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Le Défi magique, volume 1

François Laplantine
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Certaines spécificités nationales

Occultism and private salvation movements in Israël

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi


L’idée que l’individu est contrôlé par des forces extérieures est bien plus profondément ancrée et bien plus ancienne que le concept d’autodétermination de la personne. Toutes les religions mettent en avant l’idée d’un monde invisible, peuplé de créatures diverses, dieux, anges ou démons, qui régissent une grande partie de notre destin. Le recours à l’occulte fournit des réponses aux questions concernant la destinée tout en restant dans le cadre traditionnel d’un destin régi de l’extérieur. L’aspect le plus remarquable de l’occultisme en Israël est sa date récente et le contexte historique dans lequel il s’est développé. Étant donné leurs conséquences pratiques et psychologiques, les événements de1973 et des années suivantes représentent un véritable cataclysme dans l’histoire d’Israël. L’occultisme, en Israël, en entretenant une vision du monde qui fait place au miracle, prépare le terrain pour des miracles plus grands et plus bénéfiques. La pratique occulte est superficielle et, dans la plupart des cas, ne suppose pas une transformation radicale de l’individu. Cependant, dans la mesure où l’occulte fait partie de la culture de masse israélienne, il fournit une base idéologique étendue et entretient un climat qui rend plus accessibles les autres voies, plus fondamentales, menant au salut individuel.

Texte intégral

1In early 1986, the executive assistant to the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (I.D.F.), General Alik Harmatz, went to Jerusalem to visit the home of a civilian and to receive a document personally prepared by that civilian. It does not happen very often that a general is sent personaly to collect documents from civilians, but the mission was considered important enough, apparently. The civilian was Mr. Elituzr Kdoshi, who makes a living as an astrologer. The document, which General Harmatz received and read, was an astrological birth map for the Israel Defense Forces. The I.D.F., like human beings, animals, organizations, and structures, has a birth date, and so, according to the astrological logic, should have a birth map, from which diagnoses and predictions can be drawn. Indeed, such maps have been published quite often in Israel.

2This story about a trip by a general from his office in Tel-Aviv to the home of an astrologer in Jerusalem in search of vital information may sound surrealistic, but, as we are going to discover, it is not very deviant in terms of the Israeli mass culture of the 1980s. What may seem to us like an unusual and illogical behavior seemed to general Harmatz like nothing out of the ordinary. This visit by a general to the home of an astrologer may appear bizarre in most places in the world, but in Israel it is merely one of many indications of the triumph of occultism, which has become legitimized ans absorbed to an impressive extent. In Israel of 1986, astrology was simply another way of understanding and predicting people and events. The culture contained a particular Israeli mix of occult practices that appear together and enjoy mass popularity. This mix includes astrology, graphology (which isn’t really part of the tradition, but is used by occult practioners), palm-reading, and magical healing. The occult in Israel offers individuals a form of pop psychology, providing self-understanding and explanations for private destiny.

3Pop psychology, unlike the official, certified kind produced by professionals, uses everyday language, rather than professional jargon, and gives clients what they are looking for: straight answers to pressing questions about personal destiny and personal difficulties. Clients get, for their money, natural language personality descriptions. For many Israelis, demonstrating a knowledge of astrology has become proof of sophistication, intelligence and breadth of interest. It is indeed perceived as being in the same realm as psychology, except that the latter seemed complicated and imprecise, compared to astrology, seen as an «exact science». Astrological typology, dividing humanity into twelve personality classifications, has become part of everyday language in Israel, and proof of that can be easily found in the many cases in which it is used in the press to characterize individuals. The following is a sampling of articles from the Israeli press, in which astrological classifications are used in personality descriptions, and the understanding of personal destiny.

4Example: Lea Avni, 57 years old, director of nursing at a hospital in Jerusalem, a mother of four and grandmother of seven, tells the world that her son Eitan, who was killed on June 6, 1982, in Lebanon, had to die. She gained this insight from an astrologer, who told her that Eitan was a «special soul», who came into this world to fulfill a special task, and there was no need for mourning.

5Example: When a 18 years old political activist, a follower of Meir Kahane’s nationalist party, is interviewed about what had led him to his political position, he replies: «I am a Libra. We believe in what we do, and we carry it through to the end». Even a portrait of a 14-years-old Palestinian, sentenced to 5 years in prison for producing 5 Molotov cocktails and using one on an Israeli bus, includes a reference to his birth sign.

6At the same time, certain occult traditions, particulary astrology, are used as guides for thinking about collective issues, from the stock market to the future of the whole country. A subculture of the occult has been developed, containing beliefs, norms, members and leaders. It has achieved legitimacy and stability. What is significant about the occult subculture in Israel is the degree to which it is taken seriously by the media and by the élite. While the occult in. other countries is treated as déclassé, in Israel it is established and legitimized. Those who do not share the faith in the occult feel deviant and excluded.

7Personal involvement in the occult expresses itself at three levels. The first one is that of reading a newspaper astrology column, or listening to a radio program on astrology or graphology. The second is that of an active search for divination, through visiting a fortune teller or astrologer. The third is that of aspiring to become an active occultist through formal studies, which may lead to a new occupational identity in some cases, or a «hobbyist» status in most. The first level is superficial and prevalent, and involves most of the Israeli population. It entails a basic acceptance of occult systems as valid, and some knowledge of those, especially astrology. The second level is that of the devotee, who spends time, money and energy in becoming an occult expert and practitioner.

8The Israeli occult subculture is not identical by any means with occult subcultures in Western countries. The occult subculture in Israel does not include such things as witchcraft, exorcism, communication with spirits, or the cultivation of transe like states, which are integrant parts of the occult subculture in Western countries. Certain staples of occultism, such as spiritualism, are totally absent in Israel, and have not managed to gain popularity. Parapsychology, which has its origins in 19th century spiritualism has shown so far a fairly limited presence in Israel. In general, ghosts seem to avoid Israeli population, and the feeling is mutual.

9The most remarkable thing about occultism in Israel is its very short history, and the historical context in which it has appeared. Several varieties of religious and secular salvation movements have appeared in Israeli society over a fairly recent period. Private salvation is the phenomenon of an individual transformation through enlightenment and the adoption of a newly acquired belief system. A salvation movement, or a road to salvation, denote here a complex of beliefs which serves as the context for cases of private salvation. Four such roads have developed in Israel since 1973. They are:

  • 1. The occult, the most superficial movement, which serves as the broad base for other phenomena.
  • 2. The new religions in Israel, which have led to many cases of profound personal transformation, and constitute the most radical road in the context of Israeli society.
  • 3. The return of Judaism, which is the most popular road to personal salvation, and constitutes at the same time a radical rebellion and a conformist solution.
  • 4. Secular psychotherapy, a movement which leads to personal change within a world view which is radicaly different from those of all the other ones.

10All of these movements, which were totally unknown in Israeli culture before 1973, started developing at the exact same point in history and have shown a parallel growth curve since then.

11There is a new discourse of private salvation, which dit not exist in Israel in 1970 or 1960, but was very much in evidence in 1980. Private salvation discourse in Israel represents a startling cultural innovation, and its acceptance is a consequence of some cultural changes.

1. Salvation ideologies

12In any society there are several roads to self-transformation, which dissatisfied individuals may choose. They stand in contrast to life choices which could involve self-destruction, such as drug-addiction. When an individual experiences personal distress which is not directly related to a physical ailment or limitation, there are (at least) five ways of defining the sources of distress, and, accordingly, possible ways of its alleviation. The five ways are presented in the following table.

13Defining sources of personal distress:

14Organic. Source of distress is to be found in invisible organic disequilibrium. Change will be effected by a change in diet, exercise, or special healing.

15Psychological. Source of distress is to be found in invisible psychological desequilibrium. Change will occur through psychotherapy.

16Religious. Source of distress is in the individual’s alienation from invisible cosmic powers, which control the universe. Change will come through creating a psychological tie with those powers.

17Occult. Source of distress may be in a variety of visible and invisible forces (e.g., planets, witchcraft). Change will come through knowledge and manipulation of forces.

18Political. Source of distress is in the social divisions of power existing around the individual. Change will come through changing these divisions.

19Private salvation is possible through humanistic-rational psychotherapy, which emphasizes individual responsibility and self-determination, or through the magic of the occult, which emphasizes external forces controlling human destiny. Ideas about the external control of the self are, of course, much more prevalent, and much older than ideas of human selfdetermination. Religion and mysticism, of all kinds, emphasize the existence of forces external to the person, which have to be dealt with and considered. Secular psychotherapy, on the other hand, emphasizes the forces inside the personality, and the lonely self in its struggle for autonomy and growth. The occult offers an explanation of personal (and sometimes collective) destiny through references to external, visible and invisible powers. The occult is the obverse of secular psychotherapy. It provides answers to the same questions of individual destiny as psychotherapy, within a traditional, external-fate framework.

20All religions promote the idea of an invisible world, inhabited by various creatures, gods, angels, and devils, which control much of what happens to us. Actually, the occult ideology is halfway between selfcontrol and total helplessness, as we have some capacity of affecting those external forces, or at least knowing more about them.

21A basic assumption and an article of faith for customers and practitioners of occult popular psychology is the ease with which questions regarding personal destiny can be answered. Secrets of the past and the future are uncovered with certainty. Dynamics of personal fortune and misfortune, and the true nature of one’s hidden personality become known. The knowledge is there for the asking. There is a body of information which provides this knowledge, and it is retrieved from storage through the personal expertise of practitioners. Personality diagnosis is done through signs (birth dates, lines in palms) and not actual behavior. The whole process is a miracle, but that miracle is readily accessible. External forces, which truly control our lives, can be interpreted for our benefit. If we do not gain control, at least we have gained understanding.

22The occultist is a modernized shaman, using charisma and the weakness or the vulnerability of his clients to perform mini-miracles. It is the belief in the miraculous which is the main characteristic of the occult and the «alternative» healing subcultures. The atmosphere around the astrologers, the homeopathic healers, the palm-readers, and other miracle workers is thick with the certainty of miracles which would relieve all pains and would deliver us from this vale of tears through physical and mental shortcuts.

23While the practices of occultists only rarely provide a complete metamorphosis, they do offer clients meaning, if not purpose. Occultism cannot supply relief, but a world in which events are interconnected and miracles are possible. The basic miracle in occult divination is in the simplicity and accessibility of answers to complicated questions. Nonsensology is a collection of small miracles, rather than a dramatic, total salvation. The investment needed by clients is minimal, and the rewards match the cost, but nonsensology in Israel is the gateway to bigger and better miracles, through the maintenance of a miracle-oriented worldview.

24The occult as a road to private salvation in Israel is obviously secondary. Occult involvement is superficial and usually does not entail individual transformation. At the same time, as part of the Israeli mass-culture, it provides a wide ideological base and a climate that makes other, more significant, roads to private salvation more easily accessible. Occultism assumes and represents a world in which miracles are not just possible, but common, and these include the miracles of self-transformation.


Additional sources

BEIT-HALLAHMI, B., Original Sins: Reflections on the History of Zionism and Israel, London, Pluto Press, 1992a.

BEIT-HALLAHMI, B., Despair and Deliverance: Private Salvation in contemporary Israel, Albany, NY, SUNY Press, 1992b.

BEIT-HALLAHMI B., Dictionary to Modern Religious Movements, New York, Rosen Group, 1992c.

SOBEL, Z., & BEIT-HALLAHMI, B., Tradition, Conflict, and Continuity: Jewishness and Judaism in Israel, Labany, NY, SUNY Press, 1991.


University of Haifa.

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1994

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