Isaac Nahon-Serfaty

The intellectual fall of Nassim Nicholas Taleb and the explosion of ‘sincerity’

The massacre committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, caused many masks to fall, including the masks of public personalities who seemed to be solid thinkers or meritorious academics. That day the floodgates of “sincerity” opened, putting several intellectual impostors in their proper place (a good sample of this sincere expression of hate here). I call “sincerity” the feeling of “liberation” that some felt to air in the public space their grievances against Israel and the Jews, as if the defensive response of the Jewish State to the Hamas attack gave them a kind of moral authorization to be “sincere”.

Also, that day, a wave of historical revisionism was unleashed in an era in which the truth does not matter much. As shown by a recent survey, young people do not know or have a distorted understanding of recent world history. They trust more in their sensibilities fashioned by social media, making moral judgments based on lies and emotional impressions.

The resignation of the former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay, mainly due to the revelation of her plagiarisms, was closely linked to the post-October 7 debates and her participation in the infamous United States congressional hearing about antisemitism on university campuses. She paid the price of being exposed as a scholar with dubious credentials, but she was also somewhat the victim of the “sincerity” shockwaves that has impacted academia following the Hamas atrocities.

From Anti-fragility to Judaic compulsion

Another emblematic case of intellectual and ethical disintegration is that of the former broker and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the The Black Swan and Antifragile. Taleb has studied the role of uncertainty, probabilities and randomness in economic, political and social phenomena. His theorization of antifragility based on the premise that there are systems that gain in strength thanks to disorder, offers relevant insights for understanding notions such as risk and crisis. I included a couple of chapters from Antifragile in a seminar about risk and crisis communication, which sparked interesting discussions with my students.

After October 7, Taleb has shown that his intellectual acuity is limited by his anti-Israel obsession and a compulsion for Judaic matters, so to speak. Or to put it more clearly: the author dispenses with any vestige of intellectual honesty when it comes to Israel and the Jews. This is not a marginal thing for someone who has a million followers on X (former Twitter) and moves around the world with a know-it-all aura. His case should be seen as a symptom of this era of intellectual celebrities with an opportunistic eye for publicity. We are going to analyze here three aspects of his faulty historical revisionism: his aversion of Israel, his “racial” urge to genetically distinguish the inhabitants of the Levant, and his crusade to de-Judaize Jesus and Christianity.

Which failed state?

The author has made grandiose assertions about Israel. He called it “a fragile state.” In an interview, while responding to his interlocutor’s assertion that Israel was “an anachronism,” Taleb said:

“…it’s like my friend Bernard Avishai (my note: an Israeli scholar because it always looks good to name a Jewish friend when you are Judaic obsessed) who was whacked, so to speak, 30 years ago because he said that Israel was an immigration agency that later failed to become a real State.” (my emphasis)

Let us break down Taleb’s tangential but “sincere” remarks, because he tends to quote freely, if not falsely, authors and references, as we will see later in this article. First, you should know that Taleb is from Lebanon, a country that has been showing signs of a failed state for a long time. The Israel that could not be a “real State” welcomed several waves of Jewish immigrants from different origins, many of them Holocaust survivors and hundreds of thousands who escaped discrimination and violence in Arab countries such as Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. By the way, Jews are now almost not existent in the majority of Arab countries where they used to live, with the exception of Morocco (where there are only about 2,000 of them). They did not become “eternal refugees.” Israel integrated them, not without difficulties and questionable situations. They became citizens of a reborn and renewed Jewish nation.

The “not real State” revived an ancient tongue of almost exclusively religious use, and turned Hebrew into a modern language that has produced and produces vibrant literature, press, cinema, education and scientific research. The “not real State” has a people’s army that has defended it against enemies with the declared objective of erasing the country of the Jews from the map. By the way, it does not have “parallel militias” (à la Hezbollah, a state within the failed Lebanese state) and, when someone has tried to create one, they were suppressed by the “not real State.” This “not real State” has a technological sector that has made fundamental innovations to agriculture, computing, telecommunications and medicine. This “not real State” has transformed the desert and swampy areas into arable and fruitful land.

The racial card     

With respect to Jews, Taleb’s obsession is somewhat “nuanced” by his supposed Jewish friends, what he calls his “Talmudic phase,” and his claimed mastery of Semitic languages, including Hebrew. The author cannot help but use the racial (racist?) card when he tries to find a kind of “genetic purity” among the inhabitants of the Levant. In the same interview, he stated:

“Even if we accept the idea that Jews returned home after 2000 years, it remains a fact that they spent much less time there than outside, unlike the natives who seem to represent some continuum since the Late Bronze Age. And even if we consider the ‘racial’, ‘ethnic’ or genetic arguments, Palestinians have a more solid claim to the land than these newcomers. A quick genetic analysis would show that the groups closest to the Judeans of Roman times, before the second destruction of the Temple, are the Samaritans, the Christian Palestinians, the Christian Lebanese [due to less mixing], the Karaite Jews [a small minority], Syro-Mesopotamian Jews [that is, non-Yemeni Mizrahis], the Druze and finally the Muslim Lebanese and Palestinians. In other words, the majority of today’s Levantines. Therefore, the ‘we are coming back home’ argument loses its weight in the age of genetics and DNA analysis. It becomes closer to pure colonialism.”

Let’s look at Taleb’s statement. The Palestinians would have more “genetic” ties to the land of Israel, or what was known as Syria-Palestine from the year 135 AD on, than the people who maintained a constant, although a minority, presence in the territory where they were sovereign, from where they were expelled, and that for two thousand years repeated in their prayers the desire to return to Jerusalem. Taleb omits that the majority of Palestinians are descendants of Arabs, Turks and other ethnic groups who came from different territories outside Palestine, including those who arrived in the Holy Land in the various Arab-Muslim and Ottoman invasions. As demonstrated by Frantzman and Kark (2013), in a paper published in the Digest of Middle East Studies, many Egyptians, Algerians, Bosnians and Circassians migrants settled in a fairly depopulated Palestine in the 19th century. So, we can say that a good portion of the current Arab population of Israel and Palestine are descendants of those migrants.

Jesus and the NY bridge?

Although Taleb affirmed in the interview that he does not consider the racial variable as valid (I suppose he does not want to be seen as racist), he resorts to this racialist argument again when he writes about the origins of Jesus of Nazareth. The historical Jesus was Jewish, born of Jewish parents, and a follower of the Jewish religion according to the parameters of the 1st century AD Pharisaic Judaism. Some provocateurs have said that Jesus was Palestinian. The obsessive Taleb, while quoting a post from population geneticist @MiroCyo about the genetic composition of the Levantine ethnic groups, affirmed the following on X:

“Hard to deny that current Palestinian Christians (more broadly Levantine Christians) are genetically closest to Jesus, based on what we know. More to come with our replication of what he did below. Beware anachronisms for terms like Palestinian or Israeli.”

But Taleb’s intellectual dishonesty led him to omit something that the geneticist @MiroCyo said in his X thread about the subject:

“The truth is, everyone in the Levant is overwhelmingly descended from ancient Jews, or at the very least those genetically indistinguishable from ancient Jews.”

Continuing with his compulsion to turn Jesus into a Palestinian, Taleb wrote in X the following nonsense that is difficult to decipher:

“Imbeciles argue the ‘Christ was not Palestinian (meaning not related to TODAY’S Palestinians) because the Romans named the land 100y later.’ Triboro Bridge was renamed ‘RFK Bridge’ in 2008 so all your pictures of it from 2006 now evaporated.”

Note his good manners to qualify as an “imbecile” anyone who does not “reason” like him (I got my share of “fu**ing idiot” in an exchange with Taleb on X). The point, however, is not that Palestine did not exist in the year 1 AD, but that Jesus was a Jew born in Judea. This is the historical truth according to all respected scholars. So, the bizarre story of the bridge will only be understood by Taleb in his ramblings, but it fulfills the objective of distorting the facts about Jesus and the roots of Christianity.

The peak of the de-Judaization of Christianity is achieved in a text that Taleb wrote to preface a book by Tom Holland entitled Dominion. He used partial and manipulated citations. Misquoting from an Israeli professor, he noted:

“What has been less obvious is that while we are inclined to believe that Christianity descends from Judaism, some of the reverse might be true. For even the mother-daughter relationship between Judaism and Christianity has been, as of late, convincingly challenged. ‘If there had been no Paul, there would have been no Rabbi Akiva’ claims the theologian Israel Yuval as we can see in Rabbinical Judaism the unmistakable footprints of Christianity.”

If Taleb were intellectually honest, he would have cited Yuval more accurately, since the Israeli scholar does not argue that there was an influence of Paulist thought on rabbinic Judaism. This is what Yuval writes about historical processes that occurred in parallel and not sequentially:

“At the beginning there was the oral ‘gospel’ which thereafter became a canonic book, the New Testament. In parallel fashion, there was first created the Oral Law and, in its wake, the canonic work, the Mishnah.

However, there are also differences between the two. Christianity claimed that the new teaching substituted the old, whereas Rabbinic Judaism saw the new teaching as an integral component of the one and only covenant. According to that approach, one was not speaking of a new teaching or of a new law, but rather of an additional teaching that had already been given to Moses on the occasion of the Revelation of the Written Law.” (p. 241)

The only thing that connects Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64/65 AD) and Rabbi Akiva (c. 50 – 135 AD) is that they were both linked to the Jewish Pharisaic tradition that gave rise to Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, something that Taleb forgot to mention.

Later in his preface, Taleb drew parallels between the twelve numerology in Shia Islam and the 12 apostles of Christianity. He did not say, however, that the reference to the dozen in the case of Jesus’s disciples is evidently connected to the twelve tribes of Israel, and that this is also probably the case in Shiism following the biblical sources of the Quran.

Taleb’s disquisitions to support his “non-arguments” directed at all the “imbeciles” who don’t think like him are the best proof of his revisionist intention not supported on historical evidence. It looks more like his need to airing grievances against Israel, Zionism, the Jewish roots of Christianity, and his other Judaic obsessions. But who cares that the renowned author tells lies, half-truths and even makes arguments that do not stand up to logical analysis. In the era of social media, what matters is making an impression to please the sensibilities of the moment, today more anti-Israeli and more anti-Jewish than before October 7, 2023. The opportunistic Taleb takes advantage of the prevailing prejudices and ignorance, even if this means sacrificing his intellectual rigor.

About the Author
Isaac Nahon-Serfaty is Associate Professor in the Department of communication at the University of Ottawa (Canada). He studies visual representations of the grotesque in public space, including terrorist propaganda.
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