Understanding the “Other”

I was in the 6th grade, in a modern Orthodox Jewish Day school. The Hebrew teacher got very angry at one of the pupils and slapped him in the face – not altogether uncommon back in the early 1960s when “light” corporal punishment was handed out in schools. But the pupil’s reaction was certainly uncommon: he punched the teacher back – in the stomach! And then he followed that with (in Hebrew): “don’t you ever touch me again!” (And the teacher never did.)

It goes without saying that we were all shocked back then by our “colleague’s” response. I’ve thought about it over the years (the only “violence” I ever witnessed in my entire educational experience): how and why did he have the gumption to react like that? My conclusion: he was born and raised in Israel (his family came to the States somewhat recently before that event). Over “there,” no one takes “shit” from anyone else, whether age 12 or 52.

As a dual citizen, born and raised in the U.S., but living most of my life in Israel (with occasional sabbatical years back in the States), I am eminently qualified to compare these two allied countries that have very dissimilar cultures. My purpose here, however, is not an academic exercise in cross-comparative culture, but to note the difficulty that certain cultures have in “understanding” others. This is especially true of America.

First, some facts. It’s banal to note that the U.S. exists on a continent several thousands of miles away from Europe on one side and the Pacific on the other side. But this has had profound consequences on the American mentality. For most of its history that meant little international warfare and political isolationism (George Washington’s Inaugural Address is the prime example, where he warned Americans against getting involved in European politics and wars). That macro approach has filtered down deeply into the micro-level as well. Only 42% of Americans have a passport – up from 32% in 2009 when for the first time they needed one to get into Canada or Mexico. Compare that with another “even-more-distant-over-the-ocean” Anglo country, Australia, with 57%.

I could not find any similar data on Israel regarding passports, but in 2019 (the last pre-Corona year), an astounding 4.3 million Israelis went overseas – almost half the country’s population (and half of them went overseas more than once). Clearly, the percentage of Israeli passport holders is well over 50%. From a macro standpoint, Israel is the mirror image of the U.S., with constant foreign travel. In part, this might also be due to the fact that a majority of Israel’s Jewish population was either born overseas or are children of overseas-born parents.

What does this all mean? First, xenophobia is much higher in the U.S. than in Israel. I would venture a guess that most American “white nationalists” do not hold foreign passports, and thus have not really had (nor do they want) any significant exposure to “others.” Israel has some xenophobic racism, but nowhere near the magnitude found in the U.S.  Second, and more important for the world scene, American foreign policy – when it does decide to enter world politics, especially post-WW2 – tries to mold the rest of the world in its own image. Democracy in Afghanistan? That U.S. debacle is but the latest result of a profound symptom in which even (most) American foreign policymakers see the world through the prism of their country’s culture and creed. It goes without saying, though, that American “exceptionalism” not only holds within it the benefits of a liberal, democratic order, but also the disadvantage of cultural blinders that others do not have the same history, culture, or even aspirations that America has.

This is particularly perplexing for American and Israeli Jewry. On the face of it, one would expect Jews to think and behave about the same everywhere. However, after seventy-plus years of incessant conflict – in a mostly hostile regional neighborhood – Israelis have developed a culture, not only politically but also on the micro-personal level, that is worlds apart from their American (and western European) counterparts. American Jews cannot understand why Israelis are so “belligerent” towards their immediate neighbors, the Palestinians (forgetting that Israel had no problem signing peace treaties with several former enemies). Even on a personal level, the gap is wide. For example, few Israelis residing in America feel comfortable or socialize with native co-religionists for all sorts of cultural-behavioral reasons – and vice versa.

Which brings me back to the school incident. Was the teacher right in slapping the boy? No. Was the boy right in punching our teacher? Again, no. Two noes don’t make a right, of course – which is exactly the point. Jewish history is full of examples where Jews from around the world didn’t get along because of the widely disparate cultures they came from. To take but one egregious example from two centuries ago: upper class Sephardi Jews asked Napoleon not to “emancipate” (i.e., grant wider civil rights to) their poorer Ashkenazi Jewish counterparts.

The best we can hope for, indeed strive for, is greater toleration of the “other” (Jew and non-Jew alike) and even some appreciation of the fact that any culture tends not to be “superior” (or inferior) to most others – just humanly different.

Cancel Culture: A Serious Satire

For my PhD studies at Harvard, I had to choose four “sub-fields” for my oral exams. Among the four, I selected Modern Jewish History. I then took a course with one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever had the privilege of hearing: Prof. Yosef Yerushalmi. His most famous book (the core of our course) was “Zakhor” – “Memory in Jewish History.”

It strikes me today in our era of “Cancel Culture,” that the Jewish approach to history is diametrically opposite: we are commanded to remember the past. This is not to say that Jews glorify anything heinous in the past. Quite the opposite! The Bible commands us to actively remember the past, especially if immoral or otherwise disastrous. Other than the High Holidays, that’s the basis of almost all Jewish holidays and fast days: Passover (freedom after centuries of slavery), Purim (Haman), Hanukkah (assimilation), Tisha B’av (Temple destruction, twice), 17th of Tammuz (breeching Jerusalem’s walls), the Fast of Gedaliah (assassination of Jewish viceroy), and so on. Even more germane is the commandment to publicly remember what Amalek did to the Israelites in the desert – a passage read every pre-Purim Sabbath. Indeed, this passage is particularly “paradoxical” because it demands that Jews “erase the memory of Amalek” by recounting every year what they did way back then! In other words, the Jewish approach to “canceling” is remembering!!

In that latter spirit, and as a protest (also quintessentially Jewish) against Cancel Culture, I decided this time to do something very different: pen a quasi-serious satire of Cancel Culture, taking place in the relatively distant future, but looking back at the present. Call it a “future memorial” if you wish.



October 2071

“Hi Gramps. How did your genetification treatment go today?”

“Pretty well. Instead of 75, my biocell-age is down to 52. Should be able to run the marathon next week in under two and half hours. How’s college going?”

“Actually, better than I thought. We spend half our time outside the campus.”

“Virtual classes from afar?”

“That’s a good one! No, we’re into historical justice activism.”

Historical justice? What’s that? In my day, we were into social justice.”

“Well, it’s almost the same thing. But instead of fixing the contemporary system, we are pointing fingers at past injustices.”

“Interesting. But how does that help us change things today?”

“If we let the historicriminals of the past maintain their visibility, we can’t deal with the foundations of today’s injustices.”

“Did you say historicriminals? Is that one word or two?”

“Wow, gramps, don’t you receive any BrainBook news these days?”

“BrainBook. What’s that?”

“It’s the relatively new way of social mediating – based on Machine-to-Brain communication. Sort of a neuronal Facebook.”

“Sorry, too newfangled for me. I’ll stick to reading books. Anyway, the news is too depressing; haven’t gotten any in a few years. Much better for my blood pressure.”

“Have it your way. In any case, historicriminality is all about important people in the past who influenced or caused serious harm to society or lots of individuals.”

“For example?”

“Last week our class did some serious research about the major meat producers. A few of my friends didn’t even last an hour. Can you imagine that people once killed animals and then ate them? How gross and cruel can you get? When we got to augmediated clips of early 21st century slaughterhouses, one acquaintance fainted, and a few others couldn’t continue.”

“What was the purpose of that research?”

“To go through all Wokeapedia items that covered such murderous companies and their founders or major corporate managers.”

“And then?”

“And then to Cancel all the ones we could find.”


“Come on, gramps. You may be a bit old, but you’re not senile. From what I understand, the idea of Cancel Culture started when you were about my age. We can’t allow historicriminals to be glorified or even memorialized. That just preserves and continues the long chain of immorality.”

“So you just say ‘delete’ and Wokepedia erases these people?”

“It’s not that simple. We’ve got to show that each of these individuals caused great suffering or evil. But with universal genemeat consumption today, that’s a lot easier. Public opinion is on our side.”

“Anything else that’s harder?”

“You bet!”

“Like what?”


“Excuse me? Did you say Jesus? What did he do wrong?”

“Gramps, do you know how many Jews, Moslems and other non-believers were tortured and murdered by the Church as an institution, not to mention Christian believers who took matters into their own hands without Church encouragement?”

“So Jesus was to blame for all that? Don’t tell me that you…what did you call it… ah yes, Canceled him?”

“In principle, we could have. Your generation did a great job eliminating Columbus, so why not Jesus?”

“Why not, indeed.”

“Well, here’s a surprise for you. At first, we thought to do exactly that. But you know, college is for learning stuff. We discovered that Jesus wasn’t at fault at all – in fact, he wasn’t even a Christian!”

“You don’t say! A ‘surprise’, indeed.”

“That sounded like sarcasm, Gramps. That’s not like you.”

“Sorry. There are some things that old fogies like us are aware of, that your generation seems to be ‘discovering’ anew.”

“In any case, turns out that Jesus was Jewish to the very end. It was one of his students—”


“Right, disciples. The one called Paul that really started Christianity as a religion.”

“So, what did you people do then?”

“Well, there was a huge battle to Cancel city names with ‘Paul’ in it. Minnesotans put up a furious fight. We lost that one.”

“So ‘Paul’ is saved?”

“Are you kidding? Of course not! We put the name Paul on our Cancel baby list.”

“Baby list?”

“The baby name list. Once a name gets put on that list, almost no one will call their child by that name.”

“Sounds pretty draconian to me.”

“Gramps, don’t be such a hypocrite. When you were growing up, how many American or European kids were given the name Adolf?”

“So St. Paul and Adolf Hitler get the same treatment?”

“Not yet. We’ve succeeded in Canceling the word Hitler from all U.S. education textbooks. That probably won’t happen with Paul.”

“You can’t win ‘em all, I guess.”

“Right. But we’ve scored quite a number of major successes.”

“Like what? Or should I say: like who?”

“Well, if we got rid of Hitler, we had to do the same with Stalin and Mao. You know, some historians argue that both of them led to more people dying than Hitler! Scary.”

“China and Russia went along with that?”

“China, yes. Ever since the Third Revolution, they are willing to join in expunging historicriminals from their records too.”

“But Russia not?”

“Ever since Putin’s grandson took over, their history has become sacrosanct.”

“I wasn’t aware he had a grandson.”

“See what you could learn if you’d be on BrainBook? Putin’s son was Kirill Shamalov, and his son is Shamalov, Jr. But we prefer to call him shame, no love.”

“That’s a good one.”

“Thanks. Who says we historic justicians don’t have a sense of humor?”

“Not me. Any other campaigns you’ve been part of?”

“Yeah, the biggest one of all – climate warming deniers. What a massive project! You wouldn’t believe how many climate deniers there were.”

“I sure would. Remember, I lived much of my early life in that atmosphere.”

“Good pun, Gramps!”

“Unintended, I assure you. Who’s the leading historicriminal of this campaign?”

“Well, we had so many names that it took us a long time to decide who was disworthy, and on the other hand who we ought to leave alone.”

“Disworthy? Is that a new term?”

“Not at all. Boy, you really haven’t been following the news for a long time. It’s a mashup meaning whoever is worthy of dissing.”

“And the disworthy winner was?”

“President Trump. It wasn’t that he was any more forceful in his denial than others. But he came much later than most of the others, at a time when the evidence was already overwhelming. And despite that, he not only stuck to his guns on the issue but also pushed his government agencies to allow for more pollution. Can’t get more disworthy than that.”

“Must have been easy to Cancel him all over. One of the history books I read recently called him the worst U.S. President. Not sure how they measured that, but it seems you guys weren’t the only ones on his case.”

“Gramps, please don’t use that expression.”

“On his case?”

“No. You guys. Language has to be gender-neutral.”

“OK, sorry again. Bad habits die hard.”

“Sure. But that’s why we’re cleaning up history. To clear the air: language, people, movements – everything and everyone who don’t deserve to be remembered.”

“What’s next? You’ve got two more years of college.”

“Are you kidding? The list is almost endless. Two years won’t be enough to Cancel everything disworthy.”

“Almost endless? Just give me another example or two. That will suffice.”

“Across the country, our college movement will be taking courses next semester to Cancel warmongers.


“Yeah, those leaders who pushed their nations into unnecessary wars. You should know – some of them lived close to your generation: LBJ in Vietnam, George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Iraq. They weren’t as bad as Hitler and Stalin, but still their actions were unconscionable.”

“I suppose you’re also going after some non-Americans too. Like Théoneste Bagosora.”


“Too complicated to explain for now. He’s African – from a country called Rwanda. You should… what did you call it?”

“BrainBook it?”

“Right. You rely on the brain; I’ll rely on the book. Anyway, what he did is enough material for another semester’s Cancel work.”

“OK, sounds worthwhile.”

“You mean disworthwhile.”

“Are you trying to be funny? This is serious stuff we’re doing.”

“I agree. It’s very serious.”

“By the way, this Rwanda fellow. Which other country did he attack?”

“His own.”

“His own country?”

“His own countrymen…I mean countrypeople. You know, sometimes civil wars are far worse than wars between nations.”

“Really? I wasn’t aware of that.”

“That’s what history is for. So, after you’re done with the warmongers – what then?”

“For next year, we’ve convinced the Union of American colleges to offer Cancel Courses on the anti-vaxxers. Crazy movement. Hard to believe that people won’t learn from history.”

“Learn from history?”

“Sure. Until the 19th century, hundreds of millions of people died from cholera, smallpox, bubonic plague, typhoid and other infectious diseases. By the late 20th century the vaccines almost entirely eliminated those diseases. Not to mention the mutating Corona viruses this century – finally got that under vaccine control a few decades ago.”

“You forgot this century’s malaria and AIDS vaccines.”

“Didn’t forget them. I could add the universal flu vaccine and a few others. But you get the idea, Gramps. And despite all that, there are still people out there who are against vaccination!”

“I suppose you’re right. I think we can both agree that remembering the details of history is important.”



Change Culture; Don’t Cancel History

In 2008 I was teaching at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, during my sabbatical year. One course was a research seminar entitled “Zionist Intellectual History.” I had nine students – seven Jewish, one a Catholic, and one a Native American. I invited them for an erev Shabbat dinner at our home, where they could relax with their “professor.” During the meal, I asked the Native American student (who happened to be the best one in the class) why he was taking such a course. His answer floored me: “My goal in life is to help my people, but they are not at all united; I wanted to understand how Herzl united the Jews and started them on the way to their own sovereign state!”

I was doubly impressed. First, about his lofty (if probably unattainable) goal of uniting the First Nations into a political force to improve their lot. Second, because here was student willing to learn from history – and not only his own nation’s. The study of history is not normally high on the list of things that today’s students are interested in learning about. Which brings me to what happened next…

A couple of weeks later, he approached me and noted that he couldn’t make the next week’s class. I asked why. “I am leading a protest against Columbus Day,” came his reply. Once again, I was taken aback. 

What he (and his fellow protesters) obviously hadn’t taken into account was the fact that Rhode Island had the proportionally largest Italian-American population of all fifty states! To put it mildly, the protest was not very popular.

That was then; today there’s “Indigenous People’s Day,” as an alternative to Columbus Day (each state or city can take their pick – or celebrate both). My question is whether this will stay as a double commemoration, or whether we are halfway to the cancellation of Columbus Day. To be clear, this is but the tip of the iceberg; America’s society is starting to run aground of a Titanic crash in many walks of life, called “Cancel Culture.”

The problem is not that progressives want to be sure that we remember the dark sides of our history (whatever nation we belong to) – that is not only worthy but also socially cathartic. The problem starts when they want to delete history e.g., tear down statues, expunge historical people from the history books, etc. Replacing one “narrative” with another unidimensional, counter-narrative is illogical and even self-defeating. Illogical because you cannot argue that history is multi-dimensional, and then go ahead and replace it with a different, unidimensional history. Self-defeating because if one expunges the darker sides of history, we lose the ability to properly learn from those past mistakes. As the 19th century, Spanish philosopher George Santayana opined: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

And there’s another negative aspect to Cancel Culture: the feeling of moral superiority and lack of historical perspective. Cancel Culture progressives feel that their stance not only takes the ethical high ground, but that it is the only high ground to take. There are no other ideas permissible or even thinkable. This in turn leads to the lack of self-reflection: whether anything they stand for will actually hold up in the future – or will their progeny look back with dismay at their supercilious approach to social morality, and whether things that they believe in today might not stand the test of time.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t get rid of any historical statues (or similar cancelling of other historical mementos)? Not all. The basic criterion has to be what was considered acceptable at the time – not what we anachronistically evaluate through the prism of contemporary mores. Otherwise, we have to cancel the Hebrew Bible (slavery was sanctioned!), the entire Hellenistic world (Greek women were not allowed to vote in the Agora!), the Catholic Church (supporting the Inquisition!), and the list goes on (potentially endlessly).

I’m all for Indigenous People’s Day. But it should be a celebration of First Nation culture and history, and not a cudgel against European Colonizers and their supposed genocide (95% of Native Americans died from European plagues from which they had no immunity, not in warfare with the Europeans). Similarly, Columbus Day is an excellent opportunity to not only highlight the travails of the early settlers trying to tame a harsh physical environment but also to note what such colonization ultimately meant for Native American society.

No one can change the past, but we can influence the future. However, that will only succeed if we commemorate and remember all of history. The good, the bad, and yes – even the ugly.

Changing One’s Own Behavior

“Everyone thinks of changing the world,
but no one thinks of changing himself.”


 Although I look much like my mother, and seem to have her healthy genes too, when it comes to personality – especially temperament – I was born on my father’s side of the family: fiery. Alongside many positive traits, the Wilzigs have a temper. So did I. Which leads to my question: can someone change one’s own basic personality and behavior?

Neuroscientific research in the past few decades has come to quite a clear conclusion: we have great brain plasticity i.e., the brain can change in response to external challenges; we can also change our brains by practicing. For instance, the area of the brain connecting the two hemispheres – the corpus callosum – is larger among musicians than the average non-musician. The causation is “practice  corpus callosum,” and not that people born with a larger corpus callosum tend to become musicians.

Does this apply to personality and general behavior as well? Not so much regarding the first, but certainly yes for the second. The kind of people we are seems to be relatively “hard-wired”: introvert vs. extrovert, adventurous vs home-body, etc. However, none of this means that with some effort we can’t “overcome” some personal trait that we (or others around us) find unbecoming or problematic. To put it in “philosophical” terms: just because we do not have complete free will does not mean that we are slaves to our essential being.

However, in such cases, precisely because we are attempting to do something that goes against our innate personality, it takes a lot of work to change a habitual behavioral trait or pattern. And motivation.

At the relatively young age of 57 my father suffered a massive heart attack and passed away half a year later. His sister, my aunt Rosa (a warm, wonderful woman, but another “yeller”) also died relatively early – and my father’s brother Freddy (the biggest yeller of all, but with a big heart) also didn’t live past his early 70s. As I approached my 50s, I began to think about the connection. Type A personalities (intensely temperamental) don’t have the longest lifespans. Could I do anything about this?

This was motivation enough, even if it was somewhat selfish, as the other major problem with a temper is that it makes people living around you very uncomfortable – and the bigger/more frequent the temper, the tenser family (and work) life becomes. I did think about this as well, but being brutally honest (in retrospect), it was self-preservation that constituted the main push to change.

In any case, I figuratively “sat down with myself” and made a conscious effort to control my temper whenever something (in the past, LOTS of things) would get my goat. It took a while. In fact, I found this not too much different than “practicing” other more mundane things in life, like shooting a basketball from the foul line, or improving my writing skills. I tried different approaches, keeping those that worked best for me. After a few years (yes, YEARS), I had succeeded in cutting down my temper outbursts by about 80% – to the extent that one day my son Boaz actually asked my wife Tami: “what happened to Abba? He hardly yells anymore…”

Should I have tried to do this earlier in life? Absolutely. Could I have succeeded earlier? I doubt it. Successful self-change can really come about only after a certain amount of “living life” (some call this “maturity” – but that’s not right because maturity is the outcome and not the driver of change; perhaps “aging” is better).

I didn’t intend (or think about) this but there are ancillary benefits to such change. First, success begets success. If we succeed in changing one problematic aspect of our behavior, it then becomes more likely that we will attempt to change another one as well. That doesn’t mean we will always succeed (I have had no success in stopping my finger-picking habit), but even trying to change can be a salutary enterprise. Second, not only will such change improve us personally, but as noted above it will also benefit our loved ones who have had to “put up” with the problem. And if they are happier, then we become even more satisfied with our personal effort.

I’ll conclude with what really is the hardest part of this whole “project”: admitting to ourselves in the first place that we have a serious personality flaw! Looking in the mirror is not for the weak-hearted (or much fun) but it’s crucial for self-growth. Once we get past that emotional obstacle, the rest of the self-change project is almost easy by comparison. In short, the expression “physician, heal thyself” is intended for all of us to rectify our basest behavior.

“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born,
and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”


When the Watchdogs Bark Too Much

Imagine a watchdog that barks at everything that moves: people, birds, vehicles. Not much use, right? The same can be said when Democracy’s “Watchdog” – the media – bark incessantly and without distinguishing between true, false or something in-between.

The latest brouhaha regarding Israeli PM Bennett’s remarks while in New York regarding Corona decision-making, is a good (i.e., bad) case in point. In brief, he remarked that in the final analysis, it is the political leadership that must make the final decisions regarding how to deal with the pandemic. Not only is this true practically, but even more so philosophically. We have democratic elections to select the people on top of the pyramid who will take all interest groups, professional advisers, and disparate areas of life into account. Anything else leads to myopic policy, or even worse: anarchy.

The Israeli media went into a feeding frenzy, as if Bennett had “attacked” Israel’s professional health officials – and from there the epidemiologists, hospital managers, and Ministry of Health officials took umbrage. For what? For the prime minister offering the most banal description of how democratic Israel really works? For “seemingly” undermining the health officials – when he did nothing of the sort?

One of the more serious and highly professional reporters on Israel’s public radio and TV (to remain anonymous to protect his professional standing) actually made an incredible statement (I roughly translate here from the Hebrew): “What Bennett said was true, but it didn’t sound good…”. Now the media are in the business of interpreting “intonation”?!?

Among the many absurdities in this tempest in a teapot is the fact that last year, when the previous government locked down the entire country, the media attacked it for not taking into consideration non-health elements: thousands of small businesses that went bankrupt; severe psychological stress of children and parents stuck together at home for lengthy periods of time; pedagogical harm as many kids couldn’t learn much through Zoom classes; and so on.

Clearly, health professionals have a duty to provide all the health information at their disposal. Just as clearly, the government has to listen to them carefully. But like everything else in life, “it’s complicated” – not only society in general (economy, education, etc.) but even health information is usually not completely clear cut until some time has passed and all the data has been collected, not to mention that Corona itself has mutated and changed its own patterns. Meanwhile, decisions of national import have to be made.

It is precisely here that the media fall down on the job – not on reporting the facts. On that, the Israeli media (print and electronic) are doing quite a good job overall. The problem lies in “insinuation, innuendo, and interpretation.” As a professor of communication, I am well aware that reporters are human too; there is no way that they can completely neutralize their own biases. However, the general approach (or to use a fancier, but more germane word, their weltanschauung) as journalists has been to criticize first, and report later. I call this the post-Watergate syndrome.

Yes, Watergate! It is now almost fifty years since that huge story broke. It had two effects. The short-term: the president of the United States was forced to resign in disgrace – justifiably so. The longer-term consequence, with which we still live to this day in most world democracies, is the incessant search first for “what’s wrong” and only secondarily “what’s (really) going on.” The watchdog of democracy is no longer just barking when appropriate; it is now biting everything in sight.

This is a problem for the media and for society at large. Trust in the media has been declining for decades – not coincidentally starting soon after Watergate. That’s bad enough. Far worse is that it has been accompanied by growing mistrust regarding the leaders and democracy in general. Not all of that is the media’s fault, although as Churchill once said: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.” But constant media bashing can’t be a positive thing when it slashes and mashes without distinction (pun intended).

Another recent Israeli news item is a case in point: the tragic traffic accident in the Golan that killed a mother and all her three children (the husband is in critical condition) – when a bus crashed into their car. The 76-year-old bus driver was immediately vilified in the press, having received 51 traffic “citations” in the past: “killer,” and “murderer” were merely some of the characterizations leveled at him. Moreover, the media started attacking the Transportation Ministry: “how did it allow such a bus driver to stay on the road?” Except that they forgot to mention that he has been a bus driver for fifty years, driving 8-10 hours a day, and that in Israel, minor infractions are registered as “violations.” Under those conditions, who wouldn’t have 51 traffic “reports”? Proportionality and nuance are also part of the journalists’ job requirement.

Israel’s traditional media seem to be in competition with social media as to who can be more “biting.” That’s a strategic mistake for the former, and for society at large. Being a responsible watchdog is what we want and need: howling when really necessary and called-for; but also holding back the bark until it’s clear whether the external sound is a “burglar” or merely natural, democratic and societal noise.

 The Process Should Be the Product

I was accepted to an experimental program for my freshman year at City College of New York, with our “campus” in the CUNY Graduate Center. We had the very best lecturers, one of whom taught English Composition: FIVE days a week for the entire academic year!

 You probably think that there can’t be a worse college experience than that. I certainly did. In fact, it was quite painful – but “boring” certainly not. Indeed, looking back on this after five decades, it probably was the most important course I took in my whole academic career – not merely for the skills it gave me, but for its life lessons as well.

On the very first day of class, Mr. Gordon C. Lea (a well-tanned Brit) asked us to sit there and write a two-page essay on anything we chose, as long as it contained an argument for or against something. We handed them in before the class was over. By the very next day, he had already marked all thirty essays and handed them back in class, one student after another in alphabetical order. Being a “Wilzig,” I was going to be one of the last to receive mine. As the “returns” went along I began to hear sobbing in the classroom; several students were silently tearing up and others had gone white in the face. With growing apprehension, I waited for mine to be returned. 

I had always known how to write. I liked words, I had a “Germanic” disposition for grammar, and my elementary school and high school made us sweat “book reports.” Moreover, I was chosen to be one of the editors of my high school yearbook…

“Wilzig!” he called out. I went up to Mr. Lea and took my paper without peeking at it until I returned to my seat, although out of the corner of my eye, I could see a lot of red markings. Then I looked directly: the grade was C-! I was shocked. Later I discovered that this was the second-best grade in the class!!

Here was the first life lesson: failure is a relative matter. Relative to one’s expectations (subjective), and also relative to what others have done (objective). Which is more important? As we go through life, most of us tend to focus on the subjective aspect: how did we do compared to others? Where does this leave me on the social (or professional) totem pole? But that’s not the way to go through life, because we can never be the “best” at anything, or (in almost all cases) even close to the best. Yes, it pays to have an external benchmark, but this should be set by what each of us is capable of reaching. In short, success in life has to be based on some inner-directed criterion.

“Most of you came here thinking that you knew how to write. Hopefully, now you understand otherwise. But…” Mr. Lea stopped for dramatic effect, “by the time this course is over, you WILL know how to write – as long as you put in the effort. And I’m going to give you an incentive for that: your final grade will not be an average of all your paper grades throughout the course but rather it will be based on your degree of IMPROVEMENT from now to then.” Hearing this, I didn’t know whether to be sad or happy: sad, because as one of the “top” scorers, I would have less “improvement” to make; happy, because I was closer to an “A” than the others.

That was life lesson number two: in the end, success should be measured more by the process, by the effort, than the final product. Of course, if we finish the “job” with failure, that’s not enough; however, we shouldn’t measure our success only by what we accomplished, but also (primarily?) by how well we did relative to our ability.

As the year went along, almost everyone in class made great strides in improving their writing skills. At the end, we arrived at the final exam – only to have one last surprise waiting for us. The main essay question was this: “In 500 words or less, make an argument to convince me [the teacher] that you should receive the course grade that you think you deserve.”

Life lesson number three: technical skills are useless without accompanying cognitive skills – and even more so, without a clear goal. I am sure that when you read “English Composition” at the start of this essay, you said to yourself: grammar, spelling, punctuation… Of course, those rudimentary skills are the foundation for good writing, but far from enough. On top of that, we need three additional elements: the ability to organize our thoughts into a meaningful whole (“composition”), the ability to think logically and persuasively (“rhetoric”), and the ability to know what you want to achieve i.e., where you want to “go” with what you’re writing (“goal-orientation”). In fact, these should be undertaken in reverse order: First, where am I heading here? Second, how can I organize the argument? Third, what specifically should I argue and how to put it into words?

I argued in my essay that I deserved an “A,“ and that’s what he gave me for the course. I was more pleased by this “A” than any other I received in college precisely because I had to “sweat bullets” to achieve it.

That was the main (fourth) life lesson I “processed” successfully: no pain, no gain…

Without God (2)

As a practicing social scientist, I eagerly devour the latest research on religion and…war; and also religion and…peace. Although academics are used to some ambiguity in research results (after all, humans don’t behave predictably like most atoms), on the issue of the relationship between religion and violence the results and “opinions” are all over the place.

After last week’s post on individual religious belief, the time has come to tackle some broader, societal question(s).

First, notice the word “relationship” above. There might well be some connection between religion and violence/war, but that doesn’t in any way “prove” that the first causes the second. As the truism goes: “correlation is not causality.” One can think of a huge number of leaders who use religion as a (false) basis of going to war e.g., Saddam Hussein. The power-hungry will turn to any useful “ideology” to further their own ambitions.

Second, it is also clear that if religion does cause people to go to war (or act violently), it certainly isn’t the only “ism” to do that. In the 20th century, Marxism (Stalin and Mao) killed far more people than all the religion-based wars put together (admittedly, in Stalin’s case, Marxism was a cover for pure self-aggrandizement; Mao, though, probably believed in Marxism). Not to mention Hitler, whose war-craze was partly based on anti-religion (expunging Judaism and Jews). So even if religion can be said to be an important factor in world history for causing war – and that is correct only from Christianity onwards; in the BCE era, religion per se almost never played a part in international warfare, although it had some influence on civil wars e.g., Jews vs. local idol worshipping Canaanites – it is certainly not the only, or even the major cause.

Having said all that, we do live in an era of intense religious strife – mostly trans-religious i.e., between different religions (Moslem vs Christian) instead of what previously was the dominant paradigm: inter-religious (Catholic vs. Protestant; Christian vs. Jew), although the latter still exists: Sunni vs. Shiite Islam (located exclusively in the Middle East and northern Africa).

With all that, why are so many people in the world still religious? Well, first of all it has to be noted that the vast majority of them are peaceful, so it’s not as if “religious belief” automatically drives people to violence; there is no evidence for that whatsoever. Just as a relatively mere handful of secular extremist ideologues (Marxists, Libertarians, etc.) use violence to further their ideals, so too the same small proportion of religious extremists give religion a bad name.

The answer to religion’s continuing popularity is that it provides several advantages from a societal standpoint. First, it turns out that on average, regular worshippers have an added few years lifespan! Speaking as social scientist, that’s not because God is looking out for them, but rather because of the health benefits (mental and physical) of sociality and communality. Going to synagogue, church, mosque, temple on a regular basis brings people together. If the number one killer of older people is “loneliness” (that’s so great a problem that both Great Britain and Japan have established a Minister for Loneliness!), then clearly regular, communal religious gatherings are going to alleviate that critical problem, whatever the religion or level of belief.

Second, as I discussed in my previous post, another possible factor in increased lifespan is the believer’s reduction of existential angst; we know how much “stress” in general can cause illness and general bodily malfunction. Thus, instead of “rage, rage against the dying of the light” (Dylan Thomas’s immortal verse – pun intended), a true believer can face the eventual prospect of death with greater tranquility.

Third, religion has given humanity most of its moral code – or at least has provided a strong underpinning to buttress Homo Sapiens’ “natural” moral tendencies. It’s one thing to fear the government’s threat of punishment for transgressions, but those police powers cannot be everywhere; for true believers, God is everywhere and sees everything, so that further encourages rightful behavior. Having said that, the latest data clearly show something “peculiar”: the countries with the lowest levels of criminality and violence are the most secular (e.g., Scandinavia); the ones with the highest levels of corruption are the most religious (Middle East and parts of Africa). Of course, that might have nothing to do with religion per se, but rather a function of socio-economic level (that is also negatively correlated with religion – see the next paragraph).

Which brings us to the social downsides of religiosity – at least from a modern standpoint. It can be a stultifying, overly conservative force: maintaining patriarchy, continuing homophobia, undermining personal freedom, and in general leaving the population behind socio-economically. It is not a coincidence that the further one goes from south to north in Europe, the less religious and the wealthier/socially-advanced are the countries. But again, is that because secularism leads to more wealth, or because more wealth (and especially education) leads to less religiosity? Probably more the latter than the former, but there’s no unequivocal evidence either way.

Confusing? That’s precisely the point I started out with: there is no clear, one-way relationship – positive or negative – between religion and positive/negative societal outcomes. Like every other area of life, one factor – as important as it might be – cannot explain or influence the rest of our very complex, social world.

You better believe that!

Is U.S. Public Support for Israel in Decline

[1].   With the transfer of presidential power in the offing, a standard refrain we hear is that regarding support for Israel, it doesn’t much matter who is in the White House or running Congress. The basic reason for that is the American public’s rock-hard support for its Middle East ally. But is that support still stable and strong? After all, politicians cannot run too far ahead (or behind) their democratic citizenry.

A new, very comprehensive study – The American Public and Israel in the Twenty-First Century – published by the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar-Ilan University, authored by Prof. Eytan Gilboa, set out to answer that question (for the full monograph, see: https://besacenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/181-web.pdf). In contradistinction to almost all other studies of this type, his study provides a long-term trend (2000-2020) encompassing data of numerous U.S. public opinion surveys from several reputable sources (polling agencies, academic think tanks, serious media, etc).

For anyone who cares about Israel and this bi-national relationship, there is mostly good news here but with a modicum of concern looking into the future. The good news is that the two-decade trend reveals strong and stable support in American public opinion for Israel on a variety of issues discussed. In fact, Gallup surveys actually show public support for Israel increasing by 12% – from 62% favorability in 2000 to 74% in 2020.

What’s the cause for worry? Prof. Gilboa didn’t just look at the gross numbers but rather at sociodemographic breakdowns. First, the American public is far from homogeneous in its support of Israel. There are significant differences between Republicans and Democrats, younger and older people, and even different groups of American Jews.

Let’s take each in turn. First, whereas historically, Democrats were more supportive than Republicans, this has now been turned on its head: by 2020 the gap had reached 24%! As “white” (largely Republican) America declines and “multi-ethnics” (leaning Democratic) increase in number, that does not bode well for continued future support at the same level.     Second, younger Americans are less supportive than their elders, and obviously young adults are the future. Third and in the opposite direction, the more traditional a Jew, the more supportive of Israel. With Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox birthrates far higher than other Jewish denominations, that could serve as a small counterbalance to the above negative trends.

If there’s anything in this study that can be said to connect to the current U.S. presidential elections, it is this: In 2019 (Ruderman Foundation poll), 67% of American Jews said they were emotionally attached to Israel, whereas 31% said they weren’t attached. When asked for their “reasons for being less connected to Israel,” American Jews cited “Israel’s support for President Trump” (33%) and “Netanyahu’s support for President Trump and his policies” (39%) as most important. Whichever candidate ultimately prevails, for the sake of future bipartisan support Israel would do well to heed this not-too-subtle critique of the Netanyahu government’s extremely close relationship with the present Republican establishment.

The religion of non-Jews also plays a role. On the one hand, over the entire 2001-2019 period practicing U.S. Christians supported Israel much more than people who weren’t religious. Surprisingly, U.S. Evangelicals are not Israel’s most supportive non-Jewish denomination – the Mormons are: 79% pro-Israeli compared to 11% pro-Palestinian – 13% more Israel support than even the Evangelicals evinced! (Gallup: 2001-2014) Viewed historically, American Christians are altogether arguably closer to the Jewish people today than any Christian group has been for close to 2000 years.

Related but different: one other future trend that is hardly mentioned in such analyses – Hispanics, who by 2050 will double their proportion and constitute around 30% of the total U.S. population by then. They are much less familiar with Israel and are mostly Catholic (less supportive of Israel than other Christian denominations); thus, it’s not surprising that the few surveys that looked at Hispanics have shown a lower level of support and greater lack of knowledge or interest on issues related to Israel.

When the polls focus on the Palestinian issue, the trends are similar, but if anything even starker. In 2018 (Gallup), nearly twice as many liberal Democrats said they sympathized more with the Palestinians than with Israel (35% vs. 19%). Moderate and conservative Democrats were almost a mirror image: more supporting Israel (35%) than the Palestinians (17%) – but with a large drop among the former. Since 2016, conservative and moderate Democrat sympathy for Israel declined 18% (from 53% to 35%). The Republican trend in the opposite direction is even more pronounced: from 2001 to 2018 their comparative sympathy for Israel compared to the Palestinians increased 29%, from 50% to 79%. Beyond the Palestinians as a people, what about a Palestinian state? The trend is similar, albeit with not much overall change: American public support for a Palestinian state went from 40% pro/24% con in 2000, to 55% pro/34% con in 2020.

Finally, what of the Middle East’s 800-pound gorilla: whether and how to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development? Public opinion is somewhat favorable regarding American military action against such Iranian efforts – and far more supportive of Israeli action. Diplomacy? After the Obama/Europe nuclear treaty with Iran, not a single U.S. poll found majority support for the deal.

Prof. Gilboa is a world authority in public diplomacy, and he concludes with an analysis of, and prescription for, what Israel and the American Jewish community can do to maintain the strong support that the American public has held vis-à-vis their steady ally across the sea. Based on the huge amount of thought-provoking data in this study, moving into the future they all have their work cut out.

Nov. 9, 2020

[1] Full disclosure: In 2014 I followed Prof. Gilboa as Chairman of Bar-Ilan University’s School of Communication.

Netanyahu Has Never Been Invincible

Prime Minister Netanyahu has a reputation of being politically invincible. True, he is now Israel’s longest-ever serving PM (Ben-Gurion left of his own volition; he could have served several more years had he wished to do so). However, the historical record belies Bibi’s “invincibility”.

So try to answer this question correctly: in the nine Knesset elections that Netanyahu has run (either as a direct PM candidate in the 1990s, or as leader of the Likud afterwards), in how many did he win outright, how often did he clearly lose, and how many ended in a virtual tie? (Don’t peek; I provide the answer in the paragraph after the next one).

This isn’t merely an interesting, Israel electoral history trivia question. Rather, given the results of the three elections this past year and a half, and the Likud’s steady and steep drop in recent polls, the question of Bibi’s “electionability” (or if you will, electoral ability) has become increasingly germane, especially given his poor – some would say catastrophic – Corona policy, along with the nation’s severe economic pain. So how vulnerable is he? Part of the answer is to look at how well he has done in the past.

Since 1996 he has actually won four campaigns (1996, 2013, 2015, and in 2020 – not by much: 36 to 33 seats), lost two (1999 and 2006 – tied for third place with only 12 seats for the Likud!), and ended more or less with a tie in three elections (2009, April 2019, and September 2019 – in the latter, the Likud had one seat less than Blue & White: 33 to 32). In terms of soccer standings overall: 4-2-3; not bad, but hardly “invincible”.

Obviously, not every Likud loss can be ascribed exclusively to Netanyahu – just as not all Likud victories were solely his doing. Nevertheless, with Israel’s electoral politics becoming increasingly “personalized”, paralleling the country’s concomitant, overall decline in ideology, it is clear that the top of the ticket bears much responsibility for most Israeli parties’ victories and defeats. This is certainly true for those parties with a chance of winning a plurality of the votes, thus almost guaranteeing that its party leader would be asked to form the coalition government (only in 2009 – Tzipi Livni from Kadima – failed to translate her party’s plurality into becoming the prime minister).

If anyone is aware of this electoral record it is Netanyahu himself. That’s an important reason for his great hesitance to call another election, despite the present, dual-headed coalition not working very well. But the stakes are much higher for him this time than ever before because of the three criminal indictments and upcoming trials.

There are few examples in modern democratic countries of a leader successfully staying in office for over a decade (Angela Merkel notwithstanding) – and when that does happen it’s almost always due to some extraordinary circumstance, e.g. FDR during World War 2. The Corona pandemic could have been such a situation for Netanyahu, but he botched it badly (after the initial success), telling Israelis after Passover ״תעשו חיים״ – “get out and enjoy life”!

So here stands Bibi: trials about to start; economic devastation; massive, ongoing protest demonstrations all over Israel; policies (blocking a 2021 budget, no permanent Police Chief appointment, trying to prevent outdoor protests) that suspiciously seem to be determined by his legal difficulties, or so many Israelis claim.

However, given the evisceration of Israel’s Zionist left wing, what/who could replace him? The polls show that Israelis have not abandoned the right wing camp; but they have moved in very significant numbers from one right-wing party (Likud) to another (Yeminah) led by Naftali Bennett whom Bibi left out of his present coalition for personal pet peeve reasons, among them the fact that Bennett – a former very successful, high tech entrepreneur – has consistently presented a more systematic and doable Corona plan than what has emerged from the present government’s chaotic, decision-making process.

How, then, could Bibi lose the next election? That’s the wrong question to ask, as the Likud will probably still obtain more votes than any other party. The real question: how can anyone else form a governing coalition? The answer is becoming clear, although certainly not a done deal: in order to finally get rid of Bibi (the Israeli counterpart of the “never-Trumpers”), Yeminah could form a coalition with Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Gantz’s Blue & White, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (he absolutely detests Netanyahu), and Meretz. Yes, strange bedfellows (especially the first and last on this list), but given the immediate, critical issues at hand – Corona and the economy – these parties could live with each other for a year or two. Especially if it means finally getting rid of the “Invincible”.

Nov. 2, 2020

Poll-Axing Democracy

With less than a week to go in the American Presidential (and other levels) election campaign, it is useful to look at Israel’s law regarding the publication of polls during the last five days of an election: prohibited! The U.S., of course, has no such law (free speech über alles).

Israel is not the only country with a poll publication prohibition. In fact, approximately two-thirds (!) of all countries in the world with elections have some sort of pre-voting day restriction on publishing polls. Some countries – e.g. Bolivia, Cameroon, Honduras and Tunisia – embargo polls for 30 days or more before voting day, while another ten (some highly democratic, e.g. Chile and Italy) have poll blackouts for at least two weeks pre-election day (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330509451_Freedom_to_Conduct_Opinion_Polls_A_2017_Worldwide_Update)

All of this leads to the question: why? Why would otherwise perfectly functioning democracies restrict “polling speech” during the latter part of an election campaign? The basic answer is that there is a general feeling that the voters might be unduly influenced by such survey results, i.e. many people will vote by following the pack and not for reasons of real personal preference. As a political scientist, I can say two (somewhat contradictory) things: that’s probably true to a limited extent; there is virtually no hard evidence for that happening.

However, there’s a completely different problem with polling publication (during the entire campaign) and it has to do with the news and what is called the “media agenda”. There are actually three types of agenda: media (what the news purveyors focus on), political (what the politicians want you to think about), and public (what the citizenry actually cares about). Each influences the other, but in our hyper-media age (traditional media, e-media, and social media), it is the media agenda that rules supreme. And that’s the source of our problem.

During elections campaigns there are three types of news: policy, personality, and polls. The latter is actually called “horserace journalism”: who’s ahead, who’s behind, and who’s fading or coming on fast? In and of itself, that sort of thing interests all of us, but if it overwhelms the other two, then democracy is in trouble.

It is no coincidence that over the past several decades, as polling became more widespread and sophisticated (not merely gross numbers but group or regional breakdowns) horserace journalism pushed policy discussions off the public agenda. In Israel, with its traditional party list system, polling has also strengthened “personality” issues as a driving force in the campaign, with the pollsters starting to ask questions like “Who is most fit to be prime minister?” – this, even though there are no direct elections for that post!

None of this is to suggest that polling is useless. Paradoxically, it is most helpful in between election campaigns (“normal politics”) in order to clue government leaders as to what the public wants on specific issues. This can even be the case when a survey does not ask about a specific policy question. For instance, it is clear that the Likud’s fast decline in the recent polls is in large part due to Netanyahu’s failed mid-summer Corona policy – not only because he didn’t always listen to the medical professionals but also more recently for not holding the Haredi (and in the first wave, the Israeli-Arab) sector to account for not adhering to the government’s Corona regulations.

Returning to campaign polling: looking back at this U.S. election cycle, one would have to search with a magnifying glass to find any serious news coverage of policies. It’s been almost all “Biden maintains a big lead” (the horse race) or “Trump is angry at his Cabinet” (personality). Of course, a candidate’s temperament is important (President Trump is a good/bad example of that), but in the final analysis we want to know what our leaders plan to do if and when they enter office. The candidates’ policies could be poles apart, but by unduly focusing instead on the polls we are hardly able to know if that’s indeed the case.

Oct. 28, 2020