PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
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
In July, Hezbollah
showed support for the Palestinians by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers.
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.
Why do so many
Jews support polices that make
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
One way or
another, the premise of eternal anti-semitism is
always at the root of the justification of
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
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
merely human, all too human. All peoples are prone to cling to a collective
identity and the story that expresses it.
their worst persecution in
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.
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
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.
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
[ HOME ] [ COURSES ] [ RESEARCH ] [ CONTACT ME ]
|[ OP-ED COLUMNS / SINCE SEPT. 11 ] [ PUBLIC CITIZEN ]|