Have the Jewish People Become too “WEIRD?”

Earlier this week I wrote about what Yoram Hazony calls “The Virtue of Nationalism,” the idea that independent nation-states with ethnically homogeneous populations and limited borders provide a better opportunity to maximize individual freedom and satisfaction than large imperial conglomerations that try to meld diverse groups into an ethnically neutral state of all its citizens.

I noted that nationalism is a natural extension of the inherent human tendency to like and trust others that resemble them, beginning with family members and expanding outward to include clans, tribes, and nations. I argued that this tendency was probably developed as a result of evolutionary forces over hundreds of thousands of years, and is now essentially hardwired into humans.

Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is naturally based on these human feelings.

But it’s not simple. As Jonathan Haidt notes in his fascinating book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” the “wiring” is not the same in every culture, and even within cultures there are individual differences. Haidt identifies five or six different “moral foundations” which give rise to our intuitive feelings about right and wrong, and good and evil. Individuals seem to possess these foundations in different proportions, and that causes divergent moral judgments about the same factual situations. For example, most people feel quite strongly that, other things being equal, human pain and suffering should be minimized. And most people have a conception of fairness or justice as morally good. But there are other moral foundations that are not as widespread: those for loyalty, for deference to authority, or for sanctity (the opposite of degradation or contamination).

Haidt suggests (I’m oversimplifying) that liberals tend to emphasize minimizing harm and realizing fairness, while conservatives add concerns about loyalty, authority, and sanctity. He also notes that in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic) cultures, the last three seem to have atrophied. Many WEIRD people do not go past the “harm” criterion – they will say “no behavior is immoral unless someone is harmed by it.” Here is a link to an excerpt from the book which contains some examples. It’s entertaining to think about the examples given and ask yourself “how WEIRD am I?”

The pursuit of a Jewish nation-state is more than just a search for a way to protect ourselves against the antisemitism that is rife in the diaspora. Zionists feel a strong pull to make common cause with their fellow Jews, a feeling related to the moral foundation of Loyalty. And most of them, even the secular ones, feel that it ought to be located in the Jewish people’s historical homeland, which is related to the moral foundation of Sanctity. Zionism, in other words, is less likely to appeal to WEIRD people, who are less likely to be strongly influenced by Loyalty and Sanctity. And this is borne out in several ways.

Here in Israel, there is a controversy about the Nation-State Law, a strongly Zionist explication of the Jewishness of our state, which says (among other things) that “[t]he exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” In general, the Right supports it, while the Left believes that it should be weakened in the name of democracy and equality. The breakdown according to Haidt’s categories is almost perfect, with non-WEIRD people of Mizrachi and Russian backgrounds supporting it, and upper-class people and academics opposing it.

In the US, too, we see the same phenomenon. Most American Jews are descended from working-class immigrants, but since then they have done very well. Today, they tend to be well-educated and well off. Perhaps this is part of the reason that younger Jews, far from the culture of their struggling ancestors, seem to feel the connection to the Jewish people and to Zionism much less strongly than their grandparents did.

An individual’s set of moral foundations can change throughout life. Education, experience, and introspection can change it, albeit slowly. Most people seem to move toward the right with age, although there are notable exceptions. But at any given time, a person’s moral perceptions come through a fixed lens. This is why it’s so hard to change someone’s mind about these kinds of issues, as the subtitle of Haidt’s book implies.

And we can see why there seems to be a growing gap between American and Israeli Jews. Of course there are obvious differences in our experience – Israelis are much closer to the security situation and have more immediate personal concerns. But in addition, American Jews have been wealthier and well-educated for a much longer time, so the strength of their Loyalty and Sanctity foundations is less. And American culture in general deprecates the idea of peoplehood, although recently it has begun to try to develop it for specific groups (but not Jews).

This relates to the question that many of us ask: why are there so many Jewish anti-Zionists? Why do so many Jews take the side of their enemies, compared to Arabs who – while they may fight amongst themselves – more or less all agree to fight Israel as well?

The answer is that Jewish culture, because of its long exposure to the West, has lost some of the moral foundations that are still powerful in Arab cultures. It has become WEIRD. And that doesn’t serve us well in the Middle East.

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2 Responses to Have the Jewish People Become too “WEIRD?”

  1. nudnikJR says:

    Victor,
    Thanks for this fine article and the references. It goes a long way to explanation of people’s behavior.
    I can fully agree that education, although a net good, by itself is not enough without the seasoning of experience and introspection.

  2. Shalom Freedman says:

    The explanation of why certain Jews rush to identify with enemies of the only Jewish state is complicated. Part of it comes from the Jewish tradition itself with its strong emphasis on Justice and also Equality. But it also comes from the weakness of those who are unable to confront the hostility of others. It comes to the wearing away of Jewish knowledge and understanding. Many of the Jews who condemn Israel are not very Jewish. Also as Irving Kristol pointed out years ago the true religion of many American Jews is civil liberties. And the desire to belong with the ‘progressive’ forces of humanity.
    There are of course in each case individual stories and motives also. I would also add there are ‘general causes ‘ not related specifically to Judaism such as the Europeanization of America, the decline in religious observance etc.

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