Moral Narcissism + The Psychology of Failure

Written by: Richard Landes for WhiteRoseMagazine

CURRENTLY, Western elites are enamored of a discourse best described as “utopian universalism,” a vision of a peaceful world, rid of oppression and discrimination; a world with no borders and with freedom and human rights for all. Certain dominant memes carry the message: “violence never solved anything”… “war is not the answer”… “who are we to judge?”… “all cultures are equal”…  along with their despised opposites: tribalism, racism, nationalism, us/them thinking, any kind of phobia – homo- trans- xeno- Islamo-…. 

These sentiments have trapped many Jews, and especially most of their leaders, in a rhetorical cage with few venues for escape because defending specifically Jewish interests now is, by definition, parochial and anti-universalist. Trying to square the circle of defending Jews and their traditions, yet being in synch with the wider, now anti-traditionalist society, is nearly impossible.

This universalist utopianism has been around for a long time, with its first powerful assertions during the Enlightenment and the creation of democracies. Since the mid-20th century, the outlook has become institutionalized in global systems—the United Nations, Geneva Conventions, Universal Human Rights—that were increasingly demanding, even as the real world proved recalcitrant. In the 21st century, a utopian discourse that deconstructs power and prejudice and detects their workings everywhere, has spread from radical pockets of academia to become the coin of the realm. Many share the vision of “bending the arc of history toward justice.” Anyone who contests this high moral discourse is stigmatized with this epoch’s most loathsome epithet: “racist.”

In the 21st century, a utopian discourse that deconstructs power and prejudice and detects their workings everywhere, has spread from radical pockets of academia to become the coin of the realm.

Jews are particularly susceptible to accusations of failing to live up to messianic expectations. In its religious form, this utopianism lies behind the messianic dreams from the prophets to the present; in its secular forms, it inspires world-perfecting movements from communism to globalism to critical (race) theory. Currently its most passionate Jewish adherents, both religious and secular, invoke tikkun olam—“repairing the world”—as a messianic vocation. For Jews, especially in diaspora, signaling to the dominant gentile culture that Jews accept and are eager to contribute to the larger society has often been a key strategy to survival. In modern times, when the surrounding culture has adopted many (originally) Jewish utopian ideals in the process of forging democratic, civil societies, Jewish leaders have tended to publicly promote these utopian ideals as proof of their good will.

For most people, being seen as virtuous has a social and psycho-social motivation. It is almost a necessary life skill to encourage others to think one is a person of principle. The problem arises when one’s own, or one’s people’s values differ from the larger collective, and one faces a choice between signaling one’s virtue according to the consensus while betraying actual values on the one hand, or staying faithful to one’s values and enduring the disapproval, even rejection that such defiance inevitably brings on, on the other.

Some observers have characterized the choice of public “honor” over private integrity as a form of “moral narcissism,” namely, adopting what are seen by most as moral positions because they make you look good, and feel good about yourself, regardless of the consequences for others. For moral narcissists, signaling virtue trumps acting virtuously. (At their most noxious, they become “luxury beliefs” by which people signal their high status by embracing ideas that aspire to help but actually hinder the objects of their “concern” – defund police, open borders, gender fluidity.)

For moral narcissists, signaling virtue trumps acting virtuously.

The Oslo Syndrome and the Crisis of Jewish Leadership

Jewish leaders, including official heads of Jewish organizations dedicated to protecting the Jewish communities they serve, and prominent spiritual and academic figures, faced a dilemma at the beginning of the new century. In 2000 and 2001, global events occurred that put Western moral narcissists in a position to do terrible harm to the very democracies that made their pleasant utopian dreams seem so close to realization.  

The 1990s were, in the eyes of many hopefuls, the “happy years,” when one could, with some justification, look forward to an end of history, even to a global civil society, a realization of Kant’s enlightenment dream of “perpetual peace.” This was particularly true of Jews and Israelis because the “Oslo Peace Process” promised an end to that long, terrible war of survival that Israel had been fighting since birth. Finally, we could come to a positive-sum outcome for Israelis and Palestinians, Land for Peace. And it all depended on a somewhat utopian projection, that the Palestinians were ready to leave behind their sworn desire for vengeance and join global civil society. So powerful had this dream gripped Jews around the world that when Yasser Arafat made it clear, in Arabic, that this was Land for War, even the Israeli intelligence community ignored the evidence and forged forward with the pleasant dream. 

Israeli and Jewish leaders, enthralled by the prospects of peace, accused any who pointed out the problems of projecting a liberal psychology and culture on the Palestinians as suffering from “a post-Holocaust syndrome,” an inability to let go of the fears of the past. In a fine illustration of the role of a malignant moral narcissism, they considered that “resistance to the Oslo process constituted a greater offense than Palestinian violations of the Accord.” In other words, those Jews who expressed concern got in the way of Peace. Psychiatrist Ken Levin called this mindset “the Oslo Syndrome.” 

This aggressively hopeful posture had particular appeal for Jewish leaders, who had pursued and were deeply committed to the positive-sum values of the civil societies in which they lived. Organizations like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League carried on extensive activities with other minorities, defending their “human rights,” protecting them from prejudice, helping strengthen their communities, extending the hand of friendship. It was at once a great “optic” and, as these leaders assured anyone who wondered why so much effort went into making friends rather than helping the Jewish community: when the time came that Jews needed support, their friends would reciprocate. Win-win.

Then, in late 2000, Arafat let the soldiers out of the Trojan Horse he had long touted as his Oslo strategy, and a bloody suicide-terror Jihad ensued in which more than 1,000 Israelis (the U.S. equivalent of 50,000), mostly civilians, were killed and many more maimed by bombs carefully assembled with ball bearings, to spread the damage as far and wide as possible. Astonishingly, the “good people,” the progressives, the “post-Zionists,” the post-colonialists, sided with the Palestinians and blamed Israel, the stronger party, for not doing, for not giving enough for peace. Since nothing in the utopian worldview could allow evidence that the gamble over the Palestinians intentions had failed—it would be “racist” to say the Palestinian leadership wanted war—it could only be that Israel was responsible. As French President Jacques Chirac said to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak: “You will never convince anyone that the Palestinians are the aggressors.”

As a result, quite the contrary to what the Jewish leadership’s 20th century strategy anticipated, in a massive shift of the “Overton Window” the Palestinian cause became a litmus test of liberal credentials. No matter how badly Palestinians behaved, with their unprecedented war of suicide terror and genocidal hate speech, Jewish leaders looked to their allies for a defense that never came. On the contrary, as Paul Berman put it: “Palestinian terror” had become “the measure of Israeli guilt.” Rather than get help from its liberal and minority friends so carefully cultivated during the “happy ‘90s,” Jewish leadership got the cold shoulder and worse. Many expected allies joined the campaign against Israel and told the Jews that the murderous hatred of the Palestinians had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and that any Jewish objections were just abusing accusations of anti-Semitism in order to silence “any criticism of Israel.”  

Faced with the evidence that their effort to make peace had failed and that those with “Holocaust-syndrome” who had warned of malevolent Palestinian intentions were correct, many of these good folks doubled down: “We were so close; if only Israel had given more, then Arafat would have said yes.” Jews were tempted to believe that after the Holocaust, in the West and now even in “Palestine,” the siege was over, and refused to look at counter-evidence. Indeed, what had been a risky gamble in the ‘90s—Palestinians are ready for peace and deserve a state of their own—became dogma in the ‘00s precisely as the gamble failed spectacularly. Anyone opposed was a heartless racist.

September 11th recapitulated this dynamic and made things even worse. Here was a declaration of war on the West every bit as vicious as the Intifada—suicidal jihadis targeting civilians—but now on a global scale, outside Dar al Islam. Many thought-leaders—academics, journalists, pundits, politicians—found themselves, just like the Israeli and Jewish “peace camp,” in an impossible situation. According to democratic principles, American Muslims could and should enjoy the religious freedoms (basic civil rights) that everyone else in a democracy did, and accordingly there was great concern over the rights of “ordinary Muslims” who are not part of this apocalyptic Jihad waged by a Saudi from the caves of Afghanistan. By democratic standards, any move to constrain Muslims qua Muslims was out of the question. It also was an extremely bad optic: in order to live up to our liberal and progressive standards, some reasoned, we must not even “appear to take sides.” The West, by its own utopian virtues, rhetorically and unilaterally disarmed. 

But when confronted with the evidence that some Muslims, enjoying the rights of democratic citizens (which they did not have in Muslim-majority countries) found Jiahdi goals attractive—imposing Shari’a in Dar al Harb, death penalty for apostates and blasphemers, supporting terrorist groups, calling for the overthrow of the democratic governments, preaching paranoid conspiracy theories and exterminationist anti-Semitism, protecting shame-murders—the tolerant response did not waver. On the contrary, our presidents assure us that “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “99.9 percent of Muslims reject this medieval religious war.” 

Anyone who tried to point out the problem—that there was indeed a civilizational culture that promoted jihadi values—was accused of Islamophobia. In a parody of the Oslo Syndrome, Western progressives considered criticism of Muslims and Islam a greater offense than the behavior of those fighting for a global Caliphate with terror. Progressives literally “fetishized the Muslim ‘Other’,” making their embrace a sign of moral rectitude, and any resistance to such a suicidal alliance an indicator of xenophobia, Islamophobia, or “right-wing” fascism. The “utopians” insisted on a politically-correct set of beliefs and imposed them on everyone else:

  • Islam was a religion of peace; 
  • The Jihadis attacking the West have “hijacked” the religion and have nothing to do with true Islam;  
  • Efforts to link Islam to terror, including the expression “radical Islam,” are Islamophobic;
  • Islamophobia is the early 21st century equivalent to anti-Semitism in the early 20th century (i.e., the rise of the Nazis), a vile form of racism;
  • The Palestinians were freedom fighters trying to end an imperialist-colonialist occupation that denied them their inalienable human rights; 
  • Palestinian freedom fighters must not be called terrorists.

In a parody of the Oslo Syndrome, Western progressives considered criticism of Muslims and Islam a greater offense than the behavior of those fighting for a global Caliphate with terror.

Jewish Leadership in the 21st century 

For Jewish leaders, the problem of how to deal with radical Muslims was particularly difficult since one of the most distinctive elements the radical’s Global Jihadi wing was a virulent anti-Semitism at least as bad as the Nazis (at least German priests and ministers didn’t preach genocide from the pulpit). This exterminationist Judeophobia permeates the Muslim world both in Muslim-majority countries and among diaspora Muslims. The overwhelming support of progressives for the politically correct “narrative,” including its obscuring of the genocidal anti-Semitism, made Muslim hatred of Israel somehow legitimate. Progressives who had no problem “oppos[ing] Jewish ethno-nationalism without being a bigot,” banned from the public sphere those who opposed triumphalist Muslim terror-imperialism as deplorable Islamophobes. Jewish leaders had to choose between looking good to their fellow progressives or defending Jews from a sudden and growing “new anti-Semitism,” and thereby alienating their “allies.”

Given the choice between public honor (virtuous progressives) and private guilt (abandoning their constituency), and public shame (stigmatized as Islamophobic) and private integrity (doing their job), they chose the former. In so doing they joined their fellow progressives in standing down before Islamic triumphalist aggression. And like their colleagues, they expressed outrage when critics called their judgment into question. It became a parody of “human rights” and “anti-racism” that enabled those who would destroy those values to prevail. 

Jewish leaders had to choose between looking good to their fellow progressives or defending Jews from a sudden and growing “new anti-Semitism,” and thereby alienating their “allies.”

But moral narcissism is not mere hypocrisy. Hypocrites know that they are insincere; moral narcissists believe in their virtue. They fervently insist to themselves and anyone who will listen on their sincerity (the cheapest of virtues). They are filled with passionate intensity. They think of themselves as the avatars of the biblical prophets, proudly and indignantly denouncing the sins of their own people. They see themselves as “good Jews,” moral paragons. They soar high above the deplorables whose primitive values they disdain. And the larger the gap between pretense and reality, between hypocrisy and integrity, the more vehement their protestations.

This insistence on their sincerity is nowhere more evident than in the moral narcissist’s response to opposition. Rather than engage in a dialogue with those Jews, equally concerned for the fate of their people, bringing relevant observations to the discussion of “what to do,” they responded with indignation and anger. Having been warned repeatedly by Charles Jacobs that the massive mosque being built in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was in fact a Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabi-funded initiative with profound anti-Semitic and anti-democratic tendencies, the Jewish leadership persisted in its warm support. 

But moral narcissism is not mere hypocrisy. Hypocrites know that they are insincere; moral narcissists believe in their virtue.

When all “private means” had been exhausted, Jacobs named one of the culprits in an op-ed in the Jewish AdvocateThe response, signed by 70 rabbis and rabbinical students who were “shocked and appalled,” excoriated Jacobs for his “vicious personal attack… his destructive campaign against Boston’s Muslim community based on innuendo, half-truths, and unproven conspiracy theories.” And then they proclaimed their virtue:

During these difficult times, Rabbi Gurvis, along with other courageous religious leaders are attempting to foster a different kind of politics. We support his commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. We stand together in our commitment to a community in which neighbors seek to know one another and join together for the common good. 

All of this occurred three years before Muslims, products of the Jihadi ideology propounded at that mosque and its affiliate in Cambridge, carried out the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April 2013. Had these rabbis heeded rather than censured these warnings, had they been as self-critical as they were ready to criticize their own people, many people, Jewish and gentile, might have been spared much suffering.

The tale of this process and its consequences is long and painful, filled with catastrophic errors peppered occasionally with the signs of a backbone, of a commitment to why Jewish leaders exist—to protect their communities. Overall, however, the last two decades have witnessed catastrophes for Jews around the world:

  • the spread of BDS and its lethal narratives, 
  • the increasing dis-ease of Jewish students on campus, 
  • the ability for vicious accusations to stymie major politicians
  • the catastrophic wedge driven between leftist Jews, especially youth, and the most progressive state (by light years) in the Middle East,
  • the increasing street violence against Jews, part of the largest wave of Jew-hatred in the West since the Holocaust’s ecumenical wave of exterminationist anti-Semitism in Europe. 

The disastrous course of the first decades of the 21st century—the spread of BDS and its lethal narratives, the increasing hostility toward and marginalization of Jewish students on campus, the growing demonization of Israel by Congressional Democrats, the increasing street violence against Jews—weighs heavily on the shoulders of Jewish leaders if not for enabling and inciting it, then in failing to oppose it. They could afford to atone next Yom Kippur for:

  • The sin of pretending to be moral, preening as a “good, self-critical Jew,” even as I betrayed my people’s interest, even as I submitted to lethal narratives;
  • The sin of justifying hatred of my people in order to gain approval of my gentile peers;
  • The sin of hearing someone speak hateful words about my people and remaining silent;
  • The sin of denouncing “right-wing” anti-Semitism and downplaying “left-wing” and Muslim anti-Semitism.
  • For the sin of attacking a fellow Jew in order to appear to outsiders as a “good Jew.”

The defense of the Jewish people and their only state in the 21st century is, ironically, also the defense of a global civil society in which people can live free, prosperous, and at peace with their neighbors. In betraying their own people, they have let down democracies and progressive values the world over.

Join us as we challenge the establishment Jewish leaders and the donors who have supported and enabled them but failed to hold them accountable.