Ira Chernus  




For years, Israel has insisted that it fights only to keep its people safe and secure. For years, Israel’s policies have created more enemies and made its own people less secure.

This summer has offered the latest and perhaps the clearest example of this irrational pattern.  In June, the elected leaders of Hamas made it clear that they would negotiate for peace with Israel, obviously (though only implicitly) accepting Israel’s existence as a permanent fact. Israel’s leaders could have accepted the invitation. Instead, they responded (and are still responding) with tanks and bombs that enraged Palestinians and strengthened the militant fringe wing of Hamas.

In July, Hezbollah showed support for the Palestinians by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. Israel’s leaders could have responded with the usual round of minor skirmishes and a negotiated prisoner exchange. Instead they chose a full-scale war that enraged the Lebanese and strengthened Hezbollah’s influence. Israel’s choices have sown the seeds of violence that will put their own people at risk for a long time to come.

Why does Israel do this stuff?

A few Israelis may have something to gain from a continuing conflict -- money or career advancement or political power. But they can’t persist in conflict without broad support from their people. Jews could rise up and tell their leaders: “Stop. No more. We must make peace, if only to keep our people safe.” Yet most of them, actively or tacitly, approve the slaughter.

When Israel’s cabinet voted to widen the war if the UN didn’t come up with a ceasefire plan, insiders told Israeli journalists that most cabinet members thought it was a bad idea. But they are politicians who want votes. So they bowed to public opinion that overwhelmingly supported the war option. In an early August poll, 79% wanted the war to go on until Israel achieved it goals (though nearly half were not sure their leaders had clear goals). U.S. Jews largely supported Israel’s war effort, either actively or tacitly, too.

Why do so many Jews support polices that make Israel less secure? Why do they make such a seemingly self-destructive choice? No one can say for sure. Whatever answers we might find will be endlessly complicated. But my four decades of studying my people and their history have given me some clues that might be helpful. 

Let’s start where we Jews typically start when we look at our past: the legacy of anti-semitism, oppression, and persecution that has left such indelible wounds upon them. Dig deep enough into any defense of Israel’s policies toward its neighbors and you will find an enduring trace of that past: “We are the victims. They want to destroy us.” No proof is given because none is asked for. The profound sense of vulnerability to implacable hatred, and the Jews’ inability to do anything to mitigate it, is taken as a given.

One way or another, the premise of eternal anti-semitism is always at the root of the justification of Israel’s actions. Hence the constant references to the Nazi Holocaust, as in this recent comment by Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston: “Our job now is to survive. If the Second World War taught the Jews anything, it is this: History is not, fundamentally, written by its victors. History is written, and made, by its survivors.” 

This is no superficial rationalization masking some deeper motives in the realm of strategy or statecraft. On the contrary, the media obsession with Israeli strategy and statecraft obscures the central fact -- the deeply rooted and absolutely sincere conviction of victimization and vulnerability. That looks to me like the mainspring of Jewish motivation, from the highest-ranking Israeli official to the lowliest pro-Israel Jew in the street. Most would probably agree with sociologist Oz Almog of Haifa University that "Islamic fundamentalism" is the new Nazism, that there is an "appalling similarity between 1933 and 2006," with Iran's president as “the new Adolf Hitler.” 

This is the heart of a collective identity, a self-defining story -- some would call it a myth -- woven firmly into the fabric of Jewish communal life.  Most Jews will put their lives and the lives of their fellow Jews on the line, year after year and decade after decade, rather than abandon or even question the tale they tell about themselves. Some are quick to recite this tale at every opportunity; it is right on the surface of their lives. Some never recite it nor even know that it is shaping their sense of identity. Most are somewhere in between. But all who approve, tolerate, or fail to question Israel’s actions are under its spell, however indirectly. 

Jews are merely human, all too human. All peoples are prone to cling to a collective identity and the story that expresses it. Israel’s Arab neighbors do much the same, which goes a long way to explaining the seemingly insoluble conflict. But each group’s story is unique and has a unique history that shapes its present meaning.

Jews experienced their worst persecution in Europe; some responded by going back to their ancestral homeland to create a modern Western state. The people who first dreamed up the idea of Zionism looked back at centuries of Jewish weakness and passivity in the face of oppression, and it made them ashamed. They called it “abnormal.” They wanted Jews to feel “normal,” to feel strong, to feel proud.

So they set out to erase the past and create a Jewish future that would be its total opposite. They saw peoples all around them growing proud by embracing a strenuous nationalism: creating, defending, and sometimes expanding their own political states -- by any means necessary. It seemed like the “normal” thing to do. It seemed perfectly reasonable, and tremendously exciting, for Jews to do the same.

In Israel -- where being Jewish is a national identity, with no necessary connection to religion -- that Zionist spirit still shapes political life. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, speaking just hours after the ceasefire with Lebanon began, was still proclaiming “We never give in, bend down or retreat.”  But Israelis are still deeply affected by the early Zionists’ shame about -- and fear of -- Jewish weakness. Their sense of collective identity has been built on the felt need to deny that weakness. Israeli journalist Meirav Arlosoroff notes that his people insist “quite frequently that they won't be anyone's sucker.”

To prove that they are tough and not suckers, Israelis must have an enemy to resist.  Every Israeli bomb and shell is really aimed at their own fears of weakness and victimization. That is their true enemy. That’s what they are trying to destroy.

Over the last century, shame about past weakness and hope for a strong proud future through nationalism has been woven into Jewish collective identity. It has become a thread that binds the people together. For many, it is the central thread in the story they tell themselves about who they are and why they make the choices they do.

Of course the thread is now carefully hidden, so well hidden that many Jews who are bound by it are not even aware of it. What the early Zionists said quite openly is no longer fashionable (or in some circles even permissible) to talk about. Nowadays, a “normal” nation doesn’t admit its true motives, especially when the deadly results are so visible on the evening news. A “normal” nation cloaks its self-assertion in self-righteous moralism. Most Jews do the same.  They insist that they want only the highest moral goals: peace, justice, and well-being for all. But what can we do, they plead. It’s not our fault that we are the victims of unjustified attack.

Israeli writer Yitzhak Laor sees the whole pattern reflected in the popularity of Israel’s most respected institution: its military, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces.)  Laor calls the IDF “the Israeli ego ideal. The army takes upon itself the roles of both hero and victimthe eternal David fighting the Shiite Goliath.”  He sees most Israelis taking on the military mindset:  “Never mind what's happening around us, we have the power: we will fence; we will close; we will block; we will bomb. Otherwise we have no chance. During wartime this national egotism, beyond its moral implications, becomes part of the process of the spectacular suicide of the State of Israel. … ‘After all, they want to annihilate us.’ The tragedy of Israeli society is that it has no other organized way of thinking.”

That’s how Israelis create a trap that may be at the very heart of their self-destructive choices. When they go to war declaring their innocence and their fear of annihilation, they perpetuate their sense of victimhood precisely by fighting against it.  The more they legitimate themselves by insisting on their victimization, the more they persuade themselves that the present is really no different than the past.  In effect, they tell themselves that the past -- the legacy of victimization they are fighting to escape -- is inescapable.

But that’s a conclusion they can’t bear to face. So they go on fighting to escape it, by any means necessary. The more they fight, the more they feel like victims, digging themselves deeper into a hole filled with a tide of blood that is steadily rising. And there is no end in sight. There can be no end, because every battle convinces them more firmly of the premises that led them to go to battle in the first place.

In the U.S., and around the world, most Jews tell the Israelis that everything they believe is true, spurring them on to fight -- and create more enemies -- yet again. This tragic legacy of Jewish life in the 20th century is now being carried, full force, into the 21st.   

We Jews could choose to do differently any day, even today. If our community won’t change its ways, at least we should bring our motives out of the closet and talk honestly about them.  With the whole world still threatened by the waves of violence rippling out from the Middle East, we owe that not only to ourselves, but to all humanity.