The nexus

For followers of controversial novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand, Israel the bright spot in the Middle East's cultural and intellectual darkness.

ayn rand 88 298 (photo credit: )
ayn rand 88 298
(photo credit: )
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.
  • Dr. Yaron Brook applies Rand's philosophies to Israel "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, 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."