Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Cognitive dissonance – in the parasha and at the protests (31)

Pro-Democracy Protest outside the President's House, Jerusalem. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

This is my 31st consecutive post linking the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

Parashat Re’eh includes an extraordinary assurance:

There shall be no poor among you, because the Lord your God will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving to you as a hereditary portion (Deuteronomy 15:4).

God will eradicate poverty in the land?! Not exactly. Three verses later, God urges the Israelites to take responsibility for poor people among them, or at least for those who are in some way connected to them. (The meaning of ach, the word translated below as ‘kinsman’, is fluid, ranging from ‘brother’ to closer to ‘neighbor’.)

But if there is a poor person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and do not shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs (Deuteronomy 15:7).

A few verses later, the situation becomes even more complicated. God promises to bless the Israelites precisely for giving generously to the poor (v. 10) because … ‘there will never cease to be poor people in the land’ (v. 11).

Why did God state categorically that there will be no poor in the land; then provide practical instructions about Israel’s obligations towards the poor; and finally say that there will always be poor in the land?

An explanation that’s often given is that God’s assurance was conditional on Israel’s living according to the law (vv 5-6), which he knew they would fail to do. I don’t find this satisfying, not least because, had conditionality had been the main point, we might have expected the ‘if’ (if you keep the laws) to precede the ‘then’ (then there will be no poor among you), as it usually does (e.g., Deut. 7:12-15; 8:1, 19; 11:8-10, 22-25). If you do X, I’ll do Y.

Poverty is a curse. The notion of a country without poverty is mind-blowing. Expressing it as an absolute certainty (there will be no poor) rather than a conditional aspiration (if you do this, there will be no poor), forces us, for the split second before it’s qualified, to imagine the almost unimaginable: no poverty. And that possibility remains as an ideal, even after we’ve discovered it’s not so simple. We are capable of holding both ideas together: a nation without poverty that we must aspire to build, and a nation with poor residents whom we must find ways to support.

There’s a term for holding two incompatible thoughts simultaneously: cognitive dissonance. It’s often used in positive terms, as a mechanism that enables us to hold contradictory ideas drawn from apparently competing systems, such as science and religion.

But this week I read about cognitive dissonance in a negative context. In a Substack post called ‘Israel’s national security neoliberalism at breaking point?’ economic historian Adam Tooze (author of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economydiscusses Arie Krampf’s 2018 book, The Israeli Path to Neoliberalism. The State, Continuity and Change. For Krampf, Tooze writes, ‘Israel’s entire economic model and grand strategy has rested for almost a generation on cognitive dissonance’:

What I call the Netanyahu doctrine is based on geographic, institutional, and even mental separation between Israel as a globalized economy and Israel as a state that occupies a territory and engages in a territorial conflict’ (Krampf, cited by Tooze).

The four axes of cognitive dissonance Tooze mentions in his post are Israel versus Palestine; the occupation versus Israel’s global liberal norms; Israel’s growth strategy versus socio-economic inequality; and ideological and cultural differences within Israel’s Jewish population.

For too long, Israelis have allowed these contradictory pairs to coexist in their heads without asking themselves how the contradictions can be resolved. This isn’t constructive cognitive dissonance, like the example I began with that might encourage us to work towards eradicating poverty while at the same time taking care of the poor. It’s an ultimately damaging survival mechanism. We’re protecting ourselves from some extremely difficult but necessary conversations about Israel’s future.

Lately, several friends have expressed a hope that I share. Israel is in a very dangerous place, but there’s a chance that, if we survive the current crisis, we’ll come out better. More and more, the occupation, and persistent inequalities between different Jewish sectors and between Jews and Arabs, are entering the broader public discourse. They’re certainly becoming more prominent at demonstrations. Bringing them back to the table – where they’ve been before but not for a long time – is far from solving them. But it’s a step in the right direction.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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