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The Rationalist Folly

by Jonathan Rosenblum

Frustrated at Camp David by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's repeated references to the centrality of Jerusalem to the whole Muslim world, then prime minister Ehud Barak finally told Arafat to spare him any further speeches on the sanctity of Haram al-Sharif (the Temple Mount to Jews). Get practical and tell me what you really want, said Barak.

Arafat replied, "Anyone who does not understand what Jerusalem means to me is himself not a practical man."

Wittingly or unwittingly, Arafat was pointing to a form of what I would call the "rationalist folly" that has bedeviled both Israeli and American policy-makers for at least a decade.

"Rationalist" because it is predicated on a series of assumptions about human nature inherited from the Enlightenment. Chief among those assumptions is that all human beings basically want the same things and will seek to maximize their share of the desired goods. Typically, those goods are assumed to be economic in nature, since maximization of material goods is the behavior most easily accommodated by the rationalist model.

From the rationalist assumptions about human nature it follows that negative behavior can be explained in terms of motivating factors that operate on all people. When those factors are removed, the negative behavior, it is assumed, will end.

Former national security advisor Sandy Berger's profession of belief that there does not exist a "single issue... that cannot be resolved" is a classic expression of the rationalist faith.

The rationalist faith finds it almost impossible to credit religion as a motivation for human actions. The post-Enlightenment rationalist views religion as the height of irrationality. And because he views people as basically rational, he cannot accept expressed religious motivations at face value.

This rationalist creed is folly because it fails to accurately describe reality and, as a consequence, cannot provide policy-makers with a predictive model. Adherence to the rationalist model turns out, ironically, to be the height of irrationality.

"The life of the law," Oliver Wendell Holmes observed, "is experience, not logic." His observation, however, has application far outside the realm of the law. Empirical observation reveals what attempts to force life into neat categories of Cartesian logic cannot: Human beings around the world differ greatly from one another in their assumptions about the proper goals of life, and even about the value of life itself.

Nowhere has the failure to recognize that basic fact so haunted policy-makers as in the Middle East. The rationalist folly underlies the failures of the Oslo process, as well as America's failure to identify and deal with the threat of radical Islam.

The Oslo process was predicated on the belief that peace could be achieved by holding out the promise of a better material life. In speech after speech, Bill Clinton and Shimon Peres described the beautiful New Middle East that would be ushered in by peace and harmony. Inevitably, the vision offered was one of material plenty for all peoples of the region. Peres's response to the renewal of Palestinian violence in full force a year ago was characteristic: Increase infrastructure investment in the Palestinian Authority.

The assumption that the Palestinians, like Israelis and Americans, seek only the means to pursue their private pleasures has been dealt a heavy jolt over the past year, as the Palestinians followed a course that could only result in the devastation of their economy and the immiseration of their population.

That violence is made even more unintelligible by the assumption of Oslo's proponents that both sides to the Arab-Israeli conflict have renounced the goal of total victory over the other. Pursuit of that goal, according to the rationalist model, is the height of irrationality.

For one thing, it must inevitably lead to warfare on a massive scale. Death is the ultimate irrationality, rendering impossible as it does the enjoyment of the material delights of this world.

Even if the Arabs imagined that they might eventually succeed in destroying Israel, they must recognize that this victory would almost surely require many decades. That makes the pursuit of such a victory incomprehensible according to the rationalist model, for no rational actor will follow a course whose benefits he will not personally live to experience.

There is simply no room in the rationalist model for a Palestinian society in which martyrdom has been elevated to the highest ideal and in which the rewards of the world to come are more real and enticing than the rewards of this world for a large percentage of the population.

A year ago, George Will acutely observed that, to Palestinians, the problem is not that "Israel is being provocative, but that Israel's being is provocative." The rationalist proponents of Oslo cannot, however, accept such a conclusion. To admit that millions of Muslims see Israel's existence as an affront to Allah would be, from the rationalist perspective, to admit to mass insanity. So the rationalist must continue searching for the "real" explanation of suicide bombers - e.g., the lack of a Palestinian state - and positing that removal of the material causes of Palestinian discontent will end terrorism.

Believing as they do that the Middle East conflict is a mere game in which each side strives - rationally - for a slightly larger share of the pie, the rationalists place an inordinate faith in signed agreements. Since those agreements embody the types of compromises that rational game players arrive at, they are left surprised every time they are violated before the ink has even dried.

In the rationalist universe, the pursuit of irrational goals is identified as aberrant behavior and assumed to be limited to a handful of individuals. Thus then president Clinton treated the 1993 World Trade Center bombing as a problem for the criminal justice system rather than the first volley in a new war. Put the miscreants behind bars and the world would once again be safe, he reasoned. Much better to focus on a few bad guys than to worry about terrorist networks expanding around the globe and deriving their strength from belief systems shared by tens of millions.

The personalization of the current battle against terrorism as a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral between US President George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, with the whole world portrayed as rooting for the guy in the white hat, is but one more instance of the naive belief that nothing more need be done than to get rid of a few bad apples.

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