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Jewish Journal

The End of Days

August 5, 1999 | 8:00 pm

The way Richard Landes goes on about Y2K and the end of days, you might think he's some kind of nut. He's not. It's just that he's been watching kooks for so long, he sometimes begins to sound like one.

A professor of medieval history at Boston University, Landes is a leading expert in what's known as millennial studies. He and his colleagues peer into the minds of people who think the end of the world is nigh. Landes' specialty is the religious unrest that he says swept Christian Europe around the year 1000 -- what he calls "the Y1K problem."

Lately, he has diversified. For the last four years, he's headed Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies, tracking the unrest sparked by the approach of the year 2000. He's fast becoming the most quoted expert on the approaching calendar shift and what it means.

It's drawing controversy. Besides analyzing the various religious raptures, death cults and computer bugs associated with Y2K, he's become a sort of advocate. Landes claims that the millennium's dangers aren't being taken seriously enough. He wants the public -- government, business, society at large, the Jewish community in specific -- to start preparing.

Landes doesn't believe the world will end next year. A religious Jew -- raised Conservative, currently Orthodox -- he attaches no special meaning to having three zeroes in the Gregorian calendar.

No, what worries him is that a lot of other people believe it, and they may respond in alarming ways. That could make life unpleasant for the rest of us. It won't be the end of the world, but it might sometimes feel like it.

He's especially worried about what happens when the world doesn't end, and true believers look for someone to blame. "In the later periods of a millennium wave, there's a period of disappointment and frustration," Landes says. "In the past, this has often led to the scapegoating of Jews. Things like, 'If only they had converted, Jesus would have come.' And that can get nasty."

"My point isn't that this is going to happen," he says. "My point is that it could, and we need to talk with Christians and take steps to prevent it."

Classic millennialism is based on the New Testament Book of Revelations, which is often interpreted to say the year 2000 will bring the second coming of Jesus and the war of Armageddon, followed by the kingdom of God on Earth.

Landes warns that thousands of "premillennial" Protestants will want to be in Jerusalem next year to witness it firsthand. Some may prepare for resurrection by attempting mass suicide. Others may try to help things along by starting the war themselves -- blowing up the Temple Mount, for example. The Israeli police take the danger seriously enough that they've formed a special millennialism unit.

Not everyone who believes in the millennium is a dangerous nut, Landes cautions. "Millennialism simply refers to the belief that at some time in the future, there will be a dramatic transformation. The classic millennial vision is Isaiah 2:1-3, about swords and plowshares."

Such beliefs often make for a better world, he says. Zionism, liberalism, even modernism itself are all forms of millennial belief.

When it gets dangerous is when it turns apocalyptic. "Apocalyptic means you think it's about to happen," he says. "If I tell you the kingdom is coming in 200 years, it's not going to have a lot of impact on your life. But if I tell you it's happening now, you get a new set of rules, and people start defecting to the new rules."

Landes' end-time studies cover a range of trends and players: Mainstream churches innocently celebrating Jesus' 2,000th birthday; apocalyptic sects claiming that the new year will bring Jesus' second coming and the war of Armageddon; oddball death cults, such as the suicidal Heaven's Gate and the homicidal Tokyo subway plotters.

He's also studying responses to the notorious Y2K (for "Year 2000") computer bug, the programming defect that could cause computers all over the world to stop dead at midnight, Dec. 31. The computer failures could disrupt anything from electric grids to food-distribution networks. Doomsday cultists call the bug a clear sign that the end is near. Landes calls it "the coincidence to die for."

He's in the center of a fast-growing field. Interdisciplinary millennial studies now go on at dozens of universities, combining history, psychology, political science and religion. The American Academy of Religion has brought the field together at an annual consultation since 1995.

Ironically, Landes' Y2K expertise may overshadow his original career. His main work, studying medieval European end-time unrest, follows a classic theory now widely discarded. Many now say the first millennium passed quietly. Landes is part of a stubborn minority.

That hasn't slowed his Y2K work, though. Whatever happened 1,000 years ago, something is happening now. Landes is one of the clearest voices addressing it.

The computer bug typifies the ways Landes thinks society fails to confront the millennium. Government and business are reprogramming their computers. The press reports their progress. But nobody is telling the public how bad it is.

In the vacuum, Landes says, conspiracy theories are spreading. Frightened consumers, unable to get straight answers about their water supply, are logging onto far-right Web sites at record rates.

"My personal opinion is, this is something we should be talking about as a community, not as individuals," Landes says. "But we're passing on that discussion. We've decided to sleep through it."

The same goes for the Jewish community. "The Jewish community is basically immobilized when it comes to thinking about Y2K," he says.

Right now, he says, Jews have a window of opportunity. "We have a lot of slack from a wide range of groups. The Holocaust is still fresh as a matter of discussion. People are reluctant to get unpleasant with us." He cites Vatican recognition of Israel and widespread Protestant support for Israel.

At the fringes, though, classic anti-Semitism thrives. "If you go on the Web and type 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion,' you get 300,000 hits. This stuff is out there."

How long will it remain marginal? That depends on what Jews do next, Landes says. Already, disputes over Holocaust history are chilling Catholic-Jewish relations. Relations with the Protestant right could sour in the wake of a post-millennial letdown. What's urgently needed, he says, is frank talk -- with others, and among ourselves.

"When I first read 'The Protocols,' I was stunned. I told a colleague, we should publish this to let people know. He said: 'You think you're inoculating people? You're actually spreading the virus.'

"That's the crucial question. Do we talk about these things openly? Do you or do you not trust the American public? If you don't trust the American public, then God help us."


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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