How John Lennon ‘Imagined’ it Wrong

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In new book, Bar-Ilan University professor makes the case against Lennon’s universalism.

A mosaic for John Lennon in New York's Central Park.

He kills John Lennon again, and frankly it’s a relief.

In his newest book, John Lennon and The Jews: A Philosophical Rampage, Ze’ev Maghen delineates exactly why the music legend’s most dearly espoused dream—captured poignantly in his song “Imagine”—is anything but that. He then weaves this thesis into the answer to the question that has plagued Jewry in recent decades: What is really so important about being Jewish?

Maghen, who is chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University as well as a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, writes in surprisingly casual prose. With statements that drop your jaw to the floor and cause you to frequently erupt in laughter, he snatches you from wherever you had plopped down to read his book and drops you right down by his side. At a bar, debating life’s biggest questions over a cold beer.

This is the kind of environment his writing style creates, and it draws you in. If you read Maghen’s book, you are forced to think—hard.

Using bits of philosophy, history, and logical deduction, Maghen argues that Lennon’s dream, universalism—the desire for the world to live “as one” with no differentiating characteristics—actually spells out the destruction of what is at the core of being human.

To illustrate this point, Maghen speaks directly to you, a tone consistent throughout the book, and asks what you value most in life. Pre-empting the excuses and circumventions most of us would take to get around the question, Maghen focuses us, asks the question again, and delivers the answer we may have already known subconsciously: love.

Not just any love though, but preferential love, Maghen clarifies. “Preferential love” is the term Maghen applies to the kind of love that identifies some people (lover, mother, child) as special and others (strangers) as not. This kind of love stands in stark contrast to the universal love advocated by Lennon and others: that one is applied to everyone equally.

The kind of love that “distinguishes and prefers,” Maghen writes, is the only kind of love that’s really worth living for, and is at the core of how we humans work. “We all love preferentially, and that’s the only kind of love we value, the only kind of love we want back from the people we love.”

He continues that it is, and always will be, in human nature to prefer certain people over others, to create groups and communities that they relate to better than others, love more than others. Most of all Maghen advocates that this is a good way to live, in fact, the best way to live.

These kinds of preferences, Maghen explains, lead to multiculturalism, to a world of “dazzling diversity, of independent and self-respecting societies and communities that value, retain, and revel in their own uniqueness,” and the only thing that can actually lead to peace.

Peace, while unattainable through John Lennon’s method, actually becomes a possibility when different people and cultures find a commonality in what matters most to them, Maghen argues. “Prefer your family, and you will have something genuinely in common with all decent…loving human beings the world over, an experience to share with almost everyone,” he writes, “and there’s the real common ground for you: we all love preferentially. There’s the real basis for cross-cultural understanding. There’s the only potential for peace.”

But what about fascism and other past and present murderous regimes, you ask? Good question, and one that Maghen diffuses easily. To find out how, you’ll have to read the book.

So, where does Jewishness fit into all of this? Maghen explains that in order to create multiculturalism, we have to cultivate multiple cultures all over the world. Simple enough, but what we often forget is that Jewishness is one of those cultures. Still, what does that even mean? What is it, really, to be Jewish?

This is when Maghen really spells it out, and in so doing, provides us the tools to explain what we have instinctively felt since we each realized the fact that we were Jewish. We’ve all been there, questioned by our gentile friends or significant others, “Why is being Jewish so important to you—you don’t even go to temple?!” or “How can you care so much about Israel—you’ve never even been there?!”

Maghen’s answer? It doesn’t matter. The term “Judaism,” the religious component of being Jewish, is a modern invention, not even mentioned in the Torah once. The word, “Jew” then, or “Yehudim,” as it is written in the biblical text, is a geographical or national term, describing a people who are from the land of Judea.

“The house of Jacob…has always deemed itself one vast extended family, glued together over four adventurous millennia by a whole slew of factors, only one of which consists of belief in and obedience to that timeless national constitution known as the Torah,” Maghen writes.

Being Jewish is a form of kinship, being a part of the same family, with the same history, and the same destiny. “The future of the Jewish peoples is as much up to you as it is up to the current Israeli prime minister,” Maghen writes. It is this tribal bond that connects Jews across the world, almost as if one electrical current runs through us all. It is a bond, Maghen explains, that has dissipated for many other tribes over the generations, and thus is a foreign concept to most, which leads the world to label it as “Jewish exclusivism.”

Maghen’s book is gritty, it’s down to earth, it’s real, and it’s challenging to do justice to it here. Peppered with fun facts (did you know Israel may be currently owned by a nun?), humor, personal stories, and history come to life, the book makes you take a look at everything society and institutions of higher learning have taught you to take for granted and simply ask, “why?”

Maghen allows the reader to feel—relief. Relief that it is okay to judge, to choose, to identify, and to think that maybe John Lennon got it wrong.

John Lennon & the Jews: A Philosophical Rampage

By Ze’ev Maghen

CreateSpace, 296 pages,

$12.50, Available from Amazon

Masha Rifkin is the Managing Editor of JNS.

Posted on September 20, 2011 and filed under Book Review, Books.