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by John Helmer, Moscow 

In the face of genocide, well-meaning people are obliged to ask themselves what they mean.  

They must decide if they wish to be collabos  and kapos  with those whose well-meaning includes the elimination of the Palestinian people on the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea; attacking those who resist by word or arm; repeating the Passover prayer “Next year in Jerusalem”, invoking the Amalek commandment,   blowing trumpets to celebrate the fall of the walls of Jericho;   and lighting the menorah for Hanukkah.  

In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national address of October 28 (lead image) he erased all differences between the Jewish religion, Zionist ideology, and Israeli state policy. He invoked this trinity in the “chain of heroes of Israel that has continued for over 3,000 years, from Joshua, Judah Maccabee and Bar Kochba, and up to the heroes of 1948, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War and Israel’s other wars. Our heroic soldiers have one supreme goal: To destroy the murderous enemy and ensure our existence in our land. We have always said ‘Never again’. ‘Never again’ is now.” And finally, he invoked the benediction of the Jewish God. “On your behalf, on behalf of all of us, I pray for the wellbeing of our soldiers: ‘May G-d make the enemies who rise against us be struck down before them! May He subdue our enemies under them and crown them with deliverance and victory.’”  

If Netanyahu were a Russian Israeli, these remarks would be a Russian crime.

In the constitution for the multi-ethnic and multicultural Russian Federation,  every Russian has the Article 26 right “to determine and indicate his nationality”, and the Article 28 freedom of religious belief, including the right to no religious belief. Russians living in Israel and Palestine have the same rights, which is why the Foreign and Emergencies Ministries are doing everything they can now to evacuate them to Russia if that’s why they request.

However, the Russians in Israel, like the Russians in Russia, cannot exercise their Article 26 and 28 rights without accepting the Constitution’s Article 18(3): “The exercise of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall not violate the rights and freedoms of other people.”  

Speaking jurisprudentially, the one million Russians of Israel – about 90% of whom have taken  Israeli nationality under Aliyah, the law of Jewish return – are violating their Article 18(3) duty if they profit from, collaborate in, or defend state and settler terrorism against the Palestinians, wherever and however this is occurring between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.  

The Russians of Israel —  if that is the nationality they choose in order to apply for evacuation to safe haven —  may also be violating the Russian law against terrorism and extremism under Articles 205 and 282 of the Russian Criminal Code  depending on where they live, how they live, the arms and  military training they have accepted, what they do for a living, and who they vote for in Israeli elections.  

According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russians at home and also abroad may not support or participate in terrorism propaganda, plans,  or acts, whether of the Arab, Muslim, Israeli, Zionist,  or Jewish variety. It is not yet settled in Russian foreign policy whether the rights of national liberation and self-defence apply as equally to Palestine state groups like Hamas, Fatah and their associated armed units as they apply to Israel state groups like the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and their associated armed settler units.   

In the meantime, and until the contradictions in Russian policy toward the Gaza and West Bank wars,   the Litani ultimatum to Hezbollah,  and the Israeli Air Force attacks on Syria  are settled, there is a moratorium on domestic Russian media debate and public demonstration on the contentious issues.

In the newly published book, Dunce Upon  A Time, Chapter 3 is a memoir of religious conviction, Jewish and Christian; it was written before the start of the new Arab-Israeli war on October 7. The lessons learned were personal in a single life over almost eighty years.  

They are republished now because they address the widely believed mistake, inside and outside Russia, that the central tenets of Jewish religious belief, Zionist ideology, and Israeli nationality are different when it comes to the genocide of the Palestinians.  They aren’t different; they are one and the same.  For this reason, and for the first time in its history since its tribal, biblical origins, the Jewish religion is cracking up now – and not because of Pharaonic, Babylonian, Seleucid, Roman, German, or Hamas attacks.

Read the full book here.  

It is also a widely believed mistake that the genocide of the Palestinians is a uniquely Zionist idea implemented by the Israeli state since 1948. US President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the idea to Saudi King Abdulaziz in 1945; it had become US and UK policy earlier, albeit in secret. For the history of how, from 1943 to 2023, the US has implemented the destruction of Arab state leadership for US reasons, not Zionist ones, read this book.  

Religion is not the opium of the people, as Karl Marx claimed in 1843. It’s a gun to the head. It’s the outcome of force, fraud and propaganda, so well organised as to convince believers, generation after generation of them, that in return for their compliance they will be rewarded in a divine heaven; but if they don’t believe and comply, if they have doubts, imagine alternatives, express resistance, or fight, they will be punished in a satanic Hell.

What Marx also said before arriving at his famous conclusion was: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” This was Marx’s sentimental mistake. What he ought to have said was that these conditions of oppression were Hell on earth – believing otherwise requires, not the power of God, but the power of man – his arbitrariness, his force, his deceit. As the son of my father and the pupil of Scotch College, I was already a committed believer in this Hell on earth. God and his religion were part of it.

Their force, their fraud and their propaganda – they have become the conditions in which grownups now understand that a state of fascism develops. I’ve had enough brushes with churchmen and their crusades to understand that the first fascist in history was God; the churchmen’s hell was the first Reich.

.  .  .

My grandfather was a rabbi; my step-daughter once planned to marry into the family of the Archbishop of Canterbury; my sister was murdered by a sect created by a woman claiming to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ; I have had dinner with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Familiarity like this breeds questioning of religiosity and of clerics when young; contempt when old enough to have learned the answers.

My father’s father died of typhus in a crowded tenement of Łowicz in 1916. That town, ninety kilometres southwest of Warsaw, had been a capital of the Polish Catholic Church and of the Polish kingdom in the 16th century. It passed between German, French and Russian control for two centuries. Napoleon stopped there overnight in 1806. When he and his army marched on, they left behind a blond green-eyed Danish soldier of fortune whose intimate embrace of a local Jewish girl started the family. A century later, the Helmers were so intent on being Jewish, they were obliged to keep his name as it had been recorded in the municipal register, but they had entirely erased the memory of their forebear. He appears still in my DNA.

Left: Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, painted by the Czech Frantisek Xavier Sandmann, but not from life; Sandmann did his watercolour copy in Vienna in 1820. Right: the author transposed in life, in his first greatcoat and too big for his boots, aged four in 1950.

My father was only four when his father died, and knew nothing of him except for a single miniature photograph of him which he kept with him until his death, and which sits still on my desk. My father bore no resemblance to his father – not so his first son. My blond hair and green eyes, wide forehead, large ears and ear-lobes, long pointed nose, thick lips, shallow cheeks, even the shape of moustache and beard – they are a replica of my grandfather’s, and of his grandfather’s.

For this inheritance I am indebted to Napoleon. For the attempt at destroying it, there were the Germans who bombed and shelled Łowicz in September 1939, then liquidated those who survived at Treblinka in 1941. Those of my family who had fled for refuge to the south were then murdered by the Ukrainians of Lvov.  

For two years, aged twelve to thirteen, I studied with a tall, greying rabbi at his apartment. Herman Sanger was a cultivated German, born in Berlin in 1909, raised in Breslau (then German Silesia, now Poland), and educated at universities in Paris, Geneva, and Cambridge. He had escaped from Berlin to Melbourne in 1936.

He demonstrated European qualities I had never encountered before by the vastness of his reading in English, Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and French; also in his chain-smoking of Cuban cigars, the Beethoven and Rachmaninov playing on his gramophone, and his habit of closing the heavy plush curtains of his living-room so that the sun never penetrated. I had never known anyone in Australia not to let the sun through the window. I remember the skin of Sanger’s hands was translucent white, like my father’s.

In his pulpit he was recognised to be the greatest public orator in the country at the time. In his private lessons he spoke only of the culture of Europe and the history of the Jews there. Sanger’s Jewish history and culture included Russian writers he introduced to me like Isaac Babel and Sholom Aleichem. Sanger’s world drew me from his Paris and Berlin to Odessa, Moscow and St. Petersburg. I don’t recall he said a word about Palestine, Israel, or the Arabs.

Or about God. He wasn’t in the curriculum. My belief in Him wasn’t being tested or trained.

That came to an abrupt end in a brainwave which flashed while I was at a university lecture given by a visiting Christian theologian from Germany whose name I’ve forgotten and also what he said. Instead, I spelled out my interpretation of the difference between the Christian theology I had been listening to and the Jewish one I thought I knew. This appeared in a student newspaper essay in which I explained the words of the Jewish believer’s basic prayer, the Shema.

“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"” – Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad. 

I had been convinced there was a God in religion. However, if there were only one of him; if the Jews insisted He belonged to them and they to Him exclusively; and if it was the fundamental tenet of Jewish faith to recite this claim over and over, then it was also clear what it all meant. The Jews were worshipping themselves.

This realisation proved to be a deeper cut than circumcision, and it has reversed the latter’s ritual meaning for my lifetime. For expressing the idea, the Jewish community has condemned me to wearing the Dunce’s Cap; and for pursuing it in Middle Eastern politics, worse than that.

The Shema isn’t an incantation of faith, meant to be chanted by the faithful testifying to their faith; that’s to say, their faith in God. It has nothing in common with the Christian Lord’s Prayer, which acknowledges God while conceding that His kingdom is in heaven, His power and His glory in the future. That left only God’s will on earth, and forgave others for trespassing against it.

Nor does reciting the Shema resemble in sound, meaning or purpose the Hare Krishna mantra –“O Lord, O energy of the Lord, please engage me in your service”. That’s not only as tolerant as the Lord’s Prayer, it’s also more deferential, submissive, inferior.

By superior contrast, the Shema is an oath of national allegiance. It has everything in common with this one: “I Pledge Allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, And to the Republic for which it stands, One Nation, Under God, Indivisible with Liberty and Justice for all.” This is the pledge which has been recited at sessions of the US Congress, local governments, and in public schools since the end of the American Civil War – and because of that war. Since then the legal challenges to the words of the pledge in the US courts have focused on the inclusion of God and the requirement that the recitation be accompanied by a straight-arm or cross-heart salute. There has never been a challenge to the singular national identification by itself.

The Israeli state also has an oath of allegiance. From 1948 until 2010 its words restricted the oath swearer to loyalty to the state, its laws and its authorities. No mention of belief in God. But on October 10, 2010, the Israeli government proposed to change the oath of citizenship for non-Jews from “I declare that I will be a loyal national of the State of Israel” to “I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the state of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, and will uphold its laws.” This didn’t make non-Jews into Jews; and Jews weren’t required to say these words or swear the oath in order to become Israeli citizens. However, the new oath tied allegiance to the state to the Shema. For the Israelis it is impossible to be a Jew by descent and by belief not to be a member of the nation, and thus a Zionist. This is how they have turned resistance to the state of Israel from anti-Zionism into anti-Semitism.* 

This is also how the distinction between religious belief and national ideology has been erased in political propaganda and state censorship.

But the Israeli state was younger than I was when I made my discovery that for Jews God was the symbol of the community of his adherents – and if they decided they were so, an ethnic nationality, then a political one, then a military one and a police force. That at least was what I wrote and published in the student newspaper. From then on, I was ostracised in the Jewish community with the same force as it had already turned out for me among the Scots Christians – but not because I had become a novice atheist.

Their God, it’s plain in retrospect, was a gigantic military mascot. He was more terrible than the goat who was (still is) the mascot of the Royal Welsh Fusilliers or the bull terrier of the Staffordshire regiments. A soldier of those units who in negligence or willfulness refuses to salute the mascot can be court-martialed, imprisoned, cashiered.

Among the Jews of Europe it was also believed that God created his own mascot; he was called the Golem. He was well known in Łowicz.  

My grandfather did not officiate at an established synagogue in his town. Instead, he was known as a practicioner of the occult arts, a specialist in the mystical literature of the rabbis known as the Kabbala, and an interpreter his neighbours used to consult on the Talmud, the books of elucidation of Jewish law. Rabbi Helmer certainly had studied the most famous of the Jewish mystics of Poland, the 16th century Baal Shem Elijah of Chelm; that was a town 270 kilometres south of Łowicz on what is now the Polish side of the Galician frontier with the Ukraine, but which was a Russian dominant town in Elijah’s time, and also my grandfather’s.

The Baal Shem (“Master of God’s name”) Elijah was famous for the creation of the Golem – in biblical Hebrew, raw material for a human being – a clay figure he sculpted but which God animated and gave the power to fight and destroy. However, the Golem ran amok and Elijah was forced to stop it by erasing the divine name on its forehead. As the Golem shattered, Elijah was crushed to death, according to some of the stories.

At his funeral, according to other legends of the Polish Jews, a group stoned the procession as it passed a Russian Orthodox Church. Elijah’s corpse then sat up and performed the miracle of causing the church to sink into the ground, swallowing up and killing the stone-throwers with it. Russian-hating was as natural to Poles, Jews and their Golems then as it is today.

There had been no argument over whether God existed at my Scots Presbyterian school. At the university the argument was worth having in the first weeks of the academic year because attractive girls used to attend the Rationalist Society’s open lectures introducing the topic to new students. As far as I and the other Rationalists could tell from what used to follow, God was a hoped-for aid to seduction; that’s to say, disbelief in Him and the novelty of atheism.

The official portrait of J. Davis McCaughey, the Presbyterian churchman who was Master of Ormond College at the University of Melbourne during my studies and residence there. He was a pompous and hypocritical official who stripped me of my College scholarship because he didn’t approve my political activism and the editorial positions of the student newspaper when I was editor, though he lacked the courage of his convictions to say so. His portrait hangs in the College dining hall, and once I pointed out how, despite the clumsy draughtmanship, the painting accurately captures the nastiness of the character, my College hosts declined to invite me again. On the advice of the Victorian state government, Buckingham Place appointed McCaughey Governor of Victoria between 1986 and 1992. He didn’t understand that was a political, not a divine appointment: when he attempted to overrule me, a state ministerial adviser at the time, I ordered him to withdraw, and he did. The reversal of our authority obligated him.

When believers run amok like their mascots and golems, the outcome is every kind of race war, genocide, or holocaust. If the history is long enough, the names multiply and become interchangeable as the attackers and their victims reverse their places – the Christian crusaders and the muslims; the Germans and the Jews; the Jews and the Palestinians; the Americans and the Russians. When the theft of livestock, orchards, crops, men to labour, women to slavery, their houses, capital, and national territory are the rewards of the crimes; the cycle repeats over and over. Der Hungerplan, devised by Herbert Backe, head of the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture, was the name for Germany to seize Russian farmlands and starve the population to death after 1933. Sanctions became the new name for it at the US Office of Foreign Assets Control in Washington after 2014.  

Left: In the Prague version of the Golem story, a different rabbi does the sculpting, but the purpose and result are the same as in the Chelm version. God animates the idol so that he can take violent revenge on the Christians persecuting the Jews, and deter their pogroms. In both legends, the rabbis agreed the Golem went too far and they were obliged to destroy him, scratching off the first of the Hebrew letters on his forehead, turning its meaning from “truth” to “dead”. Right; the flag of the Israeli state which destroyed and replaced Arab Palestine since 1949. The flag symbols – the prayer shawl stripes and the six-pointed star come from the Jewish community of Prague at the same time the Golem was created. The rabbis no longer think the Israeli Golem has gone too far in its violence, nor has the US government which continues to animate it. The Palestinians and their Arab allies have been unable to stop it.

Left: the goat has been the mascot of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers since the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, in which the British defeated the American independence forces on the battlefield, only to lose the war later. Right: the official mascot of the Staffordshire Regiment has been a bull terrier since 1949. The story of the dog’s adoption by the regiment goes back to 1882.  

This is an awkward truth to discover. Also, there is no end to the line of inquisitors ready to declare this discovery to be heresy, impiety, godlessness, a thought crime – and then to burn the heretics and their books. That last capital punishment was what the Portuguese and Spanish have self-righteously called the auto-da-fé, their act of faith. On April 3, 1988, my sister Cypra Helmer was murdered in one of those.

The murderers were members of a Christian cult calling itself The Family. The godhead was the cult leader calling herself Anne Hamilton-Byrne; the priesthood were her husband and a group of middle-aged women trained as nurses and midwives, lawyers, psychiatrists, dentists, doctors, and a Methodist Church divine. Together, over a half-century they directed schemes of child theft, forgery of identity papers and wills, kidnapping and other child violence, abuse of psychedelic drugs, tax evasion with fake charity fronts, and theft of real estate and large sums of money. Hamilton-Byrne buried the treasure in expensive estates for herself in upstate New York, county Kent, and mountainside and lakeside resort compounds outside Melbourne, guarded by adepts who were paid in drugs.

My father defended my sister by hiring private detectives to uncover the names of the accomplices and document what they were doing. His was the first criminal evidence against Hamilton-Byrne and he lobbied the state premier and other government officials and police to act. For fifteen years they refused. After my sister fell to her death, Hamilton-Byrne told a reporter my father had pushed her.

But in 1987 and 1988, when she was 37 years old, my sister was resisting the repeated efforts by the cult to recruit her and compel her into commitment to the cult’s beliefs in the divinity of Hamilton-Byrne, and at the same time agree to access to her sex, bank account, and title to her house. She had been drugged at a pseudo-psychiatric clinic Hamilton-Byrne controlled; her subsequent treatment by a psychiatrist working with the cult continued the abuse. She was physically beaten by two of the cult’s enforcers. When she died from a building fall on April 3, 1988,  the evidence was manipulated to create the appearance of suicide. A fabricated affidavit by my father, an untested suicide note, the failure of police to make and keep photographs and other evidence of the death scene; proof of forgery of the signature on the coroner’s cause-of-death certificate; negligence in the initial pathologist’s report he later contradicted; and refusal by state officials to conduct a public inquest at the time of her death – this was the evidence I compiled and took to the Victorian Supreme Court more than a decade later, from 2009 to 2011.

I applied to the court for an order to compel the State Coroner, a former children’s court judge named Jennifer Coate, to quash the suicide certificate on the record, and open a full inquest into my sister’s death, including all the forensic evidence and police witnesses I had been able to assemble. Coate and the state’s lawyers opposed the application; they refused to allow the initial coroner to testify in court that his signature on the suicide finding had been faked. They also prevented a tape-recording of his saying this being played in the courtroom.

I was blocked. The Supreme Court judge ruled that during the interval in which the case had been under way but before it came to trial, a new statute had been passed which changed the coronial rules. The order for inquest was dismissed on the technicalities. “I consider that this Court has no jurisdiction to hear the Plaintiff’s application,” Justice David Habersberger ruled, because the hearing of the case under the old statute had not begun by the time the new statute took effect. “The fact remains,” Habersberger added, “the plaintiff is not completely without other avenues of recourse”. He meant the two years of case proceedings had to be started all over again.

Cypra and I had been stopped in court. But Coroner Coate was defeated outside. According to the judge’s ruling, “if it had been necessary for me to decide the point, I would not have been prepared to dismiss the plaintiff’s application on this basis at this early stage. It seems to me that there was a real question of fact which should be determined in the ordinary way and not in a summary way on limited and unsatisfactory evidence.” The judge went on to challenge the credibility of the affidavit presented to the court by Coate’s registrar, adding his suspicion that there had been serious tampering with coroner’s documents and that official records on the cause of death were also inexplicably missing. He concluded, however, “further examination of this issue is precluded because the Court no longer has jurisdiction to hear the Plaintiff’s application.”

At the time, the state Attorney-General revealed privately, Coate had applied for a second term of her appointment as coroner. The Attorney-General decided to refuse, and appointed another coroner in Coate’s place.

The public showdown against Hamilton-Byrne and her cult didn’t begin for several more years. A documentary film, a television adaptation, a book, newspaper exposés, and the records of several criminal and civil court cases pursued by the cult victims publicly verified the detail and the extent of the crimes of Hamilton-Byrne and her associates. She died in 2019; some of her accomplices are still alive and thriving.

.  .  .

When it comes to betting on whether the forces of the state – policemen, coroners, judges, newspaper reporters – will reverse themselves and acknowledge their mistakes, the odds are longer than Blaise Pascal’s well-known wager on whether to believe in God.

Pascal (1623-62) didn’t meet the pope of his time, Innocent X, to price his bet. In fact, he was fiercely hostile to him and to the leaders of the French Church at the time, and to their allies in the royal court. Almost four hundred years after both of them had died, Pope Francis announced in Rome that a 25-line note Pascal had written to himself, reportedly discovered in the lining of one of his coats, was the definitive repudiation of his wager; and thus Pascal’s very own certainty in the existence, not only of God, he wrote, but of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ. Titled Feu (“Fire”), and known as “The Memorial” by the churchmen who claim to have discovered the note after Pascal’s death, the popes and the believers claim Pascal had been sorry for his wagering mistake; repudiated those who weren’t as sorry – “the philosophers and the learned” he had scribbled sarcastically; and he accepted “Certitude. Certitude…Renunciation, total and sweet. Complete submission to Jesus Christ.”

The coroner who agreed to testify was forced out of office, six years after the forgery of the suicide certificate, by the state police commissioner who attacked his findings after five police fired ten shots at a teenager, five of them fatal. A local lawyer paid to advise me in preparing the case papers published a defence of Coroner Coate calling the request for inquest a “conspiracy theory”.  This lawyer ignored the evidence which Habersberger had endorsed. He also ignored the accumulation of evidence against the Hamilton-Byrne cult.

In his interpretation of June 3, 2020, Pope Francis claimed Pascal had recorded “the precise moment in which he felt that reality [God], having finally met it: on the evening of November 23, 1654.” However, there is no forensic certainty of this. There is autopsy evidence that Pascal was in enormous abdominal pain and migraines from celiac disease, which triggered insomnia, manic depression, and led eventually to death from intestinal gangrene and brain haemorrhage. In the interval, however, there is no telling – except by the popes – whether Pascal’s Memorial of 1654 followed after, or whether it came before the Wager – Fragment 233 of Pascal’s Pensées which was not published until eight years after his death. Even if Pascal’s certitude was scribbled in his own handwriting and that, plus chromatological verification of the ink and the parchment; and even if Pascal had composed the wager with God just before, when he was compiling a book on probability in cards and gambling, there can be no confidence Pascal didn’t change his mind. Who knows when the certitude was sewn into his coat seam? Who will wager that for eight years between the age of 31 and his demise at 39, Pascal didn’t think twice.

This is how Pascal expressed the wager: “If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. This being so, who will dare to undertake the decision of the question? Not we, who have no affinity to Him…”

“Let us then examine this point, and say, ‘God is, or He is not.’ But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions…Do not then reprove for error those who have made a choice; for you know nothing about it. ‘No, but I blame them for having made, not this choice, but a choice; for again both he who chooses heads and he who chooses tails are equally at fault, they are both in the wrong. The true course is not to wager at all.’”

“But you must wager,” Pascal insisted. “It is not optional. You are embarked. Which will you choose then? Let us see. Since you must choose, let us see which interests you least. You have two things to lose, the true and the good; and two things to stake, your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness; and your nature has two things to shun, error and misery. Your reason is no more shocked in choosing one rather than the other, since you must of necessity choose. This is one point settled. But your happiness? Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.—‘That is very fine. Yes, I must wager; but I may perhaps wager too much.’—Let us see. Since there is an equal risk of gain and of loss, if you had only to gain two lives, instead of one, you might still wager. But if there were three lives to gain, you would have to play (since you are under the necessity of playing), and you would be imprudent, when you are forced to play, not to chance your life to gain three at a game where there is an equal risk of loss and gain. But there is an eternity of life and happiness. And this being so, if there were an infinity of chances, of which one only would be for you, you would still be right in wagering one to win two, and you would act stupidly, being obliged to play, by refusing to stake one life against three at a game in which out of an infinity of chances there is one for you, if there were an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain. But there is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. It is all divided; wherever the infinite is and there is not an infinity of chances of loss against that of gain, there is no time to hesitate, you must give all. And thus, when one is forced to play, he must renounce reason to preserve his life, rather than risk it for infinite gain, as likely to happen as the loss of nothingness. For it is no use to say it is uncertain if we will gain, and it is certain that we risk, and that the infinite distance between the certainty of what is staked and the uncertainty of what will be gained, equals the finite good which is certainly staked against the uncertain infinite…”

Et cetera.

My problem with this rigmarole was not whether God existed or not – I was prepared to be agnostic about it during my adolescence and a game-playing bettor as a university student. However, I was already convinced that in the future the kingdoms of Heaven and Hell didn’t exist. Accordingly, I believed there was nothing to be gained from the former, and nothing to be feared from the latter, because God was an irrelevance to the outcome – He could judge nothing, neither confer the rewards of Heaven nor inflict the punishments of Hell. Ordinary mortals did both of those on earth in the present life – whether they did so in God’s name or in another cause was beside the point.

I knew as much from the use of my father’s leather strap; and of his order that I should spend my dinner with the dog at his kennel behind the kitchen; and of his threat to send me to boarding school. The beating stopped when I was old enough – eight perhaps – to say that if my father reached for his weapon to use against me, I would kill him. The terrible word shocked him; a lopsided grin appeared on his lips; he used the strap on my brother, but never again on me.

As for Heaven, Pascal, chronically sick since childhood, seems not to have apprehended it in any form in life except as a metaphor for the sky above, where the biblical manna had come from. He was too sickly to have sex – a word which doesn’t appear in the entire record of his scribblings. In its place, Pascal used the word carnal. That’s also where Pascal placed Jews and the “society of women, war and high posts.”

“The carnal Jews hold a midway place between Christians and heathens. The heathens know not God, and love the world only. The Jews know the true God, and love the world only. The Christians know the true God, and love not the world. Jews and heathens love the same good. Jews and Christians know the same God.”

“Hell is empty And all the devils are here”

“Hell is empty And all the devils are here”: in 1611 William Shakespeare put the line in Ferdinand’s mouth (centre) in the shipwreck which had been arranged by the spirit Ariel (top left) as Prospero’s (right) revenge on him – The Tempest, Act 1, Scene II, lines 213-214. “Why, that’s my spirit!” Prospero shouts his endorsement of the idea. The picture is an engraving by Benjamin Smith of a painting by George Romney, both of 1797. Fifty years after The Tempest was published, there is no sign Pascal had read the play or knew the line. In the different circumstances of their lives, Pascal had reason to be more afraid of power politics than Shakespeare.

Well, that’s where I was at the start, and where I aimed to be heading – definitely in the direction of the society of women, and in parallel with that, success at either war or politics.

But this had already been taught to me in the preaching and practice of Scotch College, Chaplain Fraser, and the other Christian boys. Pleasure with women was reserved to Jews, I decided; it was also something I didn’t have to imagine, Heaven on earth. For Christians, however, it was ruled out. No wonder they were so jealous and hateful – to women as much as to Jews.

Over the meat dish at dinner in Moscow with Patriarch Alexei II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, I asked him whether, since the end of the Soviet Union had allowed the recruitment of new priests and the creation of new seminaries to educate them, he had formed a view of Pascal’s Wager. A kindly faced, quietly spoken man, Alexei had been trained by his father, also a priest, and then in seminaries in Leningrad. He was unable to answer the question; Pascal was unfamiliar to him. Atheism equally so, it seemed.

Theologically speaking, Alexei had been poorly educated. But he was no ignoramus, no fool. What sense can be made of the hocus-pocus with which Pascal had struggled for his short and painful life, and which the Roman Catholic Church has reinterpreted? If nonsense after all, then it was wise on the Patriarch’s part to ignore it.

What on earth can Pascal have meant by asking: “is it probable that probability gives assurance?” What can be understood in his answer: “I fear nothing; I hope for nothing. It is not so with the bishops… They have given a ridiculous explanation of certitude; for, after having established that all their ways are sure, they have no longer called that sure which leads to heaven without danger of not arriving there by it, but that which leads there without danger of going out of that road.”

The one certainty in this prattle is Pascal’s attack on the churchmen. And once the wager is taken against them, God may remain but only on condition of strict privacy and in the lining of a coat. There, if God is a secret not to be revealed, there is no religion whatsoever.

And so, if the future is unknown, and choice cannot be reached by reasoning out the probabilities, when success and failure, right and wrong, truth and falsehood may lie ahead, either rightwards or leftwards, and if it’s impossible to decide which way to choose, it’s quite rational in Pascal’s terms to toss coins, heads or tails. What is rational then, and psychologically necessary for the uncertainty lying ahead, is that having tossed, chosen, and acted, you should never look back.

I also apply the rule by never walking underneath a ladder, kissing across a threshold,  or crossing the path of a black cat. When the New Year is being rung in, I burn a little piece of paper on which I’ve inscribed my wish for the new year, drop it in flames into my champagne glass, and quaff the lot.

*The Judaization of the nationality oath didn’t quite make it into law in 2010. It did become the law in 2018 as the three “basic principles” of “the nation state of the Jewish people”; the third of these principles says “the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is exclusive to the Jewish People”.   This is the only example in the world of a constitution in which God, the nation state, and nationality or citizenship have been made not only exclusionary as an article of religious faith, but identical in politics; that means force.

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