“It turns out that we’re still fighting the Cold War. And it turns out that the communists are winning.”
In this episode, we sit down with Liel Leibovitz, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and host of the Unorthodox podcast. He’s the author of the popular Tablet essay, “The Turn: When I saw the left give up everything I believe in, I changed politically. You can, too.”
We discuss how he became “politically homeless,” the new illiberal reality we face, the growing atomization of the individual, and how society can rebuild from the bottom up.
Jan Jekielek: Liel Leibovitz, such a pleasure to have you on American thought leaders.
Liel Leibovitz: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Liel, I have to say this, you wrote one of my favorite essays of 2021, and I have a few favorite essays from that time, “The Turn: When I saw the left give up everything I believe in, I changed politically. You can, too.” And when I started reading that essay, I recognized something that I had experienced some years prior. And as you go on to develop in the essay, you note that a lot of people are experiencing this sort of thing. But what is The Turn? Tell me about The Turn and how you frankly came up with the idea of, The Turn.
Mr. Leibovitz: The Turn is the moment when you begin to understand a little bit like that movie, “The Matrix,” that everything you assumed was the very fabric of reality, it’s not just politics, it’s the entirety of existence. It may be called into question. I grew up like so many people with this idea that if you were a good, decent human being, you were, of course, on the left because the left was a side that cared about human rights, women’s rights, gay rights. The left was the side that wanted to give peace a chance.
On the right, there were at best people who only cared about money and at worst people who held ideas that were benighted and scary. And so, it seemed obvious to me that all the good people in all the good causes were somewhere from center to fairly far left.
I never once doubted that question or that premise. I didn’t doubt it when I went to graduate school. I didn’t doubt it when I started forging out a career in writing journalism, academia. But then slowly, slowly, I began to notice those little glitches. I began to notice that there were things that you simply weren’t allowed to say that the notion of free and fettered thought or inquiry wasn’t exactly right.
That there were premises that were just a little bit skewed like the notion that, while it was fine to criticize some people for saying objectionable things, but others were somehow beyond reproach. And once this framework starts to unravel, once you start asking yourself, wait a minute, what is it that you guys actually believe? What can I and can I not say?
And look at what has actually become of so much of contemporary American establishment Democratic left of center politics, you figure out that none of it is true. You figure out that the party that hails itself of being the party of the working class supports this major, major oligopoly of corporations without any interest to the actual lived realities of Americans. You realize that the party of science is there to use its media organs to quash any real inquiry into scientific issues and have the open-minded discussions that are at the heart of what a scientific inquiry must be. And once you discover that, you begin to, well, take the turn.
Mr. Jekielek: But this isn’t all about party politics. and certainly actually, that’s what you talk about in your essay. There’s something much deeper at play here.
Mr. Leibovitz: Certainly, it’s about a way of being in the world. The assumption for so long for people like me has been that the few and the fortunate belonged to this group of people who went to find schools, who were informed by the finest intellectual publications, who had a strong grasp of an idea of what the world was actually like.
To understand that these institutions have been so deeply corrupted by people who pursue this weird ideological zeal, this weird commitment to seeing the world in ways that are increasingly demonstrably, empirically false. People who could tell you, for example, that the notion that there are only two genders, which is a notion that is confirmed by literally the biological makeup of every cell in your body is not only dangerous, but now wrong.
When you start seeing that happen at institutions of higher learning, media, et cetera, you’re right, it’s not just about partisan politics, it’s about a way of being in the world. It’s about the way of thinking about yourself and about your group of peers. And I’d always been throughout my life, ecstatic to be part of the quote unquote, “in group.” I arrived in this country as an immigrant from Israel. Actually, I arrived on a Thursday. On Friday, the day after I arrived, I went to Columbia University.
I took the subway and stood outside and gazed at this marvelous edifice of human,every addition, and said to myself, it’s going to be all right, here’s my plan. I am going to go here. I’m going to get a Ph.D. here. I’m going to become a professor. I’m going to write books and I’m going to make it in America, which is exactly the same corny, yet beautiful, yet true idea that generations of immigrants before me had.
And then something terrible happened. It all worked out. I got in. I got that Ph.D. I became a professor. I started writing books. I started writing for smart little publications. I had these fabulous dinners where you sit next to, Salman Rushdie, or Susan Sontag, or people you had admired your entire life.
It meant so much to me, the approval of this crowd, of this group. Which is why noticing the fishers, which is why noticing the break was so painful, because what I was leaving behind, wasn’t just some kind of mechanical commitment to an ideological structure. It was my friends who had now rejected me because I wasn’t willing to say, “Yes, no, I believe everything that you say unquestioningly.”
That was the real break. And that’s the real break, I think, a lot of people are feeling. It’s a break of breaking apart from family and friends and loved ones and feeling judged. This notion that you have, that you sit at the dinner party and feel, for example, that you can’t say that maybe burning stores and looting isn’t the best way to demonstrate for social justice.
The fact that so many of us cannot sit in dinner parties in New York, LA, Chicago, Boston, and say this very simple and completely non-controversial sentence. That means a lot. It means that society itself has become imbued with some illiberal, intolerant essence that people feel is just creepy.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. That’s really interesting because you used the word illiberal here. What happened to the left, is that the question? Because part of the left was liberal in the past. What are your thoughts?
Mr. Leibovitz: I think the answer to that will be the subject of the great scholarship of the next 100 or so years. I think we’d always had a balance in the age known as the enlightenment between those fractions of society that saw humanity as basically a collection of atomized individuals who got together as free and untethered people and negotiated social contracts that gave away some liberties in return for some securities. And others who saw humanity as a collection of groups, of communities, of families, of tribes, of religious faith structures.
And I think the tension between them and the collaborations between them gave us everything that was truly great about the last 350 years. Gave us progress, but also gave us faith. Gave us art, but also gave us science.
I think once you started declaring war on the church, on the family, on more traditional ways of being in the world, once you started discounting that, once you developed news media or technological devices that were predicated on the atomization of the individual that benefited from you being alone, looking at your screen by yourself, clicking a button.
Once that started happening, once the traditional framework, the glue that kept us together started disbanding, then I think this whole notion of what it means to be liberal went through the door because it just eroded into a pursuit of power. It just eroded into a desire to be in control. And also was fueled by this notion that we know better than these people. “I have a Ph.D., sir, from Columbia University. Let me tell you what you should do with your body.”
That people on the so-called left think this way that they call themselves leftists, despite supporting what is increasingly some kind of authoritarian, state control, unfree media, unfree public health, et cetera, et cetera, is really, really alarming. And it means that the shift that is upon us right now is more than just political. It is existential. It is monumental. And it’s really interesting to behold.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, okay. I have so many questions I want to throw out. Part of it was, I think, your professorship; that was actually related to video games. I know that. I knew you have a particularly interesting perspective on this atomization through devices. And I want to talk about that for sure. But the other question is, as you started about rejection of tradition. I can’t help thinking of the communist manifesto because that’s really, everything you described that destruction is. Isn’t that what it is?
Mr. Leibovitz: 100 percent. It turns out that we’re still fighting the Cold War and it turns out that the communists are winning and that’s the terrifying part. You could see so many elements of it. It’s obviously more complicated than that. But that is one of the things that we reject with such vehemence because you really needed to be a very ardent and even [a] profound student of communism to know that the destruction of both the church and the traditional nuclear family were goals one and two respectively of any communist, self-respecting communist regime, because that’s where the real source of resistance to the authoritarian dominance comes from.
And that it is now part and parcel of this, not just political organizations, but social movements that try to tell you that the family is inherently patriarchal and bad and oppressive and bad for your rights. And you should really rethink this whole structure.
To me, that’s deeply worrisome because then at this point, you’re not just coming up with an alternative political solution. You’re coming up with a world view that is decidedly anti-American. That is decidedly anti-freedom, and in my opinion, decidedly anti-human, which is precisely what communism always has been.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, okay. Let’s talk about anti-human and let’s talk about the second thing I wanted to talk about, which is you call it, the atomization of people into their devices. I don’t know if that’s what you were thinking, but that’s what I heard.
Mr. Leibovitz: Yes. It worries me. I have two children. They’re 10 and eight. I struggle mightily and I fail miserably at keeping them away from these maniacal devices that are designed to steal away their attention. They are designed to bombard their actual… Having been a student of the actual neurochemistry of what happens to your brain when you interact with so many digital stimuli.
Our brain is not built to receive such a torrent of stimuli so fast, so frequently. It literally changes the neuro bypass, neural synapses of our brain. And not in a good way because it makes us addicted to these affirmations, to these attention, to these bleeps and bloops that the machine keeps producing and younger people particularly are susceptible to it.
Not only is it changing their ability to interact with one another, but it also makes the whole notion of human interaction radically different from what it always stood for. Because rather than being in the same room and being together and reading social cues and expressions, right now, it’s come down to pressing likes, swiping right or left or up and down and hearing dings, putting emojis in. It’s a far more transactional, shallow, and flat way of being in the world and being with other people.
And it’s literally destroying our ability to relate to each other as real human beings, as subjects, as people with thoughts and feelings. And you see this in the destruction of our ability to have a calm scene, talk about politics. You see this in our destruction of our ability to disagree politely with people who see the world a different way. So what?
This is another thing that really irritated me and shocked me about my former friends on the left. Being a part of a movement that speaks so often and so loudly about acceptance and really accepting everyone and accepting difference. Well, shouldn’t that acceptance also be granted to people who just don’t think the same way you do. Hey, you like Joe Biden, they like Donald Trump, so what? We could still go out and have a beer together. We could still be friends.
This insistence that everything be pure. That is what you get when you spend your days sitting alone, looking at the screen in a digital echo chamber that amplifies the same voices again and again and again, and again, shuts out any dissent, puts you in a position to only see a very narrow sliver of ideas and start to believe that this, indeed, is the world. Some people say, “Hey, it’s just Twitter. It’s just Facebook. It’s just your phone.” Now it’s not anymore. That’s how most people see. That’s the window to which most people see humanity. And it’s a very bad window.
Mr. Jekielek: People would say, well, sure, but how can you have polite conversations with Nazis? Would you have polite conversations with Nazis? That would be the response to your question. I’ve heard of that myself.
Mr. Leibovitz: The Reductio ad Hitlerum strategy of discussion, and everyone who doesn’t agree with me is literally Hitler. If that is the operating assumption, then you’re already in trouble. If your algorithm to keep on with a great digital metaphor that we’re developing here is already predicated on finding these binaries, then yeah, can’t have a conversation.
But here’s the thing, and I write this in the piece, only religious zealots, small children, and machines think in binaries. The rest of us think in shades of gray, in complications. Well, yes, obviously, if Heinrich Himmler was sitting in front of me with his full SS regalia saying, “You don’t understand, I literally am coming back from a concentration camp.” I would say, “Sir, I have very little to say to you.”
If someone who doesn’t support, say, public education sits across from me, well, no, I may disagree on a key issue with that person, but it doesn’t take much to see that that person has depth, has nuance. It’s not just black and white. That’s another risk, by the way, of this algorithmic form of thinking. It is very conducive to training you to think like a machine. Machines don’t see the depth of human love. They don’t see flaws. You don’t see complications. They don’t see nuance.
They see A or B. They’re actually way, way dumber than we think. We get so impressed with these gadgets, “My God! Look at what my phone could do. I could pay for parking and order a pizza and find a date for tonight all on my phone.” It’s a really dumb machine. It has A or B. The danger is that we’re also becoming really dumb machines, capable of thinking A and B. Democrat or Republican, pro Trump or never Trump.
It’s so stupid. That’s not how humans were designed by the real creator, by the real intelligent design. I think that so many people are feeling what we’re feeling right now. This notion of what the heck happened to America? What happened to our public discourse? What happened to our institutions? Why do I turn on TV right now and hear literal insane conspiracy theories repeated as if they’re actual news, even after they’re factually disproven?
Why do I have to start going to all kinds of publications that I didn’t even know about four, five, six years ago? And all of a sudden understand that they’re actually incredible because they actually have respect for my intelligence and for observable reality. Why are there things I can and cannot say in public? If you’re asking yourself these questions, we don’t all need to be in agreement about everything.
But if you get a sense that something is profoundly broken, then you already belong to a great coalition of Americans who are coming together. And talk about diversity, this is a truly diverse group of people who come from all walks of life. Some of them are considered right wing. Some of them are considered left wing. The fact is that these terms don’t even matter anymore. We’re coming together because we want to reimagine America the way we believe it can be and should be.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. That’s very interesting because you do mention that left and right don’t really mean anything. I agree. In my own commentary about “The Turn,” which I’ve shared with people, when I read your piece, that I definitely experienced the turn, but I didn’t think in terms of left and right. I wasn’t a political person.
Mr. Leibovitz: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: I didn’t put myself in these camps, but something happened, nonetheless. There’s a lot of people out there, I think, who are experiencing the thing that you just described, but really don’t want to put their careers on a line, lose family members. This is the thing that I find so bizarre. And is that, whatever it is, this thing that’s gripping people to the point where they can disown their own family members. It’s that powerful. It’s bizarre. Have you ever thought about that?
Mr. Leibovitz: I’m heartbroken by it. Let me tell your personal anecdote of how it came to me. The turn, as it happens, doesn’t happen overnight. There’s no one big cinematic moment. There’s no explosion. I’m not running into the distance as I finally realize that everything is a lie.
In this sense, “The Matrix” is a bad metaphor because there’s no point in which Mobius comes to you and says, “Well, you could either choose the truth or go back to your blissful ignorance.” It’s a series of small vibrations. It’s a series of small, huh, type of moments. “I raised a point in a meeting today and people looked at me kind of funny. And then someone said, “you shouldn’t say that.” “Why? I don’t understand.” It’s a series of puzzlement.
And I had a bunch of those. And then one day I went to have lunch with a gentleman who had been a tremendous source of comfort to me who was my dear friend and my mentor in the university where I studied. Someone who I considered a very good personal close friend. Someone who’s been over to my house for dinner many times, and I’ve gone over to his.
And one day he asked me out to, I think, it was a lunch or dinner and told me that a bunch of comments I was making about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict subject, which I knew a great deal about were no longer acceptable to a large number of our colleagues on the faculty. Two things struck me about that statement. The first thing that struck me is how perfectly Soviet it was. “Watch out comrade. There is talk in the party that you are expressing wrong thing. This is not good.”
It was just so strange coming from a person who represents an institution, that to me, is the bedrock of the free and unfettered exchange of ideas, which I committed my entire life to. But the thing that hurt me much more was how empty of love his voice was. It wasn’t compassion. It wasn’t, “Hey, I just want what’s best for you. I’m trying to guide you through this. Let’s work this out together.” It was this cold authoritative empty voice that said “straight up or else.” And I walked home that day thinking, you know what, I don’t even care about the issues.
I never want to be a part of any group, of any collection of people in which a political disagreement could empty your heart of love, of empathy, of care at a drop of a pin, in which you could decide that you no longer wish to fraternize with this person or that person, because they no longer support the correct policies or ideas.
If you don’t have that basic human empathy, this connection to a person, because he’s a person because you love them, because you feel connected to them, and if you’re no longer able to use that love and empathy to strike a real dialogue, a real emotional exchange of not just ideas, but feelings between people, then I don’t want to be a part of this camp.
And I found out that a lot of what I thought of as the beautiful, compassionate, open-hearted left had absolutely no feeling. And when you start feeling like this, then you realize that the thing that you’re seeking isn’t just a different political party. I used to be a Democrat, now I’m a Republican. It’s not just a different group of friends, what you’re feeling or what you’re looking for is human connection.
You’re looking for people who are willing to say with you, “Hey man, maybe you care about this. Maybe I care about this. But here’s what we care about way more than anything else.” We care about being together. We care about being civil to one another. We care about staying human, not insulting each other online, not having litmus tests for who can and cannot be our friends. We care about staying human to each other. And once you see this, you understand how many more people are in your new camp than used to be in your old stuffy airless one.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it strikes me that there must be a lot of Democrats, for lack of a better term, that feel like you do, right? It’s not just…
Mr. Leibovitz: I’m convinced of it. I get notes and emails from people all the time that say, well, I started feeling that there was something weird in the Democratic Party or for that matter, I started feeling it was something weird in the Republican Party. And I just don’t know that I belong… I’m politically homeless. To me, that’s a wonderful sentiment. I want you to be politically homeless.
I understand how hard it is, especially if like me, you grew up not just in the Democratic Party, but not actually really thinking that there was any alternative to the Democratic Party. Because being politically homeless and admitting it is the moment in which you stopped thinking about these structures in these old and unhelpful terms, they are the left. And I can’t say this again, really, they’re the left because they support companies like Google that quash free speech and that kowtow to the Chinese government? That’s the left for you right now, these days?
That’s not the left at all, nor is it particularly on the right to have certain people, especially now in the Democratic Party who care about concerns of real working Americans in ways that just a decade or two ago would’ve been considered populist, and have much more in common with what the left traditionally stood for than anything we understand the traditional conservative Republican Party to mean. These terms are so stupid to me.
What’s important is who’s in your camp and what we believe and what we could do together to rebuild this. And while I think the chaos that we are experiencing is so weird and scary, I could not be more widely optimistic for the future of this country in the long term, because there are so many of us who are coming and saying exactly what he said, “I used to be a Democratic my entire life, but I look at these nuts jobs at a Democratic Party and the things that they’re saying, and there’s no way I could support this.”
Or people saying,” hey man, I used to be a Republican my entire life, but I just don’t feel comfortable in the party as it is today.” That’s the moment that they realize that it’s not about that label. That it’s not about that kind of construct, rather that it’s about much bigger things. It’s about this nation and the way it’s always had.
Look, I’m a religious guy. I believe in the divine election of this nation. I believe that this is a very, very special country. And I believe that the way America reasserts its greatness, every 50 or 60 years, is by living up to its covenantal promise and remembering that it’s playing a really big part in this world that it’s committed to something that’s much greater than itself.
And that’s the moment where it goes ahead and does something incredible, be it the War of Independence, be it the Civil War. That’s the moment where it stands up for human liberty. And it does so not because a party said something, not because a news media organization reported something, but because people band together and decide to work together for some greater cause. And I see that happening now.
I see an organization of people coming together all of a sudden and saying to each other, “Hi, I never thought that you and I had much in common but turns out we both believe in these fundamental American virtues.
Let’s go ahead and rebuild an institution because our universities have been corrupted. Let’s go ahead and build another news media outlet because our newspapers have been corrupted. Let’s go ahead and build another way of doing business because our big businesses have been corrupted.” That fills me with so much hope and so much joy.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help but think that the events that you mentioned in American history, that a lot of people died in them. Is that the thing you’re seeing?
Mr. Leibovitz: God help us. I am not given to apocalyptic visions by nature. Thank God. That is one of the very few vices to which I do not succumb. There are many more which I don’t excel at resisting. I think that there are a lot of ways that we could avoid a grim steely confrontation. And I think that the way you do it is by understanding very early, what’s really going on.
And I think that what you’re seeing right now, precisely what you’ve just described is an extremely hopeful sign. When people look around and say, “I don’t want to fight you. We’re not enemies. I don’t want to live life with checklists of, “I’m only allowed to be your friend if you see the world and precisely the same way.” “I only want to belong to this group of people if they vow never to say X and Y and Z.”
If you reject that, if you reject this to totalitarian authoritarian stupid binary way of looking at the world, then you’re not here to fight. You’re not here to wreck. You’re here to build. And here’s the thing, everything has already been destroyed. The violence you describe, Jan, it has already happened. The fact that you can’t go to an American college class these days and get a real education that takes something as simple as human biology into account. The devastation has already happened.
The fact that you can’t open a major American newspaper and get an actual truthful, factual account of the world around you. To do that, you would have to go to The Epoch Times or other alternative media sources. The destruction has already happened. We now live in Dresden in the year 1945. Everything has been bombed out. We do not have functioning institutions anymore— institutions of government, institutions of intellectual creation, art. Look at Hollywood and the dribble it produces. We have none of that.
That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news. We need everything rebuilt anew. There is huge potential for this rebuilding. And these are the most exciting people that I’m seeing right now. Those are the people that I’m seeing who succeed, not just financially, although that’s certainly a big part of it, but also, emotionally succeed in rebuilding something, in creating something, in making something. Facebook had this motto when the company started, move fast and break the… S word. I think we should reconsider that slogan. Move slowly and build stuff instead of breaking.
And that’s what the successful people are doing. And they’re working together and they’re building new media outlets. And they’re building a new form of educating their children. And they’re building new ways of communal living. They’re building new ways of thinking about currency. Look at all the Bitcoin evolution and the stuff that it is doing. It is profoundly exciting.
None of that stuff is happening because big corporations or big government willed [it] to be. It’s happening because Americans are doing what Americans have always done, which is be resolute, creative, resilient, and community minded. And look at us, we’re building amazing things.
Mr. Jekielek: This is something I’ve been thinking about for many months. Recently, there was Dr. Robert Malone, who I’ve had on the show a number of times, was on with Joe Rogan. And he mentioned mass formation psychosis. Of course, you’re aware. I think it sounds like everybody’s aware of mass formation psychosis, all of a sudden, which is incredible. Well, it feels to me like some portion, it might not be a lot, but there’s some portion of the population almost feels hypnotized.
Mr. Leibovitz: I completely agree. It’s terrifying. Isn’t it? To see this.
Mr. Jekielek: Any thoughts about how that happens?
Mr. Leibovitz: Yes. I think it’s grimmer and simpler than we would think. It begins with what you believe, sadly. And look, I’m really prejudiced here because as I mentioned, I’m a person of faith. And so my world view is colored very strongly by my faith. If your story began thousands of years ago and will end at no time in the near future.
If your commitment is not just to yourself, but to your children and to their children and to your community and to your fellow believers and above all to the almighty, your perspective on life is very, very different. If you start every morning saying, thank you for all of this, for giving me one more shot at getting it right or failing better, that’s one thing. Now, imagine you didn’t. Imagine you woke up in the morning and literally believed in nothing.
Imagine that like an alarmingly increasing number of young Americans, you had no family, you had no children, and you weren’t dating. Imagine you live alone. And that most of the news that you receive comes from these inferno devices. And imagine that these devices are now governed by a group of corporations that actually realized a long time ago, and I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been empirically proven, or that is even very controversial, but it has been proven that these corporations thrive on keeping their customers, their consumers, their users.
We talk about users when it comes to Facebook and heroin, and the two things are very, very similar, keeping the users in the state of increased perpetual alarm. Imagine that’s your prevalent technology, that’s your socio-economic structure. Now imagine that on top of this, you now have massive student debt and also no job because the whole promise that you would go to college and then get a good job and career, that doesn’t happen anymore.
Imagine you saw all around you tremendous misery. Imagine that the people entrusted with keeping you safe, well fed, free from disease or want were failing their jobs miserably, and then blaming all kinds of other ephemeral structures. That is a recipe for disaster. That is a recipe in which you seek some kind of catchall relief. You seek the devil, “Who can I blame?” “Blame Trump. Blame the Republicans. Blame Russia.” Blame this, blame that, blame the other.
It’s very easy to understand how so many people have been entranced by this for so long, because the alternative is much harder. I’ll finish with one short example that I think illustrates this point very, very well.
In Judaism, you are propelled to pray in what is known as a minyan or a quorum. A minyan is 10 people. Why 10? Because one is too few and 100 it’s too many. 10 is the perfect number. You go to synagogue every day. And out of these 10 people, there are going to be three, you can’t stand, but you don’t have a choice. They’re there. They’re part of your community. You have to see them. You have to feel them. You have to interact with them. And when you do, the mass psychosis diminishes because you get herd immunity to stupidity. Because you are actually interacting with other humans, which is very difficult.
It’s much easier to sit at home and inject yourself with this paralysis, with this trans inducing storyline that tells you that the author of your misfortune is some bad guy in Washington or Mar-a-Lago or wherever, you have it. And it has enticed so many people. And I am happy to report that in my very unscientific, completely non-medical opinion and experience, it is very much a reversible condition. It does dissipate.
It does fade away at the point when you wake up and say, wait a minute, I’m sorry. What has the last five years been about and what have you been doing and what’s going on here? And when you do, you figure out that there are a lot of people waking up and next to you who feel the same way.
Mr. Jekielek: No, it’s so interesting. I keep thinking about this ideology, wokeism, let’s call it. There are different names. John McWhorter calls it, The Elect. The people that subscribe to it, The Elect. It’s profoundly reductionistic in the way that you have been describing. It groups people by…
Mr. Leibovitz: Correct. And it is a religious faith, 100 percent.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. Tell me.
Mr. Leibovitz: Look at everything about it. The iconography, the murals, the taking of the knee, the washing of the feet, all the trappings of a religious order are there, except for the stuff that actual religions that have been around for a minute or two worked out like absolution, like forgiveness, like compassion, like kindness. These are things that have taken Christianity, Islam, Judaism, other religions, a few hundred years to really settle into. And this new religious order is a bad religion because it doesn’t have a vehicle for that.
There is no forgiveness. There is no way for you to redeem yourself if by its own definitions, you have sinned. It is, as you said, very reductionist. It is very cruel. It is very unforgiving, which is why I think, ultimately, it will fade. It’s just not good at what it does. It doesn’t make anyone happy. It doesn’t bring justice. It sows discord, it sows disruption, it sows mistrust, it sows violence. And nothing that does that survives for a very long time. You may have a decade. You may have two. We have seen the Soviet Union live for a nice long century, but not beyond.
Mr. Jekielek: Wow! So many vantage points here. I want to go into the foreign policy realm a little bit here. The thing that concerns me the most is that America is not just besieged by itself, but also by a very aggressive, powerful nation, the Chinese Communist Party runs. Right? And so, the question is, can America survive its own tribulation with it being exacerbated and by some regime that seeks to subvert it? I know you may not have the answer for this, but I’m just telling you what concerns me.
Mr. Leibovitz: I am going to once again, with your permission, lean on tradition, because it gives a good answer. The other day we read in the Talmud, the sacred Jewish codex of laws, ideas, and traditions, a very interesting passage. It basically mentions the ages of a host of the villains, the big bad guys of the Bible, like Haman, and Pharaoh, these really terrible people who try to eliminate and eradicate the Jewish people.
And one of the rabbis asked, “Why are we talking about them? This is our holy book. Why are we mentioning the people who sought to destroy our way of life in our holy book? Shouldn’t we just completely eradicate their memory?” And his fellow rabbi said, “No.” There is tremendous value in having a Voldemort if you’re trying to become, Harry Potter, there is tremendous value if you were, Luke Skywalker, in having a Darth Vader, somewhere in there telling you, “You know what’s going to happen if you fail, this is what’s going to happen.”
You know what happens if America fails? That’s what’s going to happen if America fails. It’s not a hypothetical. It’s not an invitation to, well, you could do something or not do something it’s completely fine. It’s a reminder that there is a cost to be paid. It’s a reminder that we do not live in a bubble that nature, of course, abhors a vacuum. If we don’t live up to our potential, well, then it’s very clear what the world is going to look like. It is now purely a choice and it’s our choice to make. I think it’s tremendously clarifying. And I’m very grateful that we have this clarity of vision.
Mr. Jekielek: Clearly, you’re from Israel. You’ve done a lot of thinking, as I know, about the Israeli American relationship, about the nature of Israel itself. And this is actually a question that comes up quite often, even in conversations that I have—the question of Zionism and anti-semitism. I’ve had people tell me that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism. Okay. And I’ve had people tell me that’s propaganda. And these are people that I’m happy to have conversations with. But why don’t you clarify this for me?
Mr. Leibovitz: I think I could do this rather easily. The test here is simple. Do you treat Jews as you would treat any other group of humans on God’s green earth? If the answer is yes, and you then say, “Well, I believe in people’s right to natural self-determination, especially in their indigenous homeland.” Well, then congratulations. You’re a Zionist because that’s all the term means.
It’s the belief that Jews should have the right to govern their own affairs in their ancestral homeland, to which everything from history to archeology, to theology, traces back our past and heritage. If for whatever reason, you extend the same exact right to every other nation on the planet, but not to Jews, well, then we have a word for it. It’s a very old word. And it means a person who hates Jews. It’s really not very complicated.
Now, you could be deeply opposed to 101 policies the Israeli government has. Lord knows, I have throughout my entire life, mostly found myself in opposition to most policies the Israeli government chose to enact. And that’s completely fine. But if you take steps, if you make an effort to identify yourself as anti-Zionist, which again means anti the right of Jews specifically to embody their own ancestral homeland, then I have a really big problem with your worldview.
You could, if you want to say, Hey, you know what, I don’t believe in nation states. I don’t believe any person should have the right to self-governance in their own ancestral homeland. If that’s the case, and you also, as a result, don’t believe Jews have that right, we’re 100 percent fine. But if you believe any other persecuted minority here in this planet has this right, and should be taken seriously, and in fact, aided except for the Jews. Well, buddy, I’m sorry, but that’s exactly the attitude that Zionism was created to fight.
Mr. Jekielek: As I was reading some of your work, as you know, in preparation for this interview, I also came across a piece, which I thought was pretty fascinating because, of course, I’m Polish.
So I’ve been very interested in Poland Israeli relations. Both sides of my family are from Poland. And so, this is what you wrote. The headline is, “Why Poland is right to end Holocaust property claims.” Now, wow! That’s a contentious issue. And wow! That’s an interesting position to take. So, tell me.
Mr. Leibovitz: Well, can we actually read the part?
Mr. Jekielek: About the next part? “There’s a name for people who imagine that the right to reclaim your great-grandmother’s house should extend forever, Palestinians.”
Mr. Leibovitz: Correct. Here’s the genius of the Zionist project. We suffered at the hands of a whole host of regimes throughout history. We have yearned for the right to return to our homeland and govern our own affairs. And when bought by much suffering and much bloodshed, that right became a reality when the state of Israel was established in 1948. That is the moment in which the project of our rebuilding began in earnest, again, in our own ancestral homeland.
To sit and say that in perpetuity, we should now have claims to property that we were forced to abandon 50, 60 years ago. To say that that claim extends indefinitely. To say that the host countries have no right to govern their own affairs and make some kind of sensible rule that at some point, well, maybe we should adjust these claims, struck me as just completely wrong.
And it struck me also as too perilously close to what I see the Palestinians doing, which is settle in different nations, including the United States, build successful lives here and continue to claim that they are somehow refugees. The Jews who survived the Holocaust and moved to the state of Israel, they’re not refugees. They’re home. Do they deserve some kind of compensation? Sure. Should that compensation be negotiated by the country from which they fled? Yes. Should it have some kind of sensible limitation? Absolutely. To say, otherwise, to me, is just propaganda.
And sadly, see, this is a moment in which I will happily criticize the Israeli government. I think the Israeli government, the current Israeli government’s view of Poland as unreasonable in this act, or even somehow inherently anti-semitic, I think is deeply misguided. And I hope to see it rectified one day.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, let’s jump back to the main topic at hand. I just couldn’t help myself. We share a lot of common interests, let’s just say. I guess the question is to different groups of people, okay. The first group of people is the people that are maybe watching this, maybe thinking to themselves, I can’t talk about this. I risk alienating the love of my life. I risk alienating… I risk destroying my family. To those people in this moment, it’s a difficult moment. What is your advice? What should people like this do?
Mr. Leibovitz: Such a simple, pure advice that comes to us from perhaps one of the greatest of all modern dissidents, the author of, “The Gulag Archipelago,” live not by lies. Live not by lies. It’s also the title of a great book by my friend, the great Rod Dreher, that reminds us that if you are in an arrangement in which you are forced to lie simply to be accepted, in which you do not feel like you could have meaningful emotional conversations with your loved ones, there is no growth there. There is no light there. There is no hope there. And you should leave. This is not to say that the price of leaving will not be high. It is quite possible that, as a result, you will no longer be able to continue working at your place of employment.
That is a very difficult conundrum for most people to resolve. It is quite possible, as you said, that as a result, you would alienate a loved one or a family member. However, I think the thing to remind ourselves of is that there is no alternative because once you start lying to yourself. Once you start saying, “Well, I accept the fact that I now must pretend like I could only say this, even though I know this to be completely untrue, because otherwise I just can’t go to this dinner party or can’t keep this job or can’t be invited to Thanksgiving anymore.”
Then something very profound and very human has already died inside of you. You’ve already paid a price and the price is much, much, much higher than anyone you could pay, regardless. Sure, dissidents suffer greatly, which is why we see so few of them. But they are free, and their freedom is priceless.
And the freedom to be able to speak the truth simply is great. And here’s the reward for that freedom. Here’s the reward for that sacrifice. The connections that you make, they’re very real. I told you just a minute ago about the relationships that I had lost. And I could tell you a little bit more about professional opportunities that all of a sudden closed up to me. I was no longer able to continue teaching at New York University once I was no longer willing to express views and ideas that I knew to be completely nonsensical and offensive.
I had lost quite a bit, but here’s what I gained. I gained the friendship and the trust and love of a group of human beings that I would never have otherwise thought even existed. In fact, some of whom had I met, three, four, five, six years prior, I would’ve mocked as being somehow rubes or racist or politically incorrect in some way that made me feel queasy.
But now that I just came to them with humility, with an open heart, with understanding that I too can make mistakes, I built some of the most beautiful friendships of my life. And I could give you one example. When I was in Columbia, I was a graduate student. And all of a sudden, a bunch of undergrads came and started saying, “Hey, if you are a proud Zionist religious Jew here in this school, you get the short end of the stick. You get treated poorly. You get harassed by professors.”
And I thought to myself, that’s not true. The great Columbia University would never allow for that to happen. There is freedom of expression here. There’s freedom of thought here. Here, you could say whatever you believe in with impunity. And so I started a fight with these fellow Jews. I said, “No, no, you’re completely wrong. In fact, you strike me as a little bit, I don’t know, maybe fascist, maybe too right wing, maybe too crazy.” And one of them in particular was very vocal. And so we really got into it publicly in print and in some live events.
And a few years later as good fortune would have it, the same young woman walks into the office of Tablet Magazine where I work because she is now our new editor at this publication. And her name is Bari Weiss. And I said, “Bari, we were off to a start, but I hope we could be friends.” And then two things happened, three actually. The first is that I got to know Bari as a person and absolutely fell in love with her and realized that she was amazing, even though at this point we disagreed.
The second is, that I started seeing that Bari was actually right about pretty much everything and that I was actually completely wrong. And the third is that I had the really good fortune of being able to come to her and say, “I’m so sorry. I was so stupid. And thank you for still sticking with me, even though it took us a while to air it out.”
And our friendship remains very deep to this very day. And it gives me tremendous hope because that’s what you get when you live not by lies. You get real relationships with amazing people you never would’ve thought would be your friends. But they’re predicated on realness. They’re now the kind of relationship where you could pick up the phone and be, “Let me tell you something.” And you could actually speak your heart and your mind. There’s nothing like it, Jan. There’s nothing like it.
Mr. Jekielek: But there are a lot of people in this day and age by its very illiberal nature, for lack of a better term, that have lost a bit of that. Maybe call it moral high ground, a little bit of that selves because they chose the other way.
Mr. Leibovitz: What about them?
Mr. Jekielek: Yes.
Mr. Leibovitz: Well, here’s the best I could do, we all make difficult choices. All of our choices are predicated on calculations that only we could know. It is very important to me, having experienced this turn and having seen how wrong I was about so many things, to approach people with deep humility and understand that I’m not there to judge their circumstances or their decisions or their own intricate emotional calculations. What I can do is offer three pieces of advice.
The first is cribbed from my friend, the writer, Walter Kirn, who was gracious enough to have a public conversation with me the other day. And said that the first piece of advice he would give is wean yourself off your addiction to prestige. Stop thinking like, I need to write for the New York Times because that’s the prestigious publication. I need to go to Harvard because that’s the prestigious school. Enough with that. That is no longer where the greater good lies if it ever did lie there to begin with.
The second is, understand that there are so many people around you who want to be open to you. Yes, you might have made a decision to be a little bit subservient or bow your head a little bit in order to keep your job or keep your family arrangement or keep whatever it is that you have going on. But understand that there are so many other people around you who feel differently and still want to connect with you.
And that leads me to my third, and I think most important kind of prescription, which is no matter what you chose, no matter how you see the world, please, please, please, be focused on building. If you spend your entire day, it doesn’t matter that you maybe sit at the dinner party and nod your head when people say things that you feel are just patently idiotic. If you choose to spend your entire day fearful, going on Twitter, looking at the news, doing nothing, feeling anxious, well, Jan, you’re not really helping.
If you choose to build something instead, then you’re going in a really different direction. And here’s the thing about building, the enormity of the moment is such that people feel like, “I’m so helpless because unless I fix the entirety of our broken political system, then I’m meaningless.” Forget that. Your job is not to fix America. Your job is not to fix healthcare or politics or national security or any of that.
Your job is to fix the thing that is right in your backyard that you’re really into. And you think you could do better. Maybe it’s some kind of food bank that you could build because you really care about this issue. Maybe it’s helping a couple of friends who are homeschooling because you are thinking about doing this too, and you want to start a group.
Those kinds of small grassroots positive, do it yourself type of enterprises are what I’m seeing more and more and more and more and more of. And a lot of people who are taking part in them are people who, otherwise, are still keeping a little bit of a lower profile. They’re not people who are looking for big blowouts or big confrontations. But they are people who are smart enough to understand that worth the emotional intelligence and energy ought to be directed to, it’s what’s building something that is viable and generative and good.
It makes you feel good, if it makes you feel like you’ve created something that is sustainable and nurturing in your community, then you are already completely on the right path, even if you sit there at that dinner party and nod your head to the nonsense.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Liel Leibovitz, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Leibovitz: Pleasure is all mine. Thank you for everything that you do.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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