to the temptation of the beliefs, to the illusory consolation of religion.

D’Holbach presents a modern concept of self-respect that stems from the individual and is measured according to human criteria. Human dignity was not bestowed on us by God and does not depend on following God’s precepts. One’s dignity is actually dependent on the preservation of independence (conceptual, practical) and on remaining loyal to one’s principles. Man is not God’s image and is not divine or spiritual at all. However, self-respect can be preserved by acting in accordance with the precepts of morality and reason – which spring from within the individual.

Without a doubt, the increasing popularity, beginning in the 18th century, of the worldview represented here by D’Holbach owed not a little to the scientific revolution – to the proven ability of the scientific method to explain nature and to base technological developments on those explanations, and to the creation of a realm of knowledge that is not religion-dependent. However, those developments themselves, although creating the possibility, did not obligate D’Holbach (or anyone else) to deny the existence of God and to maintain that the source of our reason is natural and not divine. What obligated D’Holbach to do so was the moral imperative he formulated, which rested on the transference of the source of human morality and dignity from loyalty to God, to loyalty to oneself.

D’Holbach rejects God’s existence not because he has proof that God does not exist, but because for him belief in God’s existence is an affront to human dignity. Belief in God, or in any religious dogma, means sacrificing a crucial dimension of what makes us human, of what imbues us with human dignity and enables us to make moral decisions. According to D’Holbach, and according to increasing numbers of people from the intellectual elite of his era, believers have give up their reason and their free choice. More than any specific scientific discovery, it is this stance that undermined religious belief fundamentally.

Control of Control

The Enlightenment sought to facilitate and advance people’s self-control vis-a-vis themselves and their world. From self-control comes also control over knowledge and over consciousness. However, the next stage must be also control over the control. Enlightened individuals want to entrench and ensure their control, and therefore they are compelled in the final analysis to reject the existence of God – for nothing threatens that control more than an eternal father figure with infinite powers. “The first revolt,” asserts the anarchist thinker Mikhail Bakunin, “is against the supreme tyranny of theology, of the phantom of God. As long as we have a master in heaven, we will be slaves on earth.” To move from slavery to freedom, it is necessary to deny God’s existence. That is the Exodus from Egypt for modern people.

The thinkers cited above represent an illustration of a general cultural shift, in the framework of which Western humanity turned against the existence of God, and did so out of ethical motives. God’s image, which was internalized and became reason and free will, coalesced as an alternative moral source to God. Reason became an autonomous ethical framework, not dependent on God’s existence. Subsequently, reason, which already makes possible a rich normative system (autonomy, self-respect), must reject the existence of God, on the basis of an ethical stance: God’s existence is not moral, because God is injurious to morality; God sabotages the possibility of being autonomous and possessing self-respect.

Albert CamusThe rebel, Albert Camus writes in his book of the same title, “defies more than he denies” God. And Camus is indeed defiant. “The absurd man,” he writes in “The Myth of Sisyphus,” sees only “collapse and nothingness. He can then decide to accept such a universe and draw from it his strength, his refusal to hope, and the unyielding evidence of a life without consolation.” The defiance, the courage, the dignity and the transcendence that stem from an uncompromising coming to terms with nullity – it’s all here. A direct line leads from D’Holbach to Camus and from Camus to a contemporary atheist like Richard Dawkins, who writes, “The atheist view is… life-affirming and life-enhancing, while at the same time never being tainted with self-delusion” (from “The God Delusion”).

Their successors in Israel are columnists like Uri Misgav, from Haaretz, who thinks the problem is lack of knowledge, and thus wrote that “many Israelis believe there is a God, because no one ever offered them an alternative – that there is no God”; or Rogel Alpher, also from Haaretz, who praises directness and adherence to the truth as he writes that belief in God “is such an ignorant mistake, that it partakes of stupidity and mental disorder… It’s necessary to speak truth and stop trying to curry favor. There is no God and to believe in him is stupidity.”

Note well: Among atheists, too, there has been a decline over the generations. D’Holbach and Camus still laud the ethos of atheism, the need for self-transcendence and moral faithfulness, with a lucid vision and with self-respect. Their contemporary successors are so far from the point of conception of the atheistic tradition, that they make the mistake of thinking that the problem with believers is only lack of knowledge or absence of wisdom. They forgot the tenets of non-belief.

Moreover, there’s a limit to the effectiveness of calling religiously observant people ignorant or stupid. What the atheist of the vocal strain doesn’t get is that it’s not knowledge that those who believe in God lack, and that it’s not “mental disorder” that underlies religion. Placing God above humanity gives one direction and meaning – elements that humans need far more than information. Only when the conditions matured for extracting alternative direction and meaning, was atheism able to expand into wider circles. Only when that direction and that meaning required the rejection of God could atheism become synonymous with courage and self-respect. And only if direction and meaning will be provided today, will atheism be able to go on gaining adherents. Making atheism shallow to the point where it mocks the believers misses its essence and diminishes its formative revolution.

The acceptance of atheism, and in fact the entire secularization process, are deeply entwined with the process of the individuation of Western man. From being the source of reason, dignity and goodness, God becomes an external authority that does not enable an autonomous, moral, dignified life. After God’s image, as an idea, was internalized, God himself, this time as a moral source, was internalized. And if God is internalized, there is no longer room for him externally, in the objective field. The kingdom cannot be divided between two Gods. That’s how monotheism works. Faithfulness to the inner moral imperative requires the rejection of an external moral imperative. That’s how secularization works.

My new book: Man on God's Image

This article, published in Haaretz, is based on a chapter in my newly published book “Man in God’s Image: The making of the Modern World” (Hebrew).

Israel: Divided into City-states

After the public transportation system began operating on the weekend in a number of cities in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, we began to hear the word “revolution” being uttered more and more. Nonetheless, it is possible that even the people who have used this word may not have internalized just how dramatic a change is taking place.

It is obvious that the ability to be mobile on Shabbat in an urban space without a car is a refreshing change in its own right, and certainly as far as the underprivileged are concerned. The bite taken out of the obsolete “status quo” on matters of religion and state, which has been outdated for a long time, can provide a bit of comfort – but the story is much bigger than this.

Shifting the focus campaign for Shabbat transportation from the national to the municipal level has the potential to change the character of the entire country. This is multi-stage process – and public transportation is just one link – in which the issues of religion and state are privatized locally. It points up how Israel is gradually being divided into two separate countries with diverging public spheres.

The cities have entered the stepped into the fray over providing public transportation on Shabbat after having success in other fights in the religion-state realm. In July 2017, Givatayim banned Religious-Zionist nonprofit organizations from entering nonreligious state schools, and by so doing the city put an end in its midst to the creeping growth of religious influence in the schools that was being encouraged by the education ministry. In addition, the city of Herzliya instituted regulations in September 2017, which increased oversight of those same nonprofit organizations in its schools. At the same time, Tel Aviv city hall decided to stop supporting projects said to be aimed at reinforcing Jewish identity.

In December 2017, before the passage of the “convenience stores” law in the Knesset, cities such as Rishon Letzion, Givatayim, Modi’in, Holon and Herzliya passed bylaws aimed at keeping those stores open on Shabbat. This initiative was a result of a determined civil campaign – a city-by-city battle that brought thousands into the streets to demonstrate against plans to shut convenience stores on Shabbat. Mayors, who unlike prime ministers are elected directly to their jobs, responded to the public pressure. They were influenced by the protests to an extent rarely experience – or indeed desired to be experienced – by cabinet ministers or lawmakers.

In June 2018, the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, announced that based on a legal opinion of the attorney general – which stated that the municipality had the jurisdiction to ban gender separation at city events – it would not allow any more separation between men and women at events being held in any of the city’s public spaces. And last week, the city council in Ramat Hasharon adopted a government report and totally banned the exclusion of women from any public spaces.

The trend is clear, and stems from a real need: The status quo on religion and state has not been updated for decades – though Israeli society has undergone enormous changes. Furthermore, ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist political parties have stepped up their attempts to wield greater religious influence in recent years.

Examples of the latter can be seen in the “convenience stores” law and other efforts to assert religious influence in the public sphere, amid rejection of the Western Wall compromise, and the explicit threats made to outlaw holding professional soccer games on the Sabbath. There has also been an increase in never-ending struggles over the issue of work on Shabbat – whether for the railways or for the Eurovision song contest to be able to be held normally.

Attempts to cancel the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly have been blocked, and one can only dream about a day that civil or same sex marriage will be permitted. This is why local governments have become the default choice, and the cities where the population is homogenous with regard to a tendency not to abide by religious observance, are the ones leading the change.

The Down Side

But alongside the benefits for the secular, this trend also has negative dimensions. For one thing it divides Israeliness along tribal lines. Instead of a nation with a singular character, more or less, two different Israeli public spheres are taking shape. The Tel Aviv metropolitan area has become very nonreligious, as well as the north, with Haifa is in the lead. We must remember that Carmiel has sanctioned and paid for public transportation on the Sabbath since 2017.

It’s possible that Haredi and religious Zionist local government will shift to the other extreme in response to this trend. In other words, it is possible that they will insist on gender separation, and even the exclusion of women, and seek to justify it by citing a need to uphold multi-culturalism and even because the “secular cities” are setting a precedent, and if they have taken the law into their own hands and broke down the dam, why should they be the only ones to change the rules?

Moreover, we might witness a situation in which cities compete over attempting to offer nonreligious residents the largest basket of services possible. The average socio-economic level of the secular Israeli is of course much higher than that of the average Haredi. Cities that want to attract young, nonreligious people could take pride in the large number of businesses open on Shabbat, public transportation on Shabbat, schools lacking any overt religious influence – and maybe even in the future – municipal registration of common-law marriages, additional school hours for science classes and promises to build non-denominational cemeteries.

This process will fuel itself, and Israel will eventually subdivide into a northern and and Tel Aviv metropolitan area for the secular and rich, and a southern and Jerusalem area for the more traditional-minded and poor. Needless to say, such a situation would have a negative influence on the health of society, its unity and harmony – the battles in the Knesset among the various blocs will grow even more fierce, and public solidarity will decline.

In such a scenario those with fewer resources at their disposal will not receive all the services they require, or a good enough education to break free of a cycle of poverty. Meanwhile the upper classes will be fighting a long-term battle against the power of the government, whose leaders will very likely be populists looking to profit from the incitement of the “Second Israel” against the “First Israel. “

We are still far from being such a state, and there are many factors that can counter this trend. But because we cannot rely on miracles, it is already worth observing the trend and to try and nip it in the bud. We must reach broader agreements concerning the issues of religion and state, such as the Sabbath, Kashrut and marriage and divorce – and create a new consensus-based Israeli approach that will prevent the coercion of certain lifestyles on the individual and preserve gender and sexual equality, while building a public sphere with a clear Jewish-Israeli character.

Similar attempts in the past, such as the Gavison-Medan Covenant and the Kinneret Covenant, were rejected out of hand by the Haredi community, which was unwilling to compromise. Now too, the chances to achieve a broad agreement are not great, but it may be possible that in light of the separatist process that has been taking place in the past few months, the leaders of the Haredi community will rethink – and maybe a willingness for compromise will come about. Israel is too small and fragile to split into a collection of city-states.


Published as a Haaretz op-ed

A New Consensus in Israel about What Being Jewish Really Means

Two general elections within a span of five months are a treasure for any researcher, because they bring to light the issues that are most important to each group of voters.

Between the April and September elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not change, the security threats from Iran and the Gaza Strip neither grew nor shrank, and Israel’s population remained almost the same. But a new agenda that was placed at the center of the second election took five Knesset seats from the bloc comprising Likud and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. The agenda was the relationship between religion and state, and the person who put it center stage also coined the slogan that most accurately summarizes Israel’s social and political center of gravity: “A Jewish state, not a halakha [Jewish religious law] state.”

One could say that this is the amorphous consensus on Jewish identity in Israel as it has emerged and come together in recent decades. In general terms, beginning in the 1990s Israeli Jewish society underwent two deep processes relating to its identity. On the one hand, Jewish Israelis learned to challenge the authority of Orthodox Judaism as the sole authentic representative of historic Judaism. An increasing number of Jews are shaping their Jewish identity through a wide range of alternative avenues, from pluralistic study forums, through Reform Judaism to New Age-y doctrines like the Yemima Method to the various Bratslav Hasidic courts. This is privatized Judaism, shaped by the individual to meet their cultural, social or spiritual needs. This is also a Judaism that fears for its liberty and the possibility of realizing itself in whatever way it chooses.

On the other hand, we also see in Israel the rise of an ethnic-national Jewish identity, which is based on a sense of tribal belonging and whose meaning is derived from the mission of preserving the security and prosperity of the Jewish people. This Jewish identity is ostensibly collectivist and its center is the national-ethnic (not civic) community. But the demands this identity makes on the individual are minimal, and as such it can be integrated — in a manner that is complementary, not contradictory — into the privatization process. This identity is more strongly tied to Orthodox Judaism, which it considers more authentic and “faithful,” but in the end it also undermines it.

Jewish expressions in Israel

Both social trends stem from the same source: rising individualization in the Western world. The processes of liberalization and globalization that the West is experiencing have made it more homogenous. The rules of the market and consumer culture, the discussion of human and civil rights, even popular culture in all its channels constitute a fixed framework that molds local societies into similar patterns. On the one hand, privatization and liberalization have turned people into individuals who scrupulously cultivate their own autonomy; on the other hand, these same individuals also develop anxiety about their identity. Most of them don’t want to be swallowed up into the liberal shredder and spit out as a generic Western individual. Strengthening national or ethnic identity provides a solution in this respect: The individual feels part of a unique collective while making minimal lifestyle changes.

But what happens when the individual is in fact expected to change his behavior? What happens when the government allows and even encourages increased religious influence in the state secular schools, separation between men and women in the public sphere or the closure of grocery stores on the Sabbath? What happens when it threatens to prohibit soccer games on Shabbat or the Eurovision Song Contest? Many who affiliate with ethnic-national Judaism will accept this, and some might even see it as an authentic expression of the heritage with which they identify. But many others will respond to this threat to their autonomy and their lifestyle by turning their backs on the parties that promote it.

Religious antagonism

The fault line between religious and secular is one of the most fundamental in Israel. The socialist Zionism that established the state rejected halakha and saw religion as a relic of the galut, the Jewish Diaspora, which was not only superfluous after the Jewish people returned to the land of its ancestors but was a constant threat to the establishment of a progressive, properly run state. Socialism as a mass progressive vision disintegrated, along with the decades-long rule of Labor Party forerunner Mapai and its ethos, but a fundamental antagonism toward “the religious” is part of Israel’s DNA. Add to this the perceived threat to civil liberties, and this antagonism turns into an electoral force.

The combination of this old antagonism and the insistence on personal freedoms brought Yosef (Tommy) Lapid’s Shinui party 15 Knesset seats in the 2003 election and his son Yair Lapid‘s Yesh Atid 19 seats in 2013. In September’s election it destroyed Netanyahu’s chance of obtaining a coalition of 61 seats without Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. In my opinion, it also prevented Kahol Lavan from weakening any more than it did. The bottom line is clear: In every election campaign in which the issue of religion and state becomes central, several Knesset seats move from the right-wing bloc to the left or, more accurately, from the right-traditional religious bloc to the central-civic bloc. These seats go not to Meretz, but to parties that offer a clear Jewish identity while also promising to preserve a secular civic space. Both Lapids offered exactly this. Now it was being offered by Lieberman and the four leaders of Kahol Lavan.

Lieberman’s slogan, “A Jewish state, not a halakha state,” precisely expresses this new, all-Israeli combination; on the one hand it emphasizes Jewish identity, while on the other hand it promises to preserve individual liberties. Moshe Feiglin had actually discovered this secret formula earlier, and during the campaign for the April election he used it very successfully with his libertarian party Zehut before he was brought down by campaign errors and Netanyahu’s skill in cannibalizing the bloc. Hayamin Hehadash, whose platform had remarkably similar messages, was hurt as a result of overly cautious wording (for example, party chairman Naftali Bennett stuttered over LGBTQ rights) and  suffered the same cannibalization. Looking forward, we can expect to see this winning combination in every party seeking the votes of mainstream Israelis.

The Haredi parties, in contrast, have maintained their strength, which is based on Orthodox and traditional Jewish voters, for whom personal autonomy and the secular  civic space is less important. The religious Zionist movement is caught in between: Its Haredi minority completed its takeover of the now-defunct National Religious Party (after obtaining similar, if less complete, control of the community’s educational institutions). In the process it alienated a majority of Israelis and even a majority of religious Zionists, who fear for their autonomy no less than secular Israelis do. Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, who in September ran together with Bezalel Smotrich and Rafi Peretz as Yamina, did not gain additional Knesset seats, suggesting that voters recognized that the alliance with the Haredi Zionists would stifle their relatively liberal voice.

Privatized traditionalism

Both election seasons shattered the religious-Zionist dream that secular Israelis wanted a knitted-kippa leadership. It turns out that secular Jews prefer — surprise! — to vote for secular politicians, whether Likud or Kahol Lavan. Beyond that, we are seeing the end of a process that began in the 1990s, with the National Religious Party’s unequivocal affiliation with the right. That move turned religious Zionism, which had always prided itself on being the “hyphen” that brought together Haredim and secular Jews, Torah and science, past and future — into just another right-wing party.

For religious Zionism, the movement toward individualism on the one hand and ethnic nationalism on the other undermined the halakhic dimension. Along with turning the settlement enterprise into a central tenet of faith, identifying with the political right replaced halakha as the fundamental basis of religious-Zionist identity. Bennett and Shaked’s Habayit Hayehudi party accepted secular right-wingers, but would never have accepted religious leftists.

The two components of Yamina represent two opposing responses to this process. Bennett and Shaked are nothing more Likudniks with a twist, and the platform of their party was not materially different from that of Likud on matters of religion or foreign policy. This model won them around a dozen Knesset seats in 2013, and presumably that was their peak. Politicians such as Smotrich, Peretz and Moti Yogev, however, seek to return the topic of religious law to the fore. But in an age when civil liberties and even liberal causes such as feminism and LGBTQ rights are becoming part of the Israeli consensus, such a move will confirm the party’s place as a small Likud satellite.

The combination of Jewish ethnic nationalism and individualistic liberalism has thus become the main intersection of the range of circles making up Israeli society. Likud, which was founded on a blend of nationalism and liberalism, could have been the primary beneficiary of this situation, had Netanyahu not become completely dependent on his alliance with his “natural partners,” which repels his voters. Kahol Lavan gained from Likud’s loss but it now faces a dilemma since in the absence of a unity government it, too, is dependent on the Haredi parties.

But the importance of the current situation goes well beyond the political arena. The evolving Jewish identity represents a sort of privatized traditionalism, grasping on to a heritage that is dependent upon the will of the individual and custom-made to fit. It is a dynamic, creative Judaism, but it’s also egocentric, and the liberalism it demonstrates toward the Jewish direction (from weddings outside of the rabbinate to LGBTQ rights) does not generally extend into the non-Jewish space. This is Judaism in Israel in the early 21st century, and it shows us that most Israeli Jews will not relinquish their Jewish identity, but at the same time they will rise up against religious coercion and insist on individual liberties, at least for themselves.


Published in Haaretz, Oct. 29

Of White Supremacy and Chosen Peoples – The Turner Diaries and their legacy

from The Great Gatsby“Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’?” Tom Buchanan, Gatsby’s rival, asks in “The Great Gatsby.” “The idea,” Buchanan explains, “is if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved… It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of the 1925 masterpiece, knew well why he had his antagonist speak those words. The crux of the tension between Jay Gatsby and Buchanan is the question of truth and authenticity. On the one hand, the source of Gatsby’s wealth is dubious: He’s charming and charismatic, but his life is founded on a lie. On the other hand, Buchanan is a nasty piece of work, arrogant and boastful, but he’s a faithful son of the American upper class of the tumultuous 1920s. For a large slice of American society, the racist calumnies he spews out were the unvarnished truth.

The title of the book Buchanan mentions is a distortion of a real work: “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” published in 1920, which attracted interest in the United States. The author, Lothrop Stoddard, a prolific American thinker, writes of his concern that ineluctable demographic trends will transform the world’s whites into an oppressed minority. As someone who espoused a detailed race theory, Stoddard maintained that the “Nordic race” is superior to all other races and that, for the common good, it should continue to rule the world.

Stoddard’s book is just one link in a long chain, beginning in the early 19th century, all of whose parts are obsessed with the white person’s fear of becoming a minority. By ascribing these views to Buchanan, Fitzgerald marked him as being flesh-of-the-white-flesh of the particular social circle that’s caught in the grip of this anxiety and drawn to such works.

from The Great GatsbyStoddard has long since been forgotten, and the views he advocated – which, in certain versions, were accepted at the time even by people who considered themselves to be progressive – became the object of condemnation and excoriation. The concrete results that these race theories engendered in the 1930s and ‘40s made the subject taboo; in our time only fringe groups espouse such ideas. However, with the aid of the internet, what was for decades the preserve of the rejected and the ostracized has become the subject of a lively dialogue today. The web connects oddballs and fundamentalists, and it gives extremists the feeling that they are part of a broad movement. A rising, seething wave of toxicity is being ridden by unscrupulous politicians who are aggrandizing the feeling of white victimhood. Those who consider themselves the spearhead in the struggle against the “colored surge” are acting accordingly.

The footprints of these ideas are obvious in acts of mass murder perpetrated in recent years. Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 murdered more than 70 people, most of them teenagers, in and around Oslo, left a 1,500-page manifesto in which he warned against “white genocide” (the preferred term by those in the grip of the anxiety) and against the “Islamization of Europe.” In 2015, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, shouting, “You’re taking over our country!” In an essay attributed to him, Roof expressed concern at developments in Europe, “the homeland of White people.”

Brenton Tarrat, who last March murdered 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was fearful of “the great replacement” – a conspiracy theory revolving around the alleged replacement of whites by nonwhites. And Patrick Crusius, who in August opened fire in a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas, slaying 22 people, purported to be defending his country against a “Hispanic invasion.”

The massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year was also carried out by a white supremacist who used slogans such as “Diversity means chasing down the last white person” and accused the local Jewish community of assisting “invaders.” A year earlier, Jason Kessler, speaking at an alt-right gathering in Charlottesville that he helped organize, warned against “white genocide” and “the replacement of our people, culturally and ethnically.” “Jews will not replace us,” the torch-bearing marchers there chanted.

Return of the scarecrow

But how are the Jews actually connected to all of this? According to the widespread version of this white anxiety, Jews are the planners and orchestrators of the takeover by “inferior races” that is leading to the extinction of the white race. The Jews’ status as “whites” is provisional, as everyone knows, and depends on the good will of white Christians. For most of those who fear white genocide (though not all), Jews are themselves an inferior race, and the migration of nonwhites to Western Europe and the United States is a Jewish plot aimed at eradicating the superior race.

Fitting neatly into the picture here is the tendency of Jewish Americans to be on the progressive side of the map and, similarly, the tendency of Jewish organizations and philanthropists to support progressive causes. It turns out that Jews who are fighting racism and working for tolerance are in reality advocating miscegenation and scheming to liquidate the whites. The Jews’ support for minority groups stems not from a moral commandment to love the stranger; it’s a plot against the light-skinned majority. Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist George Soros features prominently in right-wing conspiracy theories, but he also occupies a central place among those who play up white anxiety and even on morning talk shows. Middle East-affairs commentator Dr. Guy Bechor enthusiastically echoed the “replacement theory” in his regular slot on Israel’s Channel 13, and in another context said, “The Jewish progressives will inflict a terrible disaster on American Jewry; and that is exactly what happened in Europe.”

This anti-Semitic narrative is far from marginal. The blood libel according to which Jews are working toward the eradication of the “white man” is in the background of most of the murderous violence perpetrated by white supremacists in our time. As Eric K. Ward, a social activist who has been researching these groups for three decades, writes, anti-Semitism is the “theoretical core” in the conspiratorial schema of the white nationalist and white supremacist movements. According to Ward, anti-Semitism became a central element in white racism in the United States after the successful civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. The racist groups couldn’t fathom how “inferior races” had succeeded in getting the state to eliminate segregation, promote equality for women and gays, and above all also stirred public opinion in favor of those groups. Their conclusion: There must be a secret network of crafty, manipulative agents who pulled the strings and brought about this result. Inevitably, the “Elders of Zion” entered the familiar niche.

For white supremacist groups, Jews thus fulfill their classic conspiratorial role. But this time, the plot does not involve accumulating money or power, or undermining Christendom, the economic order or the nation-state. Now the eternal Jew wants to mongrelize the different races so as to cause the pure whites to disappear. As always, anti-Semites use the Jews as a scarecrow that embodies the threat that they feel to their identity.

‘Shabbos Goyim’

To grasp the narrative framework that renders this conceptual approach accessible, it’s worth delving into the book that Ward calls “the bible of generations of white supremacist groups,” and what the Anti-Defamation League describes as “one of the most widely read and cited books on the far-right” in the United States. They are referring to “The Turner Diaries,” by William Luther Pierce, writing under the pseudonym Andrew Macdonald. The book, which was written, not by chance, in the 1970s – following recognition of the victory of the civil rights movement – is probably the most widely disseminated and influential anti-Semitic work since “Mein Kampf.”

“The Turner Diaries” is neither a manifesto nor a philosophical tract. It’s a novel. It tells the story of Earl Turner, who is part of an underground organization that is waging a battle against the federal government in the United States. Originally published in 1978, the book is set in the future, the 1990s, when the government, which is controlled by liberals and Jews, is adamantly pursuing racial intermingling and integration, is encouraging mixed marriages and is battling racism and segregation. In fact, it’s apparently doing everything in its power to bring about the disappearance of the white race.

This is not by chance: It’s the Jews who are pulling the strings here. The Christian liberals and progressives are the useful idiots who are helping them (in the book, they’re dubbed “Shabbos Goyim”), while the blacks and Hispanics provide the muscle and the cannon fodder. If the Jews achieve their goal, the white race will be eliminated and they will rule the world.

“The Organization” – the whites’ underground – uses guerrilla warfare and terrorism against the federal government, which is referred to as “The System.” Organization cells carry out terrorist attacks on American soil with the intention of destabilizing the social order. The aim is to awaken public opinion and induce whites to snap out of their pro-equality, pro-pluralism, pro-tolerance indoctrination and ultimately convince them to understand that they, the whites, are superior to all the rest.

The turning point in the book occurs when the government embarks on a campaign to confiscate all the firearms in the public’s possession. Police units, consisting largely of nonwhites, go house to house collecting the weapons, in a scenario that undoubtedly constitutes the worst nightmare of the National Rifle Association. The protagonist, Turner, understands that the time has come to act and he goes into the underground with his associates. They stay in contact with other terror cells, of which there are apparently many.

Turner’s first major act is to blow up FBI headquarters in Washington. The members of the squad park a commercial van packed with explosives below the building and topple it with its personnel inside. If that sounds familiar, there’s a good reason: Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, murdering 168 people, drew his inspiration for the act from the book. Pages from “The Turner Diaries” were found in his getaway car.

Indeed, “The Turner Diaries” is not only a novel, it’s also a form of do-it-yourself manual. It teaches readers how to manage an underground cell, manufacture a homemade bomb, and rob and slaughter Jewish businesspeople in order to underwrite the underground’s activity. In its battle against “Jewish brainwashing,” the underground attacks the offices of a newspaper, fires mortars at a gathering attended by the U.S. president, and murders Jews and liberal activists.

Finally, its members seize control of a military base and fire nuclear missiles at New York and Tel Aviv – which have the largest concentrations of Jews in the world.

The Turner Legacy

A reading of the book, aside from inducing a physical feeling of nausea, shows how deeply its ideas have influenced the new right (the alt-right and other variations of the radical right in their American and Israeli versions).

The book inveighs against liberalism (more precisely, “the Jewish-liberal-democratic-equalitarian plague”) but also castigates classic conservatives. The latter are depicted as nerds who don’t understand when it is necessary to dispense with the law and take up arms. (The contempt for conservatives is echoed in the alt-right’s term for them – “cuckservatives” – where “cuck” is short for “cuckold.”)

Feminism, too, is the object of virulent hatred in the book, parallel to the misogyny that prevails today in new-right circles. Women’s lib is a “mass psychosis” that descended on the world before the triumph of the whites, and women who fell prey to it were persuaded “that they were ‘people,’ not ‘women.’” Feminism was actually a plot by The System to turn the white race against itself.

There is a lot of penny-ante Nietzscheanism in “The Turner Diaries,” from the ridiculing of liberalism as a “feminine” ideology to notions of social Darwinism holding that every person and every race must look after itself, and the strongest survive. People who seek equality and pluralism are either cheats (i.e., the Jews) or brainwashed (white liberals). A “healthy” and “sane” society is one of racial purity; it is masculine, militant, patriarchal and heterosexual. That, according to author Pierce, is what a normal people in its land looks like.

Liberals are idealistic but blind. They ignore the crimes of the minorities (blacks, mainly) and always take their side, even when they are clearly guilty. A girl who complains to her mother that African-American children are harassing her at school gets a slap in the face and is accused of being racist. Other liberals allow members of minority groups to rape their wives before their eyes, unopposed, then cover up for them to the police. The parallel to present-day accusations of liberals covering up for crimes committed by minorities – such as the allegation made by the Israeli television personality Avri Gilad that Notre Dame Cathedral was torched by Islamists and that the French police were lying about the cause of the blaze – is clear.

The book was also ahead of its time in the hatred of Muslims it expresses. The narrator, as early as the late 1970s, knows that there are too many “dark, kinky-haired Middle Easterners” in the country, and when he and his associates take control of Southern California, they set about murdering them systematically. In later years, fear of so-called Middle Easterners would morph into an outcry that they are “taking control of Europe” – a libelous declaration the new right is disseminating in both the United States and Israel.

Surging anti-Semitism

A typical antisemitic caricature based on the current white-supremacy worldviewAs J.M. Berger, an expert on extremist movements, found, “The Turner Diaries” is only one text – albeit a very successful one – among a quite a few centering on a “colored” threat to the white man. In the 1920s, publications like “The Rising Tide of Color” earned fame, and were accompanied by a call for “racial hygiene.” However, Berger actually found the genesis of the genre in the 1830s, against the background of the controversy over slavery and ahead of the American Civil War. The anxiety that gripped the white people of the South over the possibility that their slaves would be freed produced at least four dystopian (from their viewpoint) novels, which depict the United States as a place of indiscriminate mongrelization, to the horror of the light-skinned folk. Some of the works portray a war to restore the “natural order.”

The genre’s rise can be tracked through the history of liberals’ achievements. The struggle to free the slaves was the catalyst for the emergence and initial popularity of such literature. The second wave surfaced in the first decades of the 20th century, coinciding with the surge in the number of immigrants entering the United States. Analogously, this period also saw the appearance of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which perceived that a threat was posed not only by blacks but also by Catholics, Jews and the intellectual elite. That wave receded in the wake of the defeat of Nazism in World War II. The next surge did not appear until the late 1960s, with the legal prohibition of segregation and the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Here, the Jews played a central role in the conspiratorial structure. Those who chanted “Jews will not replace us” meant to say that they would fight so that Jews would not replace them with Hispanics and Muslims.

It is against this background that one can understand the complexity of the present upsurge in anti-Semitism. President Donald Trump is manifestly fanning the flames of xenophobia. His attitude toward migrants, his warning against an “invasion” of Hispanics and his refusal to dissociate himself from avowed white supremacists such as David Duke are fodder for the extreme right. Steve Bannon, former Trump’s White House Chief Strategist, referred to The Camp of the Saints a few times, hinting to the extreme right that he knows and approves of yet another white-supremacist novel (published 1973). On the other hand, advocates of the “replacement theory” cannot accept Trump’s positive approach to Israel, which is evidence, they feel, that the grip of the “Zionist Occupation Government” – as anti-Semitic, right-wing groups refer to the U.S. administration – is stronger than ever.

The facts, in any event, are clear. A special report issued a year ago by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry found that “supporters of white supremacy in the United States are experiencing a resurgence” in recent years. An FBI report published in 2018 also found a consistent rise in the number of hate crimes since 2015, including a considerable uptick in anti-Semitic hate crimes. The reality is that murderous violence against Jews in the United States has reached unprecedented levels. It’s been a long time since every type of racist, homophobic and misogynist lowlife, as well as populists, demagogues and purveyors of conspiracy theories have felt as comfy-cozy as they do now. Anti-Semites drink from the same sources.

The Jewish Religious-Nationalist connection

All countries are different, but the radical right in all of them tends to think along the same lines. Racism is racism, but that is not the end of the resemblance. The story of a Jewish conspiracy operating behind the scenes to persuade good white people to become liberals and pluralists is very much like the “irresponsible attempt to reprogram the human society […] which is being done by ‘white collar’ people who operate behind the scenes.” That quotation is from a pamphlet titled “The Courage for Independence,” published last May by Rabbi Zvi Yisrael Thau, a leader of the yeshivas affiliated with the so-called Hardali community (whose members combine ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, and national-religious beliefs). It’s aimed at those who are inducing the Jewish people to think that, heaven help us, women are equal to men or that gays deserve equal rights.

The similarity between the modes of thought (not of action) between the conspiracy theories espoused by the Euro-American anti-Semites and those of the Hardali yeshivas stems from the premise that the superior person (the white man or Jew) cannot be bad but is at most confused. If he’s liberal, feminist and gay-friendly, it’s not because that’s what he really thinks but because he underwent indoctrination by a small, manipulative group of miscreants. The latter disseminated an “unnatural ideology” (Pierce), but “that is not the nature of the people of Israel” (Thau). Deep down, the Jew or the white is perfectly all right: loyal to himself, his origins and his purpose. He’s an “authentic” white or Jew – in the same way that Tom Buchanan, the antagonist in “The Great Gatsby,” is an authentic Roaring Twenties wealthy American.

The heroes of “The Turner Diaries” try to awaken whites people from their progressive slumber, and in the same way Israeli homophobic groups such as the right-wing Orthodox Noam party or other Hardali movements appeal to the good-hearted but bewildered Jew. Because both movements depend on a far broader public than them, which they consider exalted but which doesn’t think like them – they are compelled to assume that this wider public has been brainwashed and to deny that its members truly think what they say they are thinking. The white supremacists want the whites to open their eyes and understand that they actually hate blacks and Jews; the followers of Thau are asking Jews to open their eyes and understand that they are actually revolted by gays and are superior to Arabs. When these things happen, the world will return to its “natural,” “true” order.

It’s precisely here that the Achilles’ heel of every racist project lies. Simply put: Racism is not compatible with the truth. In “The Turner Diaries,” the author presupposes that people of color are naturally dumb and violent, an assumption that’s a key cog in the plot mechanism.

Liberalism, he maintains, is a lie that’s easily refuted, because nonwhites are “truly” violent and “truly” untalented, and mixed neighborhoods “truly” suffer from crime, despite liberal efforts to cover all that up. Because the government systems, security agencies and military units are “racially mixed,” their operation is faulty, according to Pierce. For this reason it’s easy for the white underground to outsmart them. If the nonwhites were as smart as the whites, the underground would not triumph in the struggle. The book, then, is not only dystopian; it verges on science fiction.

From this perspective, the war on facts that Trump, Thau and certain media figures are waging is understandable. The facts simply are not consistent with the racist theories they’re promoting. “It’s all scientific stuff,” Tom Buchanan says about “The Rise of the Colored Empires,” but that “science” is a ludicrous cocktail of prejudices, anxiety and self-victimization. And even if we ignore the reality on the ground, the one thing that refutes these racist conspiracy theories is the very fact that anti-Semites and Jews, white supremacists and Jewish supremacists, those who believe the Jews are subhuman and those who believe that the Jews are superhuman – ultimately believe in the same clichés.


Published in Haaretz

You are not Your Brain – on Yochai Ataria’s new book

Not long ago, I awoke to a sunny morning in a B&B in Daliyat al-Karmel. It was the beginning of a family vacation, and I had forgotten my tefillin. There was no shortage of tefillin around, since I was on vacation with my wife’s extended (and religiously observant) family, and I was quickly lent a replacement pair. However, when I picked up the tefillin, I found them to be very different to my own. The straps were a different width, the boxes were a different size, and so on. I tried to lay them, but I simply could not. I did not remember exactly how. A few days later, I prayed again with my own tefillin without any problem – because with mine I remembered how.

That is, it wasn’t precisely “me” who remembered, but rather my body. I, as a self-aware consciousness, was not involved at all. My body simply moved quickly between the chapters of prayer without any intervention on my behalf. Nor did I need to “retrieve from memory” the best way to go about it, or to imagine an internal flowchart detailing the steps of the ritual. Everything was simply done – and done well.

So where is my memory? Is it in my brain? If so, why did changing the tefillin disrupt it? The fact that activating my memory required me to use my hands and also grasp a certain object suggests that recalling a memory is more than an intra-brain search.

Ataria'a bookIn his new book, Yochai Ataria makes precisely this claim. “Not by the Brain alone” (Hebrew) – the title of the book – is it that we are formed, Ataria claims. According to Ataria (a senior lecturer at Tel-Hai College and a scholar of the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of science), our subjective experience cannot be reduced the movement of neurons, i.e., to a particular form of activity in the brain. We are more than our brains, and to understand our subjective lives, meaning our internal lives and self-perception, our bodies and activity in the world must be examined.

The World is not Projected Inside Us

Ataria challenges the view that has taken hold in the modern world, and which has also been adopted in the field of scientific inquiry, whereby a person is equivalent to their brain, so that if we were to understand every detail of the brain’s workings, we could also understand who and what a person is. According to Ataria, this view is rooted in error. A person’s sense of self and subjective experience are not located among the neurons within the brain, but rather in the system of interaction between a person – brain and body – and their environment.

Ataria begins with a critique of contemporary studies of the brain, and claims, together with experts whom he cites, that despite collecting an impressive array of data, research of the brain has not led to any significant theoretical breakthroughs. Impressive machines such as the fMRI can only reveal a certain increase in the blood flow to a certain area of the brain, often without allowing for any conclusions pertaining to the meaning of such occurrences. Citing the philosopher Michael Hagner, he claims that an apt analogy would be an attempt to evaluate the functioning of a computer according to the level of its power consumption as it executes various functions.

He continues by debunking the view that experiences or sensory perception are based on the brain processing data collected and inputted by the senses. The “representation” view, the little Cinema screen inside the head, the idea that the brain projects what it receives from the senses to an internal viewer who analyzes and acts on the information that reaches him or her (imagine the representation of internal life within the robot in the Terminator movies), is completely wrong and based on a dichotomous distinction between internal and external, i.e., on the assumption that our consciousness is located somewhere inside our head, and the world is located outside of it.

There is no such distinction, claims Ataria. Building on the philosophy of Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty, he describes consciousness as part of the world. When we assemble a puzzle, explains Ataria, we do not turn each piece around in our head, our spirit, or our mind, before placing it in its place; we try turning it with our hands in order to make it fit in the real world, until we position it correctly. Our consciousness is not in our head and does not act on representations. It is located in our hands and in the world surrounding us.

This is not the way we work

Similarly, explains Ataria,

I do not remember him [my son] abstractly, but rather in a certain way, at a certain event. I have no objective and detached representation, but always a memory from a certain point in time […] Memory is an activity that requires a basic level of physical activity. The body, I wish to make the case, is the backdrop for all our activity in the world – including the various cognitive activities.

Memory, like consciousness, is not detached from the world. It is not abstract, nor is it “representational.” It is connected with a specific time and place, to a body and to activity. It is, like our mind, grounded. The notion of a mind that is detached from the world, that represents the world to itself in a distant and dichotomous way, is theoretically misconceived and based on an illusion – an illusion that we live.

“The point of departure,” claims Ataria, “is not the thinking self but rather the acting self.” We are bodily beings in a physical world, not ethereal souls in a psychological world. As I once wrote,

We are beings that are situated within a body and can understand who we are and what the world is only by means of our body. This is the reason we use our hands when we speak, even on the phone. This is the reason we think better when we are walking. This is the reason our language is filled with metaphors of space and time whose purpose is understanding spirit and soul.

Indeed, we have no other (cognitive) way to understand the spirit and soul.

Ataria tries to support his claims by providing evidence across several chapters in which he cites interviews with people who experienced extreme situations vis-à-vis their consciousness: prisoners of war who underwent torture and isolation, and veteran vipassana meditators who experienced spiritual episodes of the Buddhist genre. Based on their testimonies, he develops a detailed, elaborate map of how human consciousness is developed by interacting with the world, emphasizing the emotional plane, rather than thoughts. (I will not provide in-depth descriptions here because the necessary background explanations are too extensive, but the discussion is fascinating.)

According to Ataria, there is no “flow of consciousness” that establishes our sense of self. There is no continuous consciousness at all, but rather flashes of mind. The internal sense of continuity, with which we are as familiar as we are with the palm of our hand, is based on the experience of our bodily encounter with the world. Without any interaction with the world (as Ataria concludes from POW and meditative experiences), our sense of self dissolves.

We are not Brains in a Vat

The notion of a “brain in a vat” – a well-known thought experiment in philosophy of mind describing a “Matrix”-like situation in which our brain is detached from the body and attached to wires that transmit information to it – is incorrect, at least if we think that such a brain would be capable of understanding itself or the world. The reality portrayed in the film, “the Matrix,” could not transpire. I explicitly asked Ataria to address this. Here is what he wrote in an informal email in response:

According to “the Matrix,” the notion of a “brain in a vat” is possible; in this way, for instance, Neo learns martial arts by “uploading” software to his brain. [However,] I do not think that our brain is a computer, nor do I think that all it does is execute functions (this, as noted, is the approach in “the Matrix” as well as in the cognitive sciences). In this sense, martial arts are not a [cognitive] function, they are a particular bodily activity that allow me to be present in a certain way in the world (I am absorbed into the world, which also contains me). This is a form of knowing how rather than knowing that. I am not saying (of course!) that the brain is not involved in learning processes, but not only the brain is involved. Moreover, I am not at all certain what people mean when they say that martial arts are a type of information.

But it does not end here. According to “the Matrix,” we understand that the brain is closed to the world, that we do not experience the world itself but rather a representation of the world (as brain researchers have told me more than once in the context of friendly conversation… “Do you really think that you see with your eyes?”). I maintain that even if there are representations, and to be more precise, even if we are capable of representing the world sometimes (I do not deny that we sometimes dream and imagine), ultimately the brain is open to the world – and I might even say that it is entirely open to the world, thus diffusing the border between the brain and the world.

Speaking of movies, what really comes across in the movie “Inside Out” is the idea that the “self” (not a sense of self, but a real Cartesian self) is located in the brain. Like some kind of central control unit. This is also the assumption underlying “The Matrix.” I do not think that there is a Cartesian self that is located in the brain. In fact, right now, while I am totally focused on this answer, I “forget myself” in favor of real-world activity.

“The Matrix,” in short, is just a movie, and there are no movies playing inside the head.

We will not Be Able to Upload Ourselves into The Cloud

These cinematic representations, in “the Matrix,” “the Terminator,” and many other science-fiction stories, suggest just how intuitive these depictions – of a brain inside a body, a “self” within a brain, an immaterial Cartesian consciousness, a homunculus (a “small man”) sitting inside our head watching events and controlling our body – have become, how accustomed we’ve grown to think of ourselves in this way, as beings that reside within the body, within the head, as a brain (or for those who believe, a soul).

The transhumanist fantasy that envisions “uploading” consciousness to a digital cloud or downloading one’s character as data that is saved on a hard disk belongs to the same mode of thought, as do all sorts of supposed points of “singularity” after which we will reside in digital space. Conversely, so do all kinds of horrifying predictions about artificial intelligence coming to life and controlling, from a station within a computerized control center, an army of robots sent to subjugate or destroy mankind.

These dreams and nightmares build on our Western point of view, but of course this is not the only way to perceive ourselves. This is one very particular way, which developed in the West as part of the Hellenistic culture, and from there was appropriated by Christianity. The sages of the Talmud, for instance, did not think that a person is a soul, but rather that he or she is primarily a body (powered, like with a battery, by a divine spirit given by God, and also taken away by Him, whereby a person, being the body, “returns his soul to the creator”). The Western-Christian mode of self-perception is taken for granted in the West, including also by Jews of course, but there is no reason to think that one cannot reach a different form of self-understanding.

What would a self-perception that sees the self as distributed across a broad interactive space, rather than something that is located within the brain, look like? I think that this is an extremely significant question. Would such a person be less egocentric? Would he or she be less self-centered – not as someone who possesses information, but as someone who lives an existential form of knowledge – in that he or she is not just a brain nor merely a body, but a body as well as everything that surrounds it? Would such a person be less anxious, at least inasmuch as anxiety stems from a limited and egocentric perception of our place within the world? Would such a person know how to traverse space more elegantly, like a dancer who moves spontaneously and naturally, rather than someone who tries to consciously control how they dance?

Even if we answer these questions in the affirmative, all of these wonderful advantages are overshadowed by the true accomplishment that a change to our self-perception entails: Ataria holds (and I think that he is right) that the notion whereby we are not merely a brain but rather a system that comprises consciousness, body and environment is also, ultimately, the truth. Meaning that altering our self-perception will allow us, supposedly, to live as we truly are. Imagine that.

Ataria’s book is impressive and fascinating. Nonetheless, I must say: it is not an easy read. It is replete with information, uses technical language, and aims somewhat higher than the average well-educated reader. Had I not possessed some background in Philosophy of Mind, it would have been even harder for me to follow and understand. At the same time, the investment is well worth it: Ataria achieves no less than a new way to understand who we are.

The Ultra-Orthodoxy’s Inherent Preference of the Right

With members of the ultra-Orthodox parties constantly saying they’ll support Benjamin Netanyahu for prime minister, one would expect the notion of them as the ones who can tip the scales would fade, yet it stubbornly persists. It’s not clear, for example, how anyone can seriously argue that all Benny Gantz’s party needs to do to win the ultra-Orthodox seal of approval is to part ways with Yair Lapid, or that Ehud Barak is someone with whom the ultra-Orthodox could tango.

These vain hopes are based on the assumption that the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, hold no firm ideological position regarding the occupied territories that would rule out a withdrawal, therefore they could countenance being part of a left-wing government aspiring to a two-state solution. Alas, what we have here is a case of drawing faulty conclusions from true facts. Yes, rabbis Elazar Shach and Ovadia Yosef ruled that it is permissible to return land and evacuate settlements in return for peace, but this doesn’t mean they had any special affection for the Israeli left. Quite the opposite.

On the one hand, Shach, the great rabbi who shaped the worldview of Haredi society today, ruled that “according to Jewish law, there is nothing that would prevent ceding part of the Land of Israel for the sake of peace”, and indeed was so dovish that he opposed the Golan annexation law and the Basic Law that declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel (1980).

On the other hand, he also often expressed his unequivocal unhappiness with the left. In 1990 he said that among the left are “despisers of the Torah and despisers of mitzvoth,” and that Likud is the party of “those of simple faith.” In 1992 he said: “No one should connect with the leftists, who are totally treif” because “the leftists openly say that they don’t believe, that they deny everything,” while on the right “there are individuals who violate tradition but in public show respect to religion.”

This sort of gross generalization actually contains a speck of truth. The late Rabbi Shach is gazing down on the right and left throughout the generations. He knows that the left around the world arose out of the spirit of the Enlightenment and its anti-religious and anti-traditional tendencies. The right is the more conservative and more religious side. Regardless of the parties’ positions on security issues, the left’s attitude toward tradition is complicated at best, while on the right it’s much more straightforward.

As Rabbi Shach wrote, “There have always been many transgressors of the commandments”, however, “this was done in a private way, not as a method” – that is, neither the left nor the right observes the prohibition against mixing milk and meat, but for parts of the left, it’s a matter of ideology. There’s a difference between one who does so to satisfy his appetite and one who does so to make others angry.

Thus, the Haredi parties are Likud’s “natural partners” not because of their attitude toward the Land of Israel, but because of a shared fondness for tradition (and also, these days, a tendency toward anti-liberalism). It’s not a dispute between hawks and doves, but between conservatives and progressives. The Haredi leaders may be capable of being as dovish as new Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz, but they will forever view the left as the flag bearer of secularism. Once it’s understood that this is the starting point for the Haredi world’s approach to politics, it’s clear that the Haredi parties’ first choice will always be the right. This is the basic situation, and no amount of flattery and groveling will change that.

At the same time, attacks from the center-left on the Haredim won’t hurt or “ruin” anything, because if the Haredi parties ever end up in a left-wing government, it will only be for lack of any other choice. When important interests lie in the balance, all hostility and insults are forgotten. We saw how even Bezalel Smotrich, when he wanted badly enough to be transportation minister, was able to tolerate Jews working on railway repairs on Shabbat.

The left-wing parties could do themselves a favor by recognizing this reality. Lapid has left behind the chapter in his political career in which he groveled to the Haredim, having seen that it had no effect on their positions. This certainly isn’t a call for incitement against the ultra-Orthodox, and it would certainly be best for the left not to promote an anti-religious stance and thereby fulfill the Haredim’s fears.

However, the government’s relations with the Haredi community must be restored to proper proportion. With Netanyahu, the Haredim had a blank check, and it was cashed at the taxpayers’ expense on the economic front, at the expense of relations with American Jewry on the diplomatic front, and on the social front at the expense of women who were discriminated against in academia, the army and the public space in general. The time has come to return to the principles of liberal democracy.

Published in the Haaretz op-ed page.

Tomer Persico

“The blog of one of the conference participants, Tomer Persico, has made him one of the most consistently interesting observers of Israeli religious life.”

Yehudah Mirsky, "Aquarius in Zion", Jewish Ideas Daily, 17.5.12

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