Scientology has largely been denounced as a dangerous cult in the West. So why is it being warmly welcomed in the Jewish state?
Judaism and Scientology are inherently incompatible. While Scientology seeks to elevate the average believer to a god-like status, the first law given to Moses in the Ten Commandments is “You shall have no other gods before me,” which would inherently forbid a person to worship themselves as if they were a god. After all, worshiping the golden calf would have gotten the Jews completely wiped out if it weren’t for Moses’ savvy negotiation skills.
Scientology has also been fighting a long war in Hollywood against the Jewish Kabbalah for the most popular celebrity spiritual religion. More specifically, the type of Kabbalah that celebrities practice is run through the Kabbalah Centre, whose founder, Rav Berg, like that of Scientology, has often been described as a cult leader. Scientology has Tom Cruise and John Travolta, but Kabbalah has Madonna and Britney Spears. Gossip magazines relay anecdotes about celebrities from both sides trying to recruit the Beckhams as new followers.
I also have this sneaking suspicion that even though Scientology is supposedly a religion that preaches respect for all other religions, they secretly hate Jews. There’s some questionable information provided on their website that appears to blame the field of psychiatry for the entirety of the Holocaust, which is active Holocaust revision. Scientologists have also previously claimed that the German government is systematically persecuting members of the organization in a fashion that mimics the Holocaust, saying, “In the 1930’s, it was the Jews. Today it is the Scientologists.”
For all these reasons, it is surprising that most of Israeli society is unbothered by the growing presence of Scientology in Israel. Like the United States, one would expect Scientology to be denigrated in Israel, but that is not the case. The perception and treatment of Scientology is radically different in Israel than it is in the United States. To Americans, Scientology is a dangerous cult. To Israelis, it’s just another religion in a diverse pluralistic society.
Scientology has been formally recognized as a religion by the Internal Revenue Service for tax purposes since 1993. Despite this, according to CBS News, in 2012, 70% of Americans did not consider Scientology to be a legitimate religion. Commentary on Scientology in the United States, other than that which comes from Scientologists themselves, is almost universally admonishing.Typing the keyword “Scientology” into the Twitter search bar prompts an overwhelmingly negative response.
Detractors of Scientology in the United States argue that Scientology is a cult, and numerous accounts of those that have left the church have said the same, among them several high profile celebrities who have taken it upon themselves to become anti-Scientology activists.
Film and television actor Jason Beghe, who currently stars in the TV show Chicago P.D., has been called a “celebrity Scientology whistleblower,” due to his outspoken criticism of the group after leaving in 2007. In early 2017, when discussing his departure from Scientology, Beghe told the Daily Beast: “There are many, many steps when you’re in this thing, and then I realized, Holy shit, that’s a fucking cult. Wow! I was in a cult?”
Leah Remini, former star of The King of Queens and 35-year member of Scientology prior to her departure from the group in 2013, has written a memoir and produced a television documentary series, both dedicated to exposing Scientology and its dangers. Remini had been a member of the Church of Scientology since the age of nine.
“My mother got involved when we were very young, so it’s all we ever really knew,” Remini told Ellen Degeneres shortly after her departure from the church. “But over time, my eyes opened and I could no longer be affiliated with the organization and my family felt the same, so we left. We lost friends that can no longer talk to us who are still in the organization.”
Much like a cult, Scientologists are urged to cut off all communications with those who are critical of the organization. Critics of Scientology claim that this disconnection makes Scientologists more dependent on the organization, thus making it harder for them to leave. Those that attempt to leave the church know that they will be excommunicated, and are unsure whether or not the friends and family that they once shunned will accept them back.There have even been claims that Scientology actively engages in brainwashing. There isn’t really any scientific proof that “brainwashing” and mind control is actually possible, but emotional manipulation that causes psychological trauma that fundamentally changes how people perceive the world certainly is.
Shelley Miscavige, wife of current leader of Scientology, David Miscavage, also has not been publicly seen or heard from since 2007, leading many to be concerned for her whereabouts and some even concerned that she may no longer be alive. A missing person investigation into Ms. Miscavige’s whereabouts was filed by Leah Remini, but later closed by LAPD with scant details provided as to why.
There has been no shortage of coverage in the United States about the misdoings of Scientologists — a Google News search of “Scientology” prompts over 229,000 articles. From exposing Scientology as a pyramid scheme, to bringing to light the racist ideologies of its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, Americans simply cannot let Scientology go — it feels like American media is writing a new article about Scientology every day. More and more churches are opening up in smaller towns across America. Americans are scared.
Unlike the United States, Scientology has legally been recognized as a cult in Israel since 1983. However, its practice is still legal, so when the organization’s center opened in Jaffa in 2012, nobody seemed to bat an eye. In fact, the opening of the new headquarters garnered praise for the organization from Israeli officials.
“The Scientology center is simply showing that Tel Aviv is one of the most pluralistic cities in the Middle East,” a spokesperson for Tel Aviv’s mayor told Haaretz. “Within just a few blocks of the center, you’ll find numerous synagogues, several mosques and churches, 4,000 years of Abrahamic monotheistic religions expressing themselves.”
In a statement released by the Scientology center, Mohammed Kaabia, the prime minister’s advisor of Bedouin affairs, said, “When it comes to all we strive for, for freedom, to be included and embraced by one’s fellow man, there is no group that better bears these marks than Scientology.”
At the grand opening of the new center, Tel Aviv city council member Meital Lehavi stated:
It is my great hope this house connects, integrates, welcomes and advances the hopes that exist in Jaffa. I am confident that by sitting together, thinking together and working together we keep Jaffa the home for everyone. Your new center will have an important part in leading the way.
Biblical scholar Dr. Rimon Kasher even went as far as to say that he believe that Scientology could help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “[Scientology] is the only religion that can create a connection or even affinity between the different faiths and the only one that can relieve the tension between religions,” he stated at the opening ceremony.
In some regards, Scientology does get treatment that is similar to that of the United States. Like anything else, Scientology in Israel is not without its detractors. Yad L’Achim, an anti-missionary and anti-assimilation organization and leading anti-cult group in Israel has publicly warned Israelis about the dangers of Scientology and its teachings.
But Yad L’Achim have themselves been criticized even more than Israeli Scientologists for harassing Christian and Jehovah’s Witness missionaries in Israel and fighting a prejudiced battle against Jewish-Arab intermarriage, and are widely discredited. Jay Michaelson of the Daily Beast argued that the main mission of Yad L’Achim isn’t saving people from dangerous cults, but rather “preventing Jews from leaving the fold.”
I was living in Israel at the time that the center opened in the historic Alhambra theater in Jaffa, and I must admit, I don’t recall hearing a single thing about it, and although I was only a child, my parents don’t recall anything about it, either. This is not to say that there wasn’t any media coverage — there was. But by and large, normal citizens of Israel just didn’t care about Scientology and what it was doing in their country.
Since the opening, not a lot has been written about the center in Jaffa or those in Israel who practice Scientology. The center has claimed to regularly service some couple thousand Israeli Scientologists, and posts short videos on its website called “Meet a Scientologist,” detailing the journey of Israelis that led them to Scientology. Israeli Scientologists have been pretty quiet, and Israelis of other faiths seem more than happy to leave them alone.
Something about Israel is allowing organizations like Scientology to exist in a way that society won’t allow them to in the United States. Perhaps the spiritual, mystical, ancient aura that permeates every crevice of the country is drawing in some crazies along with all of the others who visit.
When I told my parents that I was looking into the way that Israelis regard Scientology and how I was pretty shocked that it seemed to be such a minor thing, they were completely unsurprised. “Well, you know, Israelis have always been into cults and things like that,” my mother said. “Your dad had a bunch of friends in Israel in the 80s that were in this really popular one.”
It turns out that two of my father’s best friends were in a fairly secretive “esoteric society” that was founded in England, but had a successful center located Tel Aviv called “The Emin,” which is designated as a doomsday cult by the Cult Awareness and Information Center. Scientology is obviously not the first cultish organization to gain a stronghold on the Israeli population.
More recently, in 2010, Goel Ratzon, am Israeli cult leader, was arrested and charged with rape, incest, enslavement, and sodomy. The cult leader had 21 wives and 49 children, and presented himself to underprivileged women as a godlike being with healing powers and the ability to cast spells and curses. Ratzon had full financial control over his wives, forcing them to deposit their social security money into his bank account.
I believe that the actual reason for these opposite attitudes toward the world’s most controversial religion was touched upon by the spokesperson for Tel Aviv’s mayor in his interview with Haaretz: “Tel Aviv is one of the most pluralistic cities in the Middle East.”
As Jay Michaelson wrote in the Daily Beast, it can be potentially difficult for Israelis to know the difference between an actual cult and an average religious group: “There’s the intense spiritual activity in the Holy Land: Christian pilgrims, Christian missionaries, Christian Arabs, Muslim calls to prayer five times a day, American Jews ‘rediscovering’ themselves.”
The United States is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse countries in the world, and as a result, has a great deal of religious pluralism. However, due to the massive spread of land and population, America’s religious pluralism is not nearly as dense as Israel’s. The compactness of Israel forces Israelis to come to live alongside citizens and residents who don’t share their same religious beliefs. Israel uses its religious pluralism as one of its main tourism strategies, insisting that there is something of interest in Israel for everyone, regardless of religion.
Israel has a plethora of ethnic and religious diversity. Although Jews make up about 75% of Israel’s population, there is great diversity even within that number, from degrees of religious observance to ethnic heritage. Arab Muslims, Arab Christians, Bedouin, and Druze, all exist mostly peacefully within Israel, and many serve in the IDF alongside each other. Israeli citizens of diverse backgrounds are brought up knowing that the religion that they practice is not the only source of truth, and that there must be some source of truth in the other religions that their neighbors practice, and that has apparently expanded to include even Scientology.
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