Israel: Where the Paranormal Is Normal

This article appeared in Skeptical Briefs.

I should begin by saying that this has always been a land in which the paranormal is normal. According to all the religions which have blossomed here, throughout history miracles have taken place practically on a daily basis in the land of Israel. The dead have been revived, the sick have been cured spiritually, oceans have parted to make way for the good guys (and then drown the bad guys), water has turned into wine, stone into water, and so forth. On the very eve of the twenty-first century, I’m happy to report that nothing here has changed and miracle-making continues apace.

Today there are two Israels. One is the old, religious Israel with its deep faith in ancient traditions — and which accepts paranormal events as part of its worldview. The other is the modern, secular Israel which, though it rejects much of the old tradition, seems equally willing to live in a world where the normal and paranormal exist side by side.
The recent elections here gave us one good example. Israeli election laws forbid the payment of voters to cast their ballots for one party or another. “Payment” means not only cash, but also the promise of miracles. For example, it is forbidden to bribe a voter by promising that an especially important rabbi will pray for him. The issue came up in 1996 when rabbis associated with the Sephardic Torah Guardians party (known in Hebrew as “Shas”) began distributing holy amulets and postcards with sacred powers to potential voters (in exchange for a promise to vote for Shas).
The distribution of the amulets on a mass scale raised a major scandal, though there were few voices which dared (in an election season) to raise the question of how exactly these amulets brought good luck. Shas’ opponents simply argued that the amulets were ineffective because they were manufactured in the Far East, by gentiles. Not only wouldn’t they work, but they would probably bring bad luck upon those who took them. Nevertheless, Shas supporters claimed that the amulets were already working. In one case, a little boy fell out of a fourth story window and survived without a scratch — because his father had taken one of the holy amulets.
It is not only the Sephardic Jews, who originate in the Islamic countries, who have their miracle workers. The Ashkenazi (European) Jews have their fair share of miracles too. A shop in Jerusalem was recently caught selling bath water in which the late Lubavitcher rebbe had purportedly bathed. When reproached for this commercial exploitation of sacred water, the store owners insisted that the water was not actually for sale, but that donations were appreciated.
The cult which arose world-wide around the Lubavitcher rebbe was rich in miracle lore. The rebbe’s unexpected death (he was supposed to reveal himself as the Messiah and redeem the world) did nothing to dampen enthusiasm among his supporters, and his photograph continues to decorate posters around the country. The fact that such a “cult of personality” flies in the face of thousands of years of Jewish tradition (which rejects idol worship) has not deterred the Lubavitcher hassidim.
In recent years, Israel has grown rapidly and today it has the highest economic growth rate in the Western world. A new, educated urban middle class has been one result of that growth. These Israelis, thoroughly modern in every way, have been no less enthralled by the possibilities of the paranormal. Though they laugh off holy amulets and sacred bath water, they embrace the whole gamut of modern paranormal beliefs.
In most ways they are just copying Americans. The “X-Files” is enormously popular here, especially among the very young. The fake Roswell autopsy film was shown on Israeli television months after it was first shown in the U.S. and Europe, with no critical comment. Astrologers and others who claim to see into the future are often brought in to lighten up the news with their predictions of who will win elections and the like. All the major newspapers and several magazines run astrology columns in every issue. Books on paranormal themes are widely available.
UFOs are sighted in Israel all the time; sometimes a special significance is attached to alien visitors coming here, to the Holy Land. Not long ago, Israeli television’s respected news program devoted several minutes to this phenomenon. Reporters interviewed the secretary of a moshav (cooperative farm) who had met one of the “greys” (alien visitors), as well as one of our local expert UFOlogists. In late April this year, one of the two biggest daily newspapers ran a large frontpage photo of a light blur against a dark background headlined (you guessed it) “UFOs in Tel Aviv?” The question mark was more than appropriate, because — as became clear from reading the story — what actually happened was that a nervous resident of Israel’s largest city had called the police to report what turned out to be a military helicopter.
Unconventional and “alternative” health cares are as popular here as anywhere else. In the early 1990s the Ministry of Health set out to look into the whole issue and formulate policy, and came up with a document basically saying that all forms of “complementary medicine” were all right. Since then there have been a profusion of “colleges” teaching the skills necessary to practice such treatments, as well as practitioners in search of Israelis who have grown dissatisfied with conventional medicine.
Of course when one thinks of Israel and the paranormal, the name that jumps to mind is Uri Geller. But Mr. Geller now resides in London, where you can pick up his latest book teaching you how to bend spoons. He is not often here, if ever, and gets little media attention.
I’ll end on an upbeat note. A few years ago, one of our two television stations decided to cash in on the paranormal and devote a show to the whole range of phenomena we’ve just mentioned. The show would begin each week with weird music and occult symbols, setting just the right tone for serious discussion of the paranormal. But ratings were low, and the show flopped. Maybe there’s hope for us yet.