In an Age of Terror, How Thinking
Right Can Save the Left
By Richard Landes
November 24, 2015
Among the responses
in Israel to the Paris Terror Attacks, there has emerged a divide that
deserves attention. Depending on where you spend your political time, one or the
other response will appear predictable (and lamentable).
First, there are the
self-referential Zionists who think, as they did after the attacks of Sept. 11
and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and so many other moments: “Now,
maybe they’ll understand our plight, and realize we have the same enemies,”
and “We Israelis have a lot to teach you.” Their battle-hardened cousins
further to the right reply, “Don’t bother trying, they’re all anti-Semitic
and judge us by a double standard” or even “The West deserves what they’re
getting, as a punishment for their hypocrisy.”
On the other hand, we have those who
see this entire range of responses as distasteful, to say the least. Instead,
they urge an expression of sympathy and solidarity unclouded by words of
reproach, by displaying the French flag online as a way to declare #JeSuisFrançais.
It’s really not cool for Israelis to complain about a double standard at a
time like this, they scold. It’s not about us—it’s about France. As for
those people, like the prime minister, who compare ISIS
to Palestinian terrorists, they are engaging in a low
form of propaganda, trying to use the victims of other wars in other places
to wash away the sins of Israeli occupation.
In a deeply disturbing and
repeating 21st-century, paradox, however, the approach of Israel’s generous
and selfless ones has worked to the benefit of most regressive forces on the
planet—while on the contrary, the voice that awakening Europe needs most to
heed in the current crisis is that of those self-centered Israelis who relate
European woes to their own pain. The failure to understand this paradox explains
both why Western elites are so poor at resisting global jihad, and why, for a
disaffected youth—Muslim by birth or by choice—it makes sense to join that
jihad. Indeed, this split in Israeli discourse about the Paris attacks
illustrates the disproportionate impact of a peculiar Jewish dispute on the
current cognitive disorientation of the West.
But first, let’s explain our
terms. Let’s call the first response the tribalist
approach. It is centered on the self, preoccupied with defending family,
clan, group; suspicious by default of others, especially of strangers; and
easily rendered defensive by threatening behavior. Tribalists think in terms of
“us vs. them”; they treat “their own” differently from others, and when
they feel sufficiently threatened, they will lash out. They think of their own
pain and feel anger at hypocrisy (in this case against the French for their
15-year-long indifference to the pain of their
Jews). This mindset historically favors vengeful attitudes—“they deserve
it”—and rough justice.
Politically, these folks appear on
the “right” of our spectrum, and they remind us of historical periods when
people with power lacked empathy and used it cruelly, a political culture of rule
or be ruled, that democracies hope to have outgrown. Tribalists are the zero-sum folks:
“I only win if they lose,” and, “they only understand force.” Like Huntington,
one of their intellectual heroes, these tribalists tend to lookfor
enemies. They find reasons to be belligerent, to provoke war, they “invent
Let’s call the second response
the universalist: considerate of others, self-abnegating: “This is not about
Israel.” These are the positive-sum folks,
the ones who make friends, who build on trust, who come up with mutually
beneficial projects from which everyone profits, who look for the voluntary win-win rather
than the coercedwin-lose. They reject the selfish me first, the invidious us-them,
the tribal my side right or wrong.
These folks appear on the
“left” of our political spectrum. They empathize with the “other” and
embrace diversity. They can and want to trust. In renouncing the win-lose,
they become capable of granting dignity and freedom to others—the fundamental
social contract of a successful
egalitarian culture. They imagine themselves as inhabitants of a future diverse,
civil, and peaceful global community, where racism and xenophobia are no
This dichotomy between tribal and
universal sheds light on the current paradoxical situation in Europe, where the
most extraordinary cognitive disarray rules. Specifically, when it comes to
judging Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, Europeans have inverted vision.
And the ensuing radical cognitive disorientation contributes to a fatal
misreading of the forces Europeans themselves face.
By and large, the European
elites—journalists, academics, policy pundits, political class—are members
of the universalist camp. In their reading, Israelis are the zero-sum players.
They deserve the hostility of their neighbors; they have brought
uponthemselves the suicide bombings, the intifadas, and the deep hatreds.
They have done so with their settlements and occupation and humiliating
checkpoints and periodic bombing raids that kill hundreds of children and
thousands of innocent civilians.
They think the Israelis are
the tribal players here, needlessly but persistently humiliating their poor
Palestinian victims; that if Israel stopped constantly frustrating Palestinian
aspirations with their insistence on ruling over them and rather made noble
gestures, Israel would take a dramatic step toward that peace and make the world
a better place for all. Its refusal to so act, proves that Israel is
the greatest obstacle to peace, the great provoker of Palestinian grievance.
However lamentable, Palestinian hostility comes from an understandable reaction to
what Israel does to them.
Many a prominent Israeli,
especially among their cultural elites, shares this view. They embrace and
promote the story frame of the Israeli
Goliath crushing the poor Palestinian David. For them, the conflict with the
Palestinians has nothing to
do with the jihadi attacks on the West, and it’s offensive for
Israelis to complain about not being included among the victims of terrorism.
They believe that Palestinians have limited, national goals, and that once
Israelis stopped being so awful, Palestinians would stop hating them. They
fervently hold that this conflict is not a religious war about
eliminating the Jews from the
Waqf—holy trust—that goes from the river to the sea.
In order to think this way, of
course, one has to ignore a lot of important data, especially what Muslims say
to each other. And yet, despite its immediate relevance to the European
predicament, both Europeans, and many Israeli intellectuals, insist on ignoring
the basic terms of jihadi discourse. Like those who say, “ISIS is not
Islamic,” they turn a deaf ear to a discourse that is not theirs.
To universalists who wish to
understand just what kind of peril they—and their universal values—are in, I
would suggest that they might pay attention to the unmistakable voices of the hardest
of zero-sum thinking among Israel’s declared enemies. Here you find the
regressive, drive for “our” domination and “your” subjection, of gaining
honor from debasing the “other.” At their worst, such voices demonize and
dehumanize (devil, apes, and pigs). They appeal to the most megalomanic hopes
and paranoid fears of their audiences. They cultivate an irredentist hatred of
the “other.” And such voices permeate the discourse
of Palestinian hatred of Israel.
Now compare the tribal and
religious hatreds that target Israel with those that move the jihadis who
attacked Parisian nightlife this month, the United States on Sept. 11,
Barcelona, London, and who knows how many more places. How different are they?Here
we find the same raging sense of victimhood, the same call to
pre-emptive vengeance, arising from a firm conviction that one’s very self is
under attack, the belief that, if “we” do not exterminate our foe,
“they” will exterminate “us.” Here we find the same wanton attitude
toward human life, even one’s own: Muslim kills Muslim to kill infidels; Hamas
kills Gazans to rocket Israel.
At its most intense, we find in
both places, apocalyptic believers
for whom the current conflict is both existential and cosmic. They engage in a
pitiless war on evil, in which the enemy must be wiped out or subjected, lest
“they,” by their malevolent existence, destroy “our” faith. If you want
to touch the gold standard of genuine xenophobia, paranoia, and genocidal
hatreds, listen to what apocalyptic Muslims say
about the infidel.
In France, the motto is “padamalgam”:
Don’t lump the vast majority of innocent and peaceful Muslims with the tiny
minority of crazies who have hijacked their religion. But that move falls into
the equally problematic amalgam of all nonviolent Muslims as
moderates. Indeed, here’s the problem. The amalgam, “the vast majority of
nonviolent Muslims,” actually spans a great gamut of Muslim religiosities,
from those ready to live side-by-side in tolerance and peace with non-Muslims,
to enthusiastic but not public supporters of the jihadis.
The key to distinguishing within
this “vast majority” between genuine moderates and covert jihadis is to
identify what one might call “triumphalist” Islam.
If “religiosity” represents a
way of “living” one’s religion, triumphalism represents that form of
religiosity that needs to assert visible dominance in order to prove the
validity of its claims about God and especially claims to being God’s
favorite. Many a patristic theologian argued that the “Conversion
of the Roman Empire” proved the superiority of Christianity over paganism,
philosophy, and Judaism. The use of power to impose religious truth—crusades
and inquisition, permitted by this “triumph,” was not undone until the
American Constitution when, for the first time in Christian history, tolerance
was a winner’s creed.
When conquering Muslims built
empires based in Damascus and Baghdad, Sharia, and especially that governing
the behavior of dhimmi (non-Muslims), legislated an inequality that
honored Muslims and disgraced those who were stubborn enough to reject the true
faith. All jihadis are triumphalists; not all triumphalists are jihadis; and not
all Muslims are triumphalists.
Europeans who bother to inform
themselves about their and Israel’s
enemies will find the same zealous hatred of infidels, the same misogynistic
fear of difference, of otherness, of dissent, of contradiction, a fear of the
very possibility of humiliation at the hands of someone who should be
inferior, like women and infidels, the same deep discomfort at the very thought
of equal treatment for infidels and the faithful.
They will find the same shrill
insistence on a triumphalist Islam that proves the truth of its claims
to superiority over all other faiths, by dominating and subjecting recalcitrant
infidels, by humiliating,
and, where necessary exterminating those who
threaten their superiority.
The hatred these triumphalist
Muslims feel for the “Zionist Entity” comes not from Israel’s
unwillingness to compromise, not because of settlements and occupation since
’67, but because any
territory in Dar al Islam where infidels have sovereignty, constitutes
an unbearable blasphemy. And triumphalist Muslims, everywhere, share this
hostility to autonomous infidels, the contempt, the desire to spread dar al
Islam to hold dominion, to raise up a triumphant Islam by debasing and
subjecting the West.
This triumphalism explains why
Israel is a peculiar variant on the more extensive jihadi hostility to infidels.
Most threatening of all to this kind of religiosity, tiny Israel’s ability to
resist being obliterated constitutes the supreme modern sacrilege to the
triumphalist’s notion of Allah. Triumphalist Muslims, humiliated more
generally by the modern success of infidels since
Napoleon, have experienced repeated humiliation since 1948 by Israel and the
United States. In their mind, global jihad means that, at last, now, is the
time for the apocalyptic
hadith enshrined in theHamas
charter, about a final war of extermination on the Jews, when the Jews will
flee and hide, and the rocks and trees will call out to Muslims to denounce the
Jew hiding behind them. And although that particular hadith does not
go on to discuss what happens next, the larger apocalyptic scenario sees the
elimination of the Jews as a prelude to subjugating the rest of the infidels.
From this critical perspective,
ISIS and Hamas are part of the same jihad against the West—maybe differing in
their stage of development, their circumstances, their leadership, their
life-destroying strategies, but essentially the same in their triumphalist
belief in Islam’s destiny to rule the earth, and their role in violently
bringing about that destiny. They share a hatred and contempt for infidels of
all kinds—dhimmi, apostates, blasphemers, pagans, ignoramuses. They share the
the same sense of victimization,
the same sense of existential threat, the same sense that they defend the true
faith by taking vengeance on those who mock the Prophet.
People who insist that Hamas
and ISIS have nothing to do with each other give global jihad an
enormous boon: They disguise Hamas by presenting it as a movement for national
liberation even as it fans the flames of global jihad. In so doing, many
Westerners think they help the Palestinian cause, when in fact they empower a
leadership that willingly sacrifices ordinary Palestinians to advance its cause,
and at the same time, empower the global jihadis by running
their Palestinian propaganda as news, and reinforcing a collective sense
of victimization. Instead of recoiling from the horror, the more
sincere—Western “progressives” shout “We
are Hamas.” And those Israelis who rush to assure the global community
that people who argue, as I have above, are just trying to hide their own crimes
against the Palestinians, effectively blind those who listen to their counsel to
a shared foe of all decent people—Muslim, Jew, Christian, and secular, alike.
When Western Europeans opened
their gates to receive a rapid influx of hundreds of thousands even millions of
Muslims fleeing the madness that ruled in their homelands, it stunned those of
us who see Islamic radicalism as a real and global threat. Who, knowing the
cultural and demographic dynamics, would imagine that Europe would throw its
gates open to a massive wave of largely male
Muslimimmigration? How many of these newcomers, who made it into Europeundocumented,
would, we thought, immediately disappear into those “non-existent”no-go
zones and provide a powerful reinforcement to the jihadi presence
already there? How many more, stuck in refugee camps, would offer a perfect recruiting
ground for the caliphate? Indeed, among other things, the recent attack
in Paris reflects how much these reinforcements have increased their confidence.
As more and more people realize, this massive influx of newcomers—refugees,
migrants, jihadis—is a catastrophe for civil society in Western Europe.
And yet, far from thinking they
were committing cultural suicide, the Europeans perceived themselves as saving
their humanity, their commitment to universalist values, their compassion.
In their minds they were giving succor to a wave of desperate refugees, showing
their universalist values
for the Holocaust). In this they were systematically encouraged, not only by
mediabut also by their elected officials. All these players resonated to the
progressive and redemptive call to make a grand and compassionate gesture that
hostile relations with Muslims into peaceful ones. The Universalists,
unaware of whom they dealt with, welcomed into their safe spaces, tribalist
Earlier this month I was slated to
speak on a panel
sponsored by a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons on the BBC.
After the public announcement, Ben White, an activist journalist, published a
piece on how an MP was about to appear on a panel with a known Eurabian
conspiracy thinker: Me. His major proof was a remark I made in 2007 at a
European democratic civilization
can fall before the Islamic challenge. Do not say that this will never happen in
Europe and that Islam will not be able to take control of Europe. If Europe
continues its current path, the fall will be sooner.
This remark, amply supported by
events during the following eight years, and which today I would only amend by
adding “triumphalist” to modify “Islamic challenge,” was sufficient to
frighten a pro-Israel MP into bumping me from the panel. White’s article had
caused him “considerable embarrassment,” he noted in explanation for his
decision. One thinks fondly of A Fish Called Wanda, in which Archie
(John Cleese) describes to the American Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) Brits’
greatest fear: “You see, Wanda, we’re all terrified of embarrassment.
That’s why we’re so … dead.” A Britain in which warning about the plans
of global jihadis to bring Dar al Islam to where Dar al Harb used
to be, can so embarrass one’s associates that they cringe, is a Europe, which,
because it cannot even identify the enemy, cannot figure out how to fight back.
What has this got to do with the
two Jewish-Israeli responses with which I began this discussion? Ironically, it
suggests that those tribal Jews/Israelis that Europe deplores are fighting not
only for themselves, but for a decent democratic and egalitarian culture the
world over, against a deeply regressive, triumphalist Islam. The
“left-wing” Israeli responses that disdain tribalism, and promote lofty
universalist values, dismiss this Israeli tribal voice as paranoid,
conspiracy-minded, xenophobic, Islamophobic. Yet, in so doing, they contribute
to the cognitive disorientation of the outside nations and peoples. In their
eagerness to confess Israel’s sins, to consider Palestinians innocent and
Israel guilty, they shield outsiders from hearing the much harsher jihadi voice
that explicitly targets not just Israel but them.
minister of Sweden or the head of the socialist
party in the Netherlandsshows just how powerfully this cognitive
disorientation has Europeans in its thrall. Responding to events in Paris, they
did not make reference to the problems inSweden and Holland,
all of them a function of their own ever-more aggressive, triumphalist Muslim
fringe. Instead they invoked the contribution of Israel to the
frustration of Palestinian Muslims, apparently in the empirically contradicted
hope that dumping on Israel will improve rather than further damage their own
When those who wish for peace are
not prepared for war, not even cognitive war, when they ignore the Roman dictum si
vis pacem para bellum, then they bring about a war they will lose. Bellum
efficiunt, et pacem volentes.
Do we, as Jews and Israelis,
beneficiaries of, and contributors to, free and democratic societies the world
over, really want to contribute to the catastrophic disorientation that now,
astonishingly, rules the discourse of free nations? Or are we ready to set
aside, at least momentarily, our universalist self-abnegation, and help people
of good will everywhere understand our plight, which is also theirs?