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A bridge too far
08/16/07
Building project in Tel-Aviv (Enlarge)


Opera singer Gaby Sade used to have a very short fuse. If someone cut him off, he was capable of getting out of the car and giving the offending driver more than a piece of his mind. If if did not come to blows, he would at least tell him, in choice language, exactly what he thought of his mother. Two weeks ago, Sade cut off a driver and received a "Son of ...., who taught you to drive?" Sade listened patiently, smiled to himself, even apologized. He then got out of his car, on the busy road, and sang an aria for the stunned driver, free of charge. What had changed? Everything. Sade, who used to be just an ordinary guy, is now a Scientologist.

Ever since she was a little girl, architect Simona Bar Sagi suffered from terrible seasickness. ("It was enough just to get near a ship"). Throughout her adult life she avoided even the most placid streams. A few years ago, after attending a special Scientology course in Sidney, Australia, she passed the port and saw a ship setting off into the Pacific. Without a second thought she signed up for a cruise. "When the ship left the bay and entered the ocean, it passed two high boulders from which Captain Cook discovered Australia," she says. "The waves were very high and the passengers were told to go below, because the ship was rocking like crazy. But I stayed on deck, took in the view and enjoyed life, until I noticed that I was completely alone and that everyone was lying below, wiped out."

How do you explain it?

"The process I underwent in the course cleaned out all kinds of nonsense from my life - like throwing up on a ship - and they have disappeared for good. That is a physical example of something that happened to me internally. I learned that instead of suffering you can enjoy life."

For a long time Moshe Warshavsky, the former municipal architect of Tel Aviv, had a problem with his elbow. He could barely move his arm. Then he took an advanced Scientology course on a cruise. "As soon as I completed the course and understood what I understood, suddenly everything clicked and my arm began functioning normally, after years of conventional treatments that didn't help."

It sounds unbelievable. Why doesn't everyone do a Scientology course? "It poses a threat to the establishment. All the theories about using the mind to heal the body - not by conventional medicine - will hurt the pharmaceutical companies. So they react by creating antagonism toward Scientology."

Three years ago, Dorit Gabay, who had been an assistant to former tax commissioner Doron Levy and was a senior official in Haifa's tax department, met someone who changed her life: a client who needed urgent tax planning. Gabay completed the job in five days. The satisfied client told her, "You're amazing, but you're wasting yourself. You could be an empire - because whatever doesn't go forward, goes backward." Gabay felt something inside of her being released. "Omigod, he's absolutely right," she told herself. The client brought her a stack of books by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. She began reading and enrolled in introductory courses, together with her daughter, who was 14 at the time.

Since then, Gabay has in fact become a bit of an empire. After receiving a franchise from the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises (WISE), she founded a management training center based on Hubbard's techniques. She has a publishing house and operates a tax school. "I was strengthened economically," she says. "My daughter is absolutely fantastic. We don't have arguments because of adolescent hormones. She is the coordinator of the Israeli branch of Youth for Human Rights International [a nonprofit organization affiliated with Scientology]. I am happy. I take responsibility and I do what I can for Israel."

The celebrities' project

Twenty years ago, deputy education minister Miriam Glazer-Tassa appointed an inter-ministerial commission to examine cults operating in Israel. Its report listed Scientology as a cult and barred it from institutions under Education Ministry supervision. That directive is still in fore. According to a statement issued by the ministry, it "opposes the introduction of learning materials of the Scientology cult into schools and day camps" but this cannot always be prevented "because the cult uses deception and manipulative methods of persuasion and occasionally offers free events while concealing their true underlying essence. Recently, use was made of underage children who disseminated a false statement to the media to the effect that they had received Education Ministry authorization."

The Scientologists have been fighting for years for broad social acceptance. They have described all the benefits of their applied religious philosophy. They have cited innumerable instances of people being rescued from devastation at the last minute. But they gained little ground until a few celebrities in the United States were captivated by Scientology and almost overnight transformed it from an apologetic cult into a triumphant religion, and L. Ron Hubbard into God himself. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, John Travolta, Chick Corea, Lisa Marie Presley, Nicole Kidman and others did for Scientology what Richard Gere did for the Dalai Lama.

American trends almost always come to Israel, although typically it takes a few years, and all the signs are that Scientology is here. Middle-class seekers are signing on to the message of redemption promised by all kinds of cults, with a clear preference for Hollywood-style Scientology. "Israel has never before witnessed the kind of search after mystical movements we are seeing today," says Rami Feller, a businessman who became newly observant of Judaism and is active in cult deprogramming efforts. "There is no businessman who doesn't go to coaching-with-Buddhism or to a workshop to improve something with the monk who sold his Ferrari. Never before in Israel's history have there been so many locally-made gurus. Everyone is getting into the business because they realize that it pays off," Feller said.

A conversation with a Scientologist is unfailingly studded with dozens of references to what L. Ron Hubbard said, wrote, invented, thought, stated. Hubbard, an adventurer and a science-fiction writer, was born in 1911 in Nebraska. In 1949 he said, "If you want to make millions, the best way is to start a new religion." A year later, he published "Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," which became a best-seller. In it, Hubbard set forth a therapy technique that can heal all mental illness and overcome obstructions to happiness. Hubbard himself was surprised by the phenomenal success of his book, which provoked an outrage in psychological and psychiatric establishment. In short order, Hubbard became a sought-after public speaker capable of filling auditoriums. In 1954 he founded the Church of Scientology in Washington, D.C., benefiting from the tax-exempt status of religious institutions in the U.S. for his rapidly mounting profits.

Hubbard died in 1986, leaving a legacy of 5,000 written works, including dozens of books that have been translated into scores of languages (according to the "Guinness Book of Records," he is considered the world's most widely translated and most prolific author), about 3,000 recorded lectures and approximately 10 million believers around the world, in 170 magnificent centers and churches. No wonder he is sitting on the other side of the bridge (as they say in Scientology), laughing his head off.

Scientology was brought into Israel in 1970 by Prof. Yehoshafat Givon, who taught mathematics, computer sciences and philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. He had just returned from San Francisco, where he taught Scientology in a parlor group. "Some say I wasn't the first," Givon noted, "and that what I brought was not Scientology. I don't know, I'm not a historian."

The Scientology and Dianetics Center in Israel, headquartered in Tel Aviv, is a private company, most of whose shares are held by Scientology corporations abroad. In the church hierarchy, the Israeli center operates under the European center, which is subordinate to the main office in Los Angeles. Other centers scattered around Israel operate independently to disseminate the doctrine. According to the Tel Aviv center, there a few hundred Scientologists and thousands of Scientology students in Israel. Of late, the organization seems to be on a roll, thanks mainly to the leaders' determination to recruit opinion makers: celebrities and businesspeople.

There is barely a subject that Hubbard or his successors have left out. Every sphere of life is covered in typical Hubbardian directions for use. Short, catchy phrases are accompanied by colorful visual examples that appear to be straight out of a sci-fi movie. An article from 1955 contains explicit instructions for hunting celebrities. There are people that America increasingly listens to, Hubbard wrote, and the role of Scientology is to bring in such people as trophies who will impress and influence others. "Project Celebrity" lists Hollywood stars and others from the period, about whom Hubbard tells the faithful, "We will allocate this person to you as your game. Having been awarded one of these celebrities, it will be up to you to learn what you can about your quarry and then put yourself at every hand across his or her path, not permitting discouragements or 'no's' or secretaries to intervene. If you bring one of them home, you will get a small plaque as a reward."

Endless bridge

Two weeks ago, the publication of 18 new books by Hubbard was celebrated at Kibbutz Shfayim. In addition, the "ideal organization" project to build new Scientology centers in the world's major cities was unveiled. Like Gothic cathedrals, these magnificent edifices are intended to emphasize the insignificance of the simple believer. The event was attended by local Scientologists and their families, who have donated funds for a grand new center planned for Tel Aviv.

Last March the Scientology center acquired the building of Jaffa's old Alhambra Theater. In the simulation distributed by the center, accompanied by the slogan "freedom and peace for the nations of the region," the renovated building looks like a poor man's Las Vegas. Amir Levi, one of the directors of the Tel Aviv center and its spokesperson, is secretive about the subject: "It hasn't been finalized yet," he says. "It is being handled at the international level. There is an office abroad that is dealing with it according to the standards laid down by Ron Hubbard."

The Tel Aviv Municipality denies all knowledge about the project. According to a statement from the spokesperson's office, "The building in question is slated for preservation, and any change must be coordinated with the preservation unit. There were some queries in the past, but at this stage no official request has been submitted to convert the structure for any sort of use."

Until March, the building housed the Notzar Theater, which had leased it for about a decade. Guy Cohen, Notzar's managing director, said the entire subject of the sale was shrouded in secrecy. "Everyone we tried to talk to declined to volunteer information," he says. "The only thing we were told is that the building was sold to a group from abroad and would be converted into a college." The liaison between Notzar and the theater's buyers is attorney Gur Finkelstein, who attached a caveat to the Alhambra property deed. According to his office, Finkelstein is currently on vacation and unavailable for comment.

Donors to the building project include international artist Michal Rovner, Gaby Sade, Dorit Gabay and her daughter and Miriam Soglowek (wife of Soglowek Industries' shareholder and Scientologist Hanan Soglowek). Gaby Sade is not aware that he contributed to the new building. "You donate to the umbrella organization and not to a specific project," he said.

How much did you give?

Sade: "Not much. Less than $10,000. I am happy to donate. I know they are doing amazing work with children in Africa, and the new building in Berlin - it cost a fortune. It makes me feel good and it makes my accountant feel good. What do I care? It's deductible."

Michal Rovner said through her public relations agent Yael Lotan, also a Scientologist, that at this stage she does not want to comment on the subject "or to appear in such an article. When she decides to speak, she will tell all," Lotan said.

Scientology is a two-track religion, practical and spiritual. Progression in Scientology is likened to walking across a bridge with a beginning and a middle but no end, hence the promise of eternal life. "The bridge to total freedom," it is called. The idea is that each course is another stage on the bridge. The introductory courses are relatively inexpensive, costing between a few hundred and several thousand of shekels. The advanced courses cost tens or hundreds of thousands of shekels and are accompanied by a process called auditing.

The church equates the process with psychotherapy, the difference being that the auditor (a Scientology spiritual counselor) has no professional training in therapy. Auditing is done by means of an Electropsychometer, or E-Meter for short, a Hubbard invention: two tin cans connected by a wire to an instrument with a dial that the auditee holds in both hands while replying to questions. When the questions make the auditee uncomfortable, the dial moves to indicate where the auditor should intervene and what to treat. Progress is dependent on passing tests administered at the end of each stage. Those who do not succeed return to the beginning, paying again and continuing along the bridge.

Gaby Sade discovered Scientology seven years ago. He has been on the road to happiness every day since then and believes it is permanent. "My sister Sandra [the actress Sandra Sade, who is married to the actor Moni Moshonov] heard about Scientology from her friend, Simona Bar Sagi, a certified Scientologist. She went to all kinds of talks and got so involved in it that she sent me, too. In the meantime, she left and I was hooked."

What grabbed you?

Sade: "My profession is filled with unethical behavior and intrigues, and I always felt bad about that and looked for tools to cope. I found Scientology, the ultimate tool against people who like to suppress artists." In Scientology, a "suppressive person" is one who criticizes or acts against the church. "An artist is an amazing soul but very vulnerable," Sade continues, "and it turns out that there are many people in the profession who look for ways to put you down, in one way or another, who bring all their sick desires to this pure profession. They might be directors, conductors or managers."

How did Scientology help you overcome this?

"It gave me applied tools for coping and understanding myself. It organized my interpersonal communications. I underwent auditing, which breaks apart everything you have been lugging around for years. It's an amazing experience. Reading Hubbard's books afforded me a type of intellectual interest and opened a new niche that fascinates me. At some point I would like to get into it full-speed. I am about to take a course on group dynamics."

How much money have you put into all this?

"Compared to academic studies it's cheap. The basic courses range from NIS 1,600 to NIS 3,000. You use a self-study technique and go at your own pace until you finish."

Are you aware that Scientology was designated a cult in Israel?

"Opera is a cult, too. People are afraid of everything that helps without medicines and electric shocks, psychiatry or chemicals. It gives me powers that you can't imagine. I live in the present, I don't know what the past or future are. I am living 10 times more clearly than before."

160 hours in a sauna

Scientology is a secretive, compartmentalized religion. It has ranks through which one progresses, like judo. The lowest rank is OT I (Operating Thetan), the highest is OT VIII, but there is more. "We know that there is OT XV, but the World Center has not yet released that knowledge to the world," Amir Levi saids.

What is stopping them?

Levi: "Part of the principle is that we want to advance world society overall and bring it to higher states. This knowledge is not meant only for the elite, so as soon as we grow sufficiently, at the world societal level, when people are more advanced, the knowledge will be released. But that time has not yet arrived."

At the advanced spiritual levels, OT III and above, the adepts learn about Xenu, who ruled a far galaxy 75 million years ago and brought his people to Earth in DC8-like spaceships. This story is quoted from writings by Hubbard in 1967. The remains of the galactic creatures are still here and are carried within us human beings. One of the goals of Scientology, in the advanced auditing process, is to remove these particles from our body. It is not by chance that this science fiction tale is kept very secret from Scientology beginners.

Simona Bar Sagi, who got into Scientology 13 years ago, is now an OT V. But she doesn't give away much. "I studied according to the method of Ron Hubbard, which says 'It's right if it's right for you,'" she says. "I went through processes - I had a great thirst for knowledge - and I have only good things to say."

And in practical terms?

Bar Sagi: "I am more efficient, get more done, can take on bigger assignments, my planning abilities are better and my perceptions are sharper."

How much did it all cost you?

"I don't think it was a lot; I never added it up."

Did you donate?

"Regrettably, not much. I offered to design the new building for free, but they told me it would be done by the Los Angeles office."

Last week PR agent Motti Morell described his relationship to Scientology. "Ron Hubbard wrote many courses on advertising, public relations and the market, and when I read them I saw they matched what I had learned in practice, ny beliefs," he said ("Below the belt, without remorse," Haaretz Magazine, August 10). "I'm not a member of the group but I learned things I needed for work and for myself. Maybe it made me softer."

The most advanced Scientology courses are held aboard a ship that cruises the Caribbean or other exotic locales. Moshe Warshavsky, who took one of these courses, was exposed to Scientology 13 years ago and is now immersed in it mentally and financially. "In the 1980s, when they were on Dizengoff Street [in Tel Aviv], I was handed a brochure on the street. I put it on my desk in the office, on the pile of things that are interesting but for which you never have time. One day a girl came to the office and started to talk about it. It really grabbed me. I went back to the brochure on my desk and said, 'The teacher appears when the student is ready.'"

Warshavsky did a few courses and began to make his way on the bridge. But before anything else he went to a sauna. In Scientology, the sauna process is one of physical purification, parallel to the spiritual "Clear" the students go through as they advance, and it is essential. All told, Warshavsky spent 160 hours in the sauna - "four hours a day for a month and a half."

Isn't that dangerous?

Warshavsky: "It's done under medical supervision. You can go out if you want. I did so twice, and others did, too, and nothing happens. If you supplement it with vitamins, drinking and salts, no damage is caused."

Why so long?

"The body absorbs toxins that cannot be eliminated except by perspiring. The process made me healthier. My eyesight improved quite a bit. You can see on the bodies of the girls sitting there the texture of all the bathing suits they wore over the years - that's because the sun's radiation is released from the body. People who were injured by the radiation at Chernobyl also went through the process and were released."

How do you know when the poisons left you for good?

"It's an individual thing. For one person it might take a week, for another a month. I felt for myself when it was over, and the E-Meter confirmed it."

Warshavsky feels as if he has been improved. He lives and works according to Hubbard's principles and feels that everything is possible. "If Morell succeeded in making [Moshe] Katsav president and [Natan] Sharansky a cabinet minister thanks to Ron Hubbard's techniques, then everything is possible. My life today is simpler and better. I am rid of mental baggage that we carry around our whole life."

How much money did you put into it?

"As much as it was worth to me. Hundreds of thousands of shekels, and it is worth every agora."

Did you also make a donation?

"Not a lot."

The way to happiness

The 100 staff members of the Tel Aviv Scientology center do not get plaques for excellence. They barely get paid. They work in return for reimbursement of expenses and for job satisfaction. On Friday afternoons the center is buzzing with activity. In the classrooms people are practicing, watching videos, reading, focusing on themselves and waiting for feedback from the auditors. There are tapes, Hubbard's books and colorful T-shirts for sale. Ofer Plaut builds figures out of modeling clay - it's how he tests whether he understood the material in his teaching methods course. Soon an auditor will show up to determine whether Plaut can advance another few steps along the bridge. In his free time Plaut advises businesspeople using Hubbard's methods. Levi is also a business consultant, while the center's director, Guy Cohen (no relation to the Notzar Theater managing director of the same name) works in business administration.

The center is run like a war room. On one large wall is a chart of the organizational hierarchy, an exact copy of the one drawn by Hubbard. There are divisions, officers and directors for special missions. The bottom line says, "The valuable final product of the organization: valuable people who produce valuable final products which create a valuable public."

"We want to help people with good social abilities to have more ability," Cohen said. "I want to take capable opinion leaders and get them to help people to become better, so our society will be more sane."

Those words have a missionary ring to them.

Cohen: "Seventeen percent of children take Ritalin today. We are against psychiatric drugs. It is immoral. If those children were to eat and drink properly, and if everyone knew about mental block, we could improve the situation for teachers, parents and children."

Why are you against psychiatric treatment?

"We have different solutions. The more a society takes psychiatric drugs, the less sane it becomes. There is a great deal of abuse, and human rights are an important part of what we do."

The Scientology center did not respond to any questions about finances. They refuse to publish their annual revenue figures on the ground that they are a private company.

Similarly, the prices of the courses, of Hubbard's books and other publications students are asked to purchase are also apparently a trade secret. Scientology uses quasi-social organizations, mainly with a business orientation, in order to win hearts and minds without arousing excessive resistance: business consulting, human resources agencies, anti-drug activities, but also human rights organizations and associations to protect the mentally ill.

One of the business promotion booklets, "Business Power," was written by Hanan Soglowek. He stepped down from management of the family business in Shlomi seven years ago, after being accused of pressuring employees to join the Church of Scientology. He denied the allegations at the time. At about the same time, he distributed 2,800 copies of Hubbard's "The Way to Happiness" to Jewish and Arab residents of the Galilee, explaining that the booklet was known for its conciliatory virtues: He credited the publication with improving the situation in Kosovo. Miriam Soglowek said in response that the family has no comment, and her husband's consulting firm did not respond to requests by Haaretz.

"The Way to Happiness: A Common-Sense Guide to Better Living" is an innocent-looking publication, with a dove and an olive branch on the cover, and 21 precepts inside: Take care of yourself, have self-control, set a good example, do not murder, don't do anything illegal, be worthy of trust and more.

The messages are Hubbard's, the distribution of the booklet in Israel is via the Association for Prosperity and Security in the Middle East, which also offers free talks to children and adults. Two weeks ago the booklet was distributed in a summer camp at Kibbutz Nachsholim, which is under Education Ministry supervision, together with a talk by one of the association's volunteers, who couldn't understand why the nine-year-olds yawned when he expounded on the precept "Don't be promiscuous."

The Education Ministry said in response that it ordered the camp closed down and that "at no stage was the booklet 'The Way to Happiness' authorized by anyone in the ministry." That is not accurate.

In 2002, Limor Livnat, the education minister at the time, wrote a letter to the chairman of the association, Danny Vidislavski, congratulating him and noting that the booklet was a tool for activity and for contributing to an atmosphere of violence prevention in schools.

Cleaning the planet

D. joined the Church of Scientology a year and a half ago under the influence of a new acquaintance. He filled out an application with 200 questions - the American, or Oxford, Capacity Analysis, as he was told.

Afterward he was advised to enroll in a personality evaluation and perfection course for NIS 500 in order to get rid of a problematic personality trait. "I was told that I get angry fast but also calm down fast," he said. D. completed the course, but concluded that Scientology was not for him.

"It didn't feel right in my gut," he says. "I saw people wandering around with a glazed look. I saw all the books by Ron Hubbard and I asked someone why there weren't books by other people. She gave me an angry look and said, 'We don't need other books. Everything we need is in the books by Ron Hubbard. We have Scientology and that is enough for us.' One of the things I realized quickly was that they do brainwashing."

During the Second Lebanon War, D. related, he was astounded to see how deep the Scientologists' belief went. "One evening we were summoned to the center and someone called Guy Cohen's mobile phone from abroad and said he had a way to end the war. He suggested seizing Hamas men and hooking them up to the E-Meter and thus finding out where [abducted soldier] Gilad Shalit is, and then sending in commandos and that would be that. There were about 20 people there, and they all took it really seriously. One of them said he knows someone in the Shin Bet [security service] and maybe he could help. I said, 'I don't know what you drank this morning,' but apart from me no one got up and no one said anything."

S. belonged to the Church of Scientology for about six years. "I did a course on how to get people to become Scientologists, how to sell people what they need, at their most vulnerable point. There are special techniques for learning where a person feels that something is screwing him in life, and then you tell him that there is a chance that Scientology can help. But soon the person forgets why he got into it in the first place, such as to be calmer with himself, to make more money, to achieve cosmic identification - all those goals are cast out and the person understands that it's a lot more important to help Scientology develop and to clean the planet."

But overall their messages sound positive.

S.: "The positive messages are a cover for an organization managed by undemocratic means, and there is no chance for a rank-and-file Scientologist to do something the Church of Scientology disagrees with, that something is bothering him. Critical thoughts are not part of the game. That person will always be told that it's not Scientology, it's something in him that is wrong. And he will have to go to the ethics officer to help him deal with it - for payment, of course. If other members hear him joking about Scientology, they must report the person to the ethics officer."

How does the officer deal with it?

"He gives [the offender] assignments to help him reform, and after that he has to ask each person in the group for permission to return." 

Haaretz 

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