Return of the False Messiah: The Blind Ambitions of Benjamin Netanyahu. (David Stromberg, 1/18/24, Hedgehog Review)
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.