A talk with Yakov Hirsch, who thinks that some Jewish people have exaggerated ideas about the amount of antisemitism in the world, and overly pessimistic ideas about the nature of antisemitism. This can make some Jewish people see disagreement, criticism, and conflict too often through the lens of antisemitism. Hirsch ties this into the Israel/Palestine conflict, and also relates this to a long-running debate about the “banality of evil” (which relates to, amongst other things, the motivations of Nazis during the Holocaust). We talk about Hirsch’s ideas in the context of conflict dynamics and conflict resolution: for example, the tendency in conflict for people to have distorted views of people on the “other side.”
Resources related to or mentioned in this talk:
- My previous talk about antisemitism with James Kirchick
- Yakov Hirsch’s writings on Mondoweiss.com
- A piece by Yakov on Tablet.com: Hasbara Culture and the Curse of Bibi-ism
- A review of Christopher Browning’s book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland
- A piece about historians criticizing Daniel Goldhagen’s work
- A review by Anthony Julius of Goldhagen’s book The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism
- The Oslo Diaries documentary
I wanted to include some pieces on the Israel/Palestine situation from writers whose work on American polarization I respect:
Zach: Hello and welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast aimed at better understanding other people, and better understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at peoplewhoreadpeople.com.
If you like the work I do with this podcast and wnat to encourage me to do more, please consider signing up for a premium subscription, and consider subscribing to my conflict resolution-aimed Substack. To learn more about these options, go to behavior-podcast.com.
On this episode I talk with Yakov Hirsch about the Israel/Palestine conflict, about antisemitism, about empathy, about us-versus-them mindsets, about the “banality of evil,” and much more.
One of Yakov’s goals is to get Jewish people to have more cognitive empathy for Palestinians. He think that there’s an us-versus-them Jewish discourse that attempts to make it taboo for Jewish people to have empathy for Palestinians. He has termed this discourse “hasbara culture”, and he has written a series of pieces on this topic that can be found on the site Mondoweiss.
My decision to talk to Yakov was not related to the recent attack on Israel; we’ve had this talk planned for several weeks. Actually, my own instinct would have been to probably avoid the topic of the Israel/Palestine conflict on this podcast. But I am glad that we had this talk scheduled, because I think a lot of people will find Yakov’s thoughts interesting.
I’ll also say that this talk is a sort of follow-up to a talk I had about antisemitism with James Kirchick. I thought Kirchick made a lot of good points: for example, he talked about how criticism of George Soros isn’t always antisemitic, any more than it is prejudiced to criticize major far right donors, like the Koch Brothers. We also talked about how the use of the word ‘globalist’ isn’t necessarily antisemitic, as that has had a long use by people who are using it in academic, logical ways. Just to say I enjoyed my talk with Kirchick. But I also saw that Kirchick would call many things antisemitic that I wouldn’t, especially in the realm of criticisms of Israel. My talk with Kirchick is what prompted Yakov to send me his thoughts and writing, and I figured to balance out the talk I had with Kirchick I’d invite Yakov on.
I want to preface this talk just as I did with the talk with Kirchick: the goal of this podcast is understanding other people’s views. And, even if you end up disagreeing with some of Yakov’s points, hopefully you can see the value in trying to understand why he thinks what he does. Hopefully you can see that Yakov is trying to understand people’s motivations: that even when he strongly disagrees with people and even when he thinks they’ve done something horrible, he is trying to understand why they did those things, and to not jump to conclusions about their beliefs and motivations.
Yakov’s work focuses on the Israel/Palestine conflict, but what we’ll talk about in this episode applies to conflicts in general. For example, he and I have talked about the overly paranoid and pessimistic perceptions many liberals have had of Trump voters, and of Trump himself; and one can see that aspect even as one also may be strongly critical and judgmental of Trump, and scared of worst-case Trump-related scenarios. In fact, if you’re someone who thinks Trump is dangerous, I would argue that it’s especially important to try to understand how overly pessimistic and antagonistic views of Trump voters and Trump can be factors in the behavior of Trump and his voters. That’s something Yakov and I may talk about in a future episode, because I think Yakov has some interesting thoughts on that.
A little bit about Yakov:
Yakov was born into a utra- orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn. He had no real conversations with non-Jewish people until he was in his late teens. He described an environment that instilled with him some paranoia about the non-Jewish outside world. When he was around 20 years old, he left the Jewish environment, and got a job for a non-profit called Chess-in-the Schools, which taught chess to young people. He was a strong chess player and eventually was training the chess teachers who worked for that organization. Later, he got into poker, this was around 2003 or so, during the so-called poker boom, and he was soon playing poker for a living, something he’s still doing.
He has written many pieces on the Israel/Palestine conflict for outlets including Mondoweiss, Tablet magazine, and on his own blog on Medium. And he’s been on a number of podcasts. You can find on Twitter at YakovHirsch, that’s YAKOV HIRSCH.
Some of my own thoughts: I look around right now and see so many people seeing the worst in each other; I see so many people seeing motives and beliefs in other people that just aren’t there. Despite the seeming online fights and heated arguments that have been happening around this, I think almost everyone agrees on some basic things in these areas, with the exception of some extreme and morally flawed outliers: I think almost everyone agrees that what Hamas did was horrible and inexcusable; that what happened to Israeli citizens was horrible and continues to be heartbreaking; that it’s understandable and rational to question if Israel’s decisions in the past or currently have been good or smart. As is the nature of conflict, what is happening is that so many of us are filtering for the worst-case interpretations of what people are doing or saying. Some people will filter a show support for Israel, or a show of support for Palestine, as indicating a bunch of traits and beliefs that are rarely there; for example, some people will see a show of support for Palestine as an indication of support for Hamas, or of a lack of empathy for the Israelis attacked – and some people will see a show of support for Israel as an expression of unilateral support of everything Israel does, or a lack of empathy for Palestinians. And then you add in the fact that a lot of this debate is happening on social media, where people often speak badly, especially young people; the internet encourages people with no real knowledge of what’s going on to sound off on all sorts of topics, and personally I think the internet is deranging us, something I’ve talked about in my writings and on this podcast. What is happening around this event is exactly what Yakov and I discuss in this episode: an overly pessimistic filtering for offense and insult and threat; a polarization into us-vs-them camps where more and more people have a mindset that “you must pick a side”. This is the nature of what conflict does to us: nuance becomes a casualty.
On the blog post for this episode, I’ll include some links to some pieces I thought were very good regarding the Israel/Palestine situation by writers whose work on American polarization I highly respect.
I’m going to start the interview a few minutes into our talk, when Yakov is talking about how his politics changed over time. Okay here’s the talk…
Zachary Elwood: Okay, here’s the talk.
Yakov Hirsch: Let me describe my politics. When I left Orthodox, I got interested in neoconservatism. I was reading commentary magazines all the time. I remember someone asked me who my favorite politician was, probably about 1990, and I’d say, “Oh, it’s Netanyahu.” He made American Jews proud. You know, so handsome, speaks English so well. There’s a word, גאווה. You just feel pride in this guy, Netanyahu, that all the non-Jews looking at him. This is not the way everyone looks at it, but this is the way I did and a lot of people do. That’s what Netanyahu was. Which is a big part of our story. Then two books came out and historians started to fight about these books, about anti-semitism and the Holocaust, and I really got interested in this fight. From this fight, my argument is– I wrote in an article for Tablet, Hasbara Culture and the Curse of Bibi-ism– and in that article I said, “Our world today is a product of that fight between these two historians.” So I saw that fight and over the years I’m seeing the result of the who won and lost that fight play out in the real world. So in 2016, I was playing poker at the time. I was in a casino, the Commerce Casino, and I see on the screen at five in the morning or something there’s a video from BBC and it shows an Israeli soldier shooting a Palestinian who was lying on the ground; executing a Palestinian.
So there was a video that came out that shows what had happened was this was in Hebron in the West Bank, a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli soldier who was hardly even injured. The guy was shot, he’s on the ground, and 10 minutes later, a Jeep comes up with another soldier. The soldier comes out, it turns out that this guy who was stabbed was his friend. He walks over towards where the Palestinian attacker was laying, he takes his rifle out, and he shoots him in the head. Okay? And we have this on video. When I saw this, this was a very big deal. I just left the game and went home. This is such an important story. Because now we will see the difference between Hasbara, which means explaining or maybe public relations, and Hasbara culture which is what I’m talking about.
Zach: And you coined that term before that, right?
Yakov: Yeah. So now what’s very interesting is how the public and politicians react to this event, right? Because it’s clear the army they arrested him on the spot. Whether you’re right wing or left wing, you can’t have a soldier who got into a fight with his girlfriend and in the morning goes to work. He sees the Palestinian, he just shoots the Palestinian, right? No matter what you think the Israeli army, the IDF, they cannot have their soldiers executing a Palestinian when they feel like it. Any army. So they arrested him on the spot, and now what happened next is where the story starts. Because what would Hasbara be? Hasbara would be some Israeli official coming on TV, or representative of the ADL, you know, these Jewish organizations– they would say, “Oh, you know this guy Elor Azaria who executed this guy, he just came out of the mental institution two days ago. He’s crazy!” They would explain that what you saw is not representative of the Israeli army. This is an exception. That’s what hasbara would be. They would tell the audience, “Don’t make too much of what you saw, this guy’s a rotten apple.” That’s what hasbara would be. And you see that all the time in the discourse, all this explaining. When Israel does something bad, you’ll just see everyone explaining why it’s not so bad. That’s hasbara. This is hasbara culture, what happened next? Netanyahu supported the soldier. He basically said, “We are good. We are Jews, they are the anti-Semites. And we can’t put a Jew in jail for killing a Palestinian.” So while this guy is in jail, the politicians are saying this guy’s a hero, what do you have him in jail for? So the right wing in Israel, they speak about the Elor Azaria affair, a very big deal this event! Because think about what it means that half the country says, “Yeah, of course, he should go in jail. You can’t execute someone like that.” And the other half is going, “He’s protecting the Jews! You’re going to put him in jail? Don’t you understand why we should kill this guy?” Think about what’s happening now. Elor Azaria is telling his friends, “Oh, look, you see? Aren’t you happy I killed that guy? If I wouldn’t have killed him, he’d be back invading us.” That’s that perspective. The bottom line is all the politicians instead of saying that Elor Azaria is a rotten apple, basically became a hero for this execution.
So now look what happens next in the story. When I write my heroes, it’s not Israel against Palestinians. In my hasbara culture writing, I’m making a hero out of an Israeli Deputy Chief of Staff, a soldier, who’s killed a lot of Palestinians probably. But I’m just telling the world a story and I’m telling you, “Look, look what you’re seeing here.” On the Holocaust day, they have something called a Holocaust day, and this guy gave a speech. In the speech in 2016 in March or April, he said, “I’m noticing processes that are taking place in this country that are similar to what took place in Europe 80 or 90 years ago.” So this is what he said. He’s basically saying what I’m seeing in this country, all this defense for Azaria, don’t you understand all you people that he’s a murderer? He’s saying I’m noticing that our political culture is like it was in Germany in the 1930s. Okay? Think about that. Think about someone in the Holocaust days saying that. Yeah, Yair Golan is his name. Actually, in the events of last week, the Israeli soldiers were not organized and the army wasn’t around. He went– he’s now a big hero– he just took his car and he drove down south and just risked his life to help people and to try to save people. In the real world he’s a hero, right? Forget about what’s happening. We see he’s the hero from just last week. So now the reaction to him saying that was terrible. The right-wing said he should be fired. And he was a favorite to be actually the next Chief of Staff. But when he gave that speech, it was over. And he knew it was over when he gave the speech. To him, this was more important than the speech. But the country, everyone was attacking him because you’re comparing us to… How can you say such a thing?
Zach: I’m going to try to summarize my understanding of hasbara culture. Basically, you think that there are some pro-Israel people who are basically overly paranoid about the subject of anti-semitism that they too often filter for the worst case most pessimistic interpretations of the people and the criticisms that they face, and they too often call those things anti-semitism and things like this? Is that a pretty fair summation of the statement?
Yakov: Yes, but the key point to what you’re saying, what does it mean when somebody is an anti-Semite? You just said, “Yeah, we call people anti-Semites too frequently.” The question is; when someone calls someone else, when the “the Jews” believe somebody’s an anti-Semite, what does that mean? What do we believe about the person? This is the biggest question. Because in Israel right now, they see what Hamas did, and now they’re looking and they’re saying, “What’s the meaning of what happened? So when we throw around anti-semitic allegations, it’s not just a word to hasbara culture. It’s not just a word. It means this person is something, is thinking something, is something! It’s very important these anti-semitic fights. Because when a Jew believes someone’s an anti-Semite, as I’m going to show you, it means that this person really wants to kill the Jews. That’s the important thing. So these things are very important these anti-semitic allegations today.
Zach: And that’s a good segue into talking about the books that you were going to talk about.
Yakov: Yes. In, I think it was 1990, a historian called Christopher Browning wrote a book called Ordinary Men. In this book, he “discovered” that there were Germans– this German battalion, the police battalion– who when they won, killed Jews. And they didn’t do it because they hated Jews so much. They didn’t kill the Jews because you know what? They saw the Jew, I need to kill this guy. They did it because they didn’t want to look bad in front of their friends, they were… All the reasons, of course, anti-semitism was part of it, right? But the killing, it wasn’t because of Jew hatred. This killing had other reasons. That’s what the book— That’s the discovery he said. And these people, they weren’t ideological Nazis. They were middle-aged policemen who were already adults when the Nazis came to power.
Zach: So it was more about peer pressure and these kinds of things.
Yakov: Right, it was all these things. So, the reaction to this historian’s book was a different book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. I don’t know if he even had a PhD yet, but maybe at a PhD, or maybe this was his PhD thesis. He said in this book– “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, that’s the title– he said, “No, Christopher Browning, you are wrong. The reason why these people killed the Jews, even this police brutality, is because there’s something about the Germans that for centuries they’ve been building this anti-semitism. And this culminated in the Holocaust. So, this holocaust and these people killing caused this eliminationist to anti-semitism. It’s sort of like a disease. That’s how you have to think about it.
Zach: Like a true, kind of evil abiding hatred, deeply embedded.
Yakov: Hatred! Right. Hatred! Real hatred! “I need to kill this person, I hate them so much.” So, this book caused an uproar. He went around the whole world, you know, in Germany, he was a celebrity and best seller. While this was going on and while his books were selling out among Jews and everybody else, right, [imitates] “Hitler’s imagined a popular book and by the Germans! That’s why they fucking kill the Jews, right? Because there’s a special eliminationist of anti-semitism. But historians had to deal with this book. And to them, this book was the biggest joke in the world. This wasn’t a serious book. When you read about the reaction of historians, which quote them in my article, they didn’t know what to do. They said the public is getting this false information that we know is not true. They destroyed Goldhagen, all his arguments, all these proofs. I quote this holocaust historian saying he doesn’t know how we’re going to recover from these ideas getting out into the world. It takes forever to establish the truth of an event before it gets down to the people, right? But now this false idea about this ‘eliminationist anti-semitism’ which is not true, now everyone believes it. Everyone loves this book.
Zach: This is related to the Hannah Arendt’s theory of the banality of evil, where they put it in that context then talking about these books in the context of that—
Yakov: Exactly. Let me use that to really explain what this fight is about. Okay? So Israel kidnapped, if you want to use that word, Adolf Eichmann in 1960-61 from Argentina. They discovered him. They were searching for him, they discovered him, they brought him back to Israel, and they put him on trial. And this Hannah Arendt was a German intellectual who escaped Nazi Germany. She went to the trial for The New Yorker magazine, and she wrote a series on the Eichmann trial. She would send back every couple of weeks, “This is the latest from the Eichmann trial.” That became the book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem”, a very very important book really as we’ll see in the story. She said a lot of things but I’m going to tell you the most important thing that she said. And I’m quoting Corey Robin, and this is a piece called The Trials of Hannah Arendt in The Nation magazine. She says, “For Arendt, the question was not whether Eichmann was an anti-Semite. Nor did she doubt the anti-Semitic character of the Holocaust. The question Arendt posed in Eichmann was whether Eichmann’s contribution to the genocide of the Jews was motivated, could be accounted for, by “his fanaticism, his boundless hatred of Jews.” That’s the question! Were 6 million Jews killed because of the hatred? Every person who killed every Jew– and we’re using Eichmann as an example. She said, “No! He might have been an anti-Semite, but him doing his job to kill millions of Jews was not motivated by Jew hatred. That was her insight, which was an earthquake, right? Think about it from people who are still alive, you know, survivors. Think about the Jewish community after the Holocaust, and think about the Jewish intellectuals being told, “You know what? The Holocaust, it wasn’t even about the Jews.” I’m not exaggerating the point, right?
Zach: It’s a very upsetting idea. It was really controversial, right? People were arguing a lot about that at the time.
Yakov: Right Our story is that cognitive empathy, to try to see the world from different perspectives. When people react, you have to understand that’s how natural it is to react, when Hannah Arendt says this. So, that was the fight. Now, it turns out—
Zach: And real quickly. The point is that when something really horrible like this happens and people do horrible things, the idea that there was something banal about their horrible actions is in effect humanizing them, which is threatening to people that… There can be a desire to see them as something inhuman or something separate, right?
Yakov: Yes, just as an aside. Think about the fights, the America’s wars. The language and the politics is mannequin, right? That means either you’re with us or against us. Saddam represents evil, Putin or whoever represents evil, we represent good. And therefore, we have to do this foreign policy. That’s the mannequin. This is neoconservativeism. This idea, this mannequin idea that we’re fighting a fight between good versus bad is similar to this idea about Eichmann. Therefore, you can’t show any nuance. Whatever the politics are, whatever the questions, whatever the foreign, the argument being made that we’re good versus evil is extremely difficult to deal in a debate. Because as soon as you start, it sounds like you’re defending Saddam. Yes. So, Hannah Arendt. I was going to say in 2010, this new book came out that actually there were these transcripts of Eichmann in Argentina where he was ideological. When he started saying stuff about the Jews. He’s without comrades, right? So they have these things and the argument is, “Listen, he is the ideal.” Now it doesn’t mean that he killed all those Jews for this, but that’s the argument. Hannah Arendt might say, maybe she’d say, “Well, he was with his friends, this is the way he talks. Or even if he talks, yeah, whatever. He doesn’t mean it enough that he’s about to kill every Jew he sees.” That’s how Arendt might respond to this new “evidence”.
Zach: Or even theoretically, if she was wrong about Eichmann, her point could still stand. It could still be a valid point, even if somebody might disagree about Eichmann specifically, right?
Yakov: Okay, just to summarize, I’m going to quote Peter Novick in “The Holocaust in American Life”. He said, “In the long run, almost all scholars have come to accept Arendt’s thesis that typical Holocaust perpetrator was ‘terrifyingly normal’, and by no means a driven anti-Semite. Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Holocaust historian, writes, “The Germans did not have to hate the Jews in order to kill them. One suspects that had they received instructions to murder all the Poles or all the Frenchmen, they would have performed equally well. For this reason, among others, scholars of the Holocaust have rejected the argument of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen that generations of systematic socialization and the murderous hatred of Jews was a necessary condition for the Holocaust.” Okay? So we come to the end of the fight between Browning and Goldhagen. How did this fight affect reality and affect our world? So, Goldhagen wrote another few books. Basically, he used this idea of eliminationist anti-Semitism. He wrote a book about the Catholics, he said they’re eliminationist anti-Semitism, basically. And the last book he wrote, we’re going to jump to, which was in 2013.
So this guy Goldhagen, who defeated historians about the meaning of the Holocaust and of the meaning of these people killing the Jews, what’s he up to? Everyone knows, oh, for the world, he’s a famous historian, the world’s biggest expert on anti-semitism, the world’s biggest expert on the Holocaust. That’s how he’s viewed by a lot of the public.The latest book he wrote was “The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism”. This book reviewed everywhere. And of course, Jews were concerned about anti-semitism. When they’re at Barnes & Noble, this book jumps out at them and they read this. This creates culture, right? The arguments he makes in this book are what people talk about at the Shabbat table. When you have an argument, you use what Goldhagen said in this book. I’m going to quote to you from a review of this book by The Wall Street Journal, which is pretty conservative. And the person who reviewed this book, Anthony Julius, is a very respected lawyer and very knowledgeable about the Holocaust. So they got him to make this review. Wow, Anthony Julius reviewing this book! And let me read you the beginning of this review. “I have written this review with reluctance, that there should be strife within the party to which Mr. Goldhagen and I both belong. The party of anti-anti-Semites will only give satisfaction to the haters. But we must be smart truth-telling participants in this terrible struggle. We must be intelligent in our judgments and reliable in the claims we make. And for sure, while we must not minimize dangers, we shouldn’t overstate them, either. The devil that never dies doesn’t contribute to our existing understanding of anti-Semitism. It doesn’t give anti-anti-Semites fresh, good arguments. Indeed, it is so easily and justly dismissible. It weakens the very cause its author seeks to promote.” Could you imagine getting requested to review this book at the Wall Street Journal? And your review? Okay, you really don’t like the book, but somehow, you’ll get by without doing this. Think about how bad this book was that he said, “I don’t care about my reputation. I don’t care a lot of people will think I’m stabbing or whatever. I have to say this. This is terrible, this influence that this book will have.”
And like he says, he’s not against… In other words, he’s also “hasbara culture” Also, he’s sympathetic to Goldhagen’s view of anti-semitism. When he says I’m an anti anti-Semite, that’s what it means in the real world. You know, Your idea about there’s a lot of anti-semitism, etc, etc, I agree with you. But this book…” I’m going to quote something that Goldhagen wrote in this book about Israel. So, this whole book, which now there have been 50 books written similar to this book since this book, it is very popular now that Jewish writers are writing books about anti-semitism. Every different way of looking how today is exactly like 1939 and we’re about to be gassed, this is what hasbara culture is. This eliminationist anti-semitism is everywhere. That’s what this guy Goldhagen who wrote that book, everyone believes suddenly this is what he’s telling the Jews, basically. Right? This is what he’s telling. So just to give you a sense when this anti-semitism thing is thrown around, this is what we’re saying. This is who they are. Because anti-semitism, according to hasbara culture, is one thing. All anti-semitism that’s part of a thousand years ago, it’s all the same thing. And when you take a position that’s against “the Jews”, that’s whose side you’re on. Right?
Zach: It’s like saying if you can’t call out this clear evil, this obvious dark force, then you are clearly morally bankrupt, basically.
Yakov: Yes, and you believe things about the Jews. This is very important. Anti-semitism is believing certain things about the Jews. You believe that they control the world, you believe whatever it is; the Jews, this or that. When Ilhan Omar is called an anti-Semite, the accusation is she’s thinking about the Jews all the time. That’s what it means. So that woman, you know what she doesn’t like? She thinks about how to get the Jews. This is what it means when someone becomes an anti-Semite. It’s an obsession. It’s an obsession. It’s a medieval Incubus. That’s the way to understand what Goldhagen said about the Germans. It’s a medieval Incubus. That’s what anti-Semites are, a medieval Incubus. They got a disease that they caught. When you look at the Jews, this is what you think about that. Of course, a lot of this book is about everyone being anti-Israel, and that means they want to kill the Jews. Basically, that’s what he’s saying.
Look how far he goes. Look at this argument. “Anyone who claims that the antipathy of the region or of the world at large is only for Israel because of its policies, and not towards Jews in general because of their Jewness, or reclaims that such people’s intent is anything but eliminationist towards Israel, the country, and towards Jews in general because of their Jewness, is being duped or is seeking to dupe others.” And there you have it. All these people are now out screaming on Twitter, taking the side of the Palestinians. It’s not because of what Israel is doing. It’s not because it’s your policies. It’s not because of what they do. It’s because these people either have this hatred of the Jews, or they have been duped to believe what they believe about Israel. Just to give you a quote by Yair Rosenberg who just wrote this article about Hamas, he represents what I write. I’m just talking about ideas. When I mention people, I’m not judging them or anything. I’m talking about the ideas that they espouse. They could be the most wonderful people in the world. I don’t know. I don’t know them, I’m just talking to how their ideals operate in the world. So, this is a quote. He wrote an article in The Atlantic, very influential! Atlantic, when they talk about anti-semitism and the Jews and Hamas. He just wrote this big article. Of course, this article is important for what it does to the culture. But anyway, this is a tweet. “There’s been a lot of deserved criticism of college students celebrating Jewish death in the guise of supporting the Palestinian cause. But as this piece rightly notes, while it’s easy to blame the students, what does their conduct say about their teachers?”
So, when hasbara culture sees these people demonstrating, you know, pro-Palestinian people around the world, what they see is these people, like you said, hating the Jews. All this is not because of anything Israel did or any objective analysis, they want to destroy Israel. Like Goldhagen said, eliminationist. All these people demonstrating, it’s not about the Palestinians, it’s about Israel. And its eliminationist. They want to kill the Jews, all these people.
There was this professor, there’s this tweet going around by Cornell talking about how happy he was by what Hamas did. I forget the word he used, but, “I’m energised! I’m energized!”
Zach: Exhilarated or something.
Yakov: Exhilarated! So, what’s he saying? Let’s imagine being him. What is he saying? He’s giving you the Palestinian perspective, the Hamas perspective. Okay? “These people have been locked up, open that prison, Israel does whatever it wants. This is going to go on for the next thousand years and there’s nothing the Palestinians can do about it. The whole world is against them. They shoot these…” It’s totally the Palestinian perspective, they lock them in this jail. And it’s also these people believe in decolonization. Israel is this European export into the Middle East, that’s what the design of this project is. And of course, we’re going to be happy when they fight back. It’s like rooting for the Indians when in the 18th century, America is moving across the country and settling across the country, and when Indians came across or found Whites– men, women, whatever– it was brutal, right? It was like what Hamas did to the “Americans”. Right? We’re not judging, we’re trying to act. When we talk about these things, we’re trying to be political scientists. Of course, I cried and cried. I have a sister who lives in Jerusalem, I told you—
Zach: I think that’s an important point. Because I think what you’re arguing for is trying to understand what people are thinking. For example, that Cornell professor, I found what he said really gross and I judged him for that. But I can also, like you’re saying, try to understand what he’s thinking and the best versions of it. I can criticize him while also trying to understand what he’s thinking and what’s driving some of these—
Yakov: What we want is if we were to ask him, “Hey, what do you mean?” What he tells us, that’s what we’re reporting to the world. “You see, what is the speech? This is what he means by this speech.” Then we can make judgments on that. But we need to know reality. Now if you look at Bari Weiss, who I’ve written a few articles about—
Zach: And real quick, I’ll throw in there too. I think a lot of people are taking the most extreme things people say, like that Cornell professor, for example, and extrapolating it to everyone who’s doing much more subtle things of just saying let’s support Palestine or, you know, criticizing Israel. And so they’re taking the most easy to criticize and judge behaviors and saying this guy’s language represents what other people are saying, basically, which I think is part of the very nature of conflict too. We see these kinds of extreme things and say that language represents what other people are thinking too.
Yakov: We are in an incredibly dangerous time. What we saw happening last Saturday, you have to understand that every Jew is brought up with what happened in the Holocaust, you know, the [unintelligible 00:35:22], SS units hunting Jews everywhere. This is what when we think about it, that’s what happened. And people think, “Well, now at least we have Israel.” What’s Israel? A refuge— “If this happens anywhere around the world, we can always go to Israel if things get bad.” And Israel prides itself on the most sophisticated army in the world, selling all their ideas and weapons everywhere. And then what happens? Hamas gets in and the scenes are… Israel couldn’t protect… Netanyahu, protector of the Jews, can’t protect his own citizens! He’s talking always about the whole world. His own citizens! So these things, the motion that it brings out in people and Jews in Israel and everywhere else for a whole bunch of reasons is overwhelming. It’s so overwhelming with every Jew with any connection, no matter what his politics is. Which is why there’s a problem in the left. We’re interpreting things differently. Think about what’s happening. Every event is interpreted by hasbara culture. As they’re doing this, they’re thinking about the images of the Jews that were killed. That’s what these people are thinking when they’re demonstrating. Whereas in the real world, they saw it. They don’t want to look at it. Why would they rather look? They try to look at all the dead bodies? I mean, they don’t rather look. But that’s compelling to them. So this is what almost everyone, or most of these people, that’s what they’re demonstrating against; the killing of innocent people. But when hasbara culture looks at it, when Bari Weiss… She said this guy… What did she say? What did she describe was happening here? “This guy is exhilarated by the killing of Jews.” That’s what she said. “This professor is exhilarated by the killing of Jews.” Now, that’s not true. I mean, it could be, it might very well. But that’s not most likely. If we asked him, he wouldn’t talk about the Jews. Right?
Zach: It reminds me of a similar thing to what somebody said. Somebody had some quote about 9/11 that was also similarly criticized, where they basically said something like ‘the brave terrorists or something had a lot of bravery’ or some similar words that got a lot of criticism. But the person was just trying to communicate something like they clearly were brave, no matter what you thought of them. Some kind of debate around that where it was a similar thing where it was like, “I would not have used that word, but I kind of understand what you were trying to communicate.”
Zach: A small note here: I realized what I was thinking about was something Bill Mahar said on his show Politically Incorrect not long after 9-11. He was responding to people like George W Bush calling the 911 terrorists “cowards”. Bill Mahar said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” And the writer Susan Sontag said something similar. These things, as you’d expect, kicked off some outrage. Okay back to the talk.
Zach: Okay, back to the talk. Yeah. I do think, to your point, it’s something I think is such a basic aspect of all human conflict, where the conflict can be so complex, especially for something that goes back many years and has all these twists and turns and you can examine in all different ways, and there’s so many ways to filter all that information in many ways. Which, to me, gets to the basic point of it’s just so easy for humans to disagree on complex topics, which plays into how we disagree on all sorts of issues. And conflict is a complex issue, so it makes sense that people can filter for all sorts of interpretations. Also to your point, too, the complexity of even what’s happening right this second, it’s like some people will be focused on one thing and then other people will be focused on what’s happening right now. Like, you know, Israel’s response is happening right now as opposed to something that was in the past, no matter how horrific it is. So I think there’s all these different ways that… You know, there’s this complex prism of how people can parse and then you add in the complexity of how people speak about these things is not nuanced sometimes and they speak badly, they speak in just plain stupid or even ways we think are very wrong. So you add in all this complexity, and then everyone’s reacting to how people are speaking and they’re filtering it through their lens. It’s just such a complex thing.
Yakov: Right, that’s why it’s so important to get this right. It’s so important that people… The people, they need to… There’s so much noise. This is all noise. We have to really get to some truth.
Zach: It is important. It’s theoretically a humanity-ending problem if we can’t, especially with all the noise that social media and the Internet help create. To me, it’s just like an amplifier of the things we’ve been dealing with in humanity for all of history. It’s basically creating this nuclear reaction reaching critical mass kind of thing of amplifying all the reactions that people have against each other. So to me, this is a very fundamental thing that if humanity can’t solve our fundamental ways that we always fight with each other, I don’t think we’re going to be around much longer. That’s my own take.
Yakov: And this is a danger… Hezbollah, a very powerful force in Lebanon, there are things that Israel… I believe that if Israel keeps on doing the things it’s been doing, there’s a point in which Hezbollah will have to, like go to war with Israel. I don’t know what that point is. But Hezbollah does resistance, you know, the organization. At some point, the Arab world will look at them, “What’s your reason for being? If you don’t hit Israel now, what’s the point of Hezbollah?” I don’t know where that is, but this is where we’re heading very fast. Okay, I’m going to continue in our story. Last we heard was Goldhagen saying, “All this hatred towards Israel has nothing to do with Israel’s policies, it’s because of these people’s Jewness, because Israel is a Jewish country. And anyone who claims what I’m saying is not true is being duped or is seeking to dupe others. This is all about the Jews. It’s the same thing. It’s the same as the Holocaust, it’s the same as a thousand years ago. It’s the same thing that we’re up against.” That’s what he’s telling the reader. And what I’m telling you and your audience is that this became true. This is the culture right now. So we have to think when people read something, what happens if they believe what they’re reading? And I’m telling you, the people believe what they’re reading. Just think about this. There’s been 50 books in the last couple of years about Jewish victims or about everyone wants to kill the Jews. Okay?
Let me give you the non-hasbara culture perspective. This is JJ Goldberg who reviewed this Goldhagen book in Democracy magazine. I’m quoting from this review. He says, “There have been dozens of assaults on Jews and Jewish targets around the world by Muslim attackers, usually an explicit retaliation for Israeli actions. Some have been lone wolf attacks, including deadly shootings on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994, atop the Empire State Building in 1997, at Los Angeles International Airport in 2002, and at a Seattle Jewish charity in 2006. Others have been planned by attacks by terrorist organizations, like the murderous assault on a Mumbai synagogue in 2008, or the deadly bombings of a Tunisian synagogue in 2002, two Istanbul synagogues in 2003, and a Jewish restaurant, community center, and cemetery in Casablanca in 2003. And this doesn’t include dozens of attacks that were nonfatal or were foiled by authorities. In one sense, this constitutes a new wave of violent anti-Semitism, as Goldhagen and others claim. It is a series of attacks on Jews who have not done anything to invite it, because they are Jews. In another sense, though, it is an ugly expansion of a century-old territorial war that hasn’t hesitated to target civilians, on both sides, and now includes their supporters, allies, and kin around the world. Israel’s intelligence professionals believe the war can be ended through compromise but will only get uglier until that happens. Zealots believe they have a God-given mandate to stand firm, and they’re holding Jews around the world hostage to their beliefs—and recruiting unsophisticated polemicists like Daniel Goldhagen to make their case.”
He’s saying Israel’s a country. Let’s make believe it’s not a Jewish country, let’s make believe it’s the Irish country. It’s a different country. If they would do what Israel did, if they would go… [inaudible] take the whole story and [inaudible] not the Jews, right? It’s the Irish. I’m quoting the sociologist who made this point. If let’s say, Israel was the home of the Irish people and there was some terrorist attack, and the Irish Prime Minister would say, “They killed us only because we were Irish. It’s the only reason they killed us.” That’s the discourse in Israel. “They killed us only because we were Jews.” So he’s saying, no, you’re having a fight with another… Two nationalisms are fighting. In the real world, it’s ‘understandable.’ This is not the same Jew hatred about Jews going into the last thousand years.
Zach: Can I dig in there a little bit? Because when I interviewed James Kirchick, one thing he said when I asked him about how he separated or defined anti-semitism in terms of criticism of Israel, he talked about his view that are people being imbalanced in how they criticize Israel. His view was that people aimed far too much criticism at Israel that they wouldn’t aim at other countries who had done the same. I’m curious, how do you see that? Because I can see reasons why we talk about Israel more than other countries in the West, basically. But I’m curious to get your take on that.
Yakov: Okay. In my writing on hasbara culture, you know, I look at these arguments that certain Jewish journalists make. I should call them hasbara culture journalists because this is not a Jewish thing. This is a victim thing. I’ll call them the hasbara culture journalists, of which Kirchick is one. The arguments they make, and I unpack it and think about it, I have cognitive empathy for Kirchick. And then I’m saying, “Look what Kirchick believes.” That’s what my writing does. It says, “Read what he wrote. This is what he means. This is what he believes.” That’s what my articles basically are. How would a social scientist answer this question: “What’s going on with these people?” If they could, they would interview every person demonstrating in some pro-Palestinian March somewhere. And they pull them in and they’d have three experts, three guys with 12 PhDs, and they’d start asking this person this question, “Hey, when’s the first time you heard about Palestine?” And the person would answer. When they hear the story of what led this person to this march and what she believes about the world, if they were to do it with every person at that march, they could then give an analysis and say what is the meaning of this march.
What Kirchick does is he’s taking one of these people who are ‘pro-Palestinian’ and saying, “Oh, let’s analyze what they’re saying. They made this argument, hold on, but do they make the same argument with China?” Think about how human beings actually operate. If you take a person, he’ll be like– some people love the story– “Yeah, my brother’s girlfriend was a Palestinian so I never thought about the Palestinians before.” But suddenly, it’s like she’s seeing stories, etc. That’s one way. Another person is an Arab, whatever. That’s the real world. And these people, there’s always reasons why you’re interested. It’s like going over to someone worried about climate change and saying, “Hey, why aren’t you worried about what’s going on in Israel? Don’t you think this is more important than climate change which is in a thousand years?” Shouldn’t you be more concerned?” So, any person you could question them and see they’re not consistent. That’s not the way the world works. So the person, for whatever it is, he feels this bothers him more than other things. Which, to Kirchick, that means, “Ah, it’s about the Jews.” You come up with all these arguments to see if these people are anti-Semites, right? All these IHRA definitions of anti-semitism. When all you need to do is go talk to them, right?
Zach: I don’t if you’re going to get to this, but the thing that struck me in there is that the fact that there’s a lot of violence over there itself means that Israel is more in the news and people talk about it more. And the fact that it gets support from America means it gets more attention. So I just think there’s various reasons that it’s more in the news, right?
Yakov: Sure. And everyone is so certain of their position that if in any group you’re part of, someone says, “Hey, what’s your position on Israel-Palestine?” Well, you better get a position. Whose side are you on? That’s the way… It’s almost like you have to have a position on this issue.
Zach: Right. It’s just discussed so much more. It’s kind of a cascade of things, too. The violence itself gets to the tension. And then the fact that it is a very important topic to many people, that just becomes more important to more and more people. So yeah, that’s just to say I didn’t find that argument very persuasive.
Yakov: This is where we are. We have an argument by JJ Goldberg saying that Israel is a country like any other country. They’re doing bad things in the world to other people. People react the way they do in a lot of different ways. And that’s what this is about. It’s about if anyone else would be there instead of the Palestinians, you’d see some version of the events taking place. Maybe slightly different, whatever. Basically, this has to happen. In fact, Israeli security people have been telling the politicians… There’s a documentary called The Gatekeepers of 2011 where former Israeli heads of the Mossad, the last five heads of the Mossad, basically are warning about what’s happening now. “This is going to happen unless you deal with the Palestinian situation.” Netanyahu is a big genius. He managed to get around the Palestinians. That, he’s so proud of. “I can make deals and the whole world doesn’t care about the Palestinians.” That is his accomplishment. Anyway, the point that I want to make— So the argument either whether this is about all these anti-Israel people, it’s about the Jews, or it’s about a country doing what the country is doing. Now, the next thing I’m going to read to you is this. What we’re seeing now all over the world, these demonstrations against Israel, these took place every time Israel has attacked Gaza in the last 15 years. It’s been like five times. After one of those times, Operation Protective Edge in September 2014, this is Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic. This is the article. “Does Human Rights Watch understand the nature of prejudice? A powerful advocate appears to believe that anti-semitism is sparked and turned by Jewish behavior.” September 21st, 2014. A few days ago, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted the following statement. “Germans rally against anti-Semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza war. Merkel joins.”
What happened was there was anti-semitism after the last Israeli attack on Gaza, so the Germans had to rally to defend the Jews. So, Germans rallied against anti-semitism that flared in Europe in response to Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war. Right? He wrote this op-ed about this rally. Because if people were saying don’t blame the Jews on Israel, he’d say, “Whatever did I say.” So this is Goldberg’s analysis. Okay? Roth’s framing of this issue is very odd and obtuse. Anti-semitism in Europe did not ‘flare’ in response to Israel’s conduct in Gaza or anywhere else. Anti-semitic violence and invective are not responses to events in the Middle East, just as anti-semitism does not ‘erupt’ in response to policies of banks owned by Jews, or in response to editorial positions taken by the New York Times. This is for the simple reason that Jews do not cause anti-semitism. What is Goldberg saying here? This is basically what he’s saying. According to Goldberg, Israel is the Jewish state. And the fact that it’s the Jewish state attracts response from people. That’s the Jewish state. They don’t look at Israel, it’s the Jewish state. So when this Jewish state behaves in the world and people demonstrate against it, it’s not because it’s Israel’s doing something. It’s because it’s the Jewish state. Right? So we’re saying you, head of Human Rights Watch, you’re saying that anti-semitism was about Israeli behavior. No, anti-semitism is not about Israeli behavior. Just to give you that Yair Rosenberg tweet that I told you earlier, there has been a lot of criticism of college students celebrating Jewish death in the guise of supporting the Palestinian cause. Right?
Zach: I think what you’re getting at is this mind-reading aspect of conflict, which I think is a fundamental dynamic in conflict where we we overly mind-read. We think that we know what’s in the hearts and minds of the people on the other side, the people who are aligned against us. We see this a lot in the American conflict that divides here where you’ll see people on the left and people on the right write these elaborate pieces about the way they know what’s in the hearts and minds of their political opponents. It’s just a lot of mind-reading and making suppositions that are not based on any logic. You usually can’t figure out exactly why people are doing what they’re doing, especially in a conflict situation. So I think you’re getting at this mind-reading thing, and also getting at the aspect that I think is the fundamental nature of extreme conflict too, where people do not want to be blamed for their role. They don’t want to be criticised and seen as contributing to a conflict. The thing that comes to mind for me is in the left in America, there’s a lot of pushback to the idea that some liberals contribute to our divides, even though you’ve got entire books written by politically liberal people about the contributions to our divides on the liberal side. But there’s this allergy to self-examination and this instinct to say, “No, you cannot examine our role on this. You’re casting blame at the wrong side.” Yeah, I think there’s this real allergy there too. And it sets up a logical impossibility of basically saying you can’t examine anything that we’ve done or criticize anything that we’ve done. And to do so is to make any false moral equivalence, right? That’s what a lot of people in any conflict will do. They’ll say you are making a false moral equivalence even by trying to examine our role in this conflict or this role in whatever violence.
Yakov: Yes, I agree. What I’m saying is, what genocide experts do, when they look at the behavior of these soldiers who killed the Jews, the Police Battalion 101, what they want is to know what the person was thinking as they shot the Jews. That’s what they’re after. We want to get into his head to understand what was he thinking so that we should know and we should prepare for the next time when we see people thinking like that. That’s the goal.
Zach: You really want to understand it so you can prevent it. You want to understand it.
Yakov: And it’s important we’re not judging. Once you look in his head and you start judging, “I can’t believe this guy believes these things,” you lose the thread. We can’t be judging. We can judge afterwards if we want, but it’s very important to be accurate in exactly what he is saying, right? What this guy is thinking? That’s political science. Politics is to say what he’s thinking. Political science is to really try to get at the truth, what is true to what he was thinking, while politics will say, “You know what he was thinking? He wants to kill all the Jews.” What I am claiming, which sounds crazy, is that Goldhagen won the argument about what the 101 shooters were thinking. Those people, and I use Jeffrey Goldberg as my big example, he is the most influential person about what ‘the evil people’ are thinking. That is this new type of journalism. And if you look at very influential journalists, that is what they’re doing. They’re telling us what these people are thinking. We want to know what the Hamas people were thinking. If we want to know what happened, to really understand, we’d interview every one of these people who came over the fence, every one of these people who shot them, and we’d start talking to them. And we’d say, “Hey, why do you hate the Jews? You hate the Jews because? What do you think the Quran says about the Jews? Oh, yeah, the [unintelligible 00:57:48] was killed last week,” or whatever it is. You’d interview everyone. And then we would come up with a report and we’d say, “Okay, we’ve interviewed 1200 people and this is our analysis. Overall, they did it for this reason.” So now this fight over what these people were thinking is the fight that’s going on in the world. Because a lot of people are saying, “Yeah, they might have had…” The event is understandable. Whatever they did, it’s not out of this world. Of course, we can’t imagine that. It’s the most horrible thing any human would see in their what they’re saying. But to understand the truth, we have to go beyond that. We’d have to interview every one of these people. So now what I call never-again journalists, that’s their job in the culture. This is what Jeffrey Goldberg did, right? Today, Yair Rosenberg came up with an article about Hamas. What does the behavior mean? He doesn’t know anything about Hamas, he’s writing the articles at The Atlantic. He is making the culture of what we saw; what Hamas is about, and why they killed all those Israelis in the way they did. But my argument is that these people doing what they’re doing is what led to where we are today.
Zach: Can I interject a couple of questions here? When you talk about your idea of hasbara culture, how much does the level of religiosity play into that? Is a person’s level of religiousness in Judaism related to it? How does that factor in as you see it?
Yakov: Yeah, excellent question. So, take where I come from. I grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Now, Netanyahu had great influence on what I’m about to tell you. But when I grew up, the Orthodox Jews– not the religious Zionist Jews who lived in the settlements. These people are hardly Zionist. Yeah, they like Israel, they in favor of Israel. They don’t think about Israel. They’re basically against the idea of Zionism because according to the Orthodox religion, you’re not allowed to create your own state. You have to wait for the Messiah to come. So all the Zionists were the enemies of these people. They blamed World War Two. These religious Jews, their leaders, they blamed World War Two on the Zionists because of trying to go against God and create a state. But then this idea became religious Zionism by Rabbi Kook and the son. It infused nationalism into this whole question and religion. So they are very, very different from just orthodox normal people who study or grew up studying the Talmud and things like that. But what Netanyahu has done, and even these parties– religious parties, not religious Zionism party, but just the ultra-orthodox parts– they even were supportive of Rabin. They supported Rabin in the peace process from the outside. But still, when Rabin tried to make peace at the Oslo Accords, these people were on his side.
Zach: A small note: if you’d like to learn more about Rabin and the almost successful attempt to create a peace compromise in the 90s, a great documentary on that is The Oslo Diaries. It’s a very touching and sad documentary that is also great if you’re interested in conflict resolution in general. Back to the talk.
Yakov: But what Netanyahu has done is turned all these people into thinking like the religious now. All these things I’m telling you, he’s told these people that you know what? This is the Holocaust all over again, the whole world wants to kill the Jews. And he whispered once to a rabbi, he was whispering and said, “The left forgot what it means to be Jewish. All my opponents forgot what it means to be Jewish. They believe you can trust the Arabs to make peace with them.” Basically, it’s what he said. So these people, the non-Jews, what makes these Jews bad Jews or not bad Jews? They don’t realize that everyone wants to kill us. They’re making excuses. That’s what Netanyahu did. He’s drunk. Every time there’s a terrorist incident, he would just really poison. Netanyahu has poisoned the Jewish people with his ideas. So now, all the people that used to be either apolitical, now they view the world in this… They hate the Arabs. They didn’t hate the Arabs, really. But the Orthodox now, they hate the Arabs as much as the religious Zionist world. Like killing Palestinians, some of them are killing Palestinians in the West Bank as we speak for revenge about what happened.
Zach: We could see that is tied into the fundamental nature of conflict because polarization slash conflict involves more and more boundary policing of saying who’s really part of our group and who’s not. That leads to language like you’re not really a conservative, you’re not really a progressive, you’re not really Jewish… These kinds of language. Basically, the boundary policing there.
Yakov: Understand that when Bari Weiss says that this person is thinking about the Jews, you have to understand when people read it and what she’s saying. She’s saying what this person is thinking. Now, imagine that everyone believes that this is what this person is thinking. So, Bari Weiss is the one. She’s the expert on what these’ anti-Israel’ people are really thinking. Look what Israel is doing. The whole world is watching Al Jazeera all day of all these innocent people being killed and announcing. Israel saying they’re not human, basically. They said that in every which way. And now that’s what the world is seeing. But according to Bari Weiss and Jeffrey Goldberg, no, they see the Jewish state. This is what we’re dealing with in the real world. Just to give you another example of my point, Ayelet Waldman, who is an Israeli-American author, in 2006 wrote this tweet; “Yesterday’s bus bombing is a tragedy, but not a surprise. This kind of terrible violence is an inevitable result of a brutal occupation.” Goldberg responded to this tweet this way: “The Jews had it coming, apparently.” What she’s saying is, yeah, if you do this to… No people have ever been oppressed the way we’re oppressing the Palestinians, that didn’t strike back. We should expect to get terrorism, is what she’s saying. And Goldberg tweeted, “No. What do are you saying? You’re saying Jews are causing terrorism.”
Zach: Yeah, I was going to say it reminds me of sometimes the debate around when people try to give advice to women to not be attacked and not be sexually assaulted or physically assaulted. Some of that will sometimes be interpreted as victim blaming because you’re saying, “How dare you try to say that something we did contributed to us being attacked?” Whereas what people are trying to do there usually is trying to give people advice on how to avoid dangerous situations. But there can be a way to filter that where it’s victim blaming, especially if it’s not done in a persuasive or respectful manner. That just reminded me of that, where the act of trying to examine the role in a conflict and examine the dynamics of a conflict is interpreted as victim blaming.
Yakov: Right. So, what is the argument there? I’m going to say this, but you’ll see where the problem is. The argument there is if the social scientists interviewed the guy who attacked the woman and raped the woman, and imagine you interview a thousand of them, and 740 said, “You know what? The way she dressed turned them on.” Imagine if this happened in the real world. People will say, “You know what? You want to be careful? Don’t dress like that, that turns men on.” We can’t face a question like that.
Zach: It’s easily an offensive question to ask, “What can we do better?” Especially when we’re very angry and scared. I think that what all these conflicts get down to is when people’s emotions are high, it’s the most offensive thing in the world to ask, “What can we do better?” Because we’re at the peak of our heartbreak and suffering and all these emotions. And to be asked what can we do is the height of, you know, it feels horrible. It feels a persecution, which is understandable. And I can see how so many people for so many conflicts don’t want to self-examine, don’t want to ask what can we do better?
Yakov: Let me give you what the experts say about ‘anti-semitism’. I’m quoting you… I forgot his first name. His name is Angel. He does not use the word anti-semitism anymore. He wrote this: “Is there really a connection between things like Christian hostility towards Jews in ancient times, the expulsion of Jews and denial of their rights, blood libels against Jews in medieval times, boycotts of Jewish businesses in the modern age, propagation of the belief that Jews have undue influence on the world economy, restricting Jewish immigration, the murder of Jews by the Nazis and the collaborators during the Holocaust, vandalism of Jewish cemeteries and calls for boycott of Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist.” He’s giving you 12 examples of what we tell that’s anti-semitic and he’s saying, Do any of these things have anything in common?” Because this is the scientific approach. We have to know what each one of these ‘anti-Semites’ are thinking. For us to really know what this is about, we’d interview every one of these anti-Semites going back in time and we’d come back with a conclusion. So he’s saying if we were to do that with all these different people, we would find different things going on. So this is the scholars, that’s how they look at anti-semitism.
Of course, there are things about Jews that people say over different periods of time. You understand the points I’m making. And if I disagree with something, fine, I’m wrong in some nuance. But this is the basic idea of what’s happening. It’s all different. Whereas hasbara culture, it says this one ahistorical anti-semitism, not which is just the eliminationist one. And they see it now after this event. Elor Azaria is really proud, though. Hamas showed… They’re saying hasbara culture is right, that’s what’s so interesting. Hasbara culture won. Because look what Hamas did! It really is the Jews. No one behaves like this. That’s why they’re cutting off the heads of the babies.
Zach: A small note here: there’s been a lot of talk about beheading babies but apparently that was not true, or at least hasn’t been confirmed. I’d recommend a piece by Musa Al Gharbi where he examines the uncertainties around many of the claims being made about what happened, including reports of babies being beheaded and women being raped. That piece is titled If Truth Matters in the Conflict Between Israel and Gaza, Now’s the Time to Tell It. I have a link to that on the blog post for this episode on my site. Back to the talk.
Yakov: It’s very important the idea that these people are not the same people who fight oppression anywhere or fight colonization. No, we’re dealing with evil. The genocidal language is because of this idea that we’re dealing not only with these fellows, with the Palestinians, you know? This is who we are dealing… With the Nazis, right? We’re dealing with the Nazis. So this is a victory with Hamas doing this. Of course, there’s an answer. If we were to interview everyone, then we’d find out the truth. They quote The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Platform. They then changed it. They just said no. What does that mean? If you were to ask the people who wrote the Platform, they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re fighting the Jews and this is what they say about the Jews.” Yeah, maybe it’s true in the real world. Or they might say, “Yeah, the Quran says we should kill the Jews,” some of them say. So the goal of the ‘pro-Israel’– not the real pro-Israel, but hasbara culture– is to say we are not dealing with events that are part of this world. This is not a normal story that you think you’re seeing. Netanyahu gave a speech to Congress against the Iran deal. And during that speech in 2015, Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted this: “BP is right. Jews should not be passive in the face of threats to annihilate us.” This idea, Jews should not be passive in the face of threats to annihilate us– which I write about the Jeffrey Golberg and Netanyahu, it’s the same idea– is what’s happening. It’s why all these countries are just loving Israel to death. Because they know, and they’re talking about the Holocaust, they understand what they’re dealing with there. I’m talking about not everybody. I’m talking about this idea. I’m talking about ideas. The people who accept this idea, they can’t be stopped. If they could use a nuclear weapon, they’re going to use a nuclear weapon. They were embarrassed. Think about how volatile it is what they experience.
So what I want the listeners to understand, I’ve written how these ideas that I’m talking about influence the world. For instance, Jeffrey Goldberg… In 2015, Obama did this Iran deal which was very controversial. So Jeffrey Goldberg had an article, and he said, “Why Iran’s anti-semitism matters.” So he said, “You’re making a deal with Iran, whatever, they’re not going to set whatever the deal is.” So Goldberg confronted Obama, he actually confronted in person and he said, “I want you to answer me something.” He started the article and said, “I gave them what I thought was a gotcha question.” And he said, “Do you think that Iran wants to eliminate Israel?” This is what he asked him. And he said, “That’s a touchy question. Of course, Iran wants to eliminate Israel. How did Obama and Kerry react?” And they said, “Well, they could be anti-semitic but all our experts say no. They’re very pragmatic. They want the billions for their economy, they want to give up any ideas of nuclear weapons. This is what the experts are saying.” And Jeffrey Goldberg said, “No, you’re wrong about that.” And he browbeat Obama and Kerry. This is what he said. He said, “Just look at Hitler.” He said, “Hitler could have used the Jews for hard labor, you know, they’re fighting in this war. Why did they kill the Jews? He could’ve use them for hard labour. Instead, he said I’m going to sacrifice whatever help I can get from the Jews because ideologically, he had to kill them. That’s what anti-semitism is.” So he accused Obama and Kerry. He said, “Don’t you realize that Iran would commit suicide? If they could nuke Israel, they’d welcome suicide.”
So these ideas, and I give a hundred examples of things like that where it’s not pretentious for Obama and Kerry to say these are what all the experts say. Because Jeffrey Goldberg, just like Goldhagen was the expert on what’s going on in the head of the shooter, Jeffrey Goldberg is the expert at what’s going on that Khamenei said. That’s what these people are. The experts aren’t enough to go and confront Obama and Kerry and say, “Don’t you know? Don’t you understand who you’re dealing with?” And other Jewish organizations try to take different positions. Try to think of the Palestinian narrative. What happened was Jeffrey Goldberg and people like them turned them into self-hating Jews. If I could just read you, we talked about Kirchick, so in 2016 in one of the debates between Sanders and Clinton, he said Netanyahu is not always right. So he took a public position on the side of the Palestinians, which was a very big deal because once that’s accepted, the floodgates will open. Once it’s not “Who’s side are you on? The Jews or their enemies,” and once it becomes more complicated, then every progressive politician will say, “Of course, I want peace.” Yeah, the Palestinians have claims, I see their perspective, and I wrote an article hasbara culture and what they did to Sanders. They turned him into a self-hating Jew. Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted: “I don’t know why Bernie Sanders won’t say he’s the first American Jewish President.” Right?
Zach: I think Yakov meant to say the first American Jewish presidential candidate. Back to the talk.
Yakov: He constantly, that’s what Goldberg did to all these people who made some criticism, he said, “This guy doesn’t realize they all want to kill us.” And the reason is because they have some pathology. They have a Jewish pathology that’s self-hatred. When Jeffrey Goldberg, you know, there were these skirmishes in the last 25 years about all of these questions. So, Greenwald made these arguments in favor— He took the Palestinian perspective, basically. So Jeffrey Goldberg attacked him. When Jeffrey Goldberg attacked him, he had to explain why this guy Greenwald is taking the side of the Palestinians. He said probably something horrible happened to him in Hebrew school. The reason why this Jew is thinking of the perspective of the Palestinians, it’s because he was molested when he was a kid. That’s the pathology. And now he hates all the Jews. So anyone who tried to end this conflict in Israel, anyone, any attempt of a two-state solution became impossible. Every politician asked, the question was always, “Are you with the Jews or are you with the people who want to kill the Jews?” Every question! That’s why no one has the courage to call for a ceasefire. Because when you call for a ceasefire, they’ll say, “No, you’re stopping the Jews from doing what needs to be done.” After the Holocaust, that whole story when you say “ceasefire,” the State Department came out with a memo: Nobody calls for a ceasefire, no one says those words. Because that’s what it means when you say those words. That’s the power of these ideas. And the events unfolding, if they keep on being interpreted by Bari Weiss and Jeffrey Goldberg and Yair Rosenberg and hasbara culture and Republican politicians, that’s why a Republican politician is so powerful to say this charge that Biden is on the side of Hamas. You find one thing Biden did, you say we would have done something differently, Biden’s on the side of Hamas. That’s the political culture we’re living in.
Zach: Can I ask you? I want to get to some questions that I’ve accumulated. I interviewed James Kirchick, which was kind of what led up to us talking, and I think one thing you both would probably agree on is that anti-semitism is hugely overstated. I think he might find more of it. He would call more things anti-semitic in terms of criticisms of Israel than you would, but I think you both would agree that the problem is often overstated on both sides. Is that accurate? On both political sides of the US, I mean. Is that accurate to say?
Yakov: Yes, that’s what happens. So you have Republicans, let’s say they put up pictures of billionaires, or they use– let’s go back a little time– when they use the word globalist, I believe that people who study, they didn’t think about Jews when they’re using the word globalist. Whatever. Suddenly, the certain influentials will say, “Hey, globalist? You mean the Jews.” And suddenly the result in the culture is anytime someone uses the word globalist, he’s thinking about the Jews. If the word globalist would be allowed to live, nothing would happen to the Jews. Yeah, a few people would say Jews. No problem. That’s no problem, a few people will say it. But when you make every person who wants to use the word globalist think, “Uh-oh, the Jews say this is anti-semitic. Should I do it or shouldn’t I do it?” Suddenly, you have terrible strife and this leads to anti-semitism. These interventions cultivate anti-semitism. So, I am blaming hasbara culture for the world we live in. As simple as that. One last thing, I know I’ve been going on and on. Really important, one last thing. When you listen to me, you’re like what’s my politics? I want to quote three quotes; Jeffrey Goldberg, Bari Weiss, and Kirchick since this is responding to Kirchick, about Jews. This is what they wrote about Jews who were taking the perspective of the Palestinians. In other words, they believe it’s…
You know, they have a case, right? When you look at the world from the Palestinian perspective, very different. So how do they explain all these writers and thinkers that they defended over the years for trying to get a two-state solution versus seeing the Palestinian perspective? I’m going to quote first Jeffrey Goldberg. He’s talking about this group of people. The others, though, are part of a tiny minority of Jews who believe that the destruction of Israel will bring them the approval of non-Jews which they crave. This is an ideology. He’s not just saying. This is an ideology. Listen to Bari Weiss, she’s talking about the same people. “As many well-intentioned people look to understand why a very small but very vocal group of Jews seem as deeply opposed to Jewish interests as many of our community’s enemies, these Jews ought to be understood in context as part of a long history of left-wing anti-semitic movements that successfully conscript Jews as agents in their own destruction.” And then Kirchick will decide to talk about Bernie Sanders in 2016. He says, “Bernie Sanders and his Jewish devotees can distance themselves from Israel and Zionism all they want. But as has always been the case, it will make no difference to the people they’re trying to please, who continue to reduce them to a single factor of their identity, which in their minds has attained the totalizing force of an epithet Jew.” Okay? Kirchick says you know what? All the people you’re dealing with and you just move into your leftist friends, when they look at you, they see Jew! And you don’t want to accept that because you want them to like you. Right? This is the level of argument by hasbara culture.
Zach: Okay, let me pivot there. Do you see some of these elements in the American left-right divide around, for example, anti-racism racism conflicts there? Do you see some of this?
Yakov: Yes, of course. Because I’m not the first one that’s saying it. When you’re looking at the world, and if you’re ideological, what does ideological mean? You’re constantly looking for proof from the real world for what you believe, right? You can’t be objective because if you believe White people are racist or you have a strong belief, you’re constantly… I’m talking about the Jewish people. If you’re constantly looking for evidence of, let’s say, White people being racist, you have nonstop ammunition which convinces you of your belief. And anyone who’s following you, who’s following your thinking, and who’s reading you, they’re doing the same thing. There’s not someone in there saying, “Hold on, think about the other side. Think about what the argument is against.” For instance, when Trump ran in 2016, I knew we were in big trouble because at MSNBC some opinion person said, “These people voted for Trump because they’re racist.” And it turned out that a big percentage of these people had voted for Obama. Right?
Zach: Yeah. Actually, one of the most important articles that I only recently learned about– I think it’s one of the most important articles– is this great article paper called Race and the Race for the White House by Musa al-Gharbi. It really delves into some of the really bad research that purported to find large amounts of racism amongst Trump voters, and it really highlighted… And it’s something I talk about in my “Defusing American Anger” book just how much people were filtering for what they wanted to find, basically. I think it gets to the fundamental nature of extreme conflict where so many people are filtering for these extremely pessimistic and sky-is-falling narratives. To take one example, we could we could take many examples but on the American right, I see these really elaborate narratives they built up about the evil Marxist plots around them and how everything is tied to Marxism and there’s this undercurrent of Marxism. I think the thing that’s missing from this is like, yes, some of these ideas do have a history of related to very far-left ideas and such and you can build that narrative. But it’s also just true that we’re living in a world. Any complex human world involves a cascade of ideas and you can build all these complex narratives of all sorts to bolster your most pessimistic views of what’s happening. Whereas in reality, it’s much more banal than that. People are responding to… There are humans responding to the things around them, which includes— [crosstalk]
Yakov: Yeah, they’re not ideas. They’re human beings. They’re not some idea.
Zach: Exactly. And part of what they’re responding to is the things that they see as threats on the other side. So it gets back to this idea that in a conflict, we can be helping create the very things that we are most afraid of by how we react to them. Because for example, when Republicans say really horrible things about far-left people or transgender people or whoever it is, they’re helping create the animosity that makes people on the left feel that they’re under attack, which strengthens their passion, etc, etc. So I think the thing that people try to do in a conflict is build these narratives that leave themselves out of it. They build these narratives of “Look at these horrible things that these people have done.” And they build this narrative that suits their us-versus-them emotions, but they’re leaving themselves out of the equation. This isn’t to say that both sides are equal, both sides are the same in any conflict. Because that’s often the objection people get. The point is that if we’re interested in resolving conflicts, we have to be willing to examine our role in the conflict and whether we think the other side is even much worse. The first step is thinking about our role in the conflict and being willing to self-examine and not see criticism of us as a mortal threat or something as a horrible insult.
Yakov: Yeah, if we could have cognitive empathy for both the Jewish dead, think about the hostages, think about what it must be like.
Zach: It’s terrifying. I mean, it’s unthinkable.
Yakov: And at the same time, think about these people in Gaza. When you think about human beings, the deaths that have nothing to do with anything. But the thought of it as an idea, not human beings. Israel, not all Israel, they’re saying, “This is an idea. These are the Nazis, they supported the Nazis, and were allowed to kill the Nazis.” That’s the idea. They’re not thinking of these people as actual human beings like we think of the people that Hamas killed. We know we could relate to them, we could have cognitive empathy and see the world what they experience while this is happening. You can’t even think about what that’s like. Right? So, we have to be able to do that. Each side has to be able to do that for the other side, or God knows where this is going.
Zach: One thing something you have been saying made me think of was the Jonestown Massacre. I recently watched this documentary. It just made me think that the horrible things that these people did when Jim Jones had them drink the poisoned Kool Aid– and some of the parents even got their kids to drink the Kool Aid, their own children, and their own spouses, etc– there’s a narrative you could build about how evil these people were. You could build a very pessimistic narrative that these people must have been horrible. Their ideology must have been so out of whack, like, inhuman. Because how could you do these things? It’s unthinkable. But the more banal explanation, getting back to the banality of evils, it is just that people are very weak and they’re very led by the people around them, and they very easily succumb to peer pressure in surprising ways that are really hard to fathom. It’s almost easier to imagine people are evil in some of these situations than to imagine how could you do that just because the people around you are doing it and you’re afraid to push back. But I think it really does get to this human frailty, this human weakness of how weak we really are in many cases. That’s hard to understand, too, because I think most of us had this idea of the strength of ourselves, you know? We were self-sufficient—
Yakov: We would never do that.
Zach: We would never do these kinds of things. But I think it does get to this fundamental human question, this human element that we are all products of the people and ideas around us. And in the right circumstances, we are capable of all sorts of things that we wouldn’t think we’d be capable of. So yeah, I think that’s the fundamental human dilemma there that is hard to solve that we just find these things so hard to understand.
That was a talk with Yakov Hirsch. You can find his writings on Mondoweiss, and you can follow him on Twitter @YakovHirsch.
This has been the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at www.peoplewhoreadpeople.com. If you appreciate the work I’m doing, you might also want to sign up for my depolarization-aimed substack newsletter, which is called Defusing American Anger.