Saturday 14 November 2009
Nobody seems to know just what Barack Obama said to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the two met recently at the White House. In fact, when it comes to
From the outside, it looks like Obama and his advisers are drifting without a rudder, unable to guide themselves, much less the Israelis and Palestinians, toward the peace the president says he's committed to. Pundits chalk it up to the administration's ineptitude or the power of the Israeli lobby or the chaotic state of Palestinian politics, or all of the above.
Perhaps, though, none of these factors ultimately make much difference. Perhaps it matters not a whit what the
The Jewish Israeli body politic is diseased, that one man writes, because it has not adjusted to the Jews' reentry into history with a state of their own. Too many Jews are still stuck in the ancient feeling of powerlessness and victimhood.
Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told Israelis that their country is militarily powerful, and neither friendless nor at risk. They should therefore stop thinking and acting like victims. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, says that the whole world is against
Gripped by such unrealistic fears, Israelis refuse Obama's call to stop expanding settlements and start compromising for peace.
Pathological? Who would print such scurrilous anti-Israel charges - some anti-Semitic rag? Nope. This opinion comes straight from the op-ed page of The New York Times.
But who would write such a fierce attack, calling Israelis sick with "victimhood"? Some anti-Semitic apologist for
Just look at the front page of any Israeli newspaper on any given day, where a surprising percentage of the stories answer the same central question: Who is threatening / hating / vilifying
The most interesting piece of evidence to back up Siegman's diagnosis of "pathology" was a bitter tirade launched against him by Bradley Burston, a columnist for
Henry Siegman may have laughed and cried at the same time when he read this hysterical outburst of nonsense. But he certainly wasn't surprised. He knows that too many Israelis, some of them quite intelligent and thoughtful, are far too quick to abandon all logic because they feel victimized, as if the whole world hated them and were out to destroy their Jewish state.
As Siegman pointed out in a response to Burston, Israeli Jews know this better than anyone: "The pathology I described is invoked most frequently by Israelis themselves. The term for it in
"We don't need them. They'll never see things our way, no matter what. Let them go. It's a new Israeli approach which borrows from the very worst of our aging instincts. It says: We're moral, our enemies are out to exterminate us along with our state, that's all you need to know. No modifications necessary. Stay the course. Concede nothing. Ease no siege. Give no ground. Ever."
"If that is not a perfect description of a pathological mindset," Siegman concluded, "it will do until a better one comes along."
The impulse to see enemies everywhere, bent on exterminating Jews, may grow out of centuries of persecution in diaspora (although part of the pathology is a tragic forgetting of the many diaspora Jews who lived relatively undisturbed, and sometimes even befriended, by their gentile neighbors). But one leading symptom of the syndrome emerged only when Jews moved out of diaspora into their own state, with their own military machine. It's
As long as this pathology dominates Israeli political life, it's hard to see what Barack Obama or anyone else can do to move the Israelis toward a just peace, one that could be acceptable to even the most moderate Palestinians (who need no special mental condition to feel victimized; all they have to do is look out the window at the Israeli military patrols passing by).
Why should this pathology persist, even though it locks Israelis into an endless cycle of conflict? Henry Siegman has an answer, and it's the most disturbing part of his diagnosis. Most Israeli Jews forget Rabin's assurance that they are already secure, he says, because Netanyahu's fear-mongering talk of an impending Holocaust is "still a more comforting message for too many Israelis."
Pathological feelings of fear, weakness and victimization are comforting? How can that be? For starters, they automatically put Jews on the side of innocence. Who can blame the weak victim for the violence? All the trouble, it seems, is started by "the other side."
This attitude shapes Israeli policymaking as well as public opinion. For example, a study done for the Israeli Defense Ministry predicted that if
"The Iranians' typical willingness to sacrifice many victims for a long period of time in a conflict with
As usual, the Israelis assume that all the decisions are made by the other side. To be a victim is to be passive, unable to influence one's opponent - ultimately, unconnected to one's opponent except by acts of confrontation and conflict.
And if all the trouble is started by the other side, then all the fault must lie with the other side. Weakness and victimization seem to prove that (in Burston's words) "We're moral." Obviously, it's our enemies who are immoral and thus to blame for all our problems. So Israelis have no reason even to consider changing any of their policies or behaviors.
The strange comfort derived from that attitude is now the biggest obstacle to peace. Most Israelis say they are willing to accept a Palestinian state, if only they can have a guarantee of security. But their pathology convinces the majority to assume that the Palestinians will never let them live in security, so there's no reason to try to make peace. Since that conviction comes from inside their own minds, nothing Palestinians say or do can change it.
The pathology is deeply rooted in Israeli life. It goes back to the very beginnings of the Zionist movement. And it's a terribly complicated syndrome, going beyond what Siegman describes. It also involves a sense of shame, both countered by pride in acts of (often violent) strength. There's a
between what one Israeli writer has called the "two outstanding traits of Israeliness: aggressiveness and paranoia."
To understand, however, is not to forgive. Regardless of what pathological traits may explain
As Henry Siegman rightly concludes, "the conflict continues because US presidents - and to a far greater extent, members of the
The main thing holding Obama back now is his own fear of the political price he might pay for defying
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs