The Nexus: Yaron Brook

Originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post

For followers of controversial novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, Israel is the one glimmer of light in the Middle East’s cultural and intellectual darkness. Dr. Yaron Brook applies Ayn Rand’s philosophies to Israel’s predicaments.

Anyone who has heard Dr. Yaron Brook lecture on foreign policy would likely call him a militant, unflinching champion of Israel. His loyalty, however, does not derive from his Jewish or Israeli background. He’s a proud atheist, who admits to not knowing – or really caring – when the Pessah Seder falls. He relentlessly defends Israel and the West because he puts his faith in the rational, free, individual soul.

Brook is the president and executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) in Irvine, California, an educational institute and resource center entrusted with spreading Objectivism, the formal name of the philosophy of the controversial 20th-century novelist- philosopher.

“We view what happens in Israel as an indicator of what will happen in the rest of the world. To the extent America abandons Israel, it abandons itself. Israel is a beacon of civilization in a barbaric, backward area,” Brook said on a recent trip here to visit family with his wife, also an Israeli expatriate, and their two children. “Israel represents, despite its flaws, the values of the West: individual rights, free speech, freedom of the press, equality before the law and the rule of law.”

Objectivism upholds values generally associated with Western culture – individualism, reason and science – but its distinctive development is a moral ideal of “selfishness,” whereby someone’s own happiness is a moral responsibility. The home page of ARI presents Rand’s mantra: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

ARI was founded in 1985, after Rand’s death, by her intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, to pave the way for a philosophical and cultural renaissance in the US and to reverse what ARI sees as anti- reason, anti-individualism and anti-capitalist trends in today’s culture. It concentrates on American domestic issues, but Israel figures prominently in its lectures, essays and editorials.

“Ayn Rand herself commented that Israel was one of the few causes she ever voluntarily supported,” Brook said. “The West turning against Israel – which she saw occurring in the late 1960s and early 1970s – was the West committing suicide.”

Those familiar with Rand’s disdain for religion and socialism might find her sympathy for Israel surprising. “[Rand] said Israel has problems, as all countries, but Israel is still West,” Brook said. “It respects individual rights, reason and science. She could separate out essentials from non-essentials. If Israel abandoned all its Western values, it wouldn’t deserve support.”

BORN ALICE ROSENBAUM in 1905 in St. Petersburg to a secular, middle-class Jewish family, Rand fled to the US from the Soviet Union in 1925 because she saw America as the best model of a free country. The new communist regime had already confiscated her father’s pharmacy.

Rand maintained no Jewish affiliation throughout her life and shunned religion because it was based on faith as opposed to reason. At 29, she wrote in her philosophical journal: “I want to fight religion as the root of all human lying and the only excuse for suffering.” She observed no Jewish holidays, but kept Christmas as an American holiday celebrating life and human productivity. Her only acknowledgment of her Jewish identity came in the face of anti-Semitic remarks, as a retort to racism.

She married an American named Frank O’Conner and deliberately had no children so she could give birth to fictional characters who upheld her vision of a hero. Her trademark character is Howard Roark, the intransigent architect of The Fountainhead, who refuses to bend his architectural vision to society’s irrational standards. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, dignifies the villain of socialist artists – the industrial capitalist – through a futuristic depiction of a collectivist America. From the 1950s until her death in 1982, she led an intellectual movement based on Objectivism, although some critics have dubbed it a cult. Brook thinks her popularity is now at its highest, with more than 750,000 of her books sold annually.

Historically, American academia has been dismissive of Ayn Rand, but in recent years her work is increasingly being included in mainstream curricula. According to the Ayn Rand Institute, which works to raise her profile in academic circles, more than 30 professors teach Rand in leading American universities, with the number continually growing.

Rand remains an obscure figure in Israeli academia, even though many Israelis read her novels in their teens and 20s, including Prof. Elhanan Yakira, head of the philosophy department at the Hebrew University. “I don’t know anyone with us that really teaches her philosophy,” he said. “There could be people that deal with her, but I don’t really know. Sometimes people mention her name, but not a lot.” He can’t comment on whether her lack of representation stems from any antipathy to her ideas.

In the 1970s, a capricious philosopher named Moshe Kroy taught Rand’s philosophy at Tel Aviv University, but he eventually abandoned rational egoism for Scientology, and later, Indian mysticism, which may have contributed to the perception that her philosophy is a fad. Rand’s philosophy is no longer taught at Tel Aviv University.

When asked what he thought of Rand, Joseph Agassi, professor emeritus of philosophy at Tel Aviv University and York University in Toronto, reacted with sharp dislike, calling her a “fool” and her philosophy unserious. “It’s very low quality,” he said. “It’s extreme right, although not religious right.”

He’d rather teach someone like Khalil Jibran, a Lebanese-born inspirational philosopher. “He’s much more friendly; I just like him more, but I wouldn’t teach him either.” He adds that Rand’s philosophy is generally easy to study independently and doesn’t require a university course.

Prof. Noah Milgram, who attended Brook’s lecture, would not be surprised if Israeli professors shy away from her. “The socialist bent of many Israeli-born and Israeli- trained academicians is such that if they read Ayn Rand’s novels, they’d probably dismiss them as inhumane stories about egoism,” said Milgram, dean of graduate studies at the College of Judea and Samaria and professor emeritus in psychology at Tel Aviv University.

Milgram first heard of Rand in the early 1950s, when The Fountainhead was on the reading list of a course on American intellectual thought he took as a student at Harvard. The course was taught by the eminent historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. Milgram remained an admirer of her works, and his daughter, Shoshana, a professor at Virginia Tech University, does biographic and literary research on the life and work of Rand.

“In America there is more respect for the notion that the goals of individuals are more important than the goals enforced upon him by society,” he said. “Admittedly, American universities also have a slant toward liberal and left-leaning thinking, but her ideas are more acceptable in American philosophical and political thought, precisely because they are in accord with the American ideal of the individual acting in accord with his conscience, conquering the frontier and advancing from the log cabin in which he was born to the White House.”

Unlike in the US, where there are many campus clubs dedicated to Objectivism and several independent organizations that systematically study and discuss Rand’s work, there are few organized outlets in Israel for Rand scholars and admirers. Over the years there have been attempts to create campus clubs and fan networks here, but none of them stuck.

BOAZ ARAD, an Objectivist who runs his own company selling mobile computers and accessories, started a magazine dedicated to Objectivism in 1987. In 2005 it evolved into Anochi.com, the only comprehensive Hebrew Web site dedicated to Rand’s ideas and which received the blessing of ARI. (“Anochi” means “I” in archaic Hebrew, as a reference to Rand’s virtue of “selfishness.”) According to Arad, the site’s number of visitors is on the rise, reaching several thousand a month. He estimates there are about 100 Objectivists in Israel and about 1,000 ardent Rand admirers.

Arad developed an interest in Rand after reading The Fountainhead as a teen. He and Brook met in their late teens, united by their interest in Rand’s ideas, and it was Arad who organized Brook’s lecture.

While the Jewish state may lack serious representation of Rand scholarship, in the US, many leaders of the Objectivist movement are Jewish.

“Most communists are Jewish. Most professors are Jewish. Jews are intellectuals, so they dominate any intellectual movement,” Brook commented. “Jews dominate the anti-Zionist movement. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jews head up Holocaust denial. Jews are intellectual; they gravitate towards ideas. Why that is, that’s a deeper question. I think they’d certainly gravitate towards a set of ideas that make sense.” In fact, many of the writers and fellows at the Ayn Rand Institute are Jewish.

Arad said the lack of crossover of Rand’s ideas to modern Israel is not terribly surprising. “Israel had very strong leftist roots historically, especially among the intellectuals, and they felt very intimidated by Ayn Rand ideas, but this didn’t cancel the fact that many Israelis read and love Ayn Rand and consider her books to be very moving and inspiring. Not as many applied her ideas to their lives and pursued the philosophy behind the books.”

He related how he recently received a call from an elderly lady who said she was a fan of Ayn Rand. “She never knew there was any activity related to Ayn Rand, whom she always liked since she was young. I’m sure there are many more like her around.”

(BOX) ‘You don’t fight a tactic’

Dr. Yaron Brook, 46, speaks and carries himself like a Rand hero. His facial features are angular, his demeanor self- confident. His language is principled, logical, certain, fired by moral passion, replete with absolute terms: good and evil, right and wrong, defeat and victory. He has a slight lisp, which is easily overshadowed by the controversial and harsh words that roll off his tongue.

For the first time since he left Israel for America in 1987 – for essentially the same reasons Rand did – Brook gave a lecture in his mother country: “Israel and the West’s War with Islamic Totalitarianism: Why We are Losing.”

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Haifa, Brook met few intellectuals here who could nurture his interest in Rand’s ideas, which he first developed at 16 after reading Atlas Shrugged. The novel catapulted him out of the socialist- Zionist way of thought he had inherited from his South African-Israeli parents and from Israeli education and culture.

“I resisted Atlas Shrugged when I read it, but she convinced me,” he said.

After serving in the army and receiving his BA from the Technion, he took off for the US. “Israel is small, but with its socialist policy, ridiculous political system, constant external threats, I didn’t think it was the place I could make the most of my life,” Brook said.

He went on to receive a PhD in finance and taught finance for seven years at Santa Clara University while running his own consulting firm and a company that organized objectivist conferences. He became head of the Ayn Rand Institute in 2001.

September 11 marked a turning point for ARI, which saw itself in a unique position to defend America morally and intellectually. Brook’s Israeli background, along with Israel’s struggles with terror, made the Jewish state an even more popular topic on the institute’s agenda. Brook has lectured at numerous US college campuses, often under tight security, appeared numerous times on Fox and CNBC, and is emerging as one of the most outspoken voices when it comes to the “War on Terror,” a title, Brook says, that already dooms the West to failure.

“You don’t fight a tactic,” he said in his talk. “Terrorism is a tactic, and I believe we have to look at the ideological source of terrorism in order to identify the true enemy.” He defines this source as Islamic totalitarianism, which he describes as an expansionist philosophy that seeks to spread Islam by the sword, but he thinks that the enemy’s identity has been blurred or ignored by government leaders and the intelligentsia.

“We don’t have the guts, the courage, the self-esteem to even identify who the enemy is. We couch it in terms of terrorists who happen to be Muslims who are ‘hijacking a great religion.’ We’re afraid to say ‘Islamic anything’: Islamic fascism, totalitarianism, whatever you want to call it.” The fear stems, he said, from the academic trend of multiculturalism, in which all cultures are morally equal, and moral relativism, in which “anything goes” in human behavior.

But, he said, the most damaging idea to the cause of the West is the opposite of Rand’s virtue of selfishness: altruism, which Rand didn’t define as good-hearted kindness and generosity, but as the idea that one must sacrifice his own interests for the sake of others. Altruism, said Brook, leads to pacifism because “self- defense is a very selfish act. It’s a very self-interested act to defend one’s own life, especially in war.”

Brook argues that this form of altruism goads both America and Israel to wage “compassionate wars”: for the American army to build sewers instead of ruthlessly bombing terrorist targets, and for the IDF to send food into Gaza instead of troops and tanks. With such an altruistic approach, Brook says, Israel is setting itself up for defeat.

“There’s a whole generation of post-Zionist professors who’ve been writing for the past 20, 30 years, here in Israel, how this country was founded on original sin,” Brook said in his talk. “[They say] there’s no basis for this country; there’s no moral reason why this country should exist. We’ve exploited; we’ve stolen; we’ve taken from peaceful people. It’s our fault for all these problems. When that’s the center of your focus, when you’re filled with self-doubt, when you don’t believe that your values are better than anyone else’s, you cannot fight. You cannot win.

“I believe victory is possible, it just takes something we’re not willing to do.” That “something,” he said confidently, is to wage war with little restraint and without apology against Islamic totalitarianism.

“Israel should plan and execute a systematic invasion of Gaza in which its goal is to wipe out the political and military leadership and infrastructure of Hamas, and to do so systematically and brutally. It needs to send a message to the world, to the Muslim population of the world, to Palestinians in the West Bank, that Israel will not tolerate a terrorist state at its border and would not tolerate the existence of an organization like Hamas.”

What about international opinion? “The issue of Israel’s survival is at stake, so the choice, I believe, is between the world loving us and we’re dead or the world hating us for a while but we survive and thrive and we live. You cannot make life-or- death choices based on other people’s opinions of you. You have to make choices on what you believe is necessary for your survival, your success.”

“If you want to win, innocents will die. There is no way to get around it. There was no war in which innocents didn’t die, and there won’t be. At the end of the day, the question is whose ‘innocents.’ Ours or theirs? If we have pride, self-respect, we have to protect our own innocents.”

HE CONCEDES the validity of Jews banding together in the face of the collective threat of anti-Semitism, but in his essay “The Rise and Decline of Israel” he argued that the Jewish state’s collectivist and religious basis, socialist Zionism, has sown the seeds for its own downfall.

“Zionism fused a valid concern – self-preservation amid a storm of hostility – with a toxic premise – ethnically based collectivism and religion,” he wrote.

Socialist Zionism, he said, also led to the Oslo Accords, through which Israel agreed to set up another ethnically and religiously based state along its border, despite it being headed by a proven terrorist. “Here was a man [Yasser Arafat] who represents a suffering people, an ethnic group that sought to make its claim for statehood a reality. How could Israel say no? Wasn’t it similar to – and so just as legitimate as – the claim of the Jews?”

Given objectivism’s capitalistic ideal of private property, he opposes government confiscation of private Arab land for Jewish settlement as much as he opposes the notion of “public land” – Arab or Jewish. Yet he regards the settlements as security – and moral – buffers; they are a test of the Palestinian’s true intentions.

“If the [Palestinians] really want peace why do they want settlements dismantled?” Brook said. “Why wouldn’t they say we want a Palestinian state and we want these Jews to stay here and live as full citizens of the Palestinian state? They’re productive individuals, they create jobs, they bring a wealth of knowledgeE If Palestinians are about ethnic cleansing, getting rid of Jews so that the Palestinian state is pure, then they’re not ready for peace, and Israel should not make peace with them.”

Given his strong opposition to evacuating settlements, one might guess that the right-wing settlers are natural allies for objectivists. Editorials of the Ayn Rand Institute have been published in such right-wing outlets as Arutz 7.

But Brook disagrees. “I think their whole basis for agreeing with me is corrupt and wrong. Most settlers agree with me for religious reasons. They believe it’s some kind of Holy Land that God promised them. The rest of their analysis is derived from that premise, not from a true, rational observation of reality. I think the logic of ‘God promised this and gave me this’ is one that can only lead to bloodshed and war. I don’t think people who have that approach can come up with solutions to deal with the threat.”

BOAZ ARAD, an Objectivist who runs his own company selling mobile computers and accessories, started a magazine dedicated to Objectivism in 1987. In 2005 it evolved into Anochi.com, the only comprehensive Hebrew Web site dedicated to [Ayn Rand]’s ideas and which received the blessing of ARI. (“Anochi” means “I” in archaic Hebrew, as a reference to Rand’s virtue of “selfishness.”) According to Arad, the site’s number of visitors is on the rise, reaching several thousand a month. He estimates there are about 100 Objectivists in Israel and about 1,000 ardent Rand admirers.

“We don’t have the guts, the courage, the self-esteem to even identify who the enemy is. We couch it in terms of terrorists who happen to be Muslims who are ‘hijacking a great religion.’ We’re afraid to say ‘Islamic anything’: Islamic fascism, totalitarianism, whatever you want to call it.” The fear stems, he said, from the academic trend of multiculturalism, in which all cultures are morally equal, and moral relativism, in which “anything goes” in human behavior.

“There’s a whole generation of post-Zionist professors who’ve been writing for the past 20, 30 years, here in Israel, how this country was founded on original sin,” [Yaron Brook] said in his talk. “[They say] there’s no basis for this country; there’s no moral reason why this country should exist. We’ve exploited; we’ve stolen; we’ve taken from peaceful people. It’s our fault for all these problems. When that’s the center of your focus, when you’re filled with self-doubt, when you don’t believe that your values are better than anyone else’s, you cannot fight. You cannot win.”

2007-07-12T07:19:42+00:00 July 12th, 2007|