THR Web Features   /   January 18, 2024

Return of the False Messiah

The Blind Ambitions of Benjamin Netanyahu.

David Stromberg

( Statue of Sabbatai Zevi in Ulcinj, Montenegro, where he was exiled in 1673; THR illustration.)

On October 7, 2023, the extent of the destructive power that has reigned over our nation’s political life for a decade and a half came fully to light. By most accounts, even before the massacre, this year had been the most devastating that Israel’s society had ever experienced. Millions of Israelis spent most of their days in a struggle against illiberal forces trying to reshape the balance of power, tearing apart the frayed social fabric that barely keeps the country together. For months, the army chief warned the government that its policies were harming the readiness of its forces. In the weeks leading up to the passing of the first law in the legislative reform that would strip Israel’s judiciary of its independence, the majority of our law-abiding citizens were sure that the unprecedented level of protests would force the political leadership to rethink its path and, at the very least, if not to back down from the whole endeavor, then to find an acceptable consensus with opposition parties who had already entered negotiations with the coalition. On July 24, we saw that nothing would stand in the way of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who dismissed every warning and passed the first law in his plan to dismantle crucial parts of Israel’s democracy.

The weeks that followed were ones of shock and sorrow. People could not believe their government would move in such a divisive direction even against the will of its own constituency—especially as people on both sides of the political spectrum were saying that Netanyahu’s scheme was not worth what it was doing to Israeli society. Two dramatic hearings at the High Court, held in September just before the High Holy Days, nevertheless reinforced the sense that Bibi, as Netanyahu is called in Israel, was prepared to lead us straight into the abyss of a constitutional crisis to achieve his goal. Then came a much needed break—a month during which Jews focus on family and friends, culminating with Simhat Torah, which celebrates the revelation at Mount Sinai. On that day, Hamas launched a surprise attack that shocked the nation, even if it surprised no one who had been paying attention to the army’s warnings.

Since that Black Shabbat, as it has come to be called in Israel, the nation has been engaged in what feels like one of its most existentially fraught wars. While many of us know that the perception of the war is different abroad, in Israel it has already been compared to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Independence War of 1947–49, and the Palestinian revolts of the 1920s and 1930s, all of which are ingrained in Israeli collective memory as events that exemplify the difficulty—if not the impossibility—of attaining a semblance of peace or coexistence with Palestinians. Some people are also aware of the Palestinian narrative that has emerged—that the attack was a response to the world’s growing indifference to Palestinian statehood given the rise of new alliances in the Middle East—and while, in principle, there is no way to deny the frustration caused by such geopolitical developments, few could conceive how this could be used to rationalize such a brutal attack. In Israel, even among those who support Palestinian statehood, the feeling was that, yet again, as Israelis sought peace, all they got was more destruction—and that its army had no choice but to engage in a war it did not seek in order to ensure that such an attack would never happen again.

For a short time, the emergence of a common enemy gave some Israelis faith in the chance of a new path ahead—including the possibility that a different government would be formed, not only bringing quiet to its borders but also leading the way to a new political order that might include peace with Palestinians. Yet within days it became clear that the attack, while shocking and paralyzing Bibi for a moment, had not fundamentally changed his calculus about the nation and the region. Nothing about the social implications of this attack—including the immediate recruitment across the political spectrum of men and women who showed up for reserve duty even before they were officially called up—did anything to shift Bibi’s autocratic vision for our future.

Understanding the extent of the threat posed by Bibi requires a broad historical perspective. Many people have noted that October 7, 2023, was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust. But the evocation of the Holocaust, even when accurate, conceals part of the complexity of this Black Shabbat: namely, that it took place amid one of the greatest crises that has ever gripped Israel, all of it orchestrated and overseen by a single person with unmatched power. Many have noted that Bibi is not solely responsible for every mistake or miscalculation that led to this disaster. But there is no question that he failed to take steps to avoid the kind of division that tore Israel’s social fabric apart in the months leading up to this Black Shabbat and that he failed to establish any lasting unity among its peoples. If Bibi is Israel’s leader, he leads the nation straight into darkness. And while Israel’s citizenry has shown unparalleled heroism and leadership since the attack, putting the political echelon to shame, Israel’s politicians—led and enabled by Bibi—continue to reveal the depths of their cynicism.

We should consider these developments in relation not only to the relatively few years of modern Israel’s existence but to the millennia of Jewish history. Considered against the sweep of Jewish history since the destruction of Jerusalem, the disaster of October 7 actually pales in comparison to the violence of the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Khmelnytsky massacres, and it certainly pales in comparison to the Holocaust. So what makes this event so singular in the minds and hearts of Jews across the world today? Certainly, it has to do with the sense that this Black Shabbat echoes the barbarity of these horrific events. But it also appears to substantiate one of the more ostensibly radical claims that certain Israeli writers, journalists, and scholars have been making for quite some time: that Bibi is the most dangerous Jewish leader to have emerged since the seventeenth-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi.

Unlike the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, or the repeated expulsions from one corner of the world to another—all of which forced Jews to contend repeatedly with extreme violence as well as attempted annihilation—the influence of Sabbatai Zevi (1626–1676) could not be attributed to outside powers. As a cataclysmic event, it shaped Jewish history from within, precipitating the greatest internal crisis that is known to have taken place in centuries and leading to such internal upheavals across so many communities that scholars today consider him as ushering in the modern Jewish era across the globe—including the rise of the secular Zionist movement. Because, mysticism aside, what Sabbatai Zevi tried to bring about —in practical terms—was a mass return of Jews to Zion.

The movement that came to be known as Sabbateanism was not self-propagated. It is true that Sabbatai Zevi was banned from his hometown of Smyrna, modern-day Izmir in Turkey, after declaring himself the messiah at the age of twenty-two and spending the next two decades traveling through Turkey, Greece, Palestine, and Egypt. But it was not until he met a mystic and ascetic named Nathan of Gaza that he was proclaimed messiah by someone else. Nathan of Gaza, who claimed to be Sabbatai Zevi’s prophet, spread his prophecy to Jewish communities throughout the world with letters and pamphlets, some of which were fake texts attributed to ancient figures. Nathan of Gaza was able to establish a cult of personality that eventually led much of the Jewish world to believe that the messianic era had arrived and that a return to Zion was imminent. But in 1666, the year in which Nathan of Gaza declared that redemption would arrive, Sabbatai Zevi ended up converting to Islam, setting off a crisis that would reverberate across Jewish culture for hundreds of years. 

We are now at the threshold of a crisis no less severe. Watching Bibi speak ever since October 7, one senses that, for far too long, he has been told that he is King Bibi—and that he truly believes in the prophetic claims of his role as Israel’s unrivaled and divinely installed leader. Even though Bibi is not religious, he presides over the most religiously extreme and messianic coalition in Israel’s history, a throwback to the kind of ideologically tainted mysticism invoked by Nathan of Gaza to elevate Sabbatai Zevi to the status of messiah—and to promise a new era to Jews across the world. Bibi’s promises at the 2023 United Nations General Assembly of “a new Middle East that will transform lands once ridden with conflict and chaos into fields of prosperity and peace”—just a few weeks before the Hamas massacre and the destruction of Gaza that ensued—smack of the kind of delusional dreams that seemed just as real to Sabbatai Zevi when he was brought before the Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV for sedition. Despite the reason for his summons, Zevi expected to walk out with a crown on his head, as Nathan of Gaza had prophesied. Instead, he was offered a choice between death or conversion to Islam. Sabbatai Zevi believed his meeting with the sultan would leave him a Jewish king. Bibi believes that a meeting with the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who has dangled normalization with Israel in return for American nuclear know how, will confirm his reign as King Bibi. Both conceptions are delusional, and both rely on a kind of messianic faith that can only lead to ever-greater disasters.

The cult of personality is never a one-person show. Without others, after all, there can be no cult. Without Nathan of Gaza, Sabbatai Zevi may have simply continued his aimless tours around the world, a highly educated and gifted personality with, as some scholars have hazarded, severe bipolar disorder, oscillating between high moments when he called himself the messiah and low spells that sent him into reclusion. Similarly, Bibi continues to manipulate Israeli society with the support of his false prophets and accomplices, turning people against each other in ways they never would have imagined otherwise. He has destroyed the integrity of Israel’s national infrastructure without people realizing the extent of its disintegration. He has personally stoked the greatest internal rift between Jews, both inside Israel and across the world, since the time of Sabbatai Zevi. Not for three hundred and fifty years have so many Jews been thrown into such utter distress or despair because of a single person and his unhinged personality.

Today, as real dangers from without combine with the results of decades of neglect from within, Israel’s society runs ever faster into the arms of messianic elements overtaking its political landscape. Israelis live under the forceful influence of those who believe—who truly have faith—that the modern State of Israel is athalta de-geula, the beginning of the redemption, as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, founder of the mystical-messianic stream of Religious Zionism, viewed the establishment of the Jewish state. On a spiritual level, this sentiment can be seen as an expression of religious yearning, but when it turns into government policy, it portends nothing but more misery for everyone in the region. Jewish self-determination, which is shared by secular and religious people alike, has been perverted into a kind of manifest destiny that usurps what secular and religious cultures had achieved together and exploits it for messianic ends.

The case of Sabbatai Zevi highlights the role of messianism in the spiritual life of the Jewish people, while also cautioning against its destructive potential. Messianic tendencies are perennial threats to nations and peoples, particularly as they play out in political arenas. The interplay between spiritual and religious forces—the ways we balance practical and mystical elements in society—are essential to the stability of a nation’s future.  But while a balanced appreciation for the mystical and the practical endows a people with strength, it can be thrown out of balance by cynical, malicious, or deranged power mongers. Sabbatai Zevi’s faith in his role as a Jewish leader had been so powerfully reinforced by a toxic mixture of unconscious self-deception and delirious sincerity that he could not imagine what effect his possible defeat might have on his followers. Looking at Bibi today, you get the sense that he no longer can discern the extent of his own corruption and depravity—and so is unable to comprehend how much damage and suffering he has brought upon his own people.

It is possible that Israel can achieve peace with the Arab world. But it cannot come at the price of its own integrity as a nation—or Palestinian rights as a nation. Bibi has been ready to go to any lengths to achieve the crown jewel of his political legacy, peace with one of the strongest powers in the Middle East. But in trying to achieve his vaunted goal, he has left such a trail of destruction that he will never live it down. False messiahs eventually fall from grace because there is always a limit to how much they can exploit the genuine hopes, dreams, and sufferings of others. Bibi will eventually hit that limit. Until then, we will all—Israelis and Palestinians—be his victims, living in a country turned upside down by messianic beliefs that are stoked by the ambitions of a single person willing to play the part of a messiah.