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In an Age of Terror, How Thinking Right Can Save the Left

What’s needed is more tribalism, not less

Richard Landes
November 24, 2015
Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Islamic protestors shout outside the Danish embassy in London, 03 February 2006. They were protesting against the publication of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed published in September 2005 in a Danish daily newspaper. Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday attacked European newspapers for reproducing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, while praising the British press for showing restraint. Islam categorically proscribes the depiction in images of the Prophet Mohammed. Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
Islamic protestors shout outside the Danish embassy in London, 03 February 2006. They were protesting against the publication of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed published in September 2005 in a Danish daily newspaper. Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw on Friday attacked European newspapers for reproducing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, while praising the British press for showing restraint. Islam categorically proscribes the depiction in images of the Prophet Mohammed. Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Among the responses in Israel to the Paris Terror Attacks, there has emerged a divide that deserves attention. Depending on where you spend your political time, one or the other response will appear predictable (and lamentable).

First, there are the self-referential Zionists who think, as they did after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and so many other moments: “Now, maybe they’ll understand our plight, and realize we have the same enemies,” and “We Israelis have a lot to teach you.” Their battle-hardened cousins further to the right reply, “Don’t bother trying, they’re all anti-Semitic and judge us by a double standard” or even “The West deserves what they’re getting, as a punishment for their hypocrisy.”

On the other hand, we have those who see this entire range of responses as distasteful, to say the least. Instead, they urge an expression of sympathy and solidarity unclouded by words of reproach, by displaying the French flag online as a way to declare #JeSuisFrançais. It’s really not cool for Israelis to complain about a double standard at a time like this, they scold. It’s not about us—it’s about France. As for those people, like the prime minister, who compare ISIS to Palestinian terrorists, they are engaging in a low form of propaganda, trying to use the victims of other wars in other places to wash away the sins of Israeli occupation.

In a deeply disturbing and repeating 21st-century, paradox, however, the approach of Israel’s generous and selfless ones has worked to the benefit of most regressive forces on the planet—while on the contrary, the voice that awakening Europe needs most to heed in the current crisis is that of those self-centered Israelis who relate European woes to their own pain. The failure to understand this paradox explains both why Western elites are so poor at resisting global jihad, and why, for a disaffected youth—Muslim by birth or by choice—it makes sense to join that jihad. Indeed, this split in Israeli discourse about the Paris attacks illustrates the disproportionate impact of a peculiar Jewish dispute on the current cognitive disorientation of the West.

But first, let’s explain our terms. Let’s call the first response the tribalist approach. It is centered on the self, preoccupied with defending family, clan, group; suspicious by default of others, especially of strangers; and easily rendered defensive by threatening behavior. Tribalists think in terms of “us vs. them”; they treat “their own” differently from others, and when they feel sufficiently threatened, they will lash out. They think of their own pain and feel anger at hypocrisy (in this case against the French for their 15-year-long indifference to the pain of their Jews). This mindset historically favors vengeful attitudes—“they deserve it”—and rough justice.

Politically, these folks appear on the “right” of our spectrum, and they remind us of historical periods when people with power lacked empathy and used it cruelly, a political culture of rule or be ruled, that democracies hope to have outgrown. Tribalists are the zero-sum folks: “I only win if they lose,” and, “they only understand force.” Like Huntington, one of their intellectual heroes, these tribalists tend to look for enemies. They find reasons to be belligerent, to provoke war, they “invent the enemy.”

Let’s call the second response the universalist: considerate of others, self-abnegating: “This is not about Israel.” These are the positive-sum folks, the ones who make friends, who build on trust, who come up with mutually beneficial projects from which everyone profits, who look for the voluntary win-win rather than the coerced win-lose. They reject the selfish me first, the invidious us-them, the tribal my side right or wrong.

These folks appear on the “left” of our political spectrum. They empathize with the “other” and embrace diversity. They can and want to trust. In renouncing the win-lose, they become capable of granting dignity and freedom to others—the fundamental social contract of a successful egalitarian culture. They imagine themselves as inhabitants of a future diverse, civil, and peaceful global community, where racism and xenophobia are no more.

This dichotomy between tribal and universal sheds light on the current paradoxical situation in Europe, where the most extraordinary cognitive disarray rules. Specifically, when it comes to judging Israel’s conflict with its neighbors, Europeans have inverted vision. And the ensuing radical cognitive disorientation contributes to a fatal misreading of the forces Europeans themselves face.

By and large, the European elites—journalists, academics, policy pundits, political class—are members of the universalist camp. In their reading, Israelis are the zero-sum players. They deserve the hostility of their neighbors; they have brought upon themselves the suicide bombings, the intifadas, and the deep hatreds. They have done so with their settlements and occupation and humiliating checkpoints and periodic bombing raids that kill hundreds of children and thousands of innocent civilians.

They think the Israelis are the tribal players here, needlessly but persistently humiliating their poor Palestinian victims; that if Israel stopped constantly frustrating Palestinian aspirations with their insistence on ruling over them and rather made noble gestures, Israel would take a dramatic step toward that peace and make the world a better place for all. Its refusal to so act, proves that Israel is the greatest obstacle to peace, the great provoker of Palestinian grievance. However lamentable, Palestinian hostility comes from an understandable reaction to what Israel does to them.

Many a prominent Israeli, especially among their cultural elites, shares this view. They embrace and promote the story frame of the Israeli Goliath crushing the poor Palestinian David. For them, the conflict with the Palestinians has nothing to do with the jihadi attacks on the West, and it’s offensive for Israelis to complain about not being included among the victims of terrorism. They believe that Palestinians have limited, national goals, and that once Israelis stopped being so awful, Palestinians would stop hating them. They fervently hold that this conflict is not a religious war about eliminating the Jews from the Waqf—holy trust—that goes from the river to the sea.

In order to think this way, of course, one has to ignore a lot of important data, especially what Muslims say to each other. And yet, despite its immediate relevance to the European predicament, both Europeans, and many Israeli intellectuals, insist on ignoring the basic terms of jihadi discourse. Like those who say, “ISIS is not Islamic,” they turn a deaf ear to a discourse that is not theirs.


To universalists who wish to understand just what kind of peril they—and their universal values—are in, I would suggest that they might pay attention to the unmistakable voices of the hardest of zero-sum thinking among Israel’s declared enemies. Here you find the regressive, drive for “our” domination and “your” subjection, of gaining honor from debasing the “other.” At their worst, such voices demonize and dehumanize (devil, apes, and pigs). They appeal to the most megalomanic hopes and paranoid fears of their audiences. They cultivate an irredentist hatred of the “other.” And such voices permeate the discourse of Palestinian hatred of Israel.

Now compare the tribal and religious hatreds that target Israel with those that move the jihadis who attacked Parisian nightlife this month, the United States on Sept. 11, Barcelona, London, and who knows how many more places. How different are they? Here we find the same raging sense of victimhood, the same call to pre-emptive vengeance, arising from a firm conviction that one’s very self is under attack, the belief that, if “we” do not exterminate our foe, “they” will exterminate “us.” Here we find the same wanton attitude toward human life, even one’s own: Muslim kills Muslim to kill infidels; Hamas kills Gazans to rocket Israel.

At its most intense, we find in both places, apocalyptic believers for whom the current conflict is both existential and cosmic. They engage in a pitiless war on evil, in which the enemy must be wiped out or subjected, lest “they,” by their malevolent existence, destroy “our” faith. If you want to touch the gold standard of genuine xenophobia, paranoia, and genocidal hatreds, listen to what apocalyptic Muslims say about the infidel.

In France, the motto is “padamalgam”: Don’t lump the vast majority of innocent and peaceful Muslims with the tiny minority of crazies who have hijacked their religion. But that move falls into the equally problematic amalgam of all nonviolent Muslims as moderates. Indeed, here’s the problem. The amalgam, “the vast majority of nonviolent Muslims,” actually spans a great gamut of Muslim religiosities, from those ready to live side-by-side in tolerance and peace with non-Muslims, to enthusiastic but not public supporters of the jihadis.

The key to distinguishing within this “vast majority” between genuine moderates and covert jihadis is to identify what one might call “triumphalist” Islam.

If “religiosity” represents a way of “living” one’s religion, triumphalism represents that form of religiosity that needs to assert visible dominance in order to prove the validity of its claims about God and especially claims to being God’s favorite. Many a patristic theologian argued that the “Conversion of the Roman Empire” proved the superiority of Christianity over paganism, philosophy, and Judaism. The use of power to impose religious truth—crusades and inquisition, permitted by this “triumph,” was not undone until the American Constitution when, for the first time in Christian history, tolerance was a winner’s creed.

When conquering Muslims built empires based in Damascus and Baghdad, Sharia, and especially that governing the behavior of dhimmi (non-Muslims), legislated an inequality that honored Muslims and disgraced those who were stubborn enough to reject the true faith. All jihadis are triumphalists; not all triumphalists are jihadis; and not all Muslims are triumphalists.

Europeans who bother to inform themselves about their and Israel’s enemies will find the same zealous hatred of infidels, the same misogynistic fear of difference, of otherness, of dissent, of contradiction, a fear of the very possibility of humiliation at the hands of someone who should be inferior, like women and infidels, the same deep discomfort at the very thought of equal treatment for infidels and the faithful.

They will find the same shrill insistence on a triumphalist Islam that proves the truth of its claims to superiority over all other faiths, by dominating and subjecting recalcitrant infidels, by humiliating, and, where necessary exterminating those who threaten their superiority.

The hatred these triumphalist Muslims feel for the “Zionist Entity” comes not from Israel’s unwillingness to compromise, not because of settlements and occupation since ’67, but because any territory in Dar al Islam where infidels have sovereignty, constitutes an unbearable blasphemy. And triumphalist Muslims, everywhere, share this hostility to autonomous infidels, the contempt, the desire to spread dar al Islam to hold dominion, to raise up a triumphant Islam by debasing and subjecting the West.

This triumphalism explains why Israel is a peculiar variant on the more extensive jihadi hostility to infidels. Most threatening of all to this kind of religiosity, tiny Israel’s ability to resist being obliterated constitutes the supreme modern sacrilege to the triumphalist’s notion of Allah. Triumphalist Muslims, humiliated more generally by the modern success of infidels since Napoleon, have experienced repeated humiliation since 1948 by Israel and the United States. In their mind, global jihad means that, at last, now, is the time for the apocalyptic hadith enshrined in the Hamas charter, about a final war of extermination on the Jews, when the Jews will flee and hide, and the rocks and trees will call out to Muslims to denounce the Jew hiding behind them. And although that particular hadith does not go on to discuss what happens next, the larger apocalyptic scenario sees the elimination of the Jews as a prelude to subjugating the rest of the infidels.

From this critical perspective, ISIS and Hamas are part of the same jihad against the West—maybe differing in their stage of development, their circumstances, their leadership, their life-destroying strategies, but essentially the same in their triumphalist belief in Islam’s destiny to rule the earth, and their role in violently bringing about that destiny. They share a hatred and contempt for infidels of all kinds—dhimmi, apostates, blasphemers, pagans, ignoramuses. They share the same paranoia, the same sense of victimization, the same sense of existential threat, the same sense that they defend the true faith by taking vengeance on those who mock the Prophet.

People who insist that Hamas and ISIS have nothing to do with each other give global jihad an enormous boon: They disguise Hamas by presenting it as a movement for national liberation even as it fans the flames of global jihad. In so doing, many Westerners think they help the Palestinian cause, when in fact they empower a leadership that willingly sacrifices ordinary Palestinians to advance its cause, and at the same time, empower the global jihadis by running their Palestinian propaganda as news, and reinforcing a collective sense of victimization. Instead of recoiling from the horror, the more demented—but sincere—Western “progressives” shout “We are Hamas.” And those Israelis who rush to assure the global community that people who argue, as I have above, are just trying to hide their own crimes against the Palestinians, effectively blind those who listen to their counsel to a shared foe of all decent people—Muslim, Jew, Christian, and secular, alike.


When Western Europeans opened their gates to receive a rapid influx of hundreds of thousands even millions of Muslims fleeing the madness that ruled in their homelands, it stunned those of us who see Islamic radicalism as a real and global threat. Who, knowing the cultural and demographic dynamics, would imagine that Europe would throw its gates open to a massive wave of largely male Muslim immigration? How many of these newcomers, who made it into Europe undocumented, would, we thought, immediately disappear into those “non-existentno-go zones and provide a powerful reinforcement to the jihadi presence already there? How many more, stuck in refugee camps, would offer a perfect recruiting ground for the caliphate? Indeed, among other things, the recent attack in Paris reflects how much these reinforcements have increased their confidence. As more and more people realize, this massive influx of newcomers—refugees, migrants, jihadis—is a catastrophe for civil society in Western Europe.

And yet, far from thinking they were committing cultural suicide, the Europeans perceived themselves as saving their humanity, their commitment to universalist values, their compassion. In their minds they were giving succor to a wave of desperate refugees, showing their universalist values (and atoning for the Holocaust). In this they were systematically encouraged, not only by the news media but also by their elected officials. All these players resonated to the progressive and redemptive call to make a grand and compassionate gesture that could transform hostile relations with Muslims into peaceful ones. The Universalists, unaware of whom they dealt with, welcomed into their safe spaces, tribalist enemies.

Earlier this month I was slated to speak on a panel sponsored by a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons on the BBC. After the public announcement, Ben White, an activist journalist, published a piece on how an MP was about to appear on a panel with a known Eurabian conspiracy thinker: Me. His major proof was a remark I made in 2007 at a Herzilya Conference:

European democratic civilization can fall before the Islamic challenge. Do not say that this will never happen in Europe and that Islam will not be able to take control of Europe. If Europe continues its current path, the fall will be sooner.

This remark, amply supported by events during the following eight years, and which today I would only amend by adding “triumphalist” to modify “Islamic challenge,” was sufficient to frighten a pro-Israel MP into bumping me from the panel. White’s article had caused him “considerable embarrassment,” he noted in explanation for his decision. One thinks fondly of A Fish Called Wanda, in which Archie (John Cleese) describes to the American Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) Brits’ greatest fear: “You see, Wanda, we’re all terrified of embarrassment. That’s why we’re so … dead.” A Britain in which warning about the plans of global jihadis to bring Dar al Islam to where Dar al Harb used to be, can so embarrass one’s associates that they cringe, is a Europe, which, because it cannot even identify the enemy, cannot figure out how to fight back.

What has this got to do with the two Jewish-Israeli responses with which I began this discussion? Ironically, it suggests that those tribal Jews/Israelis that Europe deplores are fighting not only for themselves, but for a decent democratic and egalitarian culture the world over, against a deeply regressive, triumphalist Islam. The “left-wing” Israeli responses that disdain tribalism, and promote lofty universalist values, dismiss this Israeli tribal voice as paranoid, conspiracy-minded, xenophobic, Islamophobic. Yet, in so doing, they contribute to the cognitive disorientation of the outside nations and peoples. In their eagerness to confess Israel’s sins, to consider Palestinians innocent and Israel guilty, they shield outsiders from hearing the much harsher jihadi voice that explicitly targets not just Israel but them.

The foreign minister of Sweden or the head of the socialist party in the Netherlands shows just how powerfully this cognitive disorientation has Europeans in its thrall. Responding to events in Paris, they did not make reference to the problems in Sweden and Holland, all of them a function of their own ever-more aggressive, triumphalist Muslim fringe. Instead they invoked the contribution of Israel to the frustration of Palestinian Muslims, apparently in the empirically contradicted hope that dumping on Israel will improve rather than further damage their own situation.

When those who wish for peace are not prepared for war, not even cognitive war, when they ignore the Roman dictum si vis pacem para bellum, then they bring about a war they will lose. Bellum efficiunt, et pacem volentes.

Do we, as Jews and Israelis, beneficiaries of, and contributors to, free and democratic societies the world over, really want to contribute to the catastrophic disorientation that now, astonishingly, rules the discourse of free nations? Or are we ready to set aside, at least momentarily, our universalist self-abnegation, and help people of good will everywhere understand our plight, which is also theirs?


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Richard Landes, a historian living in Jerusalem, is chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars and a Senior Fellow at ISGAP. He is the author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience and Can “The Whole World” Be Wrong?: Lethal Journalism, Antisemitism and Global Jihad. He’s at and on X @richard_landes.