Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Professor Richard Landes, being an original thinker, has many new terms, or at least they are new to me. "Demotic." "Cogwar." But I particularly love the concept Richard Landes describes as “Hopium” where hope, in the form of the coming of the messiah, acts as an opiate to dull the pain of the struggle to live in a harsh and sometimes unforgiving world. The idea is striking as an accurate description of the need for the belief in the messiah, separate from whether or not he is actually on the way.
There’s one term, however, that has become a part of the lexicon of every serious observer of the media’s war on Israel and that is “Pallywood.” This term, too, originated with Richard Landes, referring to photos, footage and news coverage staged to make Israel look bad. Pallywood, as a concept, way predates “fake news.” And it was that term and its underlying concept that made Richard Landes a household name for those of us in the trenches defending Israel.
Richard Landes
When I thought of whom I wanted to interview next, Richard came to mind not only because he is interesting, but because I had a hunch he’d say yes, because he’s so approachable. I know that if I comment on one of his papers, he will respond, even though I’m not a scholar or a professor. To my mind, this is the way the internet was meant to be: people with like interests who would otherwise never meet, can find each other online to discuss important and serious concepts.
Not only did Richard Landes agree to be interviewed, but he informed me in a subsequent progress report that he was maybe having “too much fun” answering my questions. Which is when I knew he was going to be giving me interview gold. Which is exactly what I got.  Because Richard Landes is not just interesting and approachable, but generous with his thoughts and time, as will become clear in the scope and breadth of this in-depth interview.
Without further ado, I give you Richard Landes:
Varda Epstein: Where did you grow up? Can you tell us about your parents, and further back, about your family roots? What is your earliest memory?
Richard Landes: I was born in Paris as my father was researching his thesis on the Industrial Revolution. My family left France soon thereafter, though I spent about seven of my first 25 years in that country. I was otherwise in the US, from age 3-7 in Westchester County, then in Palo Alto, California from age 7-8, in Berkeley from age 9-14, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts from age 15-21.
My father’s family came to the United States in the early 20th century from Romania. My great grandfather was a merchant, he sold dry goods and developed supermarkets in Baltimore; my grandfather was a contractor, building skyscrapers in New York City; and my father was a professor and an economic historian at Harvard.
My father wrote several books, among them “The Unbound Prometheus,” “Revolution in Time,” “Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” and “Dynasties,” all about the marvels of Western technology. I grew up with the question “Why the West?” today considered politically incorrect, since it acknowledges that the West has accomplished something no other culture has done, and therefore prompts inferiority feelings of others.
My mother’s family was from Tarnopol, in Russia. They were fur traders, though my maternal grandfather was in real estate. My mother was an English teacher and the author of a series on teaching children’s literature published with BookWise. She also wrote “Pariswalks” with my sister the year they were in Paris in 1973-1974, and I was in the Pyrenees.
My earliest memory is of falling into the swimming pool on the Queen Mary and seeing someone dive in to catch me when I was three years old.
Varda Epstein: Your specialty is millennialism. What is the significance of the belief in the coming of a messianic age to the Jewish people? Imagine if you will, Jews without a belief in the coming of the Messiah. How would we be different without that belief?
Richard Landes: Millennialism, or the belief in a coming Golden Age of peace, plenty and happiness on earth (also known as the messianic era) is, in my understanding, one of the most powerful drives in history. It can lay dormant for years or even decades, but generally bursts out into full-fledged apocalyptic movements (“Now is the time!”), every generation or so. The egalitarian strands (what I call “demotic” or “of the people”), are the driving force behind modernity, and a key element in Jewish survival over the millennia.
Millennialism is an outrageous hope that makes working for a better world possible, despite all the disappointments of life. The belief in messianic era can be an addiction – hopium – and lead to really stupid decisions, for instance sticking with the Oslo Process long after it became clear it was in actuality a war process. Or like today’s Progressives allying with the Caliphaters.
But millennialism/messianism is like fire: at the right temperatures, it is life-giving, but at the wrong temperatures, too much or too little heat, it can cause massive destruction. My book, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience,” traces the paths of some of the most spectacular apocalyptic movements (i.e. movements of people who think, like the Caliphaters, that the cosmic transformation is happening now!).
I don’t think it’s possible to imagine the Jews without messianism, just as I don’t think it’s possible to imagine either Christianity or Islam, both born in apocalyptic times, without messianism, with all three religions renewing imminent expectation generation after generation. I run across some raised eyebrows when pressed to say whether I believe a messiah will come, and I claim that my mother taught me that “if he didn’t come during the Holocaust, he ain’t coming.” As far as I’m concerned, we’re on our own with all the tools we need. We just need to use them wisely.
I guess I’m part of an unknown number of people who can appreciate the value of messianic thinking and not partake of it, a little like Odysseus and the sirens. Hitler strapped me to the mast. I don’t expect the messiah.
Israel as a state, on the other hand, could not have been built without the messianic hope that the great and moral effort would result in our coming to our homeland free and in peace. Whether secular (Plough Women) or religious (Rav Kook), the messianic Zionist currents constantly met, crossed, reinforced, and struggled against each other. Zionism, in fact, is the only egalitarian millennial movement that has taken power and not, under the blows of hostile neighbors, turned to megadeath and totalitarian coercion (examples of this include the French Revolutionary “terror”, the Soviets, the Nazis, and the Jihadis, among others.) Indeed, Israel’s continuing commitment to democratic principles for over 70 years of constant threat stands as a unique achievement. (The United States, in its early years, managed to overcome the same authoritarian paranoid tendencies as in the examples mentioned above, although under a much lower level of threat.)
Varda Epstein: Were you ever targeted on campus, for your stance on Israel? How has the climate on campuses all over America changed for Jewish students? What should we be doing to fight back?
Richard Landes: I wasn’t targeted, as far as I know, and certainly not openly as what happened to Andrew Pessin at Connecticut College in 2015, the year I retired. But I did become isolated. People didn’t want to hear me defend or discuss Israel. I remember showing “Pallywood” to a colleague in the history dept. He said to me, “I don’t know if you realize this, but I’ve become a liberal,” by which he basically meant, “I won’t acknowledge your evidence, discuss your analysis, or give you a platform.”

Pallywood: "According to Palestinian Sources" from Al Durah Project on Vimeo.

Another colleague, the one with whom, of all my colleagues, I had had the most interesting intellectual discussions, noted how pale I looked one day in the winter of 2002. “It’s all these suicide bombings,” I said.
“Yeah, what choice do they have,” he responded without missing a beat.
I felt like I’d been kicked in the stomach.
“You have heard of Oslo?” I said.
“Oh yes, that,” he responded, as if the Palestinians had not just chosen war.
I only later identified the revolting phenomenon of “humanitarian racism” in assuming Palestinians incapable of any moral responsibility, and the transferring all of that responsibility instead to Israel: “You give them no choice but to teach their children to want to kill themselves trying to kill your children.”
And it’s not only this man, this colleague, per se. We’d never before discussed the Middle East that I can recall. He must have heard this idea of Palestinian Arabs having “no choice” from others, and when they had said it, everyone around had nodded, so he assumed it to be true. I wrote a response, a letter, which later became this essay. He never really responded.
I didn’t fully understand this at the time it was happening, but 2000 was an historical turning point. As far back as the 1980s, with its anti-Orientalism stance, academic standards for handling empirical evidence, and thinking with any humane moral consistency about the conflict in the land between the river and the sea had already taken a sharp downturn. But by and large, the larger culture had resisted: public figures, policy-makers, mainstream journalists, even most academics had remained reasonably sympathetic to, and willing to take into account the Zionist narrative, especially when the empirical evidence so strongly supported it.
In 2000, with the outbreak of the Intifada, the post-colonial voice took over. This was evident from the way journalists reported and progressive voices interpreted that event. The anti-Zionists began to shout accusations – Nazis – while those sympathetic to Israel fell silent.
By 2002, a strident anti-Zionist narrative dominated whole areas of the public sphere, from classroom to coffeehouse to dinner-table conversation and opinion pieces. As for the previous, seemingly solid support for Israel, it had collapsed. By 2003, at the height of the suicide terror jihad that increasingly targeted the West, you couldn’t be a Western Liberal if you weren’t pro-Palestinian.
We Zionist sympathizers, on campus, in scholarship, and in journalism, resembled the guy in the samurai movie after his opponent ducks under his blow – he stands stock still, then there is a trickle of blood across his shins, and finally his body falls away from his severed feet. The current craziness on campuses is the result of the spread of that mentality from academia to the journalists and on to the global Progressive movement in tandem with the impotence of the Zionist response. And all of that went mainstream in 2000. In fact, the global progressive protest in Seattle held the previous year, in 1999, did not even raise the Palestinian issue.
Varda Epstein: You are credited with coining the term “Pallywood.” How would you define the term? When and how did you become aware of the phenomenon?
Richard Landes with his film, "Pallywood."
Richard Landes: I coined it as I walked out of the office of France2 TV on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, on October 31, 2003. I had just reviewed the TV footage shot by Talal abu Rahmah, a France2 cameraman, who had persuaded Charles Enderlin to run his video and story of the IDF targeting and killing a 12-year-old Palestinian boy in the arms of his father. This was an event I considered a global cognitive earthquake, and from the Jihadi perspective, a nuclear bomb in the cognitive war (cogwar) against the West.
The video I saw, which Enderlin refused to release, and showed only to vetted friends (I got vetted by a colleague), was nothing but kids standing around, unafraid of the Israelis, and trying to provoke them. These scenes were punctuated by extraordinary staged footage of Palestinians being “shot” by Israelis, then taken by half a dozen men and thrown into an ambulance (more Palestinian suffering at the hands of IDF), followed by more fake fighting scenes (Palestinian David takes on Israeli Goliath).
Violent "injured" evacuation
At one point, it got so silly that Enderlin’s Israeli cameraman who was watching with us, snorted. “Why do you laugh?” I asked.
“Because it’s so obviously staged.”
“I know,” I said, turning to Enderlin, who had used the footage of this photographer to tell his explosive story.
“Oh yeah,” said he in a burst of unconscious Orientalism, “They do it all the time. It’s a cultural thing.”
“So why couldn’t Al Durah be staged?” I asked.
“Oh, they couldn’t fool me,” said Enderlin.
Muhammad al Durah, after he's supposed to be dead, looking at the camera in a scene cut by Enderlin.
As I walked out of the office, I realized that not only do the Palestinian cameramen stage these things all the time, but Western journalists had no problem with this. The other shoe had dropped. It was not just the Palestinians who used Western camera equipment to stage their war propaganda, but the mainstream news media, who rummaged through the junk looking for the most believable sight-bytes to accompany reports on events. It’s not a pick-up game, I thought, it’s an industry… it’s Pallywood. That’s what blew my mind and seemed incomprehensible to so many people outside of Israel – and even to some Israelis: that the media could so violate its own most basic principles.
Journalists, I suddenly realized, weren’t looking for what had actually happened, but for believable footage to illustrate the Palestinian narrative that they had now formally adopted: the narrative that runs somewhere between the Palestinian David versus the Israeli Goliath of the mainstream news media (CNN, BBC, the New York Times) and the Israeli Nazi versus the Palestinian Jew-victim of advocacy journalism (the Nation, the Guardian, Open Democracy). And that narrative, which increasingly overtook the Western public sphere in the aughts (‘00s) and teens, began with Al Durah in 2000, and continues with the current weaponization of BDS on campus.
Varda Epstein: Why do you call your blog “Augean Stables?”
Richard Landes: I realized that Enderlin and his colleagues (the journalists who bring the news of what’s happening here in Israel), had developed atrocious habits, accepting staged footage from their cameramen, and then using the best parts to tell their story to viewers back home. Indeed, the encrustation of bad habits, both empirical and moral, involved in adopting the Palestinian narrative as news and dismissing Israeli counter-claims or counter-evidence as propaganda, struck me as the modern (free) journalist’s version of the Augean Stables: layer upon layer of bad choices, and bad reporting, never corrected, never changed, which had led to an edifice that literally stank globally of accumulated layers of bullshit. And of course, as Heracles cleaned out the stables in a day by running a river through them, I thought the internet would become that river, the one that could sweep away those atrocious habits.
I was, of course, wrong. Lethal journalism is still as strong and as self-destructive as ever. In fact, that brand of lethal journalism has spread. The first “fake news” of the 21st century was the reporting of the Western press of what was happening here in Israel. It was widespread and sustained (think Jenin in 2002, Lebanon in 2006, and so forth) and it fundamentally disoriented Western thinkers into mistaking the first Jihadi attack on a democracy in the new century, one that pioneered the apocalyptic weapon of suicide terror, for a bunch of “freedom fighters” fighting an evil empire. In 2002, reports of an Israeli massacre at Jenin had Spanish models wear nothing but mock suicide belts to show their solidarity with their Jihadi enemies, celebrating mass-murderous attacks on civilians in (by far) the most progressive culture in the Middle East. It was a massive victory in the cognitive war Caliphaters are so effectively waging against the West.
I’m beginning to wonder if the cleaning out of the stables will happen in time to stop what these bad habits continuously empower, namely people who indeed want to burn down the free news media’s stables, now highly explosive with accumulated fertilizer. Perhaps cyberspace is not a river, but an electric current.
Varda Epstein: Tell us about your Aliyah. When did you know you would make Aliyah? Why did you make Aliyah? Any regrets?
Richard Landes: I came here as an 18 year-old, weeks after the 1967 war was over, and again for a year after the Yom Kippur war, and once more with family in 1994-5. And I always thought of staying, telling myself I’d eventually come back.
In 2004, while here working on the Al Durah Pallywood documentaries, I met Esther Sha’anan (thanks to Tova Weinberg of “Saw You at Sinai” fame). Esther had told Tova she wouldn’t marry someone who wasn’t going to live in the Land. Tova, without knowing she was right, told Esther I was planning to make Aliyah.
We were married in 2005; I polluted the skies with my trips to Israel over the next ten years, then, with a sigh of relief, left Boston University and the Western academic scene in 2015. I think I made Aliyah formally in 2009. At that point it was just a question of working with Nefesh b’Nefesh. I’m somewhat ashamed it took me so long to finally do it.
Varda Epstein: Do you think the “fake news” phenomenon is real? Is it recent? A resurgence of an old problem?
Richard Landes: I’d say it’s very bad, indeed, when you look at what’s happening to democracies around the world, whether political insanity (Labour, Progressive Democrats, Trump) or an inevitable self-protective move to the “right” (Right-wing parties), reacting to the suicidal “cosmopolitanism” of the political and information elites who consider it a sacred duty in honor of the Holocaust to bring in waves of Jew-hating Muslims and spread them over Europe.
Now we swim in fake news that has taken over even the mainstream news media. Venerable brands are predictable only in the narratives they pitch. This level of sloppiness and disregard for the basic principles of modern journalism (also known as “post-modern advocacy journalism”) that we see everywhere from our information professionals, began at the Middle East desks of our major news outlets. Such outlets include, for instance, the BBC, CNN, France2, the New York Times, Le Monde, and Haaretz, with their coverage of the “Al Aqsa Intifada” or what we might be better understood if we called it the “Oslo Jihad,” or the opening round of the global Jihad against democracies.
Fake news is, of course, an old problem. One can even argue that modern, free, reasonable, accurate journalism is the appearance of an island of news in a sea of fake news. In time of war, the problem becomes especially acute. Historically the danger was “patriotic war journalismthat reported its own side’s war propaganda as news (e.g., the way Hearst and Pulitzer started the Spanish war for Teddy Roosevelt). It was a high moral and professional aspiration to have the media skeptical enough to resist their own side’s war propaganda.
Pallywood is a form of “partisan war journalism,” in which outside reporters take sides in a conflict and report that side’s propaganda as news. That’s how the Oslo Jihad was reported. But what the 21st century has wrought that is, I think, unique, is “own-goal war journalism,” in which the post-modern journalists report their enemy’s – Caliphater – war propaganda as news. Hence, the reported massacre at Jenin inspires infidels to cheer on apocalyptic, suicidal Jihadis as they attack a democratic society. Hence, the increasing and increasingly dysfunctional fissure in Western democracies between journalists and the increasingly restive and pained citizenry they are trying to manipulate into peaceful choices. On some level our social body has contracted a kind of CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain) in which the nerves/information professionals do not deliver to the brain/public sphere the news of where it hurts and who did it.
Results of own-goal journalism: identifying with your enemy, London 2009
Varda Epstein: What can regular people do to combat media bias? How far should we go to punish biased outlets? Should we avoid reading the content of anti-Israel publications? What outlets do you trust for hard news about Israel? 
Richard Landes: On the grand scale, we need to initiate and participate in the establishment of reliable websites (like Snopes used to be), that people can go to for a trustworthy escape from fake news. This is an enormous endeavor, but in an age of information excess and collapse of reliability, it should have a very high value… cognitive anchors, if you will. These shouldn’t be Jewish or uniquely Jewish-themed, but collective efforts to make a free, productive, self-correcting society possible by providing a cleaning process that strips away fake news – a kind of information dialysis.
On a more individual level, I think it helps to realize that the problem is systemic, that fighting the details, however important – and thank God for sites like CAMERA, HonestReporting, and UK Media Watch, there should be many more – is not going to turn the tide. The height and depth of the failure of information professionals in the 21st century is hard to imagine, partly because they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing a good job. (The Augean Stables smell just fine to them.)
And this is no longer just a problem over here (the Land of Israel) and not there (the West). It’s metastasizing. BDS is a symptom; it can only succeed because both media and academia have succumbed to the replacement narrative of Palestinians suffering genocide at the hands of the Zionists. In the process, they have betrayed the ethical demands of their profession.
What this means for how you speak with people who don’t understand what’s going on, really depends on the individuals who are interacting. But the orienting principle to articulate is that anti-Zionism is an attack not just on autonomous Jews but on the Western progressive world and on democracies: lands to which a majority of the rest of the world’s inhabitants would love to emigrate. The West’s susceptibility to lethal journalism about Israel is the soft underbelly whereby Caliphaters can infiltrate the Western progressive world and implement their authoritarian vision. When you can’t be a Progressive and a Zionist on campus, the Caliphaters have won their fight to turn infidels into useful idiots (think Linda Sarsour).
At least for now, BDS damages academia much more than it damages Israel, which continues to thrive. Real scholarship, meantime, high professional standards for the gathering and analyzing of data, especially where the Middle East is concerned, continues to degrade dramatically. Today, it’s extremely difficult for anyone in college to be exposed to the narrative that Israel represents the future of progressive politics, including feminism, in this crazy neighborhood. And yet, as my kids used to say, it’s a “no duh.”
Humor helps. I think we need to develop truly telling and penetrating jokes about the idiocy of the current acamediacracy. It’s a bit beyond my skill set. Caroline Glick had a great comedy group going about a decade ago. Latma. Maybe it made too much fun of our cousins and not enough of the insane “global progressive left.” We need some good comedians to write us some one-liners.
Ultimately, if we make our way out of this, it’ll be because people who have been too timid till now, at least play nice cop to some Zionist’s tough cop. When the thought police yell “Islamophobe” and “racist” and “blaming the victim,” any time people start to describe some of the less savory elements of the Arab and Muslim world, the (until now, largely silent) bystander needs to intervene and explain how what’s being said needs to be listened to and considered and not driven from the public sphere. That’s especially important on campuses. The reason the other side is so vociferous and morally agitated is because if they let us speak and our audience were fair-minded, they would lose.
Varda Epstein: What did you think about Israel applying its No Entry law to Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar? Who won? What is the ultimate goal of these people, from your perspective?
Richard Landes: It was a win-win for them. The way they set it up, whatever Israel did, we lost and Tlaib-Omar won. They’re both Caliphaters, vying for top spot in the American cogwar. It was a major victory for them to make it into Congress, and for Omar to win a place on the Foreign Relations Committee. It was, of course, majorly stupid of both voters and the democratic congresspeople who put her there. But, alas, virtue signalers would rather shoot themselves in various body parts than give the appearance of being prejudiced.
Saying the two could come to Israel, long before they made a formal request with a written agenda, was a big mistake. (We may have been virtue-signaling about how open we are.) We jumped the gun there. I wanted to put up a site welcoming them, and that would serve to, among other things, fact-check their statements while here. I still think that site should be prepared.
Another lesson learned from this incident: don’t wait for them to put us in a corner. Start thinking aggressively and not defensively. Israeli spokespeople have an unfortunate tendency to consider a draw or not too big a disaster, a victory of sorts, and don’t follow through when they have the upper hand. It’s a modified form of battered-wife syndrome, especially as we’ve seen it since the beginning of 2000. I don’t think we’ve won a single mivtza, a military operation, in the cogwar as yet. I think we need to amend the prayer for the IDF. ביבשה באוויר בים ובתקשורת*
Part of the problem is we don’t realize how much ground we’ve lost in the last 20 years. We think people agree with us when it comes to reality. Most Zionists think most people understand that Jenin was a massive episode of fake-news lethal journalism. Most outsiders, though, old enough to remember, think the reporting might have been exaggerated at the time, but was more or less accurate along the main lines. And so it has been with every subsequent story of Palestinian suffering, right down to the recent reporting on the weekly “Border March,” a euphemism for violent, staged protests.
Figuring out how to get out of this hole we’re in calls for deep and long-term (though urgent) thinking. Not “how can I (temporarily) move the needle for my donor?” but a serious dedication of funds (a couple of fighter jets’ worth), strategy, and tactics with which we might fight a cognitive war, not just for Israel, but for any democracy that wants to remain free and productive.
Varda Epstein: What is the main lesson we learn from history?
Richard Landes: That it’s those who fail to learn the right lessons who are fated to repeat the wrong decisions. Like the “woke left” of today, that is still unable to absorb the lessons of the millennial madnesses of the 20th century like communism and Nazism, and is about to repeat the madness by allying with and empowering a terrifyingly destructive millennial movement (the Caliphaters), endorsing them as carriers of a redemptive message.
Solidarity with the most ambitious and ferocious imperialist movement on the planet, Denver Democratic National Convention, 2008. 
As I mentioned, I grew up with the question “Why the West?” – and my answer is, above all, the ability to absorb criticism and learn from it. It’s the major difference between an honor-shame culture and an integrity-guilt culture. In the former, public admission of wrongdoing or failure is a shameful sign of weakness and hurts your standing in others’ eyes. In the latter, it’s a way of both maintaining integrity and learning from mistakes. One dynamic favors a culture of consensus, the other a culture of dispute. The integrity-guilt culture is why the West is so spectacularly successful in all kinds of technology and learning, and why the Jews are so successful in the modern West.
Self-criticism is very hard, and many people spend most of their emotional energy defending their honor or image in others’ eyes (lethal journalists). They invest a great deal of time anticipating and imagining attacks. The learning curve of the 21st century Western “intelligentsia” (the people who have a large impact on the conversation in our public sphere), has been lamentably low.
We need a generation of all ages that can learn from and give criticism effectively. But for that we need to quiet the moral hysteria – indignant cries of “Islamophobia,” “white supremacism,” “racism,” “hate-speech,” and even “antisemitism” – so we can listen and be listened to, and respond in a thoughtful manner.
* On land, in the air, at sea, and in the news media
***


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