Machla Abramowitz interviewed me in Mischpacha magazine. It was initially done as coverage of a talk I gave in Montreal on BDS and Cogwar (definitions posted here), but mutated into a much more complex discussion of messianism and the progressive left. The (slightly) longer version I post below may clarify some of the obscurities in my published responses.
For anyone interested in a more extensive discussion of the unfortunate convergence of progressive left and jihadi millennialism, see “Progressive and Jihadi Movements in Action: A Study in Interacting Millennial Currents in the Early 3rd Millennium (2000-2020).”
Mishpacha Magazine, 29 Cheshvan, 5777.
They believe in the coming of a messianic epoch, one in which humanity will unite and peace and justice will reign. Their enemies are conservatives and traditionalists, or those who fail to comprehend the arc of history and humanity’s final destiny.
No, they’re not an apocalyptic cult hatching a plot in a South American jungle hideout, but modern progressives who subscribe to the idea of “millennialism.”
Richard Landes, a former professor of Medieval Studies at Boston University, and currently the senior fellow with the Center of International Communication at Bar Ilan University, is one of their leading critics. For decades, Landes has been studying the phenomenon of millennialism, or the belief that a messianic era of justice, peace and abundance is coming soon, often preceded by a massive disruptive (apocalyptic) event. Now, with the election of Donald J. Trump and the protests that have exploded nationwide, the world is witness to many expressions of millennialism, and, as is common, to disappointed expectations. The arc of history that bends towards justice has lurched into reverse.
“Those who are protesting his election are not only criticizing Trump, but his supporters, who they dismiss as undereducated ‘deplorables’ who love their guns and their religion,” says Landes, who came to observant Judaism as an adult. “[To their way of thinking, Trump supporters] are mere offshoots of the Middle Ages. Whereas Hillary Clinton supporters have advanced beyond that.” Messianic progressives pursue a lofty, civilizational evolution towards a redemptive global cosmopolitanism.
Were it only an academic meme, this kind of millennialism wouldn’t much concern the Jewish community. But in the 21st century, Western messianic progressives have joined their fellow millennial dreamers, global Jihadis, and embraced a common apocalyptic narrative with an ultimate enemy – Israel.
“BDS is essentially a cognitive war (cogwar) campaign of Caliphaters — active (apocalyptic) millennialists who believe that Islam will dominate the world, and who consider the destruction of Israel as a strategic goal on the path to a global caliphate. They have managed to team up with the global progressive left, who have been duped into thinking that Israel is the cause of the world’s woes,” said Landes, who recently delivered the keynote address at the Montreal-based Canadian Institute of Jewish Research’s (CIJR) conference on “BDS and the Campus Delegitimization of Israel.”
“That’s the folly of the progressives: to side with the most regressive messianic movement on the planet against one of the most progressive countries in the world. Morally speaking, it’s just breathtaking.”
Landes is perhaps best known as the man who helped expose the al Durah hoax and coined the term “Pallywood” (Palestinian Hollywood). At the start of the second intifada, a young Palestinian named Mohammed al Durah was allegedly shot to death by the Israeli army and died in his father’s arms. His death throes were captured by France 2 TV and became an iconic image of Palestinian victimhood. “This image represented the moment when Islamic apocalyptic discourse about the genocidal Israelis who intentionally kill Palestinian children, was mainstreamed in the Western media,” says Landes, who also serves as the chairman of the council of scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. This sentiment was all the more horrendous given that Mohammad’s death was a fake. When I looked into it, I was amazed by the widespread use of footage staged by Palestinians, run as news by Western journalists.
The son of Professor David Landes, a renowned Harvard economic historian, Landes’ personal journey marked a departure not only from the secular intellectualism of his youth toward observant Judaism (he was inspired by Rabbi Joseph Leibowitz in the 1980s, while living in Berkeley, California), but later departed from former friends and colleagues within academia, whose “liberal cognitive ego-centrism,” Landes laments, “made it almost impossible to understand difference, historical, contemporary. Everyone was at heart a liberal, like them.” This mindset, Landes acknowledges, continues to affect his relationships with friends and colleagues. “Since 2000, there has been a steady decline in the number of academics I talk with, work with, and exchange ideas with.”
When asked, Landes tries to help university-aged students fight the cognitive war that is currently being waged,on today’s campuses, and which the democrats and Zionists are losing to the Caliphaters and “progressives.”
The concept of millennialism — the belief in a coming Utopia — features greatly in your work. Heaven on Earth, deals comprehensively with this subject. Please explain what this is and why it is such an important subject for today’s university students to understand and appreciate?
Millennialism is the idea that someday the world will be perfected. No more evil, injustice, war, suffering; instead peace, abundance, joy. Its concepts, for the good and the bad, permeate our culture in multiple ways, which needn’t be religious. Communism, today’s global progressivism, are both based on a radical egalitarian millennial idea. When not revolutionary, it tends toward transformational millennialism, that is a gradual, nonviolent change that occurs because people’s awareness changes. Modern progressives start from what Pirkei Avos tells us: the toil is long and it’s not up to us to relinquish it, or finish it. For them, this is the time to finish it.
This millennialism activated by a sense of apocalyptic imminence can get darker. Fueled by a sense that the world is unbearably evil and corrupt, some believers hold that now is the time for evil to vanish from the earth. For many apocalyptic millennialists, the process will be cataclysmic: vast destruction (of evil) precedes the victory (of good). In passive scenarios, like Christian Rapture, G-d is the major agent of this destruction: in active ones, like global Jihad, the believer is the major agent, G-d’s weapon of destruction.
ISIS is a Sunni Muslim millennialist movement with an active cataclysmic scenario. They believe in the establishment of a global caliphate and are willing to kill and be killed to establish it. Some Shiites also share this desire to bring on this messianic age, paving the way for the “hidden Imam” to emerge. And when that doesn’t happen on its own, apocalyptic zealots are not averse to suicidal action that will force the hand of G-d, in this case the Mahdi to come to their rescue. So when Secretary of State John Kerry, in his liberal cognitive egocentrism, states that the Iranian leaders are rational and would never do anything to bring on their own destruction (like nuke Israel) he misunderstands.
Do you attribute this lack of understanding to the inability of the secular mindset to comprehend the religious mindset?
In large part. It’s especially true of academics, who are more likely to be non-religious or even hostile to religion than the average person. The Western mind is irreligious, but it’s messianic. That’s a particularly feckless combination.
Where, within this spectrum, does Jewish messianic thought fall?
We have built up over the course of 2000 years very strong firewalls over what I call apocalyptic outbreaks (as we see now with Caliphaters). Repeated and disastrous experience with false messiahs have imparted to Jews a healthy caution. Even though we long for the coming of Mashiach, and believe he can arrive at any time, we don’t change our lives dramatically in anticipation of his arrival. However intensely we may try to bring on the messianic era, we keep our demands for divine intervention low, and try not to burn bridges in a leap of faith into apocalyptic time.
Regarding progressivism, we share their strong social-justice and egalitarian dimension. But observant Jews believe we have to work to make the world a better place, and leave worldwide redemption to G-d. Most progressives don’t believe in G-d. They believe it’s all in our hands. Therefore, their approach is more aggressive. That’s also why they have this crazy notion that if they just push their progressive values harder and run over any opposition, then the arc of history will bend in the direction of the fulfillment of their expectations of a world without war or borders, a world with abundance, equality, and justice. Imagine all the people…
You seem to feel that millennial ideas among progressives represent dangers to the West and to Israel. Why is that?
One way is through the adoption of self-destructive millennial memes. Memes are the cultural equivalent of genes that replicate, except they go by from mind to mind. Like genes, their concern is not necessarily the welfare of the particular mind they inhabit, but to multiply and spread. Progressive academics are invaded by some memes that actually threaten our ability to survive as a society: “War is not the answer,” or “Violence never solved anything,” or “Prepare to live in a world with open borders,” as Secretary of State Kerry told a graduating class. Of course war should never be a first option; but war has proved to be the only option on many occasions, as has violence, unfortunately. In time of conflict such wishful thinking, becomes self-destructive. The same thing with breaking down borders. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not. A time for everything, not a messianic tidal wave in favor of openness.
Another meme: President Obama’s language about the “arc of history that bends toward justice,” often understood as equality. The problem with that is that history works in very bizarre ways, has ups and downs. There were people who were using that kind of language before the Nazis hit the scene. Chamberlain was a member of Peace Now.
Furthermore, when progressives speak of global warming and nuclear destruction, they use what students of millennialist studies call “avertive apocalypticism.” We are faced with TEOTWAWKI (The end of the world as we know it), and that calls for an evolutionary leap on our parts to avert this apocalyptic catastrophe. There is nothing more motivating than believing that if you don’t act, the world will be destroyed; or, alternatively, if you don’t act, the wrong side will win the war between good and evil. The danger with apocalyptic rhetoric is that it’s useful for getting people on board, but should the threat prove to be inaccurate or exaggerated, it is just as easily dismissed as cryng wolf, harming the movement, and sending disappointed believers searching for new allies in their cosmic quest.
Have these same memes infiltrated Muslim societies, as well?
They have their own apocalyptic memes, not nearly so high-minded. But they certainly appreciate the value of Western memes of openness and respect for the “other.” Whether Sunni or Shiite, those who believe that in this generation, Islam will fulfill its destiny and establish a worldwide caliphate, view open borders and the internet as perfect vehicles for spreading their ideology and way of life. The West might destroy ISIS, but not the dream of a worldwide caliphate, and we will continue to see waves of attacks coming from those quarters as long as we do not tackle the triumphalist ideology spurring on these attacks. For Caliphaters, Western-wrought globalization is the Mahdi’s donkey, the vehicle for their success, the Praeparatio Califatae.
Triumphalism, a concept that is foreign to Judaism, asserts the the exercising power over others proves the superiority of one’s religion. This triumphalism explains why Caliphaters hate Israel and Jews so much. After all, it’s unbelievably humiliating that this tiny people who in the history of Islam were at the bottom of the dhimmi totem pole, should not only defeat mighty Arab armies, but survive and flourish where Dar al Islam once was. If the West had any sense of self-preservation, they would tell Muslims to accept Israel as a test of their ability to tolerate independent infidels. We are not only the best enemies you can have (not much on vengeance), but also the best of friends (good hakarat hatov).
Why is the West not doing that?
Partly from fear. It’s easier to gang up on Israel than make demands on Muslim leaders. But also partly from what French philosopher Pascal Bruckner calls the “tyranny of penitence, or guilt.” On some level, some of us think we have it coming. We in the West have this self-critical tradition: that’s how we rejected slavery, and legal inequality, and monarchy, how we developed academia, science and modern democracies. The ability to self-criticize is one of the greatest strengths of Judaism. But today it’s pushed to a pathological extreme by people with a masochistic omnipotence complex: it’s all our fault and if only we could be better, we could fix everything.
For example, today, some Jews believe that if only we could make ourselves better, the world will accept us with open arms. The Israeli left is exceptionally good at doing that. Why didn’t Camp David or Oslo work? “Because we, Israel, didn’t give enough.” Not because Palestinians leaders never had any intention of making peace with us. So you have progressives in Israel screaming for Palestinian rights when there isn’t an Arab in the Arab world who has the kind of rights that even an Arab in the West Bank has. And if you point that out, they make unconsciously racist remarks like, “I don’t care what the Arabs do. I don’t compare us with them.” And in the end, with their aggressive perfectionism, they side with people who have contempt for human rights – merciful to the cruel, cruel to the merciful.
In light of this movement towards Utopianism, how do you understand Donald J. Trump’s election and the backlash we are seeing on American streets?
I see his election as a repudiation of the kind of messianic progressivism that President Obama and much of the news media reflect, which shows contempt towards any “tribal” tendencies among Americans, but appeases much worse tendencies in the Muslim world. If only we would be nice to Caliphaters like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian government, they would be nice to us. Those kinds of fantasies have been rejected by this vote. Not that those who harbor these fantasies feel rebuked; many cling still harder to their promises.
Why the vehemence of [the protesters’] response? One of the terms used in millennialist studies is cognitive dissonance, meaning the situation you are in when the real world doesn’t conform to your hopes. Trump has reversed the arc of history, and disappointed their millennial expectations. So we get violence from the very people who are so sensitive that they cry when their safe spaces have been invaded?! What they are essentially saying is: “I am on the right side of history and Donald Trump’s election has just reversed that triumphal procession. And I can’t handle that.” Things will be getting worse.
Given all these challenges on campuses and beyond, what should supporters of Israel be doing to prevail?
The rules as they exist on campus today are stacked against them. It’s important to identify the people pushing dangerous memes as well as their weaknesses. Someone who feels an overwhelming need to shame you because you support Israel, that person is afraid of being shamed himself. Understand your foe; empathy is not sympathy. Learn to understand the mind of your foe: think in terms of infidels. This is a great and worthy battle for free Jews (Israel) and for free people everywhere, no matter what their religion. Infidels of the world (and Muslims who can live at peace with free infidels) unite!
It’s equally important to understand that we are badly misinformed by a progressive left with a powerful voice in both academia and the media. What we witness today is a marriage between pre-modern sadism and post-modern masochism. The pre-modern sadists are the jihadis who have this hatred of free infidels, who accuse us of terrible things (many of which they do and want to do). They have joined forces with post-modern masochists who respond by saying “al het shechatanu.” Dangerous combo.
As for Trump and his followers (among whom we find purveyors of other apocalyptic and millennial memes), if they are not careful, they will not only fail to stop to this madness, but make things worse. What we need is a sober, realistic, and compassionate imagination to deal with this generation-long crisis.