A new book crystallizes how modern societies delude themselves in their confrontation with pre-modern ones.
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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Stephen Schecter, Ph. D, a sociologist, poet, lecturer and performance artist. A retired university professor, he specializes in telling stories from the Hebrew Bible and offering analyses of contemporary issues using perspectives derived from Niklas Luhmann's systems theory. He has delighted audiences across North America with his readings, lectures, and performances, and is available to speak to an audience in your area. Contact: [email protected] or 604-676-9697. He is the author of the new book, Grasshoppers in Zion: Israel and the Paradox of Modernity.
FP: Stephen Schecter, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Let’s begin with how and why you wrote your new book. How is it different from everything else that has been written about the situation of Israel and the Middle East?
Schecter: Thanks Jamie.
There are two unique aspects to my book. One is that I explain why so many otherwise intelligent people, Jew and non-Jew alike, continue to misread the situation, continue to advocate for a two-state solution, and continue to avoid holding the Palestinians accountable for the mess that exists. I explain this in terms of the blind spot that comes as a result of living in a modern society, whose political form is a democracy. Modern society engenders expectations that favor tolerance, inclusion, compromise. It teaches people to put themselves in the place of the other. It fosters the idea that society is made up of people and all people are equal and want basically the same things, share the same aspirations. This makes it difficult for modern societies to understand traditional societies which operate on opposing principles and to accept that what they say is what they truly want. Hence the failure of the West to take seriously that the expectations generated by the Arab Muslim world, a society based on kinship and cemented by Islam - that the West is infidel, promiscuous, decadent and deserving of obliteration - are exactly that.
Israel, being a democracy, continues to delude itself that there is a peace process. The West does not take Ahmadinejad and company seriously. It does not believe the Muslim Brotherhood seeks what it says it does. And so on. Israel and the West continue to delude themselves because they are blinded by the operating principles of democracy that are not accurate descriptions of how democracy works, but are nonetheless functional for operating within a democratic society. This is a paradox to which few are immune.
The second novel aspect of my book is that I trace the failure of Israeli policy not only to this paradox, Israel being a democracy like America, but also to a millennial behavior pattern going back to the Bible wherein Jews have consistently failed to assume the mantle of national sovereignty. To put it in a nutshell, the Jews have not only not left Egypt, they haven't even made it out of the Book of Genesis.
FP: I am especially intrigued by what you mean that the Jews have not only not left Egypt, but haven't even made it out of the Book of Genesis. But before we get to that, first, tell us what exactly a modern society is and how we can best defend it.
Schecter: Modern society is a functionally differentiated society, not a hierarchical one. This means that every sphere of social life is autonomous of every other. Money can't buy you love, nor an election, but it can buy you flowers and lawyers. Each sphere guarantees its operative independence by having its own valued resource circulate according to its own code. For example, money circulates in the economic sphere according to whether you are solvent or insolvent. If you have money or access to it via credit you can participate in it. Not having it does not deprive you of falling in love, nor of voting. As a corollary, more and more people are drawn into social activity of every kind. All this makes for a very complex society, but also a very rich and powerful one, and more inclusive and flexible. It is also a problem driven society as opposed to a morally driven one. It is capable of infinite expansion and greater internal differentiation, which is how it responds to problems. Its own internal dynamic poses the risk of overload, but that is an internal problem which for now seems to have produced its own, albeit complex solutions.
The Israeli-Arab conflict illustrates what happens when a modern society is threatened by an external enemy whose dynamic is pre-modern. The West had to deal with such threats already in the form of fascism and communism. The answer proved in the end to be military, and all the more so because the democracies did not initially take the threat seriously. The Arab Muslim world is in no position right now to take on Israel and the West militarily, but failure on our part to deal adequately with the threat they now pose through state sponsored terrorism, diplomatic warfare, immigration, ideological indoctrination and long-term relentless preparation for confrontation will eventually force a military confrontation.
We could defend modern society by holding the Arab Muslim world to account on the terrain of global society, which itself is modern, not traditional. This means making the societies in that part of the world pay for their trampling of human rights, their abuse of international forums, their lying and vitriolic attacks on Israel and the West. It means not supporting them with money and arms. And in the case of Israel, it means recognizing there is no peace process, only an enemy that has to be vanquished and made to pay for a hundred years of murder and mayhem. Which means no Palestinian state, Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, and in my books Gaza as well. And full western backing for this policy, which would, for America, have been a lot cheaper than wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to modernize societies that do not want to be modern, not yet at any rate.
FP: Why do you think the Jews been so reluctant to act as a sovereign nation? Why the addiction to the delusion that the Palestinians will be their partner in peace?
Schecter: The Jews have been modern for a very long time. Ancient Israel was the first multi-cultural society in antiquity. That's why it was a seedbed society of the West. So the Jews, in and outside of Israel, suffer from the same blind spots as other people living in modern democracies. But in addition to this they have their particular psychology as old as the Bible. When given the Ten Commandments they said they will do and they will listen, but before Moses had brought the two tablets down from Sinai in stone they had already broken the first one. Time after time Moses subsequently warned them that the one thing above all else they were to do when they got to the Promised Land and conquered it was to tear down the groves of the heathens, smash their idols and expel them from the land, lest they be corrupted in turn. But they did not listen and Ancient Israel was riven by the constant temptations of Baal worship. This was not just the rivalry of two Gods, but a question of what kind of society was going to play itself out.
The purpose of the Exodus was Sinai and the purpose of Sinai was to build a law-driven society in ancient Israel, unique for the world at that time. Moloch worship, the casting of children into the fire, was symbolic of all that was opposed to a law-driven society. The Jews did not listen and we lost two commonwealths. Today we still do not listen. The Palestinians engage in Moloch worship, epitomized in the education and enlistment of children into martyr worship and suicide attacks against Jews and Israel, and this has no effect on Israeli or Western policy. To quote the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, the Jews are people of remembering and forgetting, but it seems we remember and forget the wrong things.
FP: Crystallize for us the main blind spots of democracies and why they so badly misread adversarial cultures such as Palestinian society. Why are they so reluctant to hold their enemies accountable?
Schecter: I alluded to this in my response to your first question. Modern society is the first society that defines itself as universal in the name of self-evident truths about the God-given and natural equality of all human beings. See, for example, the American Declaration of Independence. Pre-modern societies do no such things. They are organized on the difference of hierarchy. Some people count, like those at the top of the totem pole - the aristocracy in the case of monarchical regimes. Or members of your kinship group in tribal societies. The others, those outside the valued group, do not. Hence in Syria, the government, which is controlled by the Alawites, does not consider it is killing its own citizens, because the latter belong to different kinship groups and rival sects. The latter are expendable from the viewpoint of the former.
Only to us is this situation intolerable, because we look at Syria through the eyes of a modern democracy, unable to see that the normal conduct of business in Syria has nothing to do with the expectations of a modern state. So when we confront conflict in pre-modern societies and evaluate their behavior, the best we can come up with, it seems, is to designate their unacceptable and unmodern behavior as crazy and irrational. And when you do that you excuse it. Or else think that there must somehow be a reason for it, even something we have done, as the more powerful element in the equation, to elicit it. That's how we treat irrational behavior in our societies, so that's how we treat it abroad. And so, to return to the Arab-Israeli conflict, Israel has internalized the idea that somehow the Palestinians are victims of Zionist success and also the idea that there is something Israel can do to bring the Palestinians to the table of compromise.
After all, they are people too, are they not? And the subtext is: people just like us. To which is added the other modern rider that there is no problem that does not have a solution. These two premises are exactly what Yossi Beilin, the architect of the Oslo accords, continues to say to justify that monumental blunder. Of course, the Palestinians are people just like us in the sense that they have 46 chromosomes and red blood, but they are not people just like us when it comes to the societal expectations with which they operate.
Paradoxically, though modern societies slowly learn that power is inadequate to change individual behavior when individuals do not want to change, they have not learned that lesson when confronting pre-modern societies. Nor
have they learned, it seems, that the real problems in life may not have solutions.
One more aspect to this situation worth noting: Because modern democracies thrive on reform, and reform thrives on the assumption that the fault for what is wrong lies with the powerful, they also project onto any society that picture of the world. Now this picture is not an adequate picture of how democracies actually reform themselves, but it does fuel protest in the West. And so when we see similar situations of inequality and protest elsewhere, we project these assumptions onto our reading of that situation. Hence the Obama administration's totally inaccurate claims about the meaning of Tahrir Square and the final result of those events, which is none other than the Muslim Brotherhood running Egypt with the United States government excusing it and even approving it as the outcome of democracy! A similar dynamic governs the reading of the Palestinians, facts to the contrary, which affects western chancelleries, the Israeli Foreign Ministry and half of the Israeli population.
FP: Share your thoughts with us on the Left leading the West in looking for moderates in the enemy camp where there are none.
Schecter: First of all, we should understand that the endless quest for the moderate is itself a function of the way media operate in a modern society and, paradoxically, of the way we think about conflict, however inaccurately, in our society. The job of the media is to thematize what is salient for consideration by society, as something worth deciding and acting upon. The media do this by presenting the news which they have to simplify, if only because of time constraints.
One way to do this is to present issues in binary form: yes or no, moderate or extremist. Also, if we can find a moderate where there seem to be only extremists, then the problem may have a solution. And we like solutions to problems, so we look for moderates even where there are none. Secretary Clinton called Assad a moderate not too long ago. Either she was delusional and/or misinformed, but even if both, she may also have been caught in the blind spot of modernity which she so obviously embraces. After all, we teach our children not to be extremist. The courts teach us not to be extremist. We learn through everyday life not to give into road rage, sexual jealousy, and other extreme forms of behavior. The passions do not disappear, but the way we deal with them change as a result of societal expectations of what is acceptable conduct. That is why modernity, not just commerce, civilizes. And so we seek everywhere for moderation. It is the universalizing thrust of modernity.
The Left has a particular responsibility for this misunderstanding and delusion shared by our elites, because the Left, starting in academia, clings to a totally inaccurate description of modern society. In fact, the analysis it teaches and promotes is based on a pre-modern, hierarchical society, down to the concept of revolution. Channeled through Marx and his acolytes, the analysis considers all social relations to be the result of unequal power, ultimately mediated by class, but the analysis can unhinge itself from class as well and even find surrogates for it. This picture is only the mirror image of a class-divided society, and that went out with the ancien régime. In its frenzied search for the oppressed, the Left seeks to reinforce its own position as the last class standing, one that refuses to accept the name but acts every bit like one.
Leftists regard themselves as the possessors of some arcane knowledge destined to improve the lot of humanity itself, who will spare no effort at deconstruction in order to ferret out the man with the hoe whose sorry lot justifies their analysis. And so they turn terrorists into militants, extremists into moderates, democrats into villains, much to their own satisfaction and those of their intellectual allies who staff those areas of society that tell us our stories. Their position is totally delusional, for it recognizes no disappointment, and whatever disappointment reality brings is only fodder for a revamped analysis. And so just like Robespierre, they claim there are good protesters and bad ones, good extremists and bad ones.
Hence Israel is a theocracy or on the border of becoming one, but a Muslim Brotherhood controlled Egypt or Wahabi Saudi Arabia are not worthy of comment. And Israel is an apartheid state, but Abbas' declaration that in an independent Palestine not one Jew will be permitted to reside is not even worthy of a passing observation. Pathetic. Paradoxically pathetic, but also toxic, for bad ideas circulate every bit as good ones and cause inordinate damage.
FP: Why “grasshopper” in the title?
Schecter: “Grasshoppers” refers to the word the Israelite scouts used when asked by Moses to go up and spy out the land before the Jews undertook their campaign of conquest of the land of Canaan subsequent to receiving the Law at Sinai. The scout party returned with a glowing report of the land, but balked at taking up arms, for they said that there were walled cities in the land, and giants too, and they felt like grasshoppers in their own eyes and so they must have seemed to the giants as well. To me this story is emblematic of the timid Jew who refuses to assume national sovereignty.
Much has been said of the Court Jew in the problematic situation of European Jews in their host societies. Hannah Arendt referred to it in her discussion of anti-Semitism and its relationship to totalitarianism. Others like Kenneth Levin traced the Oslo accords debacle to the long history of Jewish exile and the fragile position of the Jews represented by the Court Jew, whose status goes back to the Purim story in the personage of Mordechai, a story I discuss in my book.
Paradoxically, the grasshopper mentality shows itself up all the time in discussion with Jews inside and outside Israel whenever the suggestion is raised that Israel should clean up its neighborhood and act like any sovereign power. What can we do, they say? There are 1.3 billion Muslims. We can't kill all of them. Or we can't go it alone, at least without the United States. How ironic that the return to Zion, which was supposed to normalize the Jewish condition, has only reinforced the millennial sense of Jewish powerlessness. Being someone who feels people should be held to account, and being a sociologist whose analysis looks first to the internal reasons for any society's choices, I think that the persistence of this mentality points us back to a long-held ambiguity in the Jewish relationship to the people's founding covenant.
We accepted Sinai, but never fully, and we have been playing around with it far too long. We mourn the fall of the two temples, but do nothing to rebuild the temple now that we have sovereignty over Jerusalem once again. We mourn the Shoah with Holocaust memorial museums and cries of Never Again, but we do little about the ongoing deaths of live Jews simply because they live in their own land. Indeed, some of us even found organizations dedicated to pressuring the Jews into suicidal pacts with their genocidal enemies. Is there not something wrong with this picture worthy of national self-examination?
FP: How do we overcome the problems you point to? What should the Israelis stop doing and what should they start doing?
Schecter: I am skeptical about modern societies overcoming their blind spots. I suppose reality will in the long turn teach them how to survive or they will perish. Sociologists are not seers. However, when it comes to a confrontation with pre-modern societies, there is simply no respite. Sharon after all found a way to defeat Arafat's terrorist campaign by sending in troops. The Palestinians' ongoing duplicity and hostility might eventually teach Israelis that they ought to ditch the Oslo accords and consider other options. Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and Egypt controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood might also force a change in policy. There is a growing movement in Israel to annex Judea and Samaria. There are various options for dealing with the Arabs who live there. The Jews themselves might discover that the Holocaust trauma is much deeper than they acknowledge. Then they will assert military power and do what it takes to survive. Must we wait until things take a greater turn for the worse? Who knows? I only regret that Israel already tolerates attacks on its citizens no other sovereign country would allow.
One of Israel's major handicaps is its electoral system, the worst of any democracy for producing accountable governments. I think the most useful reform Israel could do would be to change its extreme proportional representation system to a first past the post system based on geographical constituencies. This would produce two or three parties and make it clear who is the government and who the opposition. Then the population could make a clear choice and kick out a government for its failed policy. The real secret of a functional democracy is not elections, but the division of power at the top into a government and opposition where the latter has a regular legally sanctioned chance to replace the government. This is what empowers the people, produces elections with universal suffrage and the rule of law. Israel has all that, but its electoral system reinforces the worst national tendencies - personalized power, lack of accountability because of chronic political horse-trading, and moralistic denunciation. This too goes back to the Bible, where the Jews barely out of Egypt denounced Moses at every turn, resulting in the Great Revolt in the Book of Numbers where his cousins challenged his authority. Who made you prince of us all, they clamored, just as Jews clamor today, with disastrous consequences for policy.
Oslo, lest we forget, was negotiated behind the back of the Prime Minister and against Israeli law. Its overseer is not in prison, but occupies the President's office. Until Israel reforms its electoral system I am afraid this situation will continue. And this means Israel will continue to be more a family than a nation, which is exactly what the Jews were in the Book of Genesis. And we all know how families operate, for good and bad. And if you don't, then read the Book of Genesis from start to finish, or have me come and tell you about it.
FP: Stephen Schecter, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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