Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel and the Jews in Today’s Surrealistic World

2024 is the hundredth anniversary of the Surrealist movement in art. Unfortunately, the world itself seems to be moving ever more in a surrealist direction – with Israel and world Jewry suffering the brunt of this trend.

First, a few words about Surrealism. It was started by the poet and critic André Breton, who published The Surrealist Manifesto in 1924. In brief, Surrealism was to be a path towards (re)uniting conscious and unconscious ways of experiencing the world, by joining the dreamlike fantasy with the objective, rational world. In his words, this would offer “an absolute reality, a surreality.” Not a completely novel idea; Freud was already plumbing the mind’s subconscious – this, a century after Romanticism had become the core approach of 19th century Europe.

Little did Breton and other surrealists (e.g., Salvatore Dali) know that soon enough Europe and the globe would be engulfed by political “surrealists” such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, whose irrational madness would bring calamity upon their nation and the rest of the world. The ensuing few decades towards the end of the 20th century brought some respite from such insanities – but not for long.

One could circle the globe and find national surrealism ascendant on almost every continent: North Korean totalitarianism, Russian historical revisionism, American Trumpian… (choose your own adjective), and so on. But let’s focus on what is happening to (and within) Israel and world Jewry.

On Oct. 7, Israel was viciously attacked by true barbarism (we’ll spare the very gory details here, known to anyone reading this). Almost immediately, Israel was accused of being “at fault” for the attack, a completely topsy-turvy way of looking at the matter. As to the sexual violence perpetrated by the Hamas attackers, news reports kept on using the word “alleged” despite mounting factual evidence of such heinous crimes against humanity. Of course, when Hamas issued the numbers of Gazans “killed,” no such “alleged” terminology was used. The numbers bandied about by the world’s media (including such venerable” ones as The New York Times), were not caveated with the fact that the fatality count included Hamas terrorists (accounting for at least a third, and possibly half, of all such “Gazan deaths”)!

Then the International Court of Justice began to investigate whether Israel was committing genocide – this, when the Hamas Charter explicitly states that genocide of the Jews is its main goal (driving Jews into the sea). All the while, a real genocide was taking place in the Sudan, ironically with an Arab army decimating non-Arab villages – without much (if any) news coverage. And then this week, the Internationl Criminal Court conflated Israel’s leaders with those of Hamas – surrealism at its “apex.”

What’s going on? Anti-Semitism has lots to do with the general surrealistic atmosphere surrounding the Israel-Hamas War, but this is taking place within a much larger surrealistic environment in the world at large. To put it bluntly: an increasing number of people are consciously disconnecting themselves from reality. Here are but a few general examples:
Reality TV: Is there a greater oxymoron than “reality television” that is designed to entertain the masses in unreal situations (Big Brother; Survivor)?

Conspiracy Theories: Oswald didn’t assassinate JFK; a “deep state” has been manipulating the American people for decades.

UFOs: Purportedly, aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico in 1948, but the “Establishment” has been keeping this secret – including numerous other “sightings.”

Fake News: Distorting propaganda has been with us for a very long time (see: Goebbels et al), but now with artificial intelligence able to fake pictures, sounds, and even video with uncanny exactitude, it is becoming increasingly hard even for the non-surrealistic among us to differentiate the real from the fake. Major politicians jumping on this bandwagon (Trump’s “Stop the Steal!”) have only added fuel to this surreal fire.

Virtual Reality: We ain’t seen nothing yet, compared to what’s coming up the pike. With virtual reality technology, people will be able to escape the real world into a fantasy life for as long as they want.

I could go on (and on: marrying avatars! virtually cloning and conversing with dead loved ones!!), but the picture is clear: the surreal is overwhelming the real. The main remaining question is why.

There are no clear answers. Permit me, though, to offer three related ones.

First, from time immemorial humans have indulged in what can best be described as “virtuality” – creation of the non-real (my book, Virtuality & Humanity, analyzes the phenomenon at length: Much virtuality has (and is) positive, other elements neutral, and some negative – all in the eye of the beholder. Some examples: art is a “distorted” (offbeat) rendition of reality; drugs & alcohol that we have been imbining for millennia in order to alter our state of consciousness; religion (when was the last time you actually saw God or heard the Almighty speak?); even money and economics in general (when did you last sell your goat for a pair of sandals? Indeed, people are increasingly not even using hard cash for economic transactions).

Second, our technological abilities in the past were severely limited. However, as just noted above the contemporary world offers numerous tools for creating or consuming “false worlds” – whether for our entertainment or for more serious endeavors (e.g., politics).

Third, the underlying factor leveraging these two elements, is the accelerating pace of change in the 21st century. The world we live in today is quite different from the one adults grew up in a mere decade or two ago – not merely technologically (AI, robotics), but also socially (e.g., transexuals, polyamory, etc.), economically (e.g., cybercurrency), nationally (mass immigration), medically (pandemic), and environmentally (global heating, extreme weather).

All this is deeply dicombobulating, indeed psychologically threatening to many many people. That’s not surprising given that most human beings are constitutionally conservative at their core. Surrealism (or virtuality, if you will) is a way of escaping all this turmoil.

But why pick on Israel and Jews specifically? Because if one is escaping reality, an (e)scapegoat is needed – and Jews have been the traditional “blameworthy” factor for whatever social ill the Gentile world is worried (and confused) about. Indeed, Jews have always been viewed surreally: too much capitalism in the world? Blame the Rothschilds. Too much socialism? Blame Karl Marx, the Jew. Too much residual “colonialism”? Blame the State of Israel as the embodiment of foreign imperialism.

Reality check? Unfortunately, at present it’s more like reality checkmate….

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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