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A False Messiah Converts to Islam
On January 6, 1760, Jacob Frank, a mystic, messianic Polish Jew who created a new, transgressive religion that attracted tens of thousands of followers, was arrested in Warsaw and turned over to the Catholic Church, beginning an imprisonment that lasted 13 years.

Jacob Leibowitz (as he was called at birth) was born circa 1726 in Korolivka, a town in Podolia, eastern Poland (today in Ukraine). Although it was around 60 years since the false messiah Shabbetai Zvi converted to Islam and about 50 years after his death – and despite the fact that in 1722 Poland’s rabbis had placed a ban on the so-called “Sabbatean heresy” – there was still a large movement of Jews in Europe who regarded themselves as his disciples. One of them was the father of Jacob Leibowitz, who, when he was expelled by the Jewish community of Korolivka, in 1730, moved with his family to Czernowitz, where there was a large group of Jews who shared his beliefs.

Jacob himself had a minimal education. He became a gem and textile trader, traveling frequently to the Ottoman Empire for business. In cities such as Smyrna and Salonika he came into regular contact with various Sabbatean sects including Doenmeh, crypto-Jews who maintained an outwardly Muslim lifestyle. It was during these travels that he was given the nickname “Frank,” a general term for Europeans in the East.

In about 1751, Jacob Frank decided that he was the Messiah. When he brought that news back to Podolia, he also brought with him some of the Sabbatean teachings he had picked up. Not a modest man, Frank announced that he had superseded Shabbetai Zvi, and like Zvi, he adopted an antinomian ideology that declared that “all laws and teachings will fall.” Transgression was the key: turning Jewish fast days into feasts, eating foods prohibited by the laws of kashrut and participating in orgies.

What certainly got Frank into trouble was a ritual in which a young woman, representing the Shechinah – the feminine aspect of God – would stand topless in a circle and the men of the community would kiss her breasts, similar to how worshipers in synagogue kiss the Torah scrolls.

Frank was driven out of town, and some of his followers were tried by a rabbinical court for immodest behavior. When a rabbinical assembly in Brody banned Jews from any contact with Frank or his followers, Frank went to the bishop of Kamenetz-Podolsk and declared that he and his group did not recognize the sanctity of the Talmud. The only Hebrew book they found holy, they said, was the Zohar, the principal text of kabbalist mysticism.

Frank was taken under the protection of Bishop Dembowski, who pitted some of Frank’s followers against traditional rabbis in a “disputation.” As judge of the debate, Dembowski declared the Frankists victors, and ordered the burning of all copies of the Talmud in Poland.

The next step for the Frankists was conversion to Catholicism, apparently an intermediary step on the way to a new religion. In 1759, Frank was baptized (with King Augustus III of Poland as his godfather). In the coming decades an estimated 26,000 Frankists followed suit.

But Frank also aroused the suspicion of the Church, whose protection he lost after the death of Dembowski, his patron. On February 6, 1760, he was arrested. He was tried and convicted of heresy in a Catholic court, and imprisoned in the Czestochowa monastery. It was only after the first partition of Poland, in 1772, and the arrival of Russian troops in Czestochowa that he was freed.

Frank lived out the remainder of his life first in Brno, and then in Offenbach, Germany. There, calling himself “Baron Frank,” he continued instructing his followers, and there he died, on December 10, 1791.


A 200-year-old Conspiracy Theory Rears Its Head Again

Freemasonry seems to have played a marginal role in shaping history. However, the conspiracies linked to it live on forever

Freemasonry is back on the world’s agenda. It’s hard to believe that at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, there are large numbers of people who can fear, of all things, an order comprised largely of retired elderly folk that has for years been attempting to recruit new members, with only partial success. But the return of old phobias is one of the characteristics of the present era.

At demonstrations and in discussion groups of conspiracy theory, proponents are once again citing the Masons as the source of all the world’s evil. Posts and comments on the web contain fictitious lists of political leaders and billionaires who are supposedly members of the order. They’re said to be “pulling the strings” of the coronavirus crisis, political polarization in the United States and more. The QAnon conspiracy, which has millions of adherents in America and elsewhere, claims to reveal the existence of a network of Freemason pedophiles whose tentacles reach into Hollywood, Washington and Silicon Valley.

Hostility and suspiciousness toward elites, toward Jews and toward foreigners are not surprising political phenomena. But where does the anti-Freemasonry anxiety come from? To understand the roots of this phobia, we need to go back 230 years, to the final decade of the 18th century – one of history’s most dramatic periods. At the start of the decade, almost all European countries were still ruled by monarchs, and civilization rested on social structures dating back to the Middle Ages. But within a few years, the continent had become unrecognizable.

In Paris the regime of terror rose and fell, and the king of France was decapitated; vast kingdoms buckled and surrendered to Napoleon’s armies; the 1,000-year-old Holy Roman Empire was on the brink of collapse. Europe was pulled into the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with no end in sight. Societal structures that had persisted for centuries split apart in an instant.

Even now, more than 200 years later, historians are divided over the causes of the fateful events of that period. Many of those who lived through those times also sought answers, but they wanted simple ones. Confronted by the spectacle of kings falling and empires breaking apart, they believed that a hidden hand was pulling the strings. In Europe, theories began to spread calling for the “curtain to be lifted” and for the true power that was driving history to be unveiled.

The most popular notion at the time was put forward in a book by John Robison, an English scientist, titled, “Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried On in The Secret Meetings of Freemasons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies.” Almost concurrently, the same allegations were circulated by a French priest, Augustin Barruel.

This was an early version of the conspiracy theory. Robison and Barruel each maintained that a worldwide plot existed to depose the monarchy and the state religion, and that the planning of those events had actually begun decades before the revolution. The conspirators included philosophers and Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Diderot, but no less, the Freemasons and the secret order of the Illuminati, which in reality was a small, insignificant society that operated for a few years in Bavaria.

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According to the conspiracy-theory advocates, these orders worked behind the scenes to mislead the masses through lies and manipulation, and they had instigated people to rise up against their beloved monarch and to rebel against the very foundations of society.

The conspiracy theories had no basis in fact, of course. The Masonic lodges were not revolutionary – indeed, many of their members were aristocrats. It’s even possible that Louis XVI, the executed French king, was a Freemason. In any event, the theory was disseminated quickly in numberless pamphlets and essays. Within a few years, it had become one of the most widespread and most popular explanations for the French Revolution. At the turn of 19th century, conspiracy-theory advocates also began accusing the Jews of being involved in a plot to upend the world. In the century that followed, additional elements were added to the story, which henceforth encompassed the Rothschild family, for example, and afterward also the “Elders of Zion,” who were supposedly the leaders of the Jews who sowed chaos among the nations of Europe.

What is noteworthy, though, is that the same theory is still with us to this very day. In the 20th century, the Nazis and the fascists persecuted the Freemasons and viewed them as a tool of Judaism. Although those two movements were defeated and discredited, even today there are many who blame the Freemasons and the Illuminati for all the world’s ills. Some also add reptilian aliens and Bill Gates and G-5 technology. But at bottom, the narrative is not in principle different from the one that originated at the time of the French Revolution.

Pluralism and radicalism

The stubborn obsession with Freemasons is probably related to the fact that few people know what the order actually does. On the one hand, the organization is built around secrecy shrouded in mystery; on the other hand, it has no express political goal and transcends national boundaries. In the lodges, centuries-old ceremonies are held in which the brothers wear embroidered aprons and bear titles relating to a complex hierarchy. This has spawned a glut of bizarre theories, holding that the true activities of Freemasonry are devil worship, homosexual orgies or the propagation of radical political ideas.

But Freemasonry is not a religion, nor is it an economic corporation or a political party. In practice, Masonic lodges can be imagined as something like a youth movement for middle-aged men.

But it wasn’t always like that. A book published in Britain this past summer – “The Craft: How the Freemasons Made the Modern World” – maintains that the order played a crucial role in history. The author, John Dickie, is not a proponent of conspiracy theories old or new, but a historian at University College, London, who bases his work on meticulous research. Dickie maintains that although the Freemasons’ lodges were not established for political purposes, in the 18th century they played a significant role in promoting the ideas of the Enlightenment: liberalism, democracy and skepticism. What made the order a social power of consequence was the fact that it and other groups were frameworks in which men from different classes met and exchanged ideas relatively freely. They promoted religious tolerance, pluralism and freedom of conscience, and created an effective network to transmit ideas between countries.

Dickie’s argument is not new. It is based in part on the ideas of the historian François Furet, who maintained as early as the 1970s that the Freemasons’ lodges were the model that underlay the Jacobin Club, the radical force in the French Revolution. Furet’s thesis is controversial, but many historians believe that the Masonic lodges were one framework that made possible the dissemination of radical ideas. The lodges didn’t pull the strings behind the French Revolution, but they acted as something of a laboratory for the development of institutions of civil society.

One way or the other, even if the Freemasons did wield significant influence on the historical developments of the 18th century, a particularly wild imagination is needed to deduce that these lodges have an impact on events in our time. Still, if conspiracy theories hadn’t been concocted about them, the order might have been completely forgotten.

When the Profane Becomes Sacred

The Frankist chapter of Jewish history in Podolia, where Jacob Frank was active, lasted for only two years in the middle of the 18th century. It all began with a mystic-erotic ceremony in Lanckorona.

The Mixed Multitude:

Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, by Pawel Maciejko. University of Pennsylvania Press, 376 pages, $65

Jacob Frank, in inset, below, and above, on his deathbed, in Offenbach, Germany, December 1791.
Many messianic figures in Jewish history bore names with messianic significance. Two of the most famous would-be redeemers whose names testify to their messianic qualities were Jesus ("redeemer," in Hebrew ) of Nazareth and Shimon Bar Kochba (Bar Kochba is "son of the star," in Hebrew ). It may be that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna, also saw himself as a messiah, identifying with the tribe of Judah, which established the kingdom of the House of David. I recently came upon a suggestion that Moses Maimonides had messianic pretensions too, stemming from his identification with his name. He saw himself as a second Moses, and therefore, like the first one, he wrote a new Torah (the Mishna Torah ), led his people as the rais (leader ) of the Jews, and was close to the ruler of Egypt. Scholar Moshe Idel argues that Shabbetai Zvi identified with the astrological and messianic qualities of the planet Saturn ("Shabbetai" in Hebrew ). And Jacob Frank, who died in 1790, the founder of the Frankists, the sect that viewed him as the Messiah, identified with the biblical figure of Jacob the forefather, and saw himself as the third Shabbetai, after Shabbetai Zvi and his disciple Baruchia Russo.

Pawel Maciejko's book about the history of the Frankist movement, soon to be published in Hebrew translation by the Zalman Shazar Center, reminded me of the experience I had several decades back when I read Gershom Scholem's book "Sabbetai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676." It is very rare for a work of scholarly research to offer such a fascinating reading experience. From this point of view, Maciejko's book on Frank and the Frankist movement, which was awarded a 2010 Polonsky Prize for Creativity and Originality in the Humanities at the Hebrew University, where the author is a lecturer in Jewish thought, is a natural and valuable successor to Scholem's classic volume on Shabbetai Zvi and his followers.

And it is also an innovative book, with not merely one, but many important innovations. One of them is the difference Maciejko discerns between the Frankists and the Sabbateans. Maciejko argues that the Frankists cannot be seen as the direct descendants of the latter. Jacob Frank himself made every effort to distance himself from the Sabbateans as well as from the Doenmeh (the Sabbatean sect in the Ottoman Empire ). To Frank, Shabbetai Zvi achieved nothing, and it was he alone who could be considered an innovator. This search for difference and uniqueness characterizes Frank's life story and his behavior. Everywhere he went, he stood out as different and foreign.

Maciejko takes the time to point out some of the traits that differentiate the Frankists from the previous movement: their public profile and their willingness to involve the government in internal Jewish matters, and as a result, the brutality of the rabbinic campaign against them. While the Sabbateans were considered an internal Jewish problem, with which Jewish laws and theological arguments could cope, the Frankists were seen as a divisive presence within Judaism, and one that was likely to create a new religion.

The book depicts Podolia (today part of Ukraine, at the time in Poland ), where Jacob Frank was active in the mid-18th century, as a place in which Jewish heresy flourished. Even a century after Shabbetai Zvi's conversion to Islam, in 1666, many Jews in Podolia continued to follow his path. The Frankist-Jewish chapter lasted only two years. It began in 1756, with a mystical and erotic ceremony in the city of Lanckorona. The local rabbi's wife danced naked with a Torah crown on her head and the rest of the participants, Frank's followers, sang and danced with her. They celebrated with bread and wine, and kissed her as though she were a mezuzah.

The ceremony illustrates a position that equates religious symbolism with real, ontological existence, and some see it as an expression of the abandonment of a medieval symbolism that was detached from real life. This incident presents the Frankists as people who see the profanation of religious commandments as being of central importance in the undermining of rabbinical authority. The affair raised a rabbinical storm and led to the ostracizing of the Frankists.

While the Sabbateans were also officially excommunicated, their ostracism was never enforced. And their excommunication had been undertaken only at the initiative of individuals, and not of the rabbinic establishment. The Frankists were the first to be excommunicated in an organized and methodical way. The reason was that the ceremony in Lanckorona broke the earlier conspiracy of silence. The Sabbateans had acted without attracting rabbinic attention, along the lines of "Don't ask, don't tell." But this incident was the crossing of a line well beyond what had been acceptable in an earlier time. The straw that broke the camel's back was not necessarily the erotic-sexual aspect of the ceremony, but the use of the Christian symbols of bread and wine.

The Frankist Jewish chapter ended in 1759, with the conversion of the Frankists to Christianity. Like the Cathar movement that arose in Languedoc, France, in the 12th and 13th centuries, whose followers were accused of heresy and excommunicated, and which led the Church to establish the Inquisition, those who brought the Frankists to conversion were traditional Jews, headed by the Council of Four Lands (a representative body of Jews from Eastern Europe that met to discuss issues of mutual interest between 1580 and 1764 ), which preferred to see them outside the community rather than tolerate the existence of Jewish heresy within.

But not all the Jews felt this way. Judah Leibes raises the possibility that the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the founder of Hasidism ) died in 1760 of sorrow, due to the conversion of the Frankists a year earlier, since he viewed them as an organ of the mystical body of Judaism. But this was his personal opinion, while the rabbinic establishment preferred to expel the rebellious sons. And so, after many generations in which the Jews struggled with all their might against conversion to Christianity, the rabbinic leadership in Poland supported and even encouraged the followers of Jacob Frank to become Christians.

This push toward conversion was a result of the loathing that the Frankists aroused among traditional Jews. Maciejko points to the Frankists' attempts to confirm the truth of the blood libel (the claim that Jews required Christian blood for their religious ceremonies ), with the support of conservatives in the church establishment, even in the face of opposition by church office holders, headed by conservative circles in the papal curia. The Frankists enlarged the controversy by claiming that proof could be found in Jewish texts - in the customs of Passover, and in the Talmud. The innovation here was that the apparent Jewish demand for Christian blood was not made in the name of healing or magic, as was claimed during the Middle Ages, but as an inherent requirement of religious commandments. From then on not only marginal and deluded groups were suspected of this deed, but all the practitioners of the religion of Moses. In his excellent analysis, Maciejko describes the stance of the Frankists with regard to the blood libel from the perspective of its future impact, as well, and shows that the destructive influence of their claims percolated into the 20th century, feeding even into the infamous ritual murder charge against Menahem Mendel Beilis, in Russia, in 1913.

The exacerbation of internal religious tensions within Judaism was directly connected to the lessening of tensions with Christians. One of the biggest fighters against the Sabbateans, Rabbi Jacob Emden (Germany, 1697-1776 ), viewed Christianity as a religion meant to spread monotheism and the "seven commandments of the sons of Noah" among the pagans, and as a "heavenly church." Whereas Christianity and Judaism were borne, he believed, out of a common denominator, and both were legitimate, though meant for different peoples, he regarded Sabbateanism as a new and dangerous religion. But while his war against the Sabbateans was not a big success, the emergence of Frankism enabled him to extend the battle to the Frankists too.

Emdan's position led him to involve Christians in his struggle against the Jewish heresy. The Frankists responded in kind. And so the two camps stood facing each other, each turning to different Christian groups for aid. The Frankists depicted Judaism as a religion of the uncharitable letter of the law, while the rabbis depended on the revulsion of the church toward ecstatic religious movements and their suspicion of private religious experience which deviated from the church framework.

These processes led to the differentiation of Frankism from Sabbateanism. And this occurred, paradoxically, at a time when Jacob Frank was absent from Podolia, in the decisive years of 1756-7, which he spent in Turkey. But Frank continued to guide his followers even from a distance, a fact expressed in two main principles: adoption of the Christian holy trinity and rejection of the Talmud as filled with errors and sacrilege.

The history of the Frankists did not end with their conversion. Some of them sought to retain marks of their Judaism even after they became Christian: to keep Hebrew names, to refrain from marrying non-Jewish women and eating pork, to rest on the Jewish Sabbath as well as on Sunday, and to study Jewish mysticism. The conversion of the Frankists aroused contradictory responses in the Christian world. The Protestants were disappointed with the Frankists' attachment to "idolatrous" Catholicism, rather than "pure" Protestantism, which seemed to them closer to Judaism. In contrast, the Catholics used their success with the Frankists to serve their infighting with the Protestants, especially after religious tolerance became part of the Polish legal system at the beginning of the 1770s. Frank really was a pious Catholic in his religious consciousness, attracted to the mythic and ritualistic aspects of Christianity.

And so the Frankist movement owed a large debt to the collaboration between the rabbis and the priesthood. When the Sabbatean movement began, when it was still a small group, all it sought to do was oppose the rabbis and their authority. Sabbateanism started out as a mass movement but after the conversion to Islam of Shabbetai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza, it became marginal and had a scattered leadership. The Frankists moved in the opposite direction. Rabbinical rejection turned them into a mass movement in 1759-60. Rabbinical pressure on one side and the rabbis' praise for Catholicism on the other caused the Frankists to define their identity more clearly as separate both from Judaism and from Christianity. These determinations are the most important innovations in this fertile and groundbreaking book.

"The Mixed Multitude" ends with a description of the Frankist movement in three of its largest centers: Offenbach, Prague and Warsaw. It points out that the figures active in the Prague center at first admired Jacob Frank but then had reservations about him and his descendants. This circle is most responsible for the idea that Frankism is a natural continuation of Sabbateanism, and developed the view that sees both of these movements as forerunners of the Jewish Enlightenment.

The story of the Frankist movement in the book is woven into the texture of the political and intellectual history of the period; the result is a wonderful panorama of a Jewish world well-connected with its non-Jewish surroundings.

Israel Jacob Yuval is a professor of Jewish history, and academic head of the Scholion center of Jewish studies, at the Hebrew University.


The Cult Following of Gershom Scholem, Founder of Modern Kabbala Research
Israeli academia has a new, independent stream of Jewish studies. Its prophet: Gershom Scholem
Nov 29, 2019

I spoke recently with a Jewish studies professor who teaches in Germany. A few years ago, he was invited to spend a sabbatical at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lived here for a year with his family and thus became familiar for the first time with actual life in the Jewish state. He was surprised by some aspects of Israeli society, but one thing flabbergasted him: Hardly any Israeli he met knew who Gershom Scholem was. For decades, throughout his career as a teacher and a scholar, he had believed that Scholem was modern Judaism’s most important figure, and that the same went for Israel’s intellectual life too. Israeli academics he spoke with were also preoccupied with Scholem.

But when he got to Israel, he was taken aback to discover that his hero is largely forgotten in Israel’s cultural life. Scholem’s house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood is rundown, his works are not taught in high schools, and no important street is named for him in the big cities. Even more serious: The Israelis he met, for example, the parents in the preschool his children attended, didn’t even know how to pronounce his name. “Shulem”? the asked him. “Who the hell is Schulem?”

Indeed, Scholem’s figure delineates an absolute divide between two types of people. For regular Israelis – young or old, Ashkenazi or Mizrahi, lacking education or partially educated – the name Scholem is all but meaningless. In contrast, for most of those who are engaged in Jewish studies, or in the humanities in general, Scholem is a veritable universe. A scholar of Judaism and the founder of modern kabbala research, he is the subject of countless studies, articles and lectures.

In cafés in the Nahlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, local professors still whisper juicy anecdotes about the esteemed scholar,who died in 1982, usually referring to an interjection he uttered or did not utter during a lecture by his colleague and rival Martin Buber. At many Jewish studies conferences, “Gershom Scholem” is a category unto itself, bearing the same status as central issues in the field such as Bible, Hasidism or liturgical poetry.

Gershom Scholem studies have become a concrete academic field. It would not be an exaggeration to say that alongside Orthodox Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism, a separate stream of academic Judaism has sprung up in the humanities faculties both in Israel and abroad, whose chief prophet is Scholem. But all this resonates very faintly, if at all, outside the seminar rooms of academia.

These thoughts occurred to me in connection with the publication, by Magnes Press, of a Hebrew translation of a new, short biography of Scholem by David Biale, a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Davis. The book joins the biography “From Berlin to Jerusalem and Back,” by Noam Zadoff (Brandeis, 2017; Hebrew edition 2018), and another biography, by Amir Engel, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2017.

This surge of biographies is noteworthy, given the fact that Scholem actually lived the regular life of a Jerusalem professor and pedant. For almost 60 years, from his immigration to Palestine in 1923 until his death, he was a reclusive scholar surrounded by books, busy publishing his studies, correcting footnotes and engaged in intra-academic politics. Although a political dimension is hinted at in several of his works, he did not propound a philosophical method or put forward ideas going beyond the realm of Jewish history. Unlike another well-known Jerusalem intellectual, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Scholem did not express controversial political opinions, at least not in the final decades of his life. And in contrast to other distinguished yekkes – German-speaking Jews – such as Salman Schocken, he had no children and did not establish a famous dynasty.

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In fact, since his death, several kabbala scholars have severely critiqued Scholem’s historical theories and have dismantled them, brick by brick. But the very fact that he produced grand and ambitious theses ensures his ideas a longer life than those of his critics. Moreover, the secret of Scholem’s charm apparently lies in the dark sides of his personality. Even though he dealt with seemingly esoteric philological questions, his studies stirred fierce passions.

For example, the literary critic Baruch Kurzweil hurled poisoned barbs at him in the pages of Haaretz, arguing that Scholem was drawing close to a “mysticism of nihilism,” primarily because of his ostensibly sympathetic approach to Shabbetai Zvi, the false messiah. Kurtzweil found a demonic-anarchistic side in Scholem, and one of his critical articles included a kind of satirical skit about Scholem and his sycophantic followers.

Something of the dark, satanic forces that Scholem described in his studies radiated in his personality as well. A number of the people in his circle committed suicide – friends, students, colleagues – and even though allegations of his indirect responsibility for the disasters were refuted one after the other by historians, a certain specter of dark mystery clung to him nevertheless. But that is precisely what made him an interesting figure – after all, it’s hard to think of a contemporary Israeli professor whose persona is similarly capable of igniting the imagination and the emotions.

Indeed, Scholem’s life has become a form of mythology. Like the adoring fans of a rock band, the proponents of the genre know by heart the peak moments and will quickly seek them out in every new biography. Scholem’s father throws him out of the house for lacking German patriotism during World War I; Scholem has his first conversation with Walter Benjamin, in the catalog room of the university library in Berlin; in a letter to Franz Rosenzweig, Scholem warns that one day the religious power latent in the Hebrew language will rise up and destroy its speakers; Hannah Arendt informs Scholem that Benjamin committed suicide; Scholem discovers that his wife had an affair with the philosopher Samuel Hugo Bergmann; after reading Arendt’s book “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” Scholem accuses her of being deficient in “love of the Jewish people”; and so on.

The famous names that crop up in Scholem’s biography also help explain the secret of his magnetism. Scholem carried in his body a lost world of German Jewish intellectuals – an environment in which some of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century flourished. He documented and published the story of his intimate friendship with Benjamin (Biale raises the possibility that their relations had a homoerotic side), so that the aura around Benjamin illuminated him as well. Scholem may have been a professor in Jerusalem, but he could pick up the phone and call Carl Gustav Jung or Theodor Adorno. All this is very meaningful for the self-image of Israeli academics today, who on an everyday basis have to cope with narrow-minded administrators, indifferent students and boorish politicians. Scholem allows them to imagine for a moment that the intellectual world revolves around them.

In this connection, it’s worth quoting Arendt’s amusing remarks about Scholem in a 1957 letter, as quoted in Biale’s book: “He is self-absorbed… He fundamentally thinks that: the center of the world is Israel; the center of Israel is Jerusalem; the center of Jerusalem is the university; the center of the university is – Scholem. And the worst thing is that he seriously thinks that the world has a center.”

One day, Israeli culture in general will recognize the worth of Gershom Scholem. The life of the Jerusalem scholar will be the inspiration for a rock opera. And if not, at least a song in Hanukkah children’s festivals.


Mysticism and Mystery of Gershom Scholem
`Kabbala? What a strange subject and wonderful field! But for a faculty that is actually a kind of research academy, it is a perfect fit!' That was obviously Scholem's opinion, but it was hardly the opinion of other scholars at the time. Yosef Dan examines some of the riddles surrounding the father of kabbala studies

With the 20th century behind us, we can say without hesitation that Gershom Scholem was the greatest scholar of Jewish Studies in the last century and the outstanding academic personality not only in Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but in the pre-1948 Yishuv (Jewish community) in Palestine and in Israel. He is the only scholar of Jewish Studies, and the only scholar from Hebrew University, whose name has entered the universal academic pantheon of the 20th century in Europe and the United States. Twenty years after his death, new translations of his major works continue to appear, and his diaries and letters are being published in an impressive series of volumes.

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In recent years, dozens of doctoral dissertations have been devoted to his teachings in Europe and the United States (though not in Israel), and his ideas are discussed in books on the thought, religion and culture of the 20th century. At the same time, Gershom Scholem represents Hebrew University as a whole and its Institute of Jewish Studies in particular from the outset of its activity, and his academic life is entirely interwoven with the university's history.

The most striking aspect of Scholem's academic activity and status is that he was not part of any existing discipline. He himself created the research sphere to which he devoted himself and which became identified with his name in the academic world: kabbala studies. Not only was he the only academic researcher in this sphere when he was appointed lecturer in kabbala at Hebrew University, but more than 40 years on, at his retirement, he was the only professor of kabbala in any university anywhere. Thanks to his personality and the rare level of his work, his field of study was accepted in principle as a legitimate academic area of research, though until the 1960s no other institution adopted the format he created in Jerusalem. I know of no other similarly wide-ranging and profoundly influential personal scientific enterprise in recent generations comparable to that of Gershom Scholem.

A good many essays on Scholem have been written in the past 20 years, but the research in this sphere is still in its nascent stage. There is no academic biography of Scholem, and no one has undertaken a thorough study of his activity in the university. Diaries and letters will undoubtedly furnish much material in this respect, and the university's archives are crammed with relevant documents, though only a minuscule fraction of them could be used for this article.

What follows, then, is not a comprehensive survey of Gershom Scholem's academic activity - it is still too soon for that. This article derives from a survey of Scholem's work that I was asked to prepare as part of a multi-volume project the Hebrew University has launched about its history.

Scholem the researcher and the thinker was fond of paradoxes and would emphasize the paradoxical character of religious and spiritual phenomena. So it is only natural that I, his student, should take the same approach to describe the beginnings of Scholem's activity in Jewish Studies and at Hebrew University.

Gershom Scholem arrived in Jerusalem in 1923, at the age of 26. He first worked at preparing the Judaica catalogue of the National Library, which was then being built on Habashim (Ethiopia) Street, adjacent to Scholem's first home in the city. He was appointed head of the library's Jewish Studies section. This period was the subject of the concluding chapter of Scholem's autobiography, "From Berlin to Jerusalem." Scholem, then, brought his life story to a close exactly at the point where he was about to become part of Hebrew University, which would be officially opened two years later. I do not believe that this was accidental on Scholem's part, and hence also the first trenchant question that needs to be asked in this connection.

In October 1925, Scholem, then 28, and a resident of Jerusalem for less than two years, delivered one of the inaugural lectures for the Institute of Jewish Studies, one of the two institutes that formed the foundation of Hebrew University. The other was the Institute of Chemistry, for which the inaugural address was delivered two years earlier, by Albert Einstein. Scholem's lecture - entitled "Was Moses de Leon the author of the book of Zohar?" - appeared in print later that year in the first volume of the new journal "Jewish Studies," in which Scholem also published another academic article, "Bilar, King of the Demons." It is obvious why Einstein was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture of the Institute of Chemistry, as he had published the theory of relativity and been awarded a Nobel Prize. It is far less obvious why the honor of inaugurating the Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, for the first time after two millennia, went to a young man who had written an article about the kabbalist Avraham Bar Eliezer Halevy the previous year and who would soon expose the identity of "Bilar, king of the demons."

The Jewish Studies faculty who were involved in the establishment of Hebrew University were not especially close to Scholem in educational and academic background. Moreover, Scholem was not entirely fluent in Hebrew, and we do not know of any Jerusalem intellectuals who made an effort to cultivate the young newcomer. Scholem had no works to his credit in respected European publishing houses, nor had any titles or honors been bestowed on him. In fact, I don't know the answer to the question of why Scholem was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture, and the material in my possession only compounds the question. In "From Berlin to Jerusalem," Scholem himself attributes his appointment to the recommendations of the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik and the philosopher Julius Guttman, and in particular to the botanist Emanuel Lev, who was amazed at Scholem's discussion of the sex of date trees in connection with another kabbalistic work. However, it is difficult to accept these explanations as satisfactory.

On the same day, Yosef Klausner gave what he called his "inaugural lesson" in Hebrew literature (which appeared in print together with Scholem's lecture in "Jewish Studies"). Klausner noted that for the first time, the new Hebrew literature and the resurgent Hebrew language were the subject of academic study in a "high scientific institute." This was true, of course, but it was all the more true in regard to kabbala, which had never been considered worthy of scholarly research within an academic framework. And even if the new Hebrew literature had not previously been a subject of academic study, its central status in the Zionist experience and as part of the early education system in the Yishuv is beyond doubt.

Scholem's central status in the nascent Jewish Studies institute certainly facilitated his integration into the newly established Hebrew University. He was an exception in terms of age and academic background as compared with the founders of Jewish Studies at the university. Yet, in addition to the personal aspect, there is also the professional side, which is even more puzzling.

Kabbala studies as an academic discipline did not exist between 1925 and 1927 - the critical years in this field - other than in a negative context. Indeed, this discipline was not in existence anywhere in the world. The prevailing image of kabbala was forged by the historian Heinrich Graetz and his colleagues, who viewed it as a flawed and undignified element in Judaism. This was not a matter of dispute: I know of no written attempt to defend kabbala from its disparagers, either in Jerusalem or in other centers of Jewish Studies. How did it come about that this was the subject chosen to inaugurate the Institute of Jewish Studies? How is it that this became one of the first fields of study in the fledgling Hebrew University?

It is wrong to examine this question in the light of what Scholem wrote in later years. His conceptions about the place and status of the kabbala in the history of the Jewish people, its relations with Jewish religious law, its historical influence and its contribution to the dynamics of the history of the Jewish spirit simply did not exist in 1925. A perusal of Scholem's publications until then shows a handful of mainly bibliographical articles that can in no way justify a pressing academic need for kabbala studies in Jerusalem. His first studies dealt in part with aspects of the relations between kabbala and magic, witchcraft and alchemy - ideas not calculated to confer prestige on the subject in that period.

At the time there was a renewed interest, generated largely by Martin Buber, in the Hasidic movement of the Ba'al Shem Tov. Scholem was not engaged in the study of Hasidism at the time. The world of Jewish Studies was then under the sway of the basic concepts of the Enlightenment and Zionism, from which the various branches of Jewish esoteric doctrine were excluded. It is noteworthy that the emphasis in Scholem's presentation was on the study of the origins and sources of the kabbala, its attitude toward gnosticism, the development of its terminology and the study of its major texts. Nothing was said about the kabbala as mysticism or about its attitude toward mystical currents in other religions and so forth.

The documents we have gone through so far make no significant use of the term "mysticism" to define the discipline we are considering. All the documents, both those relating to Scholem's job description and the departmental curriculum, refer to the kabbala, or in some cases to the mystery doctrine or the secret wisdom; thus we find no echo of the argument that mysticism should not be a field of study and that the kabbala is supposedly the Jewish form of mysticism. The natural appearance of kabbala, without any discussion or detailed reference, alongside Jewish philosophy and as its equal, as two parts of the same field, is extremely surprising. I doubt that one can find "Jewish philosophy and kabbala" yoked together in this way earlier.

Jewish philosophy occupied a paramount place in the self-perception of Jewish Studies in the 19th and early 20th centuries (and for many years afterward), and the study of Maimonides and his doctrine was (and remains) one of the high points in this realm, according to all who are engaged in it. The medieval rationalism of which Maimonides is the principal spokesman was considered the purest essence of the Jewish religion, while the kabbala was considered a negative reaction, a rebellion against the light that emanates from rationalism.

The conjoining of "Jewish philosophy and kabbala" as a linked pair from the very beginning at Hebrew University - not as an oxymoron but as a natural fusion of which the two parts are mutually complementary - is one of the most surprising phenomena in the early years of the Institute of Jewish Studies. Scholem himself explained it in connection with the decision not to offer academic degrees in the emerging university but to consider it solely a research institute for the time being, for which his field was perfectly suitable. In his words, "Kabbala? What a strange subject and wonderful field! But for a faculty that is actually a kind of research academy, it is a perfect fit!" That was obviously Scholem's opinion, but was it really the opinion of the other scholars at the time?

The great riddle, based on the documents currently in my possession, is the absence of any discussion on this question. The archival material, including minutes of meetings, are silent on the question of whether a newly founded university should engage in a field that no other academic institution had hitherto touched, and entrust it to a young, inexperienced individual who lacked an academic background and had only a few papers to his credit, and those mainly of a bibliographical character.

If we recall the furor that erupted over Gershom Scholem's doctrine in the first years after his death, when it was presented to the scholarly world in its full intensity and acquired unprecedented prestige, it is amazing that no one in the formative period - when the prejudice that disqualified the kabbala and its offshoots was still dominant - raised any doubts or mounted a challenge. I find it extremely difficult to believe that there were no such documents, and this is a call to continue the search for papers that will help resolve this riddle.

A point that needs to be emphasized is the irrelevance, in these first years, of the term mysticism in connection with Scholem's research and teaching. The natural inclination, generated by the crystallization of conceptions in a later period, is to view Scholem's occupation with kabbala as the emergence of a specifically Jewish current in the general sphere of mysticism, just as Jewish philosophy is a specifically Jewish current in the general sphere of philosophy. As we know today, Scholem's major driving force was his rebellion against the conventions of the society around him and the practice of Jewish Studies at the time. Scholem turned to kabbala as part of his approach to the Jewish world, and just as he chose a Jewishness that was rejected and despised by his family and social milieu, so too he chose kabbala, which was rejected and despised by the Jewishness he embraced.

This rebelliousness, which characterizes Scholem's youth and young adulthood, was his guiding light in all areas. At the age of 17, he was one of the few who refused to be swept up in the tidal wave of German nationalism at the outbreak of World War I. Consistent with this, he espoused an opposition line against the leaders of the German Zionist movement, and in particular against his teacher and mentor Martin Buber, who, after initial hesitations, affirmed their loyalty to "the war that was forced on Germany," thus placing themselves in confrontation to their Zionist brethren in France and England. Scholem evaded conscription to the German army by feigning mental illness, refusing to yield to the dominant conventions of the society.

Similarly, he rebelled against the deliberate and systematic assimilation that characterized his family and chose a Jewish way of life, including the study of Hebrew, which was rare at the time among those of his generation and background. He turned not to modern Hebrew but primarily to the Jewish sources, the Talmud and Midrash, although it was difficult to find anyone to teach these subjects. Afterward, when his Jewish and Zionist identity had matured, he did what other Jews and Zionists did not even consider doing, and immigrated to Palestine, even though he was not persecuted and his bourgeois lifestyle in Berlin was unhindered. Scholem's letters and diaries, as well as his conversations and correspondence with the German philosopher-critic Walter Benjamin, show clearly his wide-ranging intellectual interest in philosophy and politics, in philology and the history of religion - but there is nothing in them to indicate any special interest in mysticism.

Scholem's first books, beginning in 1927, were all bibliographical and biographical studies relating to the kabbala and the place of kabbalistic texts within a literary-historical framework. In these years Scholem devoted himself to cataloguing kabbalistic writings and to identifying their authors and their mutual relations.

With this in mind, we can examine Scholem's inaugural lecture at the Institute of Jewish Studies. Scholem presented his ideas as a direct confrontation with the doctrine propounded by Heinrich Graetz, who insisted, on the basis of tradition and earlier studies, that the book of Zohar ("The Book of Splendor," the most important literary work of the kabbala) was written by the 13th-century Spanish kabbalist Moses de Leon. Scholem analyzes and refutes the arguments adduced by Graetz for Moses de Leon's authorship and concludes that the Zohar antedates the writings of de Leon, who was influenced by it. Thirteen years later, Scholem delivered a lecture in New York in which he proved with great lucidity that Moses de Leon was in fact the author of the Zohar and that Graetz was right (the lecture appears as chapter five in Scholem's book "Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism"). This 1938 version of events is accepted today and has been reinforced by the work of other scholars.

Scholem, then, did a 180-degree turn on this issue. All of us who studied under him and worked in his proximity knew that it was taboo to mention that early article in "Jewish Studies." That was a "childhood sin" that Scholem regretted and was ashamed of. It should be emphasized that Scholem's discussion of the subject in 1925 did not revolve around a matter of principle. It involved an analysis of testimony given by Moses de Leon's wife and a comparison between two texts to determine which was the earlier and hence the original. Scholem thus accorded philology the status of a supreme judge, based on the implicit belief that a thorough and precise philological analysis will inevitably produce the truth. There is nothing here about mysticism and religion, the meaning of spiritual experience or the relations between the material and the spiritual in the world of Judaism, nor any reference to the status of symbolism and the nature of linguistic expression.

From Scholem's point of view, or point of feeling, in 1925, it was inconceivable that Graetz was right, because if Graetz was right about the composition of the book of Zohar, he might also be right about the kabbala and its status - and that would have pulled the rug from under Scholem, whose very reason for taking up the study of kabbala was Graetz's deeply negative approach to the subject.

One could also say (though there is no evidence that Scholem was aware of this at the time) that if Graetz was right, there is no justification for teaching kabbala at Hebrew University, as kabbala then becomes no more than the caprices and delusions of charlatans, cheats and forgers. Scholem himself uses the word "forgery" pointedly in reference to the pseudo-epigraphy of the Zohar. If in fact Moses de Leon forged the Zohar for financial gain - as one source maintains - what justification is there for the newly created Institute of Jewish Studies to treat the subject as a respectable field of study? On the other hand, if Graetz was wrong and misled others, and the Zohar in fact represents a deep and ancient spiritual tradition at the heart of Judaism, there is ample justification to give it due place in the cultural and scientific renascence of the Jewish people represented by the university and the institute.

Scholem, invoking simple and direct philological means, set out to defend the moral and spiritual status of the kabbala as part of the Jewish people's traditional culture - a status that Graetz and his school rejected. It is of interest that precisely this central example, with which Scholem chose to launch his academic activity in the study of kabbala, is one that he later had to retract, adopting instead the contrary position; and it is of interest that he did not hesitate to act when compelled by the research data.

The two puzzles - "Why Gershom Scholem, of all people?" and "Is it really necessary to study the kabbala?" - were thus not fundamentally resolved in the decisive years of Hebrew University's crystallization, although the facts were laid down. Many years passed before a permanent teacher of Jewish philosophy was found to join Scholem in "Jewish philosophy and kabbala" and before the central status of kabbala in the department became unassailable. And many years passed until Scholem consolidated his personal status and until the subject of his research was accepted as a cornerstone of Jewish Studies in every academic institution. It would have been hard to imagine, in those far-off days, that Gershom Scholem would one day become, thanks to his kabbala research, the president of the Israel Academy of Sciences.


Hasidism's Messianic Matrix
Mor Altshuler
Aug 29, 2003

In his review of my book, "The Messianic Secret of Hasidism," ("A light that does not illuminate," Week's End, July 18, 2003) Dr. Mendel Piekarz describes me as a young scholar; however, he couples this compliment with such epithets as "bulimic" and "not very knowledgeable." I regret the fact that he chose to concentrate on tasteless comments on my personality instead of talking about the book and the findings it contains.

However, to the heart of the matter. This senior researcher on Hasidism presents shopworn arguments. He uses categorical generalizations: "This is what we learn!" or "A close reading of the difficult commentaries in `Or Hame'ir' clearly proves ..." or "... after prolonged study of the books of pious Jews and Hasidism, I have learned that ... " However, instead of proving decisive facts, he repeatedly quotes hagiographic (that is, fictional and non-historical) Hasidic traditions and he adopts their anachronistic nature. In doing so, he adopts the position of a Hasid instead of engaging in a critical analysis of the sources, as would be expected from any self-respecting scholar.

Even when he attempts to prove his prowess in dealing with minute details, he fails, and even misleads his readers. For example, he portrays me as someone who "did not bother to open the collection of writings that is the most celebrated and the most accessible to every beginning student in this field: `Maggid Devarav Le'Yaakov' (`He Conveys His Words to Jacob') [by Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch]." However, Dr. Piekarz deliberately "overlooks" the fact that "Maggid Devarav Le'Yaakov" is referred to in my book 22 times. The references include a detailed discussion of the issue of the identity of the preacher whose sermons are printed in that collection. It is quite possible that Dr. Piekarz rejects my conclusion - namely, that the preacher is Rabbi Yechiel Michel, the Maggid (itinerant preacher) of Zlotschov, rather than Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich; however, precisely because of his objections, he should have squarely dealt with the evidence I present, instead of masking the shallowness of his own arguments with a contemptuous attitude that certainly does no justice to the person who expresses it.

Apparently, Dr. Piekarz thinks the readers of Haaretz are ignoramuses. That is probably the reason for his declaration that "anyone who reads the words of Rabbi Meshulam Feibish will sense that the dominant spiritual figure hovering above the text is that of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich." He makes this declaration despite the fact that Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller, one of the personalities referred to in my book, proclaims that his rabbi and mentor is Rabbi Yechiel Michel, the Maggid of Zlotschov: "... most especially ... what I heard from a sacred mouth ... the distinguished rabbi, Yechiel Michel, may his candle continue to burn brightly."

Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller goes on to say that he visited Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich, only once ("The Messianic Secret of Hasidism"). Furthermore, it was the late Rivka Schatz Uffenheimer "Hasidism as Mysticism"), not I, who identified the "Maggid" in Rabbi Meshulam Feibish Heller's writings as Rabbi Yechiel Michel, the Maggid of Zlotschov, rather than Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezrich. As it turns out, Dr. Piekarz seems to have a low regard for both Prof. Schatz Uffenheimer and for her scholarly knowledge.

Relying on a colon

A characteristic example of his slovenly approach is his quoting from a late edition of Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf of Zhitomir's classic Hasidic text, "Or Hame'ir" ("The Illuminating Light"): the New York edition printed in the Hebrew calendar year 5714 (1954), which is a photo-offset printing of the Lemberg (Lvov) edition, which appeared in 5635 (1875). The only reason I mention this point is that Piekarz makes a mountain out of a molehill: He bases himself on the colon appearing between two passages in order to determine who is the Maggid referred to in "Or Hame'ir."

In contrast, I have focused on the literary structure of the passages, comparing their content to similar sermons in the writings of other students and dating the event depicted in those two passages in line with the sermon based on the weekly Torah portion read in the synagogue. As is customary in scholarly research, the quote in my book was taken from the text of the first edition of "Or Hame'ir," which was published in Korets in 5558 (1798) and whose appearance received the blessings of the author's sons and the blessing of his friend, Rabbi Levy Yitzhak of Berditchev. The edition I used is part of the Gershom Scholem collection in the National Library in Jerusalem. An examination of that edition would have saved Piekarz from a reliance on a colon appearing in a later, random edition in order to prove such a central issue. During his visit, he would also have enriched his knowledge by taking a look at the comments that Scholem jotted down in the margins of the book's pages.

These examples are sufficient proof that Piekarz could have saved himself considerable embarrassment had he openly admitted that, failing to find flaws in my research method, he had simply invented flaws to camouflage the dissatisfaction he felt when he read my conclusion: The Hasidic movement has messianic roots. Granted, the late Isaiah Tishby also reached a similar conclusion; however, Tishby could be forgiven because he was Piekarz's teacher and mentor. I, on the other hand, am a young, rash individual who refuses to accept threadbare and incorrect formulas just because they are "conventions" and purportedly self-understood.

It is not too difficult to understand Piekarz's awkward feelings: The issue of messianism in Hasidism constitutes for many people a serious problem because this issue has implications for what preceded that messianism (the link with Shabbatean messianism) and what developed in its wake (the connection with Zionism). In other words, the topic touches the very heart of a major historiosophic debate that has molded the Israeli psyche - our attitude toward the past - especially from two standpoints: our attitude toward the Diaspora and the link between Zionism and the messianic movements that preceded it in the process of the Jewish people's return to its homeland. One of those movements was Hasidism.

This is not the context for developing these subjects, although suffice it to say that, in academe, an erroneous solution was found in the theory of Gershom Scholem, who argued that Hasidism did not begin as a messianic movement and even defined Hasidism as the neutralization of the messianic impulse. Two scholars have a totally different approach and they consider Hasidism to have an unmistakably messianic basis: historian Ben-Zion Dinur and a scholar of kabbala, Isaiah Tishby, who was one of Scholem's students. Their views were rejected for a long period while Scholem's dominated the field. However, since the early 1990s they have once more become the starting-point for research on Hasidism - for example, the work of Moshe Idel and Joseph Dan, who has defined contemporary Hasidism as a post-messianic movement. In other words, the initial stage in Hasidism's development was a messianic one.

The messianic secret of Hasidism was thus not the product of an iconoclastic desire but was rather part of an ongoing effort undertaken by scholars and other intellectuals to reconcile the paradox between Scholem's mistaken definition and what emerges from the texts themselves. Today, Dr. Piekarz is the only scholar who still holds the view that Hasidism is an anti-messianic movement. The messianic excitement around the figure of the Lubavitcher Rebbe has erupted because the members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic movement simply did not read the right learned articles.

Hidden prophecies

The innovative feature in my book is its exposure of the entire messianic matrix, whose extensive nature has hitherto been hidden from view: The prophecies of the Redemption that was to take place between 5500 and 5541 (1740-1781) led Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, or the Baal Shem Tov, to make an unsuccessful attempt to travel to Jerusalem in 1740. The next product of the prophecies was the activity of his student, Rabbi Yechiel Michel, the Maggid of Zlotschov, a charismatic leader who was described as the "soul of God."
That soul includes the souls of all Jews and will be the instrument to redeem those souls from their sins. The Maggid of Zlotschov founded a small kabbalistic-messianic group whose goal was to usher in the Redemption before 1781. Some of the group's members moved to the Holy Land in 5537 (1777), settling in Safed and Tiberias. They hoped that they would be able to transmit to their coreligionists in the Diaspora the message concerning the resurrection of the dead, an event that, so it was believed, would begin in the Galilee. Their immigration to the Holy Land, which was intended "to redeem and be redeemed" - that is, to redeem the Shekhina (the divine presence) from its exile and to, in turn, be redeemed by the Shekhina - can be seen as a pioneering prototype of the waves of Zionist immigration that would come later and whose goal was "to build and be built."

The messianic venture ended in bitter disappointment, with the death of the Maggid of Zlotschov and the disintegration of the first Hasidic "court." It was only after the Maggid's death that the Hasidic courts of his students developed. Each of these courts had a post-messianic structure in which the tzadik (righteous leader) functioned as a surrogate-messiah. The eruption of messianic fervor surrounding such charismatic tzadikim as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the Seer of Lublin and Rabbi Israel of Rozhin in the 19th century and the Lubavitcher Rebbe today should come as no surprise, because the Hasidic tzadik originally had a messianic mission.

These developments are rather embarrassing for the Hasidic world as a whole because the revelation of one of the tzadikim as the messiah will render the other tzadikim irrelevant and will threaten the survival of both the dynasties of tzadikim and the Hasidic courts they lead.

Admittedly, the messianic matrix portrayed in "The Messianic Secret of Hasidism" vastly differs from the old picture that Dr. Piekarz clings to so steadfastly. The exposure of this matrix enables us to understand the period of Hasidism's initial consolidation and to link up the Hasidic movement's history with its theological structure, namely, Hasidism's unique theory of the tzadik. The clarification of the Hasidic court's messianic character merges the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Earth into a single unit that can explain the movement's history and theology. Thus, we can now understand both Hasidism's post-messianic present and the isolated outbursts of a fervor that is buried deep underground.

In my view, this insight is my book's contribution to the study of Hasidism and to the study of messianic movements in general. Since Dr. Piekarz ends his review article with a selection of the warnings issued by Hasidic leaders against the satanic fire (fire of the Sitra Akhra, or the Other Side) of messianism and their words of praise for the Diaspora, I will end my response with a question: Why did he not think twice before offering so many statements calling for the Diaspora's perpetuation and singing its praises? Dr. Piekarz should instead have remembered the end of the European Diaspora he so vigorously lauds: a horrifying fire that consumed much of our people.


Kabbala for the Masses, or Money for Magic?
Philip Berg, who died last week, retooled kabbala as a superstitious self-help movement - but his commercial success and celebrity following hardly enhanced the reputation of Jewish mysticism.

Arthur Green

Sep 30, 2013

Some two hundred years ago, just as Jewish emancipation was moving into high gear, Judaic scholars developed a new concept called “mainstream Judaism.” (Classical Hebrew has no way to express such a notion.) The “mainstream” was created in order to exclude anything that modern westernizing Jews might find embarrassing in Judaism. This meant, first and foremost, the entire mystical tradition.

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Now, two centuries later, Jews are scrambling to reclaim this lost part of our legacy. Many factors come together to create this resurgence of interest in kabbala and Hasidism. The general Western quest for exoteric spiritual truths, the effect of the Gershom Scholem-led academic effort to make the sources accessible, and the unique character of Jewish history in the past 70 years have all played a role. Few people doubt any more that great power and profundity are to be found within these texts and traditions; the 19th-century notion that the kabbalists were mere obscurantists, “rebels against the light” of reason, has been mostly set aside.

The question is not whether, but how, to reclaim this part of our heritage. What is the best of the kabbala’s teaching, and what might well be left behind? How do we retool a religious language conceived in the Middle Ages to inspire the religious lives of contemporary seekers?

Philip Berg, founder of the Kabbalah Centers, who died last week in Los Angeles, had a clear answer to those questions. It turns out, Berg discovered, that modern Western people, living in a seemingly skeptical and enlightened age, are just as frightened and insecure as our ancestors were back in the ghettos and mellahs of centuries ago. They will tie red threads around their wrists, drink specially blessed bottles of “kabbala water,” and buy sets of books they cannot read, all as talismans against the evil eye.

This most popular level of kabbala, verging close to magic, he also discovered, could be a great commercial success. Wrapped up in a garment of self-empowerment and personal growth teachings of the sort one can find in airport bookstores, and combined with a dose of enthusiastic new-age piety, it could be a source of endless seminars, retreats, and programs that people would pay hefty fees to attend.

Berg, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, was indeed a student of kabbala in a serious way. He came out of the school of Yehudah Leib Ashlag (1886-1955), a Polish Jew who settled in Jerusalem in the 1920s and revived what was left of the old, mostly Sephardic, kabbalistic heritage. He had some interesting ideas, including a tendency toward communism in his social views. His essential teaching is that we humans need to return energy to its single divine source, to become givers rather than receivers in the cosmic economy. It was this radiating of divine energy that kabbala was to help one achieve. But Ashlag dived headlong into the endlessly complex morass of latter-day kabbalistic symbolism, where the great ideas tended to get lost in the myriad details of the system.

Berg, a second-generation disciple of this school, saw a way to turn it into a self-help teaching. The more superstitious pieces, never much to Ashlag’s liking, were picked up from other kabbalists. Berg, with the help of his wife and sons, engaged in a tremendously successful marketing campaign and brought this heady brew to the attention of Hollywood personalities, among many others, capturing headlines that expanded their market ever farther. He scandalized Orthodox kabbalistic circles by opening his teachings to both women and gentiles, unheard of in their world. Critics assumed, however, that this bit of “liberalism” was mostly a commercial decision. His movement, perhaps getting beyond his own intent, even saw its form of kabbala as transcending Judaism altogether, becoming a religion of its own.

As the movement expanded and the commercial stakes grew higher, there were accusations of cultish behavior and mind control coming from former disciples who had left Berg’s circle. At the same time, there were others who claimed to have been helped by his teachings, to have found real religious community within the centers’ precincts, and to have attained great spiritual growth. Some said that Judaism was first made attractive to them through Berg’s approach and they then had moved on toward a deeper and more learned connection to the tradition. None of these claims can be ignored; religious movements are always complex in the effects they have on different personalities and people coming to them with different sets of needs.

In recent years, with Berg crippled by a stroke, the centers have also faced charges on the fiscal front and in general seem to have seen better days. Most of the Hollywood personalities have come and gone. In retrospect, it would be fair to say that while the Berg enterprise surely increased the fame of kabbala, and may have been beneficial to some seekers, it did not enhance the reputation of Jewish mysticism among the world’s spiritual traditions. Kabbala does indeed contain great wisdom and a proper popularization of its teachings could have much to say to our world. We denizens of the “first world” especially need to be taught that there are some worlds above us, and learn how to become givers rather than just receivers or consumers. Religion has no more urgent task. But the job still needs to be done, and without the commercialization and hucksterism that too often made it appear seamy rather than profound.

Arthur Green serves as rector of the Rabbinical School and professor of Jewish philosophy and religion at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass.


'Not a Cult': The Freemasons Want You! (Unless You Happen to Be a Woman)

Faced with dwindling ranks, the Freemasons are trying to shed their secretive image. The grand master of an Israeli branch says the organization is 'Boy Scouts for adults' and joining is as easy as sending an email – for men, that is

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Open gallery view
The Freemason symbols are displayed at the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in Israel, in Tel Aviv.Credit: Moti Milrod
Maya Guez
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Feb 18, 2018

A few months ago, my father joined the Freemasons. As a kid, I had read everything I could about the organization, after a girlfriend told me in secret that her father was a Freemason. She made me swear not to tell anyone, and gave me the feeling that I would die if anyone found out that I knew.

My father, who attached a small pin to his jacket lapel, also wasn’t very forthcoming, beyond saying that he’d gotten through the initiation ceremony successfully. One recent Saturday, we were in a restaurant when a bottle of arak was brought to our table, and someone called out from the adjacent table, “Lechayim, my brother.” My father raised a glass in the direction of the man, a stranger, and responded, “Lechayim, my brother.” As he drank, he added, “We are all brothers and we do everything we can for each other, everywhere in the world. This is the most fraternal organization I’ve ever belonged to.”

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If in the past, Freemasonry conjured up notions of a mysterious organization, and was spoken of in cautious whispers with furtive sideways glances, its members appear to be undergoing a genuine revolution. Just last week, the organization ran large ads in three newspapers in Britain, as part of a public relations campaign, in response, it said, to being “undeservedly stigmatized” in general. Last month, representatives of the Freemasons held an open meeting in Jerusalem. The trend, then, seems to be that the organization, which always maintained discretion of a type usually reserved for an espionage organization, is loosening up.

'Freemasonry is not a cult, not a mystery group and not a secret society. It’s an organization that contains secrets.'

I visited the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons in Israel, in Tel Aviv, in pursuit of my work as a Holocaust researcher, seeking to better understand this centuries-old, apolitical brotherhood of men from different walks of life who are, in essence, trying to make the world a better place. The fate of the Freemasons in Nazi labor and extermination camps is a largely unknown chapter of World War II and has hardly been studied. Believing that the Jews dominated Freemasonry, the Nazis shut down German lodges, burned entire Masonic libraries, and nationalized precious objects and art collections belonging to the members. They herded Freemasons into camps and forced them to wear a red patch in the shape of an upside-down triangle, as though to deprive them of the power embodied in their organization’s equilateral-triangle symbol.

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Hitler referred to the Freemasons in “Mein Kampf” and accused the Jews of conspiring with them to take control of Germany. At the height of the war, Hitler believed that the Freemasons in Germany were transmitting reports to their Freemason brother, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Upon ascending to power in 1933, Hitler shut down all nine Grand Lodges of the Freemasons in Germany. He established a sub-department in the S.S. whose task was to locate, arrest and annihilate nearly 79,000 German Freemasons. Across Europe, the Nazis murdered about 200,000 Freemasons.

Still, at least one triumphant photograph, of a secret nighttime ceremony that the Freemasons held in an extermination camp has survived. While they are not seen wearing their special garb, they had each other – and the hope that morality and fraternity would once more reign in the world.

Open gallery view
A book of Masonic symbols that was confiscated by the Nazis, and now on display at a library in Nuremberg.Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Sto
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There are 50 lodges in Israel subordinate to the Grand Lodge, with a total of about 1,200 brothers. The Grand Lodge takes up half a floor in Tel Aviv's prestigious Museum Tower office building. At the entrance is an unhewn stone from Zedekiah’s Cave, under the Old City, in Jerusalem, which is said to symbolize mankind in a condition of perpetual development and enrichment. Inside are offices, two temples, a museum and a library, replete with symbols, sculptures and images of Freemasonry. Each object has a depiction on it a square and a set of compasses with the letter “G” in the center. The square and compasses stand for spirit and matter, credibility and integrity. The “G” represents God, and also the word “geometry.” On the front door is the distinctive symbol of the Grand Lodge in Israel – a square and compasses enclosing the symbols of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: the Star of David, the cross and the crescent. The country’s lodges organize activities, often for mixed groups of members of different religions, in a variety of languages – Hebrew, Turkish, Russian and Spanish.

The shelves of the library here in Tel Aviv are filled with ancient books, and the large temple is tiled in black and white, with a capacious chair, reserved for the Grand Master. The ceiling is painted to look like the sky. It’s here that the Freemasons’ ceremonies are held.

“Freemasonry is not a cult, not a mystery group and not a secret organization. It’s an organization that contains secrets,” explains Roy G. Guttmann, 41, a lawyer and the grand master of Lodge Muffelmann Oman 29, after Leo Muffelmann from Germany, who “brought the German Masonic light to Israel.”

'When I’m asked what Freemasonry is, I reply that it’s Scouts for adults.'

Adds Guttmann, “When I’m asked what Freemasonry is, I reply that it’s Scouts for adults.”

Then why has it become known as a mysterious, secret organization?

“Because in the past the availability of information wasn’t what it is today, at the click of a keyboard. In the past, not everyone was accepted.”

Can anyone be a member today?

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“Not everyone is accepted today, either. In the past, it was by word of mouth and at the recommendation of a Mason. Today you can apply to the lodge in Israel or one abroad via websites and also email the Grand Lodge, and someone will contact you.”

There’s a feeling lately that you’re opening up to the world. The newspaper ad in England, an invitation by the Jerusalem Freemasons to an open evening, the fact that we’ve been sitting here for a few hours already. Could it be that you’re trying to recruit new members?

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Roy G. Guttmann, a lawyer and the president of the Freemason Lodge Muffelmann Oman 29. Credit: \ Moti Milrod
“The Freemasons organization consists of an older public, and we want to make it more youthful. But you have to remember that being a Mason is a way of life of morality, integrity, help and truth. If we don’t want the Masonic idea to die out, we need new brothers.”

Unknown roots

Freemasonry’s roots are unknown. The organization’s traditional narrative dates Freemasonry to the period of King Solomon and the building of the First Temple. But there’s no worship in the organization, and there are no ritual sacrifices. The official version of the history of Freemasonry dates to the Middle Ages, the era of the guilds, when the earliest members were actual masons – placing stone on stone and building the cathedrals. They knew the secrets of construction, how to lay a keystone and the direction from which light enters the cathedral.

From the European feudal lords who paid their salaries, they would receive permits that allowed them to move relatively freely between countries. Monarchs, dukes and counts, grasping that a secret, prestigious guild had been created under their very nose, tried to infiltrate it. The Freemasons accepted the noblemen because of their status and the philosophical knowledge they possessed.

Hitler believed that the Freemasons in Germany were transmitting reports to their brother, U.S. President Roosevelt.

After 1717, when the organization was established in Britain, was focused more on the realm of the philosophical and spiritual than it was on the profession of masonry. And in view of the fact that it’s still an international organization with secrets, its members use covert identifying marks to recognize one another.

Another unifying element of Freemasons is their jargon. Anyone who is not a member is called secular or a “light seeker” (referring to the seeking of what is called the Masonic light); death is called the “eternal orient.” Freemasons address each other as “my brother.” For my part, I was asked to call them “uncles,” as they are my father’s brothers.

There are three degrees of Freemasonry membership. The first, usually bestowed in the first year after admittance, is known as the degree of “entered apprentice.” To reach the second degree, the candidate has to pass a test or prepare a brief study on a certain subject and deliver a lecture on famous Freemasons, important events involving them, symbolism in the initiation ceremony or the Masonic light. Achieving the next degree requires coming “to work,” meaning attending involvement in activities such as weekly meetings, study, etc.

“As soon as you cross the threshold from the secular world to the work of the masons, you enter a realm in which you are meant to preserve harmony between the brothers,” Guttmann explains. “In Freemasonry we don’t talk about such subjects as religion, politics or sex. Those are volatile conversational subjects, which are liable to cause disharmony in the lodge.”

The second degree is known as “fellowcraft.” After half a year to a year of activities including study and research, lectures, etc. and a test, the “master mason” degree is bestowed. As part of that third degree the Israeli Freemason assumes certain rights and obligations, which include upholding the laws of the state, preserving the laws of morality and maintaining the regulations of the order as they appear in the organization’s constitution.

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Roy G. Guttmann, a lawyer and the president of the Freemason Lodge Muffelmann Oman 29. Credit: מוטי מילרוד
What is the agenda of meetings?

“It’s a regular agenda that includes an opening and closing ceremony and other activities. The meeting includes lectures that the brothers deliver on the basis of studies they’ve conducted. After the closing ceremony there’s a white table – a shared meal.”

Can I attend an initiation?

“Unfortunately, the answer is no.”

The rituals differ from one lodge to another, and the brothers vote on them democratically. There are special lodges in Israel, such as one named for the great illusionist Houdini, who was a Freemason. Prospective candidates for that lodge must take a course in magic, and every brother is obliged to put on a magic show in a school, hospital or similar institution. There’s also a Mozart lodge, named for the composer, who also belonged to the Freemasons (members have to have an interest in music). The Russian-speaking lodge draws mostly members from the former Soviet Union. And there are “research lodges,” to promote the study of the organization’s history.

'If we don’t want the Masonic idea to die out, we need new brothers.'

Famous Freemasons abound: 14 American presidents, including George Washington and Gerald Ford; Mark Twain; and even Theodor Tobler, from Switzerland, the inventor of Toblerone, the chocolate bar brand, whose design is Masonic, according to some. Legend has it that Gustav Eiffel, a genuine engineer-builder, designed the Eiffel Tower to emulate the Masonic triangle.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin joined the New York lodge of the Freemasons during his tenure as ambassador to the United States, although the Grand Lodge in Israel has no documents confirming his membership in Israel. “Possibly that’s why Rabin was so close to [Jordan’s] King Hussein, who was also a Freemason,” Guttmann notes.

“The straight-angled triangle or the equilateral triangle is symbolic,” he explains. “The straight angle symbolizes honesty between the brothers, and the equal [length of the] sides – the equality between them. There’s a Masonic saying that the only time you’re allowed to look at someone from above is when you help them stand up.”

Another element of Freemasonry that has existed since the organization’s genesis is a ban on women from taking part in its ceremonies. “It’s a tradition,” Guttmann insists, “and not, heaven forbid, because we think women are an inferior class.”

I understand that there’s a parallel women’s organization, the Order of Free Weavers.

“Only in the United States. There are other orders, which aren’t recognized, some of them lodges of women only, or mixed lodges. They call themselves ‘Masons’ but aren’t recognized by the United Grand Lodge of England.”

Your organization presents itself as moral, humanitarian and just, but how is that possible without women?

“That is very difficult to explain. When I entered the organization, I assumed that the reason was that women in general had no [voting] rights until the 19th century. The tradition has continued.”

Happy and sad

There are times, however, in which women are allowed to enter a lodge, Guttmann notes – “one happy ceremony and one sad one.” The happy one, he says, is “Wife Day and Flower Holiday.” On that day, “a brother honors the woman who is close to his heart – wife, girlfriend, daughter. All the brothers invite their partners, and at the concluding stage the work is halted ... A Masonic ceremony is held to honor the women, and afterward the Grand Master’s wife or the wife of a veteran member is asked to speak. In the end, the wives leave, the lodge is restored to activity and all go for a joint meal.”

And the sad ceremony?

“The sad ceremony is a mourning service. When a brother passes to the eternal orient and we want to close the circle for the family, we hold a ceremony called ‘work,’ and allow the brother’s whole family into the lodge. The ceremony is filled with symbolism and melancholy elements, eulogies are delivered on behalf of the lodge, and the family members speak. It’s the lodge’s way of saying, ‘We’re here for the family.’”

Do the wives know the brothers?

“Definitely. A wife can appeal for help at any time after a brother passes. There are activities in which interaction takes place between the wives and brothers. Before admittance to the Freemasons, there is an interview in which forms are filled out, and if the brother is married we usually go to his house to meet the wife. There are two reasons for this: both so she will get to know the people involved and won’t think her partner has disappeared from home, and also so that she will be able to ask questions herself.”

Didn’t Dan Brown expose your secrets in his 2009 novel “The Lost Symbol,” which is mostly about Freemasonry?

“To the best of my knowledge, Dan Brown is not a Freemason. His information was culled from reading dozens of published books and studies, dealing with Freemasonry.”

What’s the difference between Freemasonry and a cult?

“In his book, Dan Brown explains clearly the difference between a cult and other organizations. There is no one figure here that people worship or to whom they donate. It’s not a belief in a particular religion. Freemasonry accepts brothers from the monotheistic religions, such as Buddhism, but it depends on which branch of Buddhism. There’s a famous picture of a Freemason altar on which there are nine holy books – from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Druidism. Each one represents the Masons’ book of faith.”

Who are the members of the Freemasons? Is that a secret?

“You see the ring, the tie, the pin? Why do you think there’s a secret? One morning I entered a courthouse and the judge asked, ‘What is that pin?’ I told him I was a Freemason. It’s up to each brother whether he will introduce himself as a Freemason. It’s not that anyone is ‘outed.’ The name and photograph of the new Grand Master in Israel, Suliman Salem, is on our site, but beyond that it’s the choice of each person whether to introduce himself as such.”

How is one accepted as a member?

“The process differs in each lodge. With us you have to come to fraternal evenings. My lodge meets twice a month, once for work and once for fraternity ... Your lodge isn’t your real family, but it’s certainly the third or fourth circle in your life, after wife and children, extended family, friends. Fraternal evenings contribute to the creation of that glue.”

When would you eject a brother?

“If a brother transgressed against the order itself. If he was convicted of a criminal offense. Of course, we’re not talking about a traffic offense, but something serious.”

Whom will you not accept?

“An atheist cannot be admitted to Freemasonry. Nor can a person without any religion be accepted, unless he believes in a supreme being, defined as a force of fate. His only way to be admitted is to lie. But then he’ll probably lose interest and leave at his own initiative.”

Dr. Maya Guez is a researcher and lecturer in the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University and in the Department of Politics and Communication at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem.


The Great British Disenfranchisement of the Jews
Pushed out of the anti-Semitic left and repelled by the nativist right, Jews are now at a unique political disadvantage among U.K. minorities

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn walk through the Commons Members Lobby in Parliament, London. Oct. 14, 2019Credit: Kirsty Wigglesworth,AP
Esther Solomon

Dec 12, 2019

This op-ed was originally published on October 25, 2019.

Choose your poison. The anti-Semitic populist left or the racist, illiberal populist right?

You’re a British Jew. Who would you choose between a political camp which consistently dismisses and delegitimizes complaints of anti-Semitism and actively interferes with official investigations into them, or a political camp which glorified a crude, nostalgic nationalism, whose leader ridicules minorities?

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If you had to choose between the mainstream left party leader who doubted whether Jews could be sufficiently culturally acclimatized to appreciate Britain’s tradition of irony, or the mainstream right-wing politician who accused the Illuminati and George Soros of interfering in U.K. politics, which way would you go?

If you had to choose between a leadership circle soaked in the foundational anti-Semitism of the U.K.’s militant left, whose revolutionary ardor embraces Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Putin and Assad, or a leadership circle running after the votes of the U.K.’s anti-immigrant nativist nationalists, playing footsie with mentors of the U.S. alt-right, what would you do?

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What if you, like two thirds of U.K. Jews, voted against an isolationist Brexit, but had to choose between a Conservative administration determined to leave the EU at any cost, and a Labour party led by an ideological opponent of the EU, whose Brexit policies have been a stammering joke?

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Soon, British Jews will face an unprecedented political quandary. For the first time in modern history, both major parties, in a traditionally two-horse political system, offer them a particularly repellent choice.

The rise of a third party, the Liberal Democrats, a pro-Europe party which had its own anti-Semitism issues, but belatedly but firmly dealt with them, may offer a refuge to Jewish voters. But the fact remains that for the vast majority of U.K. Jews who don’t want to appease anti-Semites, racists and nativists, the options have never been narrower.

The impact of the tortuous rise in anti-Semitism in Labour since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 has been deep and shocking for U.K. Jews.

Labour members and elected representatives sharing neo-Nazi posts? Check. Blaming Jews for ISIS and suggesting they profited from 9/11? Check. Complaints about anti-Semitism are a witch-hunt, likely orchestrated by the Israeli deep state? Check.

Before Corbyn, around 33 percent of U.K. Jews supported Labour; that percentage has now collapsed to under ten percent. 86 percent of British Jews believe that Corbyn is anti-Semitic.

The party’s record on anti-Semitism is now the subject of an investigation by a government watchdog whose only previous scrutiny of a U.K. political party targeted the virulently racist far right British National Party.

Last week, a second Jewish Labour woman MP quit the party, having faced a concerted barrage of hate and threats - and tepid, if not entirely absent, support from party leaders.

In her resignation letter, Louise Ellman describes how, under Corbyn - who has spent three decades "consorting with, and never confronting, anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers and terrorists," anti-Semitism has "become mainstream in the Labour Party. Jewish members have been bullied, abused and driven out. Anti-Semites have felt comfortable and vile conspiracy theories have been propagated…The Labour Party is no longer a safe place for Jews."

On the other side of the aisle, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is an enthusiast of the same inciting, populist language beloved of his American peer, Donald Trump, forging a "channel for pent-up, nativist fury" against the hated "elite" - and shares with Trump a long record of racist comments directed at minorities.

For U.K. Jews, Johnson presents a different kind of quandary than Corbyn: Johnson is a philo-Semite of the cynical kind, a loud backer of Israel, but comfortable with racist slurs against Muslims, people of color and immigrants, all the while bolstering nationalism and eroding the liberal values and rule of law that protects democracy in general and safeguards minorities in particular.

Johnson is keenly aware of the potent electoral competition from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, stuffed with a motley crew of hard right nationalists, Holocaust revisionists and replacement theory racists, and a leader who deliberately amplifies ultra-right personalities and messaging. Farage could become an essential coalition ally for Johnson after the next elections.

This political mainstreaming of anti-Semitism and nationalist exclusion have had real-world consequences. Hate crimes on the basis of religion against Jews in England and Wales nearly doubled in 2018, making up 18 percent of all religious hate crimes. Jews constitute just half a percent of the U.K. population.

But as well as the online prejudice and face-to-face intimidation now common from the Corbynist left and hard right, U.K. Jews face an even starker form of hostility from well-placed politicians and activists in both major parties - one that would undermine their physical safety.

It may appear bizarre to actively query the necessity of specific security arrangements for U.K. Jewish sites following 12 months of shooting attacks on Jews by white supremacists in synagogues from Pittsburgh to Poway to Halle, and a decade of Islamist violence killing Jews in Paris, Brussels, Copenhagen and Toulouse. Back in 1994, the London Jewish community itself was the target of car bombings committed by secular Palestinian terrorists.

But that too has happened - exposing how far the gaslighting of Jews has spread.

Close Corbyn ally Jackie Walker queried whether the Jewish community was really "under such threat they have to use security in all their buildings." Members of the the Corbyn-boosting Momentum pressure group she co-chaired explained that security guards were part of a Zionist scheme to "generate the fear of anti-Semitism to promote their own agenda."

Just last month a Conservative MP, Crispin Blunt, suggested the Jewish community sought "special status" and funding, and rather than backing the state’s role in strengthening their security measures, declared airily that his aim was "to get to where faith and non-faith communities all feel secure." Indeed, Jews have been trying to get to that place for a couple of millenia.

Open gallery view
MP Luciana Berger, who quit Labour after years of abuse and joined the Liberal Democrats, speaks in Parliament Square at a People's Vote rally calling for a second referendum on Brexit. Oct 19, 2019Credit: AFP
The fateful, lingering question many U.K. Jews are asking themselves is how much other voters really care. Corbyn’s personal ratings are abysmal, and Labour under his leadership is languishing in the polls, but this seems to be largely due to his inability to articulate a clear position on Brexit and capitalize on serial Conservative failures.

The diminishing numbers of U.K. Jews who’ve decided to remain and fight within Labour fight constant disillusionment about the shallowness of support from the much-hyped "antiracist left" - as Miriam Mirwitch, the chair of Young Labour wrote on Twitter:

"Feel heartbroken by the number of comrades who supposedly oppose antisemitism yet constantly turn a blind eye to it. Allyship is a constant effort and a constant commitment. It’s not a phrase you can pull out just to help with electioneering."

Tory Islamophobia has pushed a number of prominent U.K. Muslims out the party - but less than a quarter of U.K. voters think Johnson is racist. Accusations of xenophobic manipulation and populism won’t sway his fervently pro-Brexit base.

Many U.K. Jews now see the Lib Dems, a once-maligned third party, as a political lifeboat. In the country’s most demographically Jewish parliamentary constituency, Finchley & Golders Green, a recent poll showed both Conservative and Labour losing almost 20 percentage points each, with a clear switch to the Lib Dems - up 34 percent.

Jews are now at a unique disadvantage among U.K. minorities. They have, effectively, lost the capacity to fully engage in politics on both the mainstream left and right without discrimination, intimidation or relinquishing key values. 160 years after gaining the right to vote, U.K. Jews are facing a form of disenfranchisement.

Esther Solomon is the Opinion Editor of Haaretz English. Twitter: @EstherSolomon

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