The Social Bermuda Triangle:

Jews, Modernity and Apocalypticism

A White Paper by Richard Landes

Center for Millennial Studies

 

Modernity, the Jews, and Antimodern Conspiracy Theories

Over the course of the nineteenth century, two groups were busily coloring in the map of the world. On the one hand, triumphant modernists were marking the spread of elected, constitutional governments as they overthrew various monarchies and struck at the aristocratic monopoly on public power and discourse that characterized such autocratic states. The sacred values of these modernists were reason and tolerance; their "sacred text," the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Their mission was to overcome the "darkness" of religious superstition and intolerance.

On the other hand, the aristocrats of the old order tracked these same developments with growing anxiety and alarm. Their sacred values were religion and hierarchy, and their sacred text was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This early 20th century forgery, the distillation of the most virulent strains of anti-modern paranoia, presents a world-wide conspiracy of Jews and Freemasons. This cabal of evil-doers, intent on enslaving mankind, introduced democracy and open society as a fiendish plot, a means of weakening the grip over the people that the their natural rulers (what the Protocols call the "gentile aristocracy") naturally and rightly hold. The real goal of this liberality was obviously not democracy – everyone knows that people are incapable of self-rule – but a recipe for anarchy, and in the resulting social chaos they plan to enslave all mankind.

Both of these opposing scenarios centered on a rapid global transformation of society, and both were intensely millennial. The modernists anticipated the imminent and glorious victory of democracy around the globe. Their secular, Enlightenment doctrines saw a man-made heaven on earth – a crescendo of progress culminating in the realization of Isaiah’s dream of international peace, where swords become plowshares and nations study peace, not war. The anti-modernists, meanwhile, viewed the victories of their enemies as leading to hell on earth – the totalitarian enslavement of mankind through a conspiracy that used democratic reform to draw people to their perdition.

The climax of this apocalyptic enmity in World War II offered us the opportunity to examine how these rivalries ultimately react to each other. There we find signature patterns of millennial and apocalyptic interactions, from the apocalyptic "law" that one group's savior constitutes another's antichrist, to the exterminationist violence of paranoid millennialism, to the (consistent) failure of apocalyptic expectations and the blind resistance among believers of any possibility that their ideology had failed. The victory of the allies over facism then displaced the apocalyptic battle to a technological one between the West and communist totalitarianism – the cold war. Here, ironically, the most "modern" of 19th century ideologies – communism – became the darling of 20th century, authoritarian and regressive regimes around the "third world." Here again the conspiracist fear of modernity flourishes.

When we look at the most apocalyptic elements of this debate over modernity we find the antimodernists obsessed about the Jews. To them the Jews are the primary agents of modernity, the puppet-masters who pull the strings of unwitting "protagonists," pawns really – the capitalists, the press, even such intellectuals as Nietzsche and Darwin, who destroy religion. Curiously, as far as modernists are concerned, the Jews are only peripherally involved – primarily beneficiaries, rather than agents of modernity, while Jews, themselves, are both fascinated and horrified by modernity, a path which all too often leads to frightening metamorphoses.

This disparity in the view of Jews among gentiles – modernists vs. antimoderns – raises interesting questions. One normally credits modern analysis with greater acuity and clarity, and yet in this case the antimodern position may be more accurate in attributing a major role for the Jews as agents of modernity, even if their conclusions violently skew their insights. Indeed, once we switch our attention from the institutions of democracy to the cultural values underlying it, the Jews represent the oldest continuous civil society in the world. Here, for the first time in recorded history, we find a culture committed century after century, indeed millennium after millennium, to principles of equality before the law, the dignity of manual labor, education for commoners, respect for dissent and criticism of the rich and powerful, and a substitution of discourse for violence in resolving social conflict. Little wonder that as early ass the 8th century BCE, Israel’s prophetic communities first recorded the most socially radical millennial vision of a society of empowered commoners – swords into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, nations at peace, studying peace (Isaiah 2, Micah 4).

When we look for the origins of civil society in the realm of empowered commoners, it is precisely in this revolutionary millennial egalitarianism of the Hebrew Bible and the promises of the kingdom, that we find early and widespread activity (e.g., popular peace movements of the central Middle Ages, the commoner wars of the later Middle Ages and the English Civil War). The prominence of Jews in the socialist and communist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries merely illustrates the extremities of the affinity. On a more mundane scale, the working example of a culture without a violently maintained split between elites and commoners, may have served as a powerful force in the forging of rural and urban communes in the medieval period, and utopian communities in the modern. Certainly the assertive culture of European commoners that made modern revolutions possible, drew its inspiration far more from biblical than from classical texts.

 

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the Psychology of Antimodernism

Whereas modern historians, Jewish and not, often miss this element in their search for the (largely intellectual) origins of modern political thought, the antimodernists recognized the Jewish connection to the platform of their enemies, the modernists, giving the Jews full "credit" for bringing on this cancerous social transformation. The Jews, as the religious antimodernists knew only too well, were the Endtime agents of Antichrist. From this basic association, arose the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the mythology that has sustained it (despite repeated proofs that it is a forgery) from its roots in 19th century Tsarist Russia, through mid 20th century revolutions and totalitarianism (Nazism, Stalinism, Nasserism). Today it has been adopted by various groups and cultures around the world (from the Saudi Arabia to Japan to Nation of Islam). Indeed, the remarkable spread of the Protocols in the 20th century has made it possibly the most ecumenical forgery in the history of mankind.

One must wonder at the resilience of this text. Given how patently false it is, and what a catastrophe it wrought when a whole people – the Germans – believed in it, how can it continue to appeal to so widespread and varied an audience? One might venture the answer that it answers bluntly and simply the questions that torment people who "lose out" at the advent of modernity: Why do so many suffer from this new "freedom"? Because modernity is a malignancy. Why are people who belong below – women, Jews, commoners, outsiders – now thriving? Because the malignancy works by dispossessing those who should have power and empowering those who should not. What is the direction of this phenomenon? Towards chaos and world enslavement. Modernity must, at all costs, be resisted. Such a view offers an ideological salve to those who fear and hate the freedom modernity allows, who feel passed over by the dynamism of cumulative social change.

The Protocols thus offers a litmus test of modernity: those who can live with its status as forgery commit to a world of conflicted emotions, to the cognitive dissonance of exegetical analysis, to the problems of an open society. Those who embrace the text argue that, forgery or not, it expresses a "higher truth" that overrides complexity and bears the awful truth of a violent struggle for survival. The text appeals to all those who share the anti-modern beliefs of the aristocracy – that commoners are too weak be free, that democracy means anarchy, that mankind needs masters. These are old and valued political beliefs which have dominated pre-modern society for millennia, beliefs with articulate Greek expositors like Plato. The Protocols offers such political thinkers a way to sustain their beliefs in the face of a world where democracy has won, where the experiment in open society – free markets of goods and ideas – generates more wealth and power than any Croesus or Caesar could have imagined.

For these antimodernists, civil society triumphant is a plot, and the pains that accompany the freedoms of an open a society – disorientation, alienation, addiction, license – are not its birthpangs, but the warning signs of the coming chaos and the ensuing apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil and disorder. Of course, as the Nazis taught us, precisely those who most prize social control, who rage most violently against plots of violence and world domination, themselves most wish to carry such plots out. Antimodernism appeals most to those who chafe at the loss of arbitrary power that constitutional states bring, who despise and fear rules that force them to live with defeat rather than win victory by force. As long as modernity – open societies, free markets – has its discontents, the Protocols will shadow it everywhere, thriving, as in the early 20th century, in the toxic wake of modernity’s very success.

Thus, although the public situation may have changed dramatically since WWII, with modernity victorious in the driving global cultures, and the Protocols banned from their responsible public discourse, the Protocols continue to thrive, openly among antimodern cultures (especially Arab), and at the margins, underground in the places where modernity triumphed. Despite the initial, and repeatedly exultant, victories for open society (late 1940's, early 1960's, 1989), the forces of anti-modernism and authoritarianism, initially and repeatedly defeated and exiled to the margins of the culture, have found new grass-roots forms of rejuvenation – militias, gangs, violent personality cults, virtual communities of hate on the WWW, New Age esoterica. And each of these periods brough with it new and alarming gains for the Jews –

Jews and modernity continue to expand their presence globally, and therefore the reach of the eventual enslavement continues to spread. The plot continues, the noose tightens daily.

The Jews, therefore, go everywhere the malignancy spreads; indeed they spread it. And the Protocols, like all powerful millennial prophecies, survives its incorrect apocalyptic reading (at the hands of the Nazis) by redating and reformulating. For post-war believers, the only mistake the Nazis made was in their apocalyptic timing, in believing that the plot had reached its final moment of revelation. They were clearly right in their millennially antimodern perception of the problem. The conspiring Elders of Zion have yet to make their final move, but in the meantime, they have, with the creation of Israel, added to their pernicious role as rootless cosmopolitans, the powers of a sovereign people. The creation of a modern state in the Middle East provoked an antimodern abreaction among Arab elites; and the Protocols stands at the heart of the Arab conception of reality. The Palestinian website carries not only the Protocols, but a post-modern justification for its use.

Jews in Current Apocalyptic Currents: The Dynamics of Disappointed Missions

Interestingly enough, the birth of Israel provoked more than just the highly visible abreaction of the Arabs. It also triggered two of the most extraordinary messianic movements in the history of Judaeo-Christian relations. For both pre-millennial (rapture) Protestants and religious Zionists, both the creation of Israel and the acquisition of the "whole land" including Jerusalem, represent the opening acts of the final drama, the "dawn of redemption" which will play out in the lifetime of those who witnessed these world-changing events. For the first time in Jewish history since the first return from exile, there is a sovereign Jewish power capable of rebuilding the temple, and a growing number of religious Jews who favor that. And for the first time in Christian history, there is an apocalyptic group which views Jewish messianic fervor as a sign of Christ’s, not of Antichrist’s work. This represents a level of philo-Judaism on a scale never before seen among fervent – fundamentalist – Christians, and we begin to see signs of an equally unusual acceptance of Christian religious fervor among messianic Jews (Gershom Solomon). At the same time, guaranteeing that someone will maintain the tradition of apocalyptic enmity, the Muslims see this unholy alliance as a plot to destroy their sacred Dome. Indeed Muslim apocalyptic writers have repeatedly invoked 2000 as the year in which the Dajal (Antichrist) will strike.

Until now these apocalyptic groups have not played a signficant role in public life, and their share of media attention has been very low. We do not know how many are fervent adherents of this effort to recreate temple worship (Red Heiffer, Temple instruments, demands for access to the Temple Mount), still less, how many sympathizers of varying intensities. We thus cannot predict the intensity and spread of developments over the coming years. But clearly this phenomenon is something to watch.

At the end of this century/millennium, Jewish and Christian apocalyptic currents have come together in a joint, millennial project. This "apocalyptic alliance" has had significant monetary and political influence on the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict, often strengthening the hands of irredentists, as well as encouraging violence (Goldstein, Amir). And yet, despite this vigorous joint effort, each side understands the apocalyptic scenario in a radically different way – for the messianic Jews, the Christians will abandon their idol worship of Jesus and become righteous gentiles, for the Rapture Christians, Jews will abandon their blind ways and convert to the worship of Jesus. These apocalyptic expectations are bound to fail.

The attitude of many of the architects of this alliance – e.g. the secular Zionist right – have openly admitted that they know and anticipate this. To them, disappointment seems to mean impotence; at that point it will be a Christian problem, not a Jewish one. The historic pattern, however, indicates that Christians are philojudaic in the upswing of apocalyptic enthusiasm and antijudaic, even antisemitic, on the downswing. The primary source of this in the past has been the Christian expectation of Jewish conversion at the end time: in the upswing they believe that expressions of genuine affection and Christian love will bring about the only true conversion – a voluntary one. But in their disappointment, Christians often blame the Jews for not converting. The refusal to convert becomes a new form of deicide in which the rejection of Jesus as messianic savior once again kills Christian hopes for universal salvation. Thus, as Christian hopes break on the rocks of reality, some Christians grow violently indignant at the deicide of the Jews. In apocalyptic forms, like the Crusades, we find that the warmth that seeks voluntary conversion turns to an implacable rage that demands it at the price of life itself.

Like most apocalyptic currents, this current alliance between Christian and Jewish religious Zionists can last only so long as the hopes remain high and the project does not succeed. Either earthly success (building the temple), or dashing of hopes (acknowledging failure to build the temple), will bring unbearable strains. In either case, the vast number of religious beliefs that separate Jews and Christians, and remain buried by the currents of fervent millennialism, will surface over time. How soon? How rapidly, once it starts? How aggressiively? What role might 2000 play in both the broader Christian millennial imagination and in the pilgrim population that visits Israel in that year? And how do we prepare for the coming white water?

How to Approach the Situation:

These are immense questions that, in the final analysis, must be answered by a generation of Jews and Christians talking with each other. Intellectuals and political leaders can, at best, clarify the issues, encourage contacts at strategic places and times, and point in fruitful directions. The real negotiations will take place at the level of Jewish and Christian commoners. In order, then, to develop the best sense of issues and timing, we need to develop two key components:

To what extent does this current wave of Christian philojudaism carry the same seeds of destruction as past ones, and how strong and widespread might that reaction be?

There are several circumstances that confuse any analysis of this situation, and many are direct products of the Holocaust.

Thus we cannot know how much of the philojudaism is due to the reflective push from the past – open society’s response to the Holocaust – and how much is the apocalyptic pull of the future – Israel and the millennium. Nor do we know how much the apocalyptic strain carries with it the desire for Jewish conversion that has, so often in the past, turned millennial enthusiasm into millennial rage. Nor can we predict how Jews, especially messianically aroused Jews, will handle the encounter with Christians.

Only time will tell how well the current atmosphere of philojudaism and commitment to open society will stand up to the cross-currents of religious passion and the white water of disappointment. In the meantime, the Jews are somewhat like battered wives whose husbands have started to drink from their apocalyptic brew and begun to grow amorous – How does one engage this "other" fairly, while discouraging the wrong impression? Can we shift from the older pattern where such heights give way to equally abysmal depths?

The first place to look for warning signs of coming white water, are those sites where Christian and conspiracist antimodernism come together, as they did in the second quarter of the 20th century. The great ecumenical wave of anti-modern anti-semitism, East and West, that then swept Europe, riding on the wings of totalitarianism and its paranoid fears of freedom, combined a religious myth about the Jew as agent of Antichrist in the Endtime battles, and a relatively new, more secular myth of the Jews as agents of a worldwide conspiracy to enslave mankind.

Today, in the wake of the establishment of Israel, both myths have spread around the globe: On the one hand, the antisemitic conspiracist myth has spread largely through Arab-sponsored translations of the Protocols into every major language in the world, and dissemination through the UN in the Waldheim years to intellectual elites around non-Western world. On the other, the philosemitic millennial prophecy that sees the Jews return as the greatest "sign of the times," looks forward to still more dramatic deeds (rebuilding of the Temple, the battle of Armageddon, the appearance of Antichrist). This latter vision has spread from a base of tens of millions of Americans around the world (Korea, Japan, Africa). Until now, at the very end of the century, these two myths rarely appear in a joint configuration (although one can detect them in such books as Pat Robertson’s New World Order. If we are to make it through the coming decade of white water, it will be because they remain separated wherever possible. Thus assessing and tracking both currents, and watching for the sites where they might rejoin, seems, to say the least, prudent.

 

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