Jordan Peterson, ‘lightning rod’ of US culture wars, receives warm embrace in Israel

Thousands gather to hear Canadian psychologist in Jerusalem, with some seeing it as a harbinger of US-style ideas about to transform Israeli conservatism

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson shakes hands after his lecture in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson shakes hands after his lecture in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Three thousand Israelis packed Jerusalem’s International Cultural Center to hear a leading voice in US-style conservatism lay out his ideas, and outline what he sees as Israel’s place in the global conservative movement.

The “The Future of Freedom” event last week was headlined by the polarizing Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who has been called a “lightning rod of the culture wars” and who was delivering his first lecture in Israel.

Throughout the night, the hall buzzed with an energy that approximated a rock concert mixed with a tent revival.

But the audience wasn’t there to hear the red-meat political issues that characterize a Donald Trump rally. The former president was only mentioned once by Peterson over the course of the evening, when he blasted Trump and the Republican Party for playing the victim in the wake of the 2020 elections. Hot-button topics in American politics like abortion, gay marriage and Black Lives Matter were also absent from the discussion, as were the topics dominating Israel’s seemingly endless cycle of elections.

Though the Tikvah Fund, a conservative non-profit organization that has been seeking to make inroads in Israel, invited the best-selling author because of his prominence in Western political debates, it was Peterson’s message as a psychologist that resonated with many of the attendees.

“He hits on topics that touch your heart, that cause you to think, and change your actions,” Jerusalem resident Amichai, 25, said. “And even when you’re in a very difficult situation in life, many of his insights helped me to get up.”

Orit Mark Ettinger (L) and Jordan Peterson (C) in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022 (courtesy)

“He changed my life, and I want to see the man in person who changed my life…I thought for a long time that people who were being good were being good because they were naïve,” said American yeshiva student Michael Charach. “But he opened me up to the possibility that they’re actually being wise.”

Many in the crowd came carrying copies of Peterson’s three books, but some were encountering him for the first time.

Orit Mark Ettinger — whose father, Rabbi Miki Mark, was killed in a drive-by shooting outside Hebron in 2016 and who lost her brother three years later in a car accident — said Peterson’s message resonated with her own challenges.

“That’s why I really want to meet him,” she said. “I’ve been through many things in life, and you want explanations. I’d really want to ask a psychologist who is such an expert so I can understand more.”

An unlikely rise

It wasn’t Peterson’s years as a psychology professor that catapulted him to the top of bestseller lists or drew over 5.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. His rise to fame — some would say notoriety — began in 2016 when he criticized a Canadian bill that he said could criminalize the failure to use preferred gender pronouns. The controversy attracted intense media attention, and Peterson embarked on a series of lecture tours and viral TV interviews, where he sparred with hosts over topics like feminism, political correctness, and alleged bias at Western universities.

At first, leading publications weren’t sure what to make of Peterson. The New Yorker called him “one of the most influential — and polarizing — public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.” An Esquire profile said Peterson was “a hero of resistance to an encroaching assault on civil liberties, or an absurd Don Quixote waging war against a figment of his own imagination; a redemptive and transformative thinker, or the most problematic mansplainer of all time.”

The profiles captured the wildly divergent takes on Peterson, depending on where one stands politically. Conservatives and libertarian types see him as a courageous and eloquent moral voice defending classic liberal freedoms against burgeoning “wokeness.”

Liberals point at his use of transgender actor Elliot Page’s prior name, his musings on “enforced monogamy,” and his messages directed at disaffected young men as evidence he is a dangerous voice who should not be given a platform. In the context of those messages, filmmaker Olivia Wilde recently assailed Peterson as a “pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.”

Elliot Page arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on March 27, 2022, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Women at the Jerusalem event largely applauded Peterson’s messages and rejected the idea that they are sexist. “He speaks to everyone, men and women alike,” said Sophia Lazarus, a Montreal-born lawyer living in Tel Aviv. “And he is often inexplicably criticized for speaking to young men. It’s so sad because young men are truly struggling right now.”

A new message on Israel

Some of Peterson’s closest observers say his recent near-fatal bout with anti-anxiety medication addiction, along with his wife’s battle with cancer, has created a version of the professor that they no longer recognize.

David Fuller, who directed two documentaries about Peterson, even wrote recently that the man who was “a nuanced and fascinating thinker on religion and culture” has now taken on an angrier edge that “risks contaminating much of his legacy and value to the conversation.”

But there was little trace of that anger during Peterson’s appearance in Jerusalem.

The speech largely consisted of messages and stories Peterson had delivered many times in the past. He argued that humans perceive the world as a place of meaning, not as a world of objects. People use stories in order to give structure to reality, he explained, and as a guide for how to act in an endlessly complex world. Peterson also called for a renewed respect for the “great stories” humans have been telling each other for generations.

“There’s truth and beauty and love and justice in the world,” he said, choking up, “and it takes imagination and courage to act that out.”

Peterson, who in recent months has seemed to gain an interest in Israel — interviewing on his podcast former US envoy to Israel David Friedman and Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador in Washington — ended his address with a message about the Jewish state.

Canadian author and psychologist Jordan Peterson delivers his Tikvah Fund lecture in Jerusalem, October 6, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

While Jews might protest the intense global scrutiny they are under, he said, his voice wavering, this “little, tiny people” bears a “tremendous moral responsibility” in saving the world by example.

“God knows what could be done here if you were left alone,” Peterson said, marveling at Israel’s potential, especially in its technology.

“The fate of the world depends on the fate of the people of Israel,” he claimed, exhorting Israelis to perfect their society for the sake of humanity. “Make yourself a shining light on a hill.”

Peterson also urged Israelis to make peace with the Palestinians by making peace in their communities first.

“Confront the things you know to be true and say what you have to say, carefully but with love,” he said. “If you can learn to bring peace to your house, then you can learn to bring peace to your community. And if you can bring peace to your community, then you can make some headway in bringing peace to the world.”

A sea change in Israeli politics?

One question provoked by Peterson’s appearance was whether the interest shown Thursday night for US-style conservative political philosophy heralded an interest among Israelis — mired in political paralysis — in a new brand of right-wing politics.

Amiad Cohen, CEO of Tikvah Fund Israel, was adamant that the event was a harbinger of drastic changes in the near future.

Over the last decade, Cohen claimed, Israeli politics has been headed toward a split between conservatives and progressives, moving beyond the right-left divide of old that revolved around issues like the two-state solution.

“Issues like economics, the judiciary,” said Cohen, “are among the things that matter now, that never mattered for Israel when it was a state fighting for recognition. Now that we have that recognition, we can have a real debate.”

Tikvah Fund Israel CEO Amiad Cohen, left, and US conservative author and speaker Ben Shapiro in Jerusalem at a Tikvah Fund event featuring Jordan Peterson, October 6, 2022 (courtesy)

Though the public is already engaged in that debate, buying over 200,000 copies of books translated by Tikva’s Shibolet Library, that change is not yet represented in the tight clique of Israeli politicians, he said.

“But read my lips,” Cohen predicted, “in 5-10 years, Israeli politics will look very different. It will happen when Bibi [Netanyahu] leaves, it will happen when the young generation matures and has the ability to run for office.”

Tikvah and other well-funded initiatives on the right have challenged progressive Jewish leaders enough that they recently launched Emor, a think tank meant to combat the spread of conservative ideas in the Jewish world.

Ori Goldberg, a scholar of faith and political behavior in the Middle East at Herzliya’s Reichman University, doubted that the enthusiasm for Peterson’s ideas “heralds a sea change in Israeli politics.”

“The people who would go to a Jordan Peterson show belong to a very specific sector,” said Goldberg. “I think that sector is enjoying its heyday right now for various reasons, but I don’t think this message has crossover appeal in the collective Israeli psyche.”

Goldberg sees the fate of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel as instructive for the chances for US-style conservatism to take root in Israel. “They haven’t caught on because full-blooded Israelis see them as profoundly foreign,” he said.

At the same time, Goldberg agreed with Cohen that Israeli politics is in desperate need of ideas. “There is a hankering for ideology on the Israeli right,” he said. “They don’t like the tribalism of Israeli politics, and they want to feel like they belong to a global movement.”

Most Popular
read more: