“Hyper-Idealism and Primitivity”

Sylvia Rafael undercover as Canadian news photographer Patricia Roxenburg. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing Company.)

Sylvia Rafael undercover as Canadian news photographer Patricia Roxenburg. (Courtesy of Keshet Publishing Company.)

Hyper-Idealism and Primitivity

I’ve been making my way through the spring issue of “The Jewish Review of Books.” It’s far less “in” with the beautiful people than “The New York Review of Books” which commits politicide in prose against the Jewish nation every time that beleaguered little tract of real estate comes under its fashionable notice.   When I read The Jewish Review, I feel safer than I do when I read the New York Review. The Jewish Review is not less intelligent. Just less lethal.

One of the reviews is of a book titled Sylvia Rafael: The Life and Death of a Mossad Spy. Sylvia Rafael was decisively influenced by an uncle who had miraculously escaped from the deep pit filled with bodies at Babi Yar, one of the dreadful Nazi killing grounds. No one in her comfortable South African family, where her father had married a Boer woman, understood her resolve in 1948 to move to the newly-declared state of Israel and put her considerable talents at the disposal of the Israeli secret service.

She was lovely to look at, proved brave, resourceful, had many successful missions to her credit but eventually took part in a disastrous one. Their target was one of the murderers of the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Munich Games. Their raid (overriding her objections) was hastily organized, under-researched and ended with the killing, in Lillehammer, Norway, of an innocent Moroccan Arab man, Achmed Bouchiki, in front of his pregnant wife. Sylvia and five of her team were tried and convicted in Norway and served some years in prison there before their release. She eventually married her Norwegian defense attorney, and her life went full circle – moving out of the Israeli orbit, catching no more bad guys – and dying of natural causes in the same South Africa she had left in her youth.

  • “Something in me broke after Lillehammer,” Sylvia recalled. “… My heroes had appeared to be men of absolute integrity, but suddenly I saw them in a different light.”

With regard to Israelis, I know of a number of similar stories. People who had served with great dedication in prominent posts, but resigned their positions so as not to be associated — even remotely — with a bad action. Something had gone wrong, sometimes from negligence in the heat of a combat, or by accident, or because of the cruelty of some distorted individual.

I fully identify with their hyper-idealism. But it does not make me proud. It comes, I believe, from millennia of life without political power. One has time to grow the most delicate moral sensibilities when one is entirely at the mercy of people who do not think one’s life has any merit.

Some will think I am kidding or being sarcastic, but it is a fact that I have the greatest sympathy for anti-Semites. I believe that there is something wrong with them. Even when they look normal, there is something wrong. It’s mental and they have great trouble controlling it. Sooner or later, it controls them.

Jerry had an anti-Semitic colleague who was otherwise quite likable. This colleague admired two famous theorists above all others: Ayn Rand the libertarian and Ludwig Wittgenstein the philosopher. I don’t know if Jerry ever broke it to him that they were both Jews. In my experience, this is not uncommon. Pull back the petals in the flower of their hatred. The ovary at the center is love. It’s very odd.

I want to help. And the way to help is to avoid placing oneself at the mercy of people who can’t help wanting to kill one, either directly or by “idealistically” removing all one’s means of feasible self-defense.

How to become in this way helpful to the unfortunates who are anti-Semites? It’s obvious:

gain some power,

get ground underfoot,

stand your ground

and be willing to fight for it.

Will I have to hurt my enemy? God, after all, loves my enemy as much as He loves me.

 Why, yes.

What fight hasn’t hurt the enemy?

Will I also hurt innocents, whom I didn’t want to hurt?

Of course.

What fight hasn’t done that?

Does that mean risking the coarsening of my skin, the karmic boomerang, the moral downgrade?


 but also,


If one wants to spare the anti-Semite the terrible fate of complicity in a second holocaust within memory, one must – for his sake – defeat him. Using the dirty hands that winning may require. If one is ready to fight, one might deter the enemy and save many lives. By contrast:

being defenceless does not deter would-be killers.

The other day I and a few of my co-religionists got together with some local pacifists whose denunciations of Israel have been on prominent display at our town square for many months. These hyper-idealists are of course protected by geography, the local constabulary, and the U.S. military. And by a nation that continues to exist because it has fought and won its defining wars.

I am less concerned with those hyper-idealists than by my co-religionists who, like me, want to have – and be seen to have – clean hands.

The Jewish take on evil is that it is fully real. Though there is no doctrine of original sin, the rabbis held that the human being, “male and female,” has a double tendency: an impulse toward the ideal but also an “evil impulse.” It’s the primitive in us, like Freud’s id. It’s the source of sin and unruly energies. We’ve all got it.

What to do about the evil impulse, the yetzer hara? The rabbis don’t advise embarking on drastic purification projects. They don’t say that if we are sufficiently high-minded, we can drive out low-mindedness, nor that if we are sufficiently loving, we can drive out hate, nor that we can, by ultra-chastity, drive out lust, nor by uber-humility drive out pride. Few rabbis or Jewish holy men would advocate the nonresistance to evil that Tolstoy urged in his old age.

Rather, the advice they tend to give is to serve God with all that goes into the human recipe — with both the good and the evil impulse. The message seems to be:

Don’t try to be so full of light that 

others must carry your darkness for you.


Don’t be so full of loftiness that

others must double the heavy lifting on your account.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Hyper-Idealism and Primitivity”

  1. Ken says:

    I enjoy and agree with your language that personal or national defense must be accomplished “using the dirty hands that winning may require.” There’s no way to engage without becoming complicit in offenses. Worse yet, however, is to remain a passive victim or watch others be victimized. It’s a fine line we each must walk with justice in the balance…

    • Abigail says:

      Thanks Ken. It’s very nice to have your Comment in this connection. I think of you as a near-saintly guy (forgive me!). For people to whom truthfulness and purity of intent are important, the willingness to do what the situation calls for, even if one’s purity is compromised in the process, has to be particularly difficult. For that reason, I’m most heartened that you see the point, nevertheless, and resist the temptation to commit (what might be called) the “clean hands fallacy”! God bless.

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