Messianic mysticism & blind pseudo-heroism

Netanyahu and the Mystics of Safed

By Carlo Strenger, 15:38 17.06.11

Future historians looking back at Israel in 2011 will shake their heads with disbelief. They will note that there were voices of reason who called for constructive engagement with the Arab world; that these voices included some of the great luminaries of Israel’s defense establishment like former Shin Bet chiefs Yaakov Peri and Ami Ayalon, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, former IDF chief Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and General (Res) Amram Mitzna. They will write about their Israeli Peace Initiative of 2011 that basically endorsed the Arab League Initiative.

They will also note, with great interest, that a former Mossad chief known for his daring tactics, Meir Dagan, certainly not suspect of being a soft-headed liberal intellectual, also called for Israel’s engaging with the Arab League peace initiative, while warning about the stupidity of attacking Iran militarily. They will point out that the reaction of one minister was to call for legal action against Dagan instead of trying to take Dagan’s words seriously.

What was Netanyahu doing during that time? He gathered his coalition in Safed, the town that was in the headlines, because Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu has made a name for himself with ever more extreme statements against Arabs. The coalition MKs ended their weekend singing the song based on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s text ‘The whole world is but a narrow bridge; the essence is not to be afraid’.

Our future historians will have to try to understand why Israel’s government and lawmakers preferred to huddle together in Safed singing against fear instead of engaging with the outside world in constructive attempts to safeguard Israel’s existence for the future; why they didn’t listen to President Shimon Peres’ warning that without a peace agreement with the Palestinians, Israel will cease being a Jewish and democratic country.

Peres, the historians will write, had good reasons to be worried: the one thing you couldn’t get out of Netanyahu, Lieberman, Yaalon and the rest of Israel’s government was an intelligible vision for Israel’s future. They went into trance-like state; much closer, indeed, to the mystics of Safed who wrote great works of Kabbala in the 16th century. Some of those are of haunting beauty – but the mystics of Safed didn’t have to run a country.

The current government’s disconnection from the world indeed has much in common with the psychology of religious sects that become so convinced of their own truth, that they no longer care about the world at large. Theirs is a state of mind that prefers mystical vision and misguided pseudo-heroism of staring down the whole world to pragmatic politics. Hence the Cabinet is now about to revoke Ehud Barak’s veto right on construction in the West Bank: intoxicated with their dream of the Greater Israel, they no longer want any impediments to their messianic vision.

Future historians will point out that Netanyahu liked to think of himself as Israel’s Churchill, but that his state of mind seemed much closer to Bar Kochba, who led the uprising in the second century CE against the Romans that ended with the violent death of more than half a million Jews. The historians might point out that Netanyahu might have been overly influenced by a children’s song that says ‘Bar Kochba was a hero … the whole people loved him’, and that he forgot that later Talmudic generations saw Bar Kochba as one of Jewish history’s great catastrophes.

In other words: Netanyahu & Co have indeed created an atmosphere in which Bar Kochba and Masada have more reality than the EU, the UN, the Arab League and the rest of the world. The country seems to buy into their mythology that the world is out there to get us, and that, as Netanyahu has finally said clearly, the Israel-Palestine conflict is insoluble.

Living in 2011, we do not know what the future will look like. We do not know whether Netanyahu and Lieberman will, as Peres worries, destroy the Zionist dream of a Jewish and democratic country; or whether, after useless years of international isolation, Israel will regain a government with pragmatic goals that will save the country.

Such a pragmatic government will not be elected anytime soon. Netanyahu and Lieberman have been quite successful in frightening most Israelis out of their wits: a recent poll commissioned by the right-leaning Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs showed that 77 % of Israelis are against returning to pre-1967 lines even if this would lead to a peace agreement and declarations by Arab states of an end to their conflict with Israel.

Messianic mysticism and the blind pseudo-heroism of Bar Kochba have gripped Israel’s imagination. We must hope that the results will not be as catastrophic, and that history will not repeat itself. or or

Photograph of Jim Jones and work crew in Guyana (source unknown): or or

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