The Israel Fetish

In this morning’s tranche of electronic notices, there was a message from the Program Assistant at the Hillel Center inviting students to apply for a subsidized excursion to Israel.  For less than one thousand dollars, it announced, students could enjoy ten days of “breathtaking views, immersive learning, and challenging discussion.”  This paragraph caught my eye:

“A trip to Israel is in essence a rite of passage for every Christian—a pilgrimage in the truest sense. The origins of both ancient Biblical faith and of a modern-day miracle intersect here. The land and the people of Israel have a story to tell. By coming to Israel this summer, you make Israel’s story part of your own story.”

I submit that the proposed trip is unlikely to be a “pilgrimage in the truest sense,” at least so far as Christian students are concerned.  The traditional Christian understanding of pilgrimage is that it is (a) an act of penance, and (b) a symbolic expression of the belief that we are pilgrims (literally foreigners) on earth, and of the hope that we will one day to pass through all its “toils and snares” and reach our true homeland in Heaven.  It is true that the Holy Land has been, off and on, a prized destination of Christian pilgrims: but a pilgrimage to the Holy Land has never been equivalent to the Hajj.  It is true that many Christians have been deeply moved by the thought that they are tracing the steps of Christ: but the physical Jerusalem is in no sense a Christian Benares.

I well understand that Christian “pilgrims” have often been very silly people, and that Christian “pilgrimages” have often been larks, junkets and sight-seeing excursions.  The pilgrims who told their famous Tales on the way to Canterbury do not seem to have been models of piety.  But this does not make a sight-seeing excursion into “a pilgrimage in the truest sense,” even when the destination is, indeed, holy.  Rather, I submit that such an excursion is a pilgrimage in the stupidest sense.

Now I can see nothing wrong in taking a trip to Israel to take in the sights, or indeed of taking advantage of a subsidy if doing so; but I do not think one should call such an excursion a pilgrimage.

Nor, I think, should one call it a “rite of passage.”  The message from the Hillel center may well have used this phrase as a simple academic flourish, but a “rite of passage,” like a pilgrimage, is a very specific sort of thing.  The term comes from a book published by the French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep in 1909, in which it is clear that such passages are effected by formal rites.  A rite of passage is a scripted ceremony in which select members of a society pass from one social status to another.  Young Jews, for instance, pass into the status of adulthood by the ceremony of the Bar (and Bat) Mitzvah.  A rite of passage ceremony publicizes the change of status to the relevant community, and this change in status entails real changes in a person’s rights and responsibilities.  This is why the most important rites of passage were historically connected with the onset of puberty.

Among Christians, ordination is an important rite of passage, particularly in confessions that impose special restrictions on their clergy.  To be ordained is to be placed under a new order—“holy orders”—with powers and prohibitions unlike those of the society at large.

When the phrase “rite of passage” is used to denote nothing more than a “life-altering experience” at the personal and psychological level, it is being used in the stupidest sense.

* * * * *

I do not for a moment doubt that the proposed trip to Israel might be “life-altering,” only that the likely alteration has anything to do with pilgrimages or rites of passage in the truest sense of these words.  What appears to be on offer is, in fact, a rather simple form of advertising, since the aim of the proposed trip is to associate those “breathtaking views” of the Holy Land with what we must suppose will be the Zionist message of the “immersive learning and challenging discussion.”

It is not unreasonable to suppose, for instance, that the proposed trip will include a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  To a Christian student, this will be a “condensation symbol” that evokes powerful positive feelings connected to Bible stories about the baby Jesus, to Christmas carols sung round an open fire, to the awesome doctrine of the Incarnation.  In the words of Edward Sapir (who coined the phrase), a condensation symbol is an object “saturated with emotional quality,” and therefore capable of triggering powerful emotions.

To a Christian student , the Holy Land is a minefield of condensation symbols that will trigger powerful positive emotions.  The advertiser’s trick is to associate these emotions with something else.  Show me a picture of a beautiful mountain lake, and then shove a picture of a bottle of beer in my nose.  Association!  Show me the Church of the Nativity, and then subject me to some “immersive learning and challenging discussion.”  Association!

It’s all there in the seminal work Propaganda, by Edward Bernays (1929).  As Bernays put it,

“It is the purpose of this book to explain the structure of the mechanism which controls the public mind, and to tell how it is manipulated by the special pleader who seeks to create public acceptance for a particular idea or commodity.”

If you’d like the idea in somewhat more highbrow form, here’s Emile Durkheim in Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912),

“the sign takes the place of the object and the emotions it arouses are attached to the sign.”

When this attachment is effected, and a man transfers his emotions from their proper object to the associated sign, we say the man has developed a fetish.  And that’s exactly what this trip is designed to do.  It is designed to develop an Israel fetish in Christian students.

* * * * *

I do not object to special pleaders for Israel seeking to create public acceptance for their ideas, although I do smell something slightly rancid in their cynical use of sanctifying words like “pilgrimage” and “rite of passage.”  Since the Christmas story has been used to sell just about anything that can be fit under a Christmas tree, as well as many things that cannot, I suppose it is too late for me to complain that they have stooped to sacrilege.  Zionists have something to sell, just as we all do.

My real complaint is that we Christians are such everlasting saps and suckers and simpletons.  My real complaint is that we are the Rubes of the Universe, the easiest marks ever to shamble down the street, ready to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

Wise as serpents, brothers!  Wise as serpents!

12 thoughts on “The Israel Fetish

  1. Pingback: The Israel Fetish | @the_arv

  2. My real complaint is that we Christians are such everlasting saps and suckers and simpletons — JMSmith

    In speaking for yourself, it would be wise to recognize that YOUR concept of “Christian” is of a deracinated anti-Supremacist and not at all different than an alt-writer’s complaint-mandating conception. In other words, by conceiving the “Christian” as a white Supremacist in the person of JMSmith, your complaint-inducing self-conception of a “Christian” evaporates.

    • I’m not deploying the “po’ ol’ us” strategy. More like the “shame on us” strategy. But I am addressing this to us, mewling poltroons included. Although the conceit has been grossly abused, we are in this sense one body.

  3. Trying to orchestrate one’s own rite of passage invites disappointment.

    Seven years ago, when my wife and I were packing up to move from New York to Washington, I got it into my head that the cross-country drive was going to be a sort of rite of passage for me. I left with the social status of “postdoc” and arrived with the social status of “assistant professor”. As befits such a transition, I would be for a week outside the academic tribe in that wilderness that is the rest of America. Sucker that I am, I couldn’t help but imagine that some kind of mystical experience awaited me driving through those plains and mountains.

    What actually awaited me was a lot of monotonous driving. I now have no desire to ever go on a road trip. Unless maybe I were to go storm chasing. If I could actually see a tornado, now that would be cool.

    The only ritual I had marking puberty was Confirmation. This doesn’t qualify as a rite of passage because one’s social standing is hardly affected. I also recall it being quite a disappointment. I had been taught about all of these spiritual gifts I was supposed to receive from the Holy Spirit at the moment of my anointing, but I left the Church seemingly no wiser, etc. than I was before. The idea of being transformed has never lost its fascination for me, though.

  4. Roger Scruton has written quite a bit about the sad decay of rites of passage in our culture. He thinks it is one of the reasons that we now have this long indeterminate phase that stretches from the late teens to the early thirties. Marriage was once an important rite of passage, since those who went through it were rewarded with sex and a higher standing in the community. Now it seems that the married man is viewed as a cuck and a schlub. I did’t grow up in the Catholic Church, so the closest thing to confirmation was RCIA. That at least gave me access to the sacraments, so there was a clear sense of status change. I think that most children in the Church find First Communion a much more satisfying rite of passage, since passing through it brings a privilege.

    I’d say our rites of passage are in a shambles because our democratic ethos does not allow differences in status, apart from purchasing power and consumer taste. In a society with real structure, status comes with real requirements and prohibitions. Only the members of certain groups are permitted to wear a certain style of coat, or to walk on a certain garden path.

    I expect you’ve found tenure something of a let-down. It’s nice to feel less anxiety, and to get some sort of raise, but it would be nicer if this were ornamented with more symbolic privileges.

  5. Pingback: The Israel Fetish | Reaction Times

  6. If a Christian, especially a Catholic or Orthodox one, is going to do a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it should be done, as were the three that I have done, with a similarly religious group, prefereably with accompanying chaplain. For Catholics, both Eastern and Latin, I note that the Institute of Catholic Culture, in Virginia, is offering one later this Summer, led by Fr. Hezekiah Carnazzo, a Melkite Catholic priest and ICC director. From what I have seen and heard, there are a number of pilgrimage tour operators in the Holy Land, who tend to specialize in one or the other denomination, with fairly standard itineraries. Thus to do a trip with Jewish sponsorship would likely involve an itinerary that omitted some of the Christian sites in order to work in Jewish ones and with no disrespect meant, one would just question the efficacy of that for the Christian pilgrim. Believe me, there are more holy sites to visit in the Holy Land than one will have time for, so some prioritization is necessary. I have still to be able to visit, for example, the Russian Orthodox church of Saint Mary Magdalene, on the Mount of Olives, which houses, among other things, the holy relics of Saint Elizabeth Feodorovna, the New Martyr, or the Bar Saba monastery, despite three visits.

  7. “[W]e are pilgrims (literally foreigners) on earth”

    The root meaning of “peregrinus,” from which “pilgrim” is derived is, simply, “traveller.” [cf “peregrination”]

    Latin had no word for “foreigner” until the 2nd century BC, after the Second Punic War, when “peregrinus” began to be used in that sense, much to the disapproval of Cato the Censor. Previously, the ground had been covered by “hostis” and “servus” – enemy and slave.

    As for pilgrimages to the “Holy Places,” I always recall Hegel’s words about the Crusades, “Christendom was not to find its ultimatum of truth in the grave. At this Sepulchre the Christian world received a second time the response given to the disciples when they sought the body of the Lord there: “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen.” You must not look for the principle of your religion in the Sensuous, in the grave among the dead, but in the living Spirit in yourselves.”

    • If we think of Pilgrim’s Progress, we see that Christian’s relationship to his destination is connected to his relation to the lands through which he passes. He can’t move towards the Celestial City if he doesn’t move through Vanity Fair or the castle of Giant Despair. He is in constant danger of “assimilation” to his environment, and if he ceases to be a “stranger in a strange land,” he will cease to be a pilgrim progressing towards the Celestial City.

  8. Several years ago a friend of mine, who tends to drift back and forth between faith or having a lack of one, gave me a copy of a CD lecture he had listened to called The Free Market Jesus. The basic premise of the lecture was how a sizable portion of modern day Christianity, in America at least, packaged Jesus as a commodity not be attached to so many things. And like any good advertising campaign does it appeals to one’s senses and emotions. That is what seems to be at play here. The Christian faith ends up as a commodity advertised to people as a way to connect with something on a high level of being, but it just taps into one’s emotions to give a false sense of a high level of being.

  9. Pingback: The Fruits of the Spirit | Winston Scrooge

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