David Brooks’ Oxytocin Zionism of Instinctive Community and Meaning

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-30-11

In the current climate, the mainstream media qualifies any news that might make Israel look good with a “yes, but.”  When the Syrian dictatorship teeters, the New York Times suggests that the Obama administration fears losing a “peace partner” in the repressive, obstructionist Bassar-al-Assad, while bashing Binyamin Netanyahu for showing “no inclination to talk to Mr. Assad.”   Similarly, the Washington Post runs a column about the Hollywood legend Elizabeth Taylor, who died last week, noting her “lasting love,” for the Jewish state.  But while detailing how Taylor gracefully endured Arab boycotts, even offering in 1976 to replace one of the Entebbe hostages, the writer Nathan Burstein declares such Hollywood “activism for Israel” outdated, given the contemporary realization that “Israel, with its foundations in Jewish desperation and trauma, could be as dysfunctional and disappointing as any other nation.”
While ignoring the many celebrities still championing Israel as a righteous cause, Burstein also mistakenly treats Taylor’s Zionism as conditional. Taylor’s Zionism began after her 1959 conversion. When joining the Jewish people, she supported the Jewish state to express her Jewishness, her sense of belonging.
This more elemental, non-negotiable Zionism can be understood by reading David Brooks’ extraordinary new book The Social Animal. Brooks, a New York Times columnist, does not mention Zionism. But he explains the human need for community that Zionism fulfills, and should cultivate.
This stunningly ambitious book elegantly – and clearly – explains hundreds of breakthroughs about the mind and the brain which mainstream culture ignores. “Integrat[ing] science and psychology with sociology, politics, cultural commentary, and the literature of success,” Brooks highlights the research’s essential insight: humans are social animals.  “The cognitive revolution demonstrated that human beings emerge out of relationships,” Brooks writes. “The health of a society is determined by the health of those relationships, not the extent to which it maximizes individual choice.”
Pioneering scientists are proving that humans crave community and seek meaning. Focusing on “the inner mind” in “the empire of emotion,” studies of the “unconscious mind” highlight “the power of relationships and the invisible bonds between people. If the outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause, the inner mind hungers for harmony and connection – those moments when self-consciousness fades away and a person is lost in a challenge, a cause, the love of another or the love of God.”
Brooks imagines the unconscious mind deploys millions of little scouts. These scouts coat people, places, ideas, feelings, with emotional significance. Each person has a particular deployment, associations providing positive physical sensations reinforcing ideological and communal affiliations.
Humans, Brooks explains, instinctively form groups – and feel solidarity. “People can distinguish between members of their own group and members of another group in as little as 170 milliseconds.” Activity in the brain’s “anterior cingulated cortices” jumps when individuals see members of their own group suffering.  Moreover, Oxytocin, the “affiliative neuropeptide … surges” when people enjoy “close social bonds.” People experience happiness by bonding, making Oxytocin “nature’s way of weaving people together.”
Brooks criticizes American consumerist society, lamenting the “thinning” of connections, associations, affiliations as the “webs of relationships” connecting people “lost their power.”  “In a densely connected society, people can see the gradual chain of institutions connecting family” all the way to the government, he explains. “In stripped-down society,” with that chain broken, “the state seems at once alien and intrusive. People lose faith in the government’s ability to do the right thing most of the time and come to have cynical and corrosive attitudes about their national leaders.”
A Zionist reading of Brooks would describe Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, as a thickener, a relationship builder, a Jewish scout troop coating individuals, ideas, and ideals with meaning. Although it is becoming increasingly consumerist and individualist, Israeli life remains more communal and traditional than North American life.  Brooks justifies Basic Zionism’s 4 Bs scientifically– by Being Jewish and Belonging to the Jewish people, individuals enjoy a framework for Becoming better, more fulfilled, more connected through Building Israel.
Brooks provides another, utilitarian, argument for Zionism by describing creativity as the “blending of two discordant knowledge networks.”  The University of Michigan’s Richard Nisbett explains:  “Westerners tend to focus narrowly on individuals taking actions, while Asians are more likely to focus on contexts and relationships.” Being Westerners rooted in traditional Judaism doubly enriches Jews. Reconciling conflicting civilizations sharpens our minds, as we balance independence with commitments, individualism with communalism, modernity with tradition. Zionism thus offers a countercultural appeal at a time when too many young Jews are abandoning tradition, losing a pathway toward meaning and the traditional secret to Jewish success.
The Hollywood blockbuster The Social Network, offers a depressing contrast to Brooks’ worldview – and the Zionist framework. At Harvard, the holy of holies of individual achievement, ethnic anxiety motivates Facebook’s founding as Mark Zuckerberg and his smart, nerdy Jewish friends feel inadequate compared to the cool, connected WASPY Winklevoss twins. But Zuckerberg’s Judaism is a social tic, lacking meaning beyond creating smart, geeky, outsiders. Starved of values, Zuckerberg betrays his best friend, attracts multiple lawsuits, and creates the great superficial connector Facebook, a virtual not virtuous community which drains intimacy and intensity from that precious word “friend.”
A revitalized Zionism can help stop the People of the Book from becoming solely the people of Facebook; it can develop our human identity as social animals in this age of social networking. Zionists can enhance the new not repudiate it, enjoying a modern identity coated by tradition.
This Cognitive Zionism, this Oxytocin Zionism, pivots on an insight which probably drew Liz Taylor to Israel. Nietzsche taught: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” As humans we search for a “why,” Brooks teaches; Zionism offers modern Jews a compelling “why.”
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com
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