Nathaniel Berman

Cassandra and the “Reasonable Man”: American Jews Face Israel’s New Government

Israeli Embassy, Washington, D.C. January 6, 2023

The Greek god Apollo blessed the Trojan princess Cassandra with the gift of prophecy – but then cursed her by decreeing that others would never believe her. The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein declared that Apollo’s curse was effective because of the human tendency to “refuse to  believe what at the same time they know to be true.” The legend expresses the “universal tendency toward denial” in the face of uncomfortable truths.

Among American Jews, a number of Cassandras have arisen to warn of the dangers posed by the new ultra-right Israeli government. These dangers are ostentatiously, even brazenly, displayed both in the coalition agreements and the firestorm of initial government actions. As a devotee of Cassandra, I have pointed to their uncanny resemblances to authoritarian and even neofascist forces around the world. In Israel, those who have highlighted these extreme dangers extend from human rights advocates to Opposition political leaders to the President of the Supreme Court. And yet, among American Jews, those who minimize the gravity of these dangers have arisen in large enough numbers that they deserve a detailed analysis, rather than being lumped together.

We may distinguish three “ideal-types” of these danger-deniers.The first is the Jaded Leftist. The Jaded Leftist argues that the new government is really “nothing new,” that Israel has always oppressed Palestinians, that it has always limited democratic freedoms, and so on. “At least now it’s out in the open!”, the Jaded Leftist cynically proclaims. The second ideal-type is the Aggressive Rightist. The Aggressive Rightist not only proudly supports the new government, but doubles down on its ugliest aspects. “Not only should Israel expand settlements, it should step up the expropriation of West Bank land! And if the Arabs [sic] don’t like it, expel them! It is all ours!”

The most complex of the deniers, however, is the even-tempered, paternal, slightly condescending, centrist. “Don’t be hysterical, don’t exaggerate. Yes, there are some problematic policies which concern me, but let’s be measured in our criticism. Let’s have dialogue with the far-right, not demonize them.” I call this figure the “Reasonable Man,” an ideal-type familiar from traditional Western legal discourse. The Reasonable Man [sic] is a male archetype, whatever the biological gender of the person who inhabits it. He casts his opposite as the “hysteric” – an epithet, rather than a diagnosis, which casts the feminine as the opposite of Reason (again, whatever the biological gender of its avatar). In short, the Reasonable Man always contrasts himself with Cassandra. Indeed, Apollo, the blesser and curser of Cassandra, was the god of reason and balance; his treatment of Cassandra expresses the classic patriarchal subordination of women both in theory and practice.

Apollo’s curse has been so effective that the Reasonable Man’s arguments are often seen, at least initially, as superior to those of Cassandra. Isn’t it always a good idea to “calm down”? After all, the world has been through many terrible times and has survived them – so shouldn’t we all relax, “drink some water” (as Israelis are fond of saying), and react with measured reason to current events? Of course, this stance ignores the terrible price that the world has continually paid in the interval between the emergence of dangers and their passing from the scene: in the most extreme cases, wars, revolutions, and genocides; in less extreme cases, catastrophic damage to vulnerable groups, the poisoning of political culture, the surfacing of long-simmering hatreds, the entrenchment of nefarious figures in long-term positions of authority. These “less extreme” consequences are, of course, some of the enduring effects of Trumpism in the United States.

Need we repeat the truths proclaimed by the Casandras since the Israeli election? Under the agreements signed among the coalition partners, the government plans to radically increase settlements on the West Bank, indeed to annex large parts of the occupied territory; to destroy the autonomy of the Israeli judicial system, a program now well under way; to pass legislation permitting discrimination against LGBTQ people and non-Jews on religious pretexts; to further entrench ultra-Orthodox Judaism as something like a State religion; to allow gender segregation in public spaces; to grant Israeli soldiers immunity from war crimes prosecutions; and so on. Members of the Knesset from “Jewish Power,” one of the most powerful of the ruling parties, have called for the arrest of the leaders of the political Opposition, including the previous Prime Minister and two former Chiefs of Staff of the army. The government has already put in place the change with the most sinister portents: the transfer of civil and military authority over the West Bank to two extreme racists, Smotrch and Ben Gvir, both with close ties to the most violent forces in the settler movement. The consequences for Palestinians could be devastating.

In the face of all this, the Reasonable Man stands bemused, mulling over the situation, deciding what aspects “concern” him and what aspects may be dismissed as trivial or ephemeral. Cassandra stands and confronts him, disheveled hair flying in the wind, proclaiming, “How can you just sit there in the face of the fascist threat? No pasaran!!”. And meanwhile, the officials of the new government go to work: Ben Gvir’s Border Guard breaks up Palestinian gatherings and threatens violence against anti-government protests, Smotrich plots the demise of the Palestinian Authority, Dery imagines new kleptocratic schemes, Levin sends the bulldozers speeding toward the Supreme Court, Maoz composes blacklists of LGBTQ people….and, all the while, thugs batter on the door where Cassandra has taken refuge…

About the Author
Nathaniel Berman is Brown University's Rahel Varnhagen Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, Law, and Religious Studies. He is the author of 'Passion and Ambivalence: Colonialism, Nationalism, and International Law' (Brill 2012) and 'Divine and Demonic in the Poetic Mythology of the Zohar: the "Other Side of Kabbalah"' (Brill 2018).