Experts


Even after Reza Aslan called me a moron, I still had one more question for him.

We were sitting with about 30 others in the Hollywood Hills living room of Keith Addis and Keri Selig. Aslan, the Iranian-born scholar and author, was holding forth to a salon of entertainment industry elite at a Foreign Policy Round Table. 

Aslan is youthful, handsome and persuasive — a full head of dark hair, witty and cocksure. Imagine, if you will, the love child of Fareed Zakaria and Jon Stewart and you begin to grasp his TV-ready mix of erudition and hip.

Aslan didn’t call me personally a moron, but he did say this: “Anyone who tells you that Iran wants a nuclear weapon in order to use it is a moron. An absolute moron.”

Iran wants nukes for the same reason that every country wants nukes, Aslan said — “for deterrence.”

That’s when I raised my hand.

Even if that were true, I asked, why should Israel take the risk of allowing Iran to have a nuclear weapon?  After all, its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened “to wipe Israel off the map,” and the regime Aslan claims is nothing if not pragmatic directly provokes and threatens Israel by arming Hamas, to Israel’s south, and Hezbollah, to its north. Is it really so moronic to think that a leadership that says and does such things might one day, eventually, given the right circumstances, do the unthinkable?

Aslan replied that Ahmadinejad’s hard-line rhetoric wins him points among hard-liners at home and in the Arab world, just as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rhetoric comparing Iran’s nuclear ambitions to Nazi Germany in 1939 scores him points with Jews in Israel and abroad.

Both leaders, Aslan asserted, need the fear and bluster of the other to maintain their power.

What struck me about Aslan’s talk was how completely it contradicted the going opinion in much of the Israeli press and Jewish community.

Not long ago, in a high-rise office building a few miles away, a group of 40 Jewish leaders gathered to hear another Iran expert give an off-the-record briefing on the same topic. For him, as for so many in the American and Israeli intelligence community, a nuclear Iran poses an imminent danger that has to be met first with crippling sanctions and then, if that fails, preemptive military action. Don’t forget that many liberal Democracts, like Rep. Howard Berman, are at the forefront of the sanctions effort. If smart people didn’t think Iran could conceivably use its nukes against Israel, why bother with sanctions at all?

It’s an occupational hazard: being exposed to convincing experts who offer diametrically opposed conclusions. But when it comes to Iranian nukes, when the stakes of being wrong are so high, one has to choose between them.

To Aslan, the Israelis have been crying wolf for too long to be taken seriously.

“Israeli intelligence is useless on this topic,” he said, “because they’ve been saying Iran is 18 months away from developing a nuclear weapon for the last 10 years. They’ve left the argument.”

But the boy who cried wolf was right, too — once. Just because the Israelis may have overreacted back then doesn’t mean we should under-react now.

By Aslan’s estimation, Iran is now one to two years away from weaponizing its nuclear program. (A number, by the way, that many Israelis now agree with.)

If the regime wants a nuclear weapon, he said, there’s nothing the world can do to stop it: international sanctions won’t work, nor would a military strike.

Israel couldn’t attack without America’s approval, Aslan said, as it would have to cross American airspace over Iraq — something even President George W. Bush refused to permit.  And a joint attack would, at best, delay, or perhaps even speed up, development.

Meanwhile, Israeli experts say a strike could at least cripple the nuclear facilities, while changes in Iran might, in the meantime, topple the regime — remember Iraq’s nuclear reactor?

“If Iran wants nuclear weapons,” Aslan said, “there’s nothing we can do to stop it. All we can do is make Iran not want them.”

For him, this means three things: using specific sanctions against businesses owned by the Revolutionary Guard, which Aslan says has become a kind of Persian Gulf Sopranos; letting the Green Movement take its course, causing the necessary social upheaval; and applying parity to Middle East nuclear policy — getting Israel to give up its nukes while extending the United States’ nuclear umbrella over the Middle East.

Obviously, this is where Aslan parts company with the other groups of experts I’ve heard. They would scoff at treating the Iranian regime — which oppresses its own people, sends rockets via proxy into Israel, engages in international terror and, as I mentioned to Aslan, vows the destruction of Israel — virtually the same as the Israelis.

Finally, there is Aslan’s confident prediction that even if Iran had nukes — and he’s convinced the Obama administration is resigned to this — it wouldn’t use them.

“The Iranian regime’s primary goal over the past 30 years has been self-preservation,” he said. Use nukes, and it’s game over.

Part of me wishes Aslan were 100 percent right. But, like all experts, he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

A people who faced obliteration at the hands of an anti-Semite just a few decades ago probably shouldn’t rely solely on Reza Aslan’s expertise. Maybe Iran is not, as Netanyahu keeps saying, Nazi Germany, but it isn’t Luxembourg either.

Aslan holds that it’s impossible for Israel to do anything about Iran’s nukes on its own.

To that I can only quote an expert on that particular subject:

“If an expert says it can’t be done,” David Ben-Gurion once said, “get another expert.”

To read another account of Reza Aslan’s talk, read here.

Daniel Pipes fights the worldwide threat of Islamism — from Malibu



Pipes spoke at UC Irvine in January

The view from Daniel Pipes’ front porch in Malibu is “California Dreamin'” perfect. With the Pacific stretching beyond the horizon, the vista induces a Zen-like calm. If the scholar’s striped cotton shirt and khakis betray his Boston roots, Pipes’ barely audible voice and gentle demeanor suggest that he has gone native just weeks after his arrival as a visiting professor this semester at Pepperdine University.

But Pipes’ words are not so laid-back. The 57-year-old Harvard-educated Middle East expert is one of the most prominent scholars to have warned of the growing threat of fundamentalist Muslim terrorism to the West before the Sept. 11 attacks. He has become a lightening rod for some Muslims as well as other critics, in part because he predicts that radical Islam is a far greater threat than most people would like to imagine. The United States, he says, must gird itself for a protracted struggle against an enemy that wants nothing less than to transform this country from a beacon of democracy into a repressive Islamic state.

“You name it, radical Islam is anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, anti-female, anti-moderate Muslim and anti anyone who disagrees with it,” said Pipes, who is Jewish. “Anyone in their way is their enemy.”

Pipes calls himself a “soldier” in the war against Islamic fundamentalism; he is founder and director of the Middle East Forum — a Philadelphia think tank that publishes Middle East Quarterly — and he has written hundreds of newspaper columns, appeared countless times on Fox News and CNN and traveled the globe, including a recent trip to England to debate London Mayor Ken Livingstone with the purpose of warning of the growing danger. He soon plans to unveil Islamist Watch, a Web site which he describes as an attempt to monitor nonviolent radical Islam in the West.

Pipes gets nearly 3 million visits annually to his Web site, making him, if not exactly a household name, then at least one of the most prominent anti-Islamists on the scene.

“It used to be that people would ask him if he was related to me,” said Pipes’ father, Richard Pipes, professor emeritus of Russian history at Harvard and a former policy adviser to President Ronald Reagan. “Now, it’s the other way around.”

Like his father, Daniel Pipes has a reputation for bluntness and a willingness to go against conventional wisdom — both in the academy and elsewhere. Whereas Richard Pipes sounded the alarm against appeasing the Soviets, Daniel Pipes preaches against working with radical Muslims, no matter how law-abiding, scholarly or open-minded they might appear.

Instead, “like David Duke and Louis Farrakhan,” Pipes said, “Islamists should be ostracized socially and politically.”

He favors the profiling of Muslims at U.S. airports.

Pipes has come to Pepperdine to teach a graduate seminar on “Islam & Politics.” During his time in Southern California, he is also speaking about the war on terror and the Arab-Israeli conflict at a number of local institutions. In late February, Pipes gave a talk at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; on March 29, he will speak at Sinai Temple.

His supporters believe that Pipes provides an invaluable service.

“Without Daniel Pipes, we would never be able to prepare ourselves to face the enemy,” said Tashbih Sayyed, the editor in chief of Pakistan Today and Muslim World Today, weekly newspapers that oppose militant Islam. “We would be standing unprepared and unarmed, just like a sitting duck.”

Pipes, said Robert Spencer, founder of Jihad Watch and author of the New York Times bestseller “The Truth About Muhammad,” is “one of the most heroic defenders in the United States against global jihad.”
However, Pipes’ detractors call him paranoid, prone to conspiracy theories and anti-Islamic, though Pipes has long said, “Radical Islam is the problem, and moderate Islam is the solution.”

On Jan. 31, dozens of members of the Muslim Student Union interrupted a speech he was delivering at UC Irvine before they stormed out in protest. In 2003, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), a Muslim civil rights group that Pipes has characterized as a Saudi-funded, pro-Hamas Islamist outfit, led efforts to block his nomination by President Bush to the board of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

After several senators opposed Pipes, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said that Pipes’ record “did not reflect a commitment to bridging differences and preventing conflict,” the White House made a recess appointment, which allowed Pipes to serve for 16 months.

UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists,” and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, described Pipes at the start of his career as a “promising scholar” of Islamic history, who has since lost his perspective.

“Pipes has grown … more suspicious and more alarmist,” said El Fadl, whom Pipes has called a stealth Islamist. “His whole recent work has turned to a critique of Islam based on conspiracy theory.”

Driven largely by a desire to discredit Muslim critics of Israel, Pipes is “clearly opposed to the interests of the American Muslim community and would do anything in his power, I believe, to prevent the political and social empowerment of American Muslims,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national spokesman for CAIR.

Stephen Suleyman Schwartz, executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that promotes moderate Islam, said groups such as CAIR “smear” Pipes, because he exposes the dangers they pose.

Yet, Pipes’ critics have failed to derail him. With untiring zeal, he works to blunt what he sees as the threat of radical Islam wherever it crops up. A recent crusade involved a seemingly minor issue at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

For years, some Muslim cab drivers had refused to pick up passengers visibly carrying alcohol, typically in duty free bags, because of religious considerations. The situation had inherent frictions, as the cabbies who turned down the fares had to return to the back of the cab line, while the riders who had been denied service sometimes felt angry and confused as to why the drivers had bypassed them.

Briefs: Journalist: West Is losing ‘War of Ideas;’ Daniel Pipes comes to Pepperdine


Journalist: West Is Losing War of Ideas

The conflict between the West and terrorist Islam is not about terrorism, land or economic grievances but about fundamental ideas — and the West is losing.

So posits Melanie Phillips, a feisty British journalist, who backed up her thesis in an hour of rapid-fire arguments and examples at UCLA on Monday.

Phillips is the author of “Londonistan,” a book that has triggered heated discussions in her native country by indicting the alleged blindness and fecklessness of British society in the face of an increasingly hostile Islam at home and abroad.

Under the banner of “multiculturalism,” academe, the church and the media have transformed the meaning of the term from a decent respect for all cultures to the politically correct rule that the minority is always right and the majority always wrong, Phillips said.

In Britain, Europe and the United States, conventional thinking now has it that no religious or social demand by an aggrieved Muslim population can be refused because they are the victims of oppression.

“This is the dialogue of the demented,” she declared.

While most Muslims are not terrorists or direct supporters of terrorism, even those mislabeled as “moderates” believe that the Jews dominate the West, that the West wants to destroy Islam, and therefore Jews, as “a metaphysical evil,” are to blame for the Islamic world’s problems, she said.The West, including Israel, has not recognized that Islam wants ultimately to establish a medieval caliphate, and is “ceding the battleground of ideas,” Phillips warned. “We’re on a cliff and going over the edge.”

During an extended question-and-answer period, only one person, Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, suggested a more conciliatory approach toward Islam.

The rest of the audience of some 70 students and faculty seemed supportive of Phillips’ arguments. There were no hostile questioners, as those who might have been were likely occupied with the simultaneous opening of Islamic Awareness Week on campus — whose main lectures carried such titles as “Qur’an (Koran): The True Message of Jesus” and “Muhammad: The Inheritor of the Judeo-Christian Tradition.”

Sponsoring Phillips’ appearance were Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a national pro-Israel organization that has just formed a UCLA chapter, the UCLA Political Science department and the activist group StandWithUs.

Phillips also spoke in the evening at the Wilshire Theater, at a public event sponsored by the American Freedom Alliance and the Temple of the Air, part of her national tour with stops in New York, Detroit and Atlanta.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Islamists’ Critic Comes to Pepperdine

Middle East expert Daniel Pipes, who is among most prominent scholars to have warned of the growing threat of radical Islam to the West before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a lightening rod for criticism among some Muslim groups, is spending the spring semester at Pepperdine University in Malibu as a visiting professor. Pipes, who received his doctorate from Harvard, is teaching a graduate seminar on Islam and politics.

The founder and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank that publishes Middle East Quarterly, Pipes has won supporters for his warnings of possible dangers emanating from the Muslim world. Some Muslim groups have characterized him as intolerant.

“Over the years, Pipes has exhibited a troubling bigotry toward Muslims and Islam,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights group. “He perceives Islam, and not just extremism, as a threat.”

Pipes said CAIR is a radical organization that “lies.” He rejects the notion that he is anti-Islam.

Through his writings and speeches, Pipes has waged a multi-pronged campaign against “Islamists,” whom he argues want to subvert democracy and impose Islamic law on their respective societies.

“My effort is to try and isolate them,” Pipes said, “and convince politicians, the media, the academy and other institutions that this is an outlook that should be spurned, shunned.”

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Wiesenthal Center Adds Persian-Language Information

Following an Iranian government-sponsored conference late last year questioning the existence of the Holocaust, local Iranian Jewish activists have provided a Persian-language translation of 36 questions and answers regarding the Holocaust for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Web site (www.wiesenthal.com/36questionsinfarsi). Iranian Jewish activist George Haroonian provided the translation, directed at Iranians surfing the site for facts about the Shoah.

“This is important because we not only need to counter the propaganda and lies being spread by the Iranian government about the Holocaust, the Jewish people and Israel, but we also need to present younger Iranians with the truth,” Haroonian said, adding that he hopes the translations will encourage other Web sites to repost the information for those who do not understand English.

Haroonian’s Council of Iranian Jews collaborated with the Wiesenthal Center last year by inviting Persian-language media outlets based in Los Angeles to visit the Museum of Tolerance to learn about the Holocaust.

In the last two years, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has repeatedly denied the Nazi genocide and called for Israel to be “wiped off the map.”

— Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

Web Archive Brings Voices of Past to Present

Want to listen in on conversations with the late Bella Abzug, George Burns and Abba Eban? Want to watch a video of the historic Freedom Sunday Rally for Soviet Jewry in 1987, when 250,000 Jews from around the country gathered in support of their Russian brethren? Want to listen to a broadcast of a Jewish religious service conducted by American GIs on liberated German soil?

Thanks to the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) new archival Web site (www.ajcarchives.org), you now can with only a few clicks of a computer mouse.

Wine, Women, Song


As the daylight hours dwindle down to a precious few, and hurricanes, fires and floods give the distinct feeling that the world is indeed coming to an end, let’s turn our thoughts to two of the things that make so many Jews so happy: wine and Hawaii.

That’s where Judd and Holly Finkelstein come in. The Journal sat with the young couple over coffee at downtown’s Angelique Café, and tried to keep track of their interests and projects.

Judd’s parents, Art and Bunnie, have been making wine in Napa Valley for 25 years, first creating the Whitehall Lane label, then Judd’s Hill. After training as a journalist, that same Judd recognized maybe there’s a reason people dream of retiring to the place he grew up, and he moved back to join the family business.

The family has numerous ties to Los Angeles, and Judd met Holly, a former program officer for the Steven Spielberg Righteous Persons Foundation, on a 2003 visit here.

Now the two form the center of a Jewish-winemaking-experimental-entrepreneurial-Hawaiian music-making community in Napa.

Along with expanding and marketing the critically acclaimed Judd Hill line, the two are marketing Napa Valley Custom MicroCrush. Customers pay to make their own wines, selecting grapes and overseeing the process from picking to labeling.

“Crushing grapes is nasty, grungy work,” Judd said. “It’s barely pleasant.”

MicroCrush customers can have others do this part, but otherwise, for about $20 per bottle, make their oenophiliac dreams come true. The idea sounds prime for a nonprofit group to use as a fundraiser — anyone for a case of ’06 Jewish Family Service Pinot Noir?

When not promoting wine, Holly and Judd perform in a Hawaiian lounge band they created, The Maikai Gents, featuring the Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa. Holly, a trained hula dancer (a.k.a. Miss Mauna Loa), and Judd, an expert on the ukelele, perform at clubs, parties and the rare bar mitzvah in the wine country.

Their new CD, “Wiki Wiki Grog Shop,” will take you back — to somewhere between Kapalua and Trader Vics.

These days, that’s a good place to be.

For more information, visit www.juddshill.com.

 

Koala Makes Aliyah


Ben-Gurion Airport welcomed a new Israeli, and a rather furry one at that.

Didgee, a koala, made aliyah from Melbourne, Australia, but he won’t be the only Aussie in his new home. Cindy and Mindy, two cute koala girls who made aliyah from the Melbourne Zoo in February, already have been resettled in the park.

Upon his arrival, Israeli authorities put Didgee in quarantine for six weeks. When his isolation ends, he will meet his prospective mates, and they can kick back in the Beit Shean valley and talk about the old days in Sydney and Melbourne.

It’s estimated that Didgee has been photographed more than 10,000 times by enthusiastic tourists in Australia. He will have some time to rest and recuperate from his trip before delighting the 80,000 annual visitors to Gan Garoo, a four-acre park fully recognized by the Australian Wildlife Authority. Gan Garoo is a little slice of Australia in the middle of Israel, which even has a plaque in memory of the Australian athletes who lost their lives when a bridge collapsed during the opening ceremony of the 1997 Maccabiah Games, said Gan Garoo administrator Yehuda Gat, who started the park.

Australia does not export many koalas and they need special care, said Chandi De Alwis, Melbourne Zoo’s native mammal expert.

"However, they have bred very successfully overseas and I hope Gan Garoo will be home to many generations," De Alwis said. "They are delightful animals, loved by park visitors. In these difficult times, I hope they will bring some joy to the troubled Israelis."

Koalas are not really bears but rather marsupials, like kangaroos. They are born after 34 days gestation, and live in their mother’s pouches until they are almost 6 months old.

However, Didgee will be a little confused: In Australia it’s spring, the koalas’ mating season, but it’s autumn in Israel.

"They will adjust and when spring comes round, Cindy and Mindy should have no worries, mate," De Alwis said.

Didgee is looking forward to the day he can leave the quarantine cage to snuggle up with his two Sheilas in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, and learn to say "Shalom" as well as "G’day."

To Catch a Terrorist


When Uri Tauber went to a party as a young man, before checking out the availability of girls or drinks, he would first compute in his mind how much dynamite it would take to blow up the place.

This unusual preoccupation stood Tauber in good stead while serving with an elite Israeli commando unit, after joining his country’s intelligence service, and now as a private anti-terrorism expert and consultant.

"To catch a terrorist, you have to think like a terrorist," he pointed out during an interview at the Canoga Park offices of The Chameleon Group, a full-service security organization founded and staffed by Israelis.

Tauber was in town to participate in the one-day Security Forum 2002, co-sponsored by Chameleon and the Israeli Economic Mission in Los Angeles.

The forum drew 170 officials, representing the FBI, sheriff, police and other law enforcement agencies, aerospace companies, port authorities, private security companies, and such diverse organizations as Amtrak, UCLA and the John Paul Getty Trust.

"There are some things Americans can learn from Israelis, not because we’re more intelligent but because, unfortunately, we have had more experience," said Tauber, a heavyset man of 51 wearing a turtleneck sweater and horn-rimmed glasses.

Through such bloody experience, Israelis have developed cutting-edge technology in the battle against terrorism.

An example, Tauber said, is a sophisticated computer and surveillance system to protect shopping malls and sports stadiums. The system integrates aerial photography, constant monitoring on the ground and simulation of worst-case scenarios with training and testing of security personnel.

The system is still evolving, but has been implemented at the Knesset in Jerusalem and other sites in Israel.

Just as important is to raise every citizen’s awareness level to terrorist threats, said Muky Cohen, Chameleon’s CEO, who helped found the 10-year-old company that now has operatives and training projects in Europe, Asia and Latin America.

"There are limits to what the police can do, so every trained eye is needed," said Cohen. "Citizens must know what to look for, as well as the risks they might encounter."

Complementing personal awareness is the need to enhance physical protection. "Every new Israeli apartment house must have a bomb shelter and an airtight room," Cohen said.

As problem solvers, Americans and Israelis bring different virtues to the battle against terrorism.

"Americans are better at organizing, and we are better at improvising," Tauber said.

When confronted with a problem, Israelis will say, "Let’s somehow fix it immediately," he noted. Americans tend to move more deliberately, looking first at the budget, then at likely liability and marketing possibilities, and only then fixing the problem.

Since Sept. 11, U.S. government agencies are learning to move faster, but most private firms are still lagging behind, Tauber said.

The first step in gauging the vulnerability of any potential target, from a private business to a government installation, is a threat analysis. "Where other people might see a fence, our job is to look for the holes in the fence," he said.

The End of Days


The way Richard Landes goes on about Y2K and the end of days, you might think he’s some kind of nut. He’s not. It’s just that he’s been watching kooks for so long, he sometimes begins to sound like one.

A professor of medieval history at Boston University, Landes is a leading expert in what’s known as millennial studies. He and his colleagues peer into the minds of people who think the end of the world is nigh. Landes’ specialty is the religious unrest that he says swept Christian Europe around the year 1000 — what he calls “the Y1K problem.”

Lately, he has diversified. For the last four years, he’s headed Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies, tracking the unrest sparked by the approach of the year 2000. He’s fast becoming the most quoted expert on the approaching calendar shift and what it means.

It’s drawing controversy. Besides analyzing the various religious raptures, death cults and computer bugs associated with Y2K, he’s become a sort of advocate. Landes claims that the millennium’s dangers aren’t being taken seriously enough. He wants the public — government, business, society at large, the Jewish community in specific — to start preparing.

Landes doesn’t believe the world will end next year. A religious Jew — raised Conservative, currently Orthodox — he attaches no special meaning to having three zeroes in the Gregorian calendar.

No, what worries him is that a lot of other people believe it, and they may respond in alarming ways. That could make life unpleasant for the rest of us. It won’t be the end of the world, but it might sometimes feel like it.

He’s especially worried about what happens when the world doesn’t end, and true believers look for someone to blame. “In the later periods of a millennium wave, there’s a period of disappointment and frustration,” Landes says. “In the past, this has often led to the scapegoating of Jews. Things like, ‘If only they had converted, Jesus would have come.’ And that can get nasty.”

“My point isn’t that this is going to happen,” he says. “My point is that it could, and we need to talk with Christians and take steps to prevent it.”

Classic millennialism is based on the New Testament Book of Revelations, which is often interpreted to say the year 2000 will bring the second coming of Jesus and the war of Armageddon, followed by the kingdom of God on Earth.

Landes warns that thousands of “premillennial” Protestants will want to be in Jerusalem next year to witness it firsthand. Some may prepare for resurrection by attempting mass suicide. Others may try to help things along by starting the war themselves — blowing up the Temple Mount, for example. The Israeli police take the danger seriously enough that they’ve formed a special millennialism unit.

Not everyone who believes in the millennium is a dangerous nut, Landes cautions. “Millennialism simply refers to the belief that at some time in the future, there will be a dramatic transformation. The classic millennial vision is Isaiah 2:1-3, about swords and plowshares.”

Such beliefs often make for a better world, he says. Zionism, liberalism, even modernism itself are all forms of millennial belief.

When it gets dangerous is when it turns apocalyptic. “Apocalyptic means you think it’s about to happen,” he says. “If I tell you the kingdom is coming in 200 years, it’s not going to have a lot of impact on your life. But if I tell you it’s happening now, you get a new set of rules, and people start defecting to the new rules.”

Landes’ end-time studies cover a range of trends and players: Mainstream churches innocently celebrating Jesus’ 2,000th birthday; apocalyptic sects claiming that the new year will bring Jesus’ second coming and the war of Armageddon; oddball death cults, such as the suicidal Heaven’s Gate and the homicidal Tokyo subway plotters.

He’s also studying responses to the notorious Y2K (for “Year 2000”) computer bug, the programming defect that could cause computers all over the world to stop dead at midnight, Dec. 31. The computer failures could disrupt anything from electric grids to food-distribution networks. Doomsday cultists call the bug a clear sign that the end is near. Landes calls it “the coincidence to die for.”

He’s in the center of a fast-growing field. Interdisciplinary millennial studies now go on at dozens of universities, combining history, psychology, political science and religion. The American Academy of Religion has brought the field together at an annual consultation since 1995.

Ironically, Landes’ Y2K expertise may overshadow his original career. His main work, studying medieval European end-time unrest, follows a classic theory now widely discarded. Many now say the first millennium passed quietly. Landes is part of a stubborn minority.

That hasn’t slowed his Y2K work, though. Whatever happened 1,000 years ago, something is happening now. Landes is one of the clearest voices addressing it.

The computer bug typifies the ways Landes thinks society fails to confront the millennium. Government and business are reprogramming their computers. The press reports their progress. But nobody is telling the public how bad it is.

In the vacuum, Landes says, conspiracy theories are spreading. Frightened consumers, unable to get straight answers about their water supply, are logging onto far-right Web sites at record rates.

“My personal opinion is, this is something we should be talking about as a community, not as individuals,” Landes says. “But we’re passing on that discussion. We’ve decided to sleep through it.”

The same goes for the Jewish community. “The Jewish community is basically immobilized when it comes to thinking about Y2K,” he says.

Right now, he says, Jews have a window of opportunity. “We have a lot of slack from a wide range of groups. The Holocaust is still fresh as a matter of discussion. People are reluctant to get unpleasant with us.” He cites Vatican recognition of Israel and widespread Protestant support for Israel.

At the fringes, though, classic anti-Semitism thrives. “If you go on the Web and type ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ you get 300,000 hits. This stuff is out there.”

How long will it remain marginal? That depends on what Jews do next, Landes says. Already, disputes over Holocaust history are chilling Catholic-Jewish relations. Relations with the Protestant right could sour in the wake of a post-millennial letdown. What’s urgently needed, he says, is frank talk — with others, and among ourselves.

“When I first read ‘The Protocols,’ I was stunned. I told a colleague, we should publish this to let people know. He said: ‘You think you’re inoculating people? You’re actually spreading the virus.’

“That’s the crucial question. Do we talk about these things openly? Do you or do you not trust the American public? If you don’t trust the American public, then God help us.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.