Fanatics Attack

The best defense against extremism includes empathy, imagination, and a healthy sense of humor


| November-December 2011



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AFP / Getty Images

I have called myself an expert on comparative fanaticism. This is no joke. If you ever hear of a school or university starting a department of comparative fanaticism, I am hereby applying for a teaching post. As a former Jerusalemite, as a recovered fanatic, I feel I’m fully qualified for that job. Perhaps it is time that every school, every university teach at least a couple of courses in comparative fanaticism, because it is everywhere. I don’t mean just the obvious manifestations of fundamentalism and zealotry. I don’t refer just to those obvious fanatics, the ones we see on television, in places where hysterical crowds wave their fists against the cameras while screaming slogans in languages we don’t understand. No, fanaticism is almost everywhere, and its quieter, more civilized forms are present all around us and perhaps inside of us as well.

Do I know the anti-smokers who will burn you alive for lighting a cigarette near them! Do I know the vegetarians who will eat you alive for eating meat! Do I know the pacifists, some of my colleagues in the Israeli peace movement, who are willing to shoot me in the head just because I advocate a slightly different strategy on how to make peace with the Palestinians!

I’m not saying, of course, that anyone who raises his or her voice against anything is a fanatic. I’m certainly not suggesting that anyone who has a strong opinion is a fanatic. I’m saying that the seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising self-righteousness, the plague of many centuries.

Of course, there are degrees of evil. A militant environmentalist may be uncompromisingly self-righteous, but he or she will cause very little harm compared to, say, an ethnic cleanser or terrorist. Yet all fanatics have a special attraction to, a special taste for kitsch. Too often the fanatic can only count up to one; two is too big a figure for him or her. At the same time, you will find that many fanatics are hopelessly sentimental: They often prefer feeling to thinking and have a fascination with their own death. They despise this world and feel eager to trade it for “heaven.” Their heaven, however, is usually conceived of as the everlasting happiness that occurs in the conclusion of bad movies.

A dear friend and colleague of mine, the Israeli novelist Sammy Michael, once took a long intercity car drive with a chauffeur who was giving him the usual lecture on how urgent it is for us Jews to kill all the Arabs. Sammy listened to him, and rather than screaming, “What a terrible man you are. Are you a Nazi, are you a fascist?” he decided to deal with it differently.

He asked the chauffeur: “And who do you think should kill the Arabs?”