Confronting The Authoritarian Personalities

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv, on October 8, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On this day, HaShanah Rabbah, we take willow branches and beat them three times on the ground, asking for final salvation. I feel that Israelis and Americans are those very willows, being beaten on the ground by our authoritarian leaders – POTUS, PM Israel, and the leadership of ultra-Orthodoxy. All 3 shamefully mishandled the Pandemic: Trump denied it, Netanyahu busied himself with evading jail, and the religious leaders proclaimed that a miracle would await the faithful. All 3 love to and need to be in charge; all 3 command/demand adulation; all 3 reject criticism as heresy; all 3 have not apologized; all 3 are guilty of dereliction of duty; all 3 have blood on their hands.

And all three just want to keep in power. In Israel, mass anti-government demonstrations here have now been banned, and since there has been little indication that these mask-wearing events have been sources of contagion and much proof that the Netanyahu family just couldn’t take it anymore… well Democracy has taken a real punch in the nose here.

Down, but not out. Thursday night, thousands and thousands of demonstrators lined the streets, socially distanced, to decry the government’s corruption. A ray, maybe even a shaft of light.

In the meantime, people are having trouble understanding the outrageous behavior of the mass praying and studying and anti-government rallying of the ultra-Orthodox. After all, even the Governor of NEW YORK and Israeli secular scientists know that the Halakhah states that lives must be saved! Why don’t they?

Well, they kinda know that. But the adherents of a scientifically and historically illiterate society have been told that the “agents sent to do a Mitzvah are never hurt” [actually that Talmudic principle is NEVER to be invoked when in presence of a clear and present danger; it is more of a push to do the right thing when all is equal].

So why do they believe this? Well, the adherents have been infantilized and socialized by their religious system to only do what they are told by their leadership. Two generations after being instructed not to leave Europe for Israel or America – for fear of losing their Yiddishkeit – the same system is at it again, disregarding the option of choosing life and placing its adherents in a [certainly lesser but nonetheless] very dangerous situation.

So why is the leadership doing this? Remember, this leadership has seemingly forever also instructed the adherents not to come to the defense of their neighbors and country, to isolate from society, to not get a general education above seventh grade, thus remaining poor and ignorant. What is common here is that all these teachings serve the authoritarian personalities and their need for control. And with control comes a pretty good life for the religious leadership: homes, positions, and good shidukhim (arranged marriages) for their children.

So the way it works is that Netanyahu’s government makes secret deals with the ultra-Orthodox so they can have their huge holiday gatherings in confined spaces, and in the USA the rabble-rousers among the Brooklyn ultra-Orthodox ask for help from Trump, whom they idealize, against the Democratic Governor and Mayor. In turn, POTUS insinuates that the leaders trying to stop COVID-19 are actually like Nazis.

You’ve gotta give it to the Authoritarians – they can’t lead or save lives, but they sure can make a deal.

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Landes is founder and director of YASHRUT, building civil discourse through a theology of integrity, justice, and tolerance. YASHRUT includes a semikhah initiative as well as programs for rabbinic leaders.
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