I knew that meeting Richard Landes, a former Boston University professor and historian of Medieval France, would make my life hard.
First I would have to read his new book: Can ‘the Whole World’ Be Wrong? Lethal Journalism, antisemitism and Global Jihad. This would involve having to engage with theories and well-researched assertions about exterminationist Jew-hate.
On top of that, I knew I would have to try to find this clearly affable, Princeton-educated man a bit of a lunatic so that I could distance myself from his arguments and remain at peace. But I would fail there too: I found him inescapably nice, sane and phenomenally knowledgeable.
Which is to say, the thing about Landes is that he is largely, inescapably right — confrontationally so.
His argument is as follows: in acting as though jihadist Islam is not a real and growing threat, with imperialist, apocalyptic and lethal ambitions, we in the West are putting the whole world at risk.
Since the year 2000, Landes tells me in a café in Jerusalem, the West and its most prestigious media outlets have supported, defended and sustained the actors and ideology that want them dead.
A key mechanism behind this, says Landes, is the heavily mediated Israel-Palestinian conflict, which gives jihadists a vehicle with which to package up and serve their anti-Western ideology to major news outlets.
In this way, exterminationist rhetoric towards Jews in large sections of the Arab world is converted into sympathetic media narratives about Muslim freedom-fighters seeking to shake off their colonialist oppressors.
One example discussed in his book was a 2000 report for France2 showing that the fatal shooting of a Palestinian boy, Muhammad al-Durrah, came from Israeli positions.
The footage went viral, was instantly seized on by the global media and became a talisman in the Islamic world, leading directly to the Second Intifada.
Except, according to claims made by Landes (hotly disputed by others) it was all a fake: a result of staging and manipulation and an example of what he calls the blood libel-peddling “Pallywood”, the industry that transforms events into “the lethal narratives of Palestinian suffering and Israeli malevolence”.
Like me, the great and the good — including his academic colleagues — seem to have also been made uncomfortable by his rightness. They responded in the usual way. “I was never formally hounded out or anything. I was just sort of quietly, quietly…. marginalised,” he tells me. And it’s hard not to notice that his book is published by a little-known house called Academic Studies Press (Landes’s previous books have been published by Oxford and Harvard University Press).
He grew up in Boston, the son of David Landes, professor of economics at Harvard, where he himself studied as an undergraduate.
After university, there was a period of peripatetic adventure, a year at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, a spell dabbling with Buddhism and, eventually — on the urging of his parents who were beginning to worry — his PhD at Princeton.
The outcome was a thesis entitled “The Making of the Medieval Historian”, based on 1,000 pages of manuscript material left by Ademar of Chabannes and Aquitaine at the turn of the year 1000. In 2015 he moved full-time to Israel and took up a post at Bar Ilan and, because, second time round, “I married a Jerusalemite.
Muhammad (left) and Jamal al-Durrah (right). (Photo: Talal Abu Rahma for France 2)
“Working on the Middle Ages, I came across a pattern I didn’t expect to find,” he tells me.
“Moments of explosive antisemitism preceded by philo-Judaism. Jews and gentiles are getting along, markets are flourishing. In the period I’m looking at, the 11th century, there were “urban communes”, which were modelled on Jewish self-rule.
And that comes back to the main point that my father would make, but also Max Weber made, which was that the free cities of Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries represent a radically new phenomenon.
“You have these bishops saying, if you want your city to thrive, bring in Jews, let them run their own businesses. Christians are looking at this and thinking, why do the bishops interfere in our business and the Jews get all these privileges? So in 1096 you have this outbreak of ferocious, exterminationist antisemitism.”
I first found out about Landes through a lifelong friend, the physicist David Deutsch, the founding father both of quantum computing and the theory of antisemitism known as “the Pattern”.
This theory holds that antisemitism should be thought of not as the hatred of Jews per se, but as an ancient system that legitimises the harming of Jews. Landes and Deutsch have co-taught a course on “the Pattern” and it also appears in Landes’s book.
But Landes goes well beyond the theoretical: he is obsessed with the minutiae of news and the way it can distort the truth.
A fake news item that went viral that used a picture of a police officer presented as Israeli but who was actually Chilean (Twitter)
His focus today is on the turn of the last millennium when, as he argues in his book, the world entered into a fresh period of exterminationist antisemitism.
In “Pallywood”, set within a wider context of “caliphator” Islam, Landes sees the elements of the same apocalyptic “millennialism” that existed in the Christianity of 1,000 years ago.
He brings me up to speed. “For the first millennium of Christian history, there was a kind of countdown to the year 1000,” he explains, taking a sip of his cappuccino. “When 1000 fails [to bring the Messiah], you have a real mutation [especially in] the shift from passive to active millennial expectations.
So instead of waiting for God to bring about the millennial kingdom, it becomes a partnership, at least in the 11th century, between man and God. And by the 17th or 18th century, it becomes ‘we don’t need God, we can do it ourselves’. So you get the secular millennialism of the French Revolution and more ferocious forms like the Nazism and communism.”
Now it’s the “caliphators” — those who believe it is time for Islam to establish a global caliphate — who are pushing forward today’s “apocalyptic millennial movement”.
Landes is creative, extreme and, to me, mostly persuasive in his arguments and language. Those reading his glossary of terms, from “cogwar” (cognitive warfare — “convince a more powerful foe not to use his force”) to “testosteronic” (“honour-driven virility”) to “semiotic promiscuity” (“anything means anything; connect with abandon”) may well hide behind the idea that he’s a bit mad.
But he’s not mad: he’s a limit-pusher with a flair for language. He offloads big ideas that deserve to be heard, if not necessarily swallowed wholesale.
One of the most limit-pushing ideas we discussed was that Zionism is itself “a millennial movement. It doesn’t want to take over the whole world, despite what the Protocols suggest.
But it does want to establish a land where Jews can be free. And in that sense, it gives an example to the world of what’s possible. Israel is a natural leader of what I call the fourth world.
“The fourth world is all of those places that are oppressed by the third world: the Kurds, the Berbers, all the victims of third world imperialism, like Arab imperialism. In that sense, we’re the natural leaders of that world, and the tyrannies of the third world understand that well, which is why we’re so hated in the UN.
"They understand the deeply subversive quality of Israeli independence. Look at the Ukrainians who turn to Israel as their example.”
Hours pass. It turns out there are so many threads in a conversation with Landes, spanning thousands of years and decades of scholarship.
But his wife calls: he needs to get groceries for Shabbat lunch and we part ways.
My prediction was right: exposure to his ideas is difficult and destabilising not because they are mad, but because they are true and, in most company, completely unsayable.