Skip to content Skip to footer

Another Descent Into Hell

How do we deal with our inability to feel the horror inflicted on others? The small opportunities that exist must be nurtured.

Part of the Series

I sometimes think I can remember exactly how I came to my present estimate of Israel, but of course it was prepared very slowly, laboriously and largely unformulated over time. The fact that my current understanding has very deep roots does not mean that its growth was simply an extension of earliest held beliefs, nor rather a reversal, instead. It was neither of these. Not all developments proceed by enlargement of a previous moment, or a strict negation of what has gone before.

My current recollection begins with my sense of my mother, father and the extended family made up of many uncles, aunts and grandparents. I was born in 1931, and so I reached what I can regard as my developing political sensibility at roughly the time Israel created itself as an independent state. But long before that historically articulated event of such enormous importance in my nuclear family, I had the growing sense of what is was to be Jewish, achieved not through intellectual accomplishment, but through the sense of family relations in which the fact of Judaism was of paramount importance.

Of course, being Jewish meant not being gentile, so my identity, as perhaps all identities, was formed by negation, by coming to understand what I was not, and this sense is most acute when one cannot help but realize that one is weaker, subordinate and dependent upon another segment of the population. Those who are dominant in any society rarely reflect on their own identity unless it is challenged by a group that expresses dissatisfaction with their hierarchical arrangement. And this experience was paramount to me as a child and even long into by developing adulthood.

Now, in the midst of the chaos and terror that Israel is unleashing upon Palestine, I tend to think of myself neither as Jewish nor gentile, but as one horrified by what is occurring there as viewed not through the lens of any particular religion, but rather through an identity composed of a commitment to justice and mercy that continues to be eviscerated. This may seem pompous and grandiose, but it is my sense, and I bear it with very great sorrow.

It was in this context of negative identity that I came to the mysterious sense of the simultaneous superiority and inferiority of being Jewish, an awareness that I was only to grasp more fully in the Protestant world of college and the reading, later, of such writers as Phillip Roth, whose Portnoy, as I was to understand and as he was later to insist to his therapist, did not so much stick his penis into a variety of girls, but into “their backgrounds” – particularly those who were gentile. What was this non-Jewish culture that my parents envied and detested in a single gesture of reference and comparative, negative identification? As to Arabs and Palestinians, they were at this time of my life beyond any functioning identity, simply without any identity at all.

My relatives might be strange, somehow out of reach, and my mother suffocating, though in her imploring as she stood on street corners collecting money in her little pushka for the planting of trees in Israel, a rich, tattered and idealistic sense of devotion to a cause that must have stretched back for her into the generations of her parents, whose life she kept alive in the ritual gestures they approved of long after they were forgotten.

And when her two nephews died many years later, but long before one would expect them to succumb, I felt some vague and uncanny sense that their death was some sort of punishment for their otherwise successful Jewish existence and careers. Later, when one nephew committed suicide and another married a gentile woman – a shiksa – and the family responded to him as though he had died, one might even extend the explanation and imagine that he had also knowingly ended his life with them, since he understood that by this act of family “betrayal,” he had ceased to exist for them. I was coming to develop an awareness in regard to my family and its religious existence: the sense that its various individuals, composed of flesh and blood, existed even more in a fluid of adumbrated meaning that could not literally be seen or heard, but was no less powerful for that.

In short, I had by this time a mixed sense that I lived in two worlds; one, the clear and communicable world of agreed upon and codified meanings and the other, the vague though even more powerful perpendicular dimension of something unspeakable, though even more powerful and menacing in its ubiquity.

And I, in those earliest days, and insofar as I can remember anything connected with Israel and Palestine, was so admiring of the eloquence of Aba Eban at the United Nations, whose British inflected speech in comparison with the Arabs, who seemed so lacking in articulate intelligence (most likely translated by a third party), had no doubt as to who was superior and had, therefore, the right to the land in dispute at the expense, unfortunate as it might have been, of the other. Those were days of enormous pride in the military power of Israel, though how it fit the commandments of mercy and justice I had been taught in Hebrew School, I was completely incapable of even asking myself.

So I lingered in this grandeur of flickering Israeli righteousness until I began to develop a sense of critical awareness, honed, not directly in regard to Israel itself, but on the grinding stone of Vietnam, whose American interpretation and claim to such rights of intervention it was to take for granted or legitimated with the ever-present assertion that we were merely defending ourselves against the “communist menace,” without any presentation that justified the nightly nightmares splattered on the television screens of the evening news; a sense of criticism that was enhanced, confirmed and given its rational explanation in the writings of the Marxist tradition that awakened my sensibility to the meaning of imperialism. It was through a growing sense of imperialism that I began to realize the intention of Israel.

For these days in the ’60s were a time when everything, it seemed, was held up to scrutiny, and everything demanded a denial of one’s given self and the requirement to remake one’s self along dimensions that were to be measured by a novel standard, a new criterion that was itself being refashioned along with the world it was made to judge. I was teaching Marxist theory at the time and was impressed by nothing so much as his assertion that the criterion of normative understanding came to transform itself along with the content it shaped and acknowledged; a “moving spring” is the phrase in the 1844 Manuscripts.

The world I knew had not disappeared; that would have been the instigation of insanity. But it was in a continual struggle with a new world; as Mathew Arnold had put it “one dead, the other struggling to be born.” The dead world does not wholly disappear, however, but leaves behind the imprint of its once-present being. And I refer now to this line of Marx, which may well seem irrelevant to the circumstance of Palestine and Israel, because the demands of justice and righteousness, so deeply embedded in the Prophets of the old testament, repeated so frequently in the course of my Jewish education, were beginning to prove the moving spring of ethical judgment by which Israel was coming to the condemnation of its own moral demand for justice.

That the Jews had been ripped from the womb of history by the Holocaust was not to be denied, but it could be less and less utilized as a claim against the Palestinians, whose own existence was now being so cruelly eviscerated, as 750,000 of their number were forced from their homes, their established lives, their settled existence, their autonomous claim to their own culture. Surely the destruction of the Jews did not justify the destruction of an innocent culture in an act of wholly misplaced retribution.

My own transformation in regard to these changes, questions and doubts I could not deny in myself impelled me eventually to acknowledge that I could not present my own views persuasively even to myself, let alone others, and had therefore to examine my own convictions until I had a more substantial sense of what I actually believed and could justify.

It was at about this time, through an act of gratuitous good fortune – through the chance of passing the right bookstand – I came across From Haven to Conquest, the remarkable collection of historical materials organized and edited by Walid Khalidi. Two pages into the introduction, I read of the meeting of the World Zionist Organization in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897, at which it was determined that this organization would “work towards the establishment of a Jewish state on Palestinian Arab Soil.

“At the time of the Basle Congress, 95% of the population of Palestine was Arab and 99% of its land was Arab-owned.”

The Basle Congress was replicating what it knew and admired most in the mandate of European colonialism. What is could not establish by evidence, it simply invented. The virulent transformation of the actual land of Palestine was conceptualized at a later date by the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in the following way:

There was no such thing as a Palestinian people . . .

It was not as though there was a Palestinian people

considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came

and threw them out and took their country away from

them. They did not exist.

I must add that I had always suspected that the nonexistence of the Palestinian people was not a strict geographical contention on Golda Meir’s part, but the projection of a value judgment, the plain meaning of which was that whatever the Palestinian people might have claimed to be, they were of no account in the pages of history, much the opposite of the Jewish people, who were thereby justified in treating them as though they were not.

Opposition to Zionist denigration of the Palestinians and proclamation of the expansionist needs of Zionism were very early on being challenged by Jewish voices.

However, long before Golda Meir came to disappear the Palestinians, a passionate Zionist by the name of Ahad Ha-am (in Hebrew, meaning “One of the People” – the pen name of Asher Ginzberg) became prominent. He had assumed this pen-name in 1889 at the age of 33, when he began his career as a Hebrew writer. So he became well known as an eloquent voice opposed to the growing popular colonial nationalism that was festering around him. In an essay in which he discussed the role of Ahad Ha-am, the prominent American Jewish scholar Hans Kohn wrote of him:

From 1891 on, Ahad Ha-am stressed that Palestine was not only a small land but not an empty one. It could never gather, as the prayer-book demands, all the scattered Jews from the four corners of the earth . . .

Ahad Ha-am pointed out that there was little untilled soil in Palestine, except for the stony hills or sand dunes. He warned that the Jewish settlers must under no circumstances arouse the wrath of the natives by ugly actions: must meet them rather in the friendly spirit of respect.

Yet what do our brethren do in Palestine? Just the very opposite! Serfs they were in the lands of the diaspora and suddenly they find themselves in freedom, and this change has awakened in them an inclination to despotism. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and even boast of these deeds.

Furthermore, to assure that the point would not be overlooked (by Golda Meir and others of her persuasion), Ahad Ha-am also reported that it was difficult to find any uncultivated farmland there. In the plane of Esdraelon in 1883, “almost every acre was in the highest state of cultivation . . .”

These reflections of Ahad Ha-am led me to several important conclusions: that opposition to Zionist denigration of the Palestinians and proclamation of the expansionist needs of Zionism were very early on being challenged by Jewish voices; that the tendency to construct vast illusory historical data as Meir had long ago attempted was an aspect of the fantasy reconstruction of the Zionist cause; that the desire to colonize and eventually remove the Palestinians from their land had a very long history that predated the rise of Nazism, which was to be presented after the Holocaust as the major cause of the Israeli need to expel the Palestinians from Palestine and replace them with a site of their own.

In fact, as we have seen, the removal of the Palestinian people from Palestine was the intention of Zionism from its origin; and though there were voices such as those of Ahad Ha-am and others who adhered to a universal ethic of compassion and respect, they were to diminish significantly in time until only a handful is currently known to the Israeli public. In fact, as early as 1882, Vladimir Dubnow wrote from Palestine to his brother Simon:

My ultimate aim, like that of many others, is

greater, broader, incomprehensible but not

unattainable. The final goal is eventually to gain

control of Palestine and to restore to the Jewish

people the political independence of which it has

been deprived for two thousand years.

However, I know many intelligent, informed, critical students of Israel who believe the Zionist war against the Palestinians began with the Holocaust, unaware of the fact that the intention to remove the Palestinians from the land they had inhabited for so very long was initiated by the Zionists in the middle of the 19th century.

Inversion has often been central to ideology and recurs today in the attempt of Israel to maintain that its vicious attack on the Palestinians is in retaliation for Gaza rockets rather than affirming what is obviously the opposite and true assertion: that the Palestinian missiles are born of long-standing Israeli occupation, humiliation and destruction.

To justify the depopulation of the Palestinians, the Zionists pursued a well-known course of delegitimation of Palestinians and validations of the Zionist right to the land, the only novelty of which was Golda Meir’s denial of any population on the land that the Zionist movement coveted. The other steps: first, presenting the inhabitants of the territory as less than fully human, or at the very least, less human than the Jews, and then presenting itself as acting in accordance with God’s will in reclaiming the land that God had granted them.

As time went on and the Palestinians found themselves constantly reduced in land holding and threatened with depopulation and the political loss of autonomy and identity that was dependent upon their physical being in this world, they began to resist physically and militarily. This permitted the militant Zionist movement to initiate a subsequent stage of ideological defamation by painting the Palestinians the color of violence and themselves the defenders of the rights of threatened Jewry. Inversion has often been central to ideology and recurs today in the attempt of Israel to maintain that its vicious attack on the Palestinians is in retaliation for Gaza rockets rather than affirming what is obviously the opposite and true assertion: that the Palestinian missiles are born of long-standing Israeli occupation, humiliation and destruction.

A full account of the rise of Zionist power would have to involve the many duplicitous agreements made with western powers such as England (the Balfour Declaration, etc.) and the United States for the sake of their own geopolitical interests. It would also be necessary to recount the rejection of the Zionist project by Jews of varying political and religious dispositions as well as other prominent figures who found the developing transformation of Palestine at the very least a political misadventure and most grievously, a blasphemy of the most serious proportions. This process would culminate at the time of the establishment of the state of Israel, with its criticism by such figures as Mahatma K. Gandhi as well as such prominent Jewish voices as those of Judah Magnes, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. It has been carried forward to the present date by those Jewish scholars and political advocates who remain vehement critics of Israel’s continuous self-constructed degeneration.

If one does not invest the motif with too heavy a literal burden, Anna Freud’s notion of “identity with the oppressor,” reconstructed by writers like Franz Fanon and Albert Memmi, can become a useful clue to a fruitful explanatory speculation regarding the hideous treatment of the Palestines by the Zionist conquerors.

As Sartre wrote of the Tunisian, Memmi, whose bitter youth was told in The Pillar of Salt, “exactly who is he? Colonizer or colonized? He would say ‘neither’; you, perhaps, would say ‘both’ – it amounts to the same thing.” Yes, he is both oppressed and oppressor, simultaneously, and in the depth of this pathology, he oppresses not only the other, but also himself by attacking himself (the oppressed) with the mechanisms of his oppressor. So, if we make the necessary transformation, we can say that the Jew attacks the non-Jew with the energies, perspectives and intentions by which he himself was attacked by his gentile oppressors.

Of course, the root of these notions proceed from Freud’s contention that moral self-determination and guilt lie in the internalization of he who imposes normative conceptions on the developing self. What Freud concentrated on was the imposition of the commands of the father on the child. If we develop the historical and social implications of this position, we will come to a richer and more socially constituted notion of the “cultural superego” than Freud himself acknowledged. The Jew’s self-estimation would thereby introduce into his value, or lack of it, the determination by which it was constituted by his oppressors throughout the ages. This double movement – of self-oppression and oppression of the other – are contradictory forms by which, in the attempt to free himself of the domination of his oppressor, he both succeeds and fails: He denigrates himself as his oppressor did, and he destroys the other with the means and energies he has come to embrace.

It has been so long a calculated endeavor; not an act of sudden passion, but of elongated, carefully considered and activated cutting away of the life of the Palestinians; one organ, one limb, one life function at a time.

Israel acts more and more the embodiment of those powers of historical anti-Semitism culminating in the horror of Nazi dehumanization, holding perhaps to the belief that “as they have done to us and very nearly succeeded in eliminating us, so we must carry forward this mission to its successful conclusion by eliminating those who stand in the way of our survival.” However, one needs to be cautious here for there are so many rivulets feeding this sea of destruction that it is the better part of wisdom to recognize that the entire 19th century was permeated with the colonial consciousness that granted the powerful the right to take from weaker nations whatever they chose, however they chose, just as the ruling classes of these countries took from their women and laboring masses what they believed would serve them best. It was an era of domination and subordination among classes, “races,” genders and ultimately nations.

In my developing political and moral years, even when I knew that the Israeli onslaught was an unjustifiable calamity, I would say now that I only “knew” of it. That is, I understood cognitively the figures and strategies, but was unable to translate these abstract considerations of human suffering. The situation was still wholly abstract to me, and at the time, that seemed sufficient. I think of Santayana’s lines:

O world, thou choosest not the better part,

It is not wisdom to be only wise . . .

Given the ceaseless presentation of the misery of the Jews that I heard in my family as I was growing up, it took a considerable effort to pull myself away from that vicious orbit and into a place where the Palestinians – and all other people – could be seen as fully human. There was considerably more than statistics to be considered. Yes, I understood that 6,000,000 Jews had been slaughtered, but how does one weigh the injustice of slaughtering the Palestinians, now, against the decimation of the Jews. Does the calamity of the Jews entitle them to any act they choose to undertake and any injustice they feel compelled to perpetrate? It seems not. Numbers alone cannot decide the claim of justice, particularly in the planned blindness to the particular innocence of those one sets out to eliminate.

What is it that makes the last century of Israeli devastation of the Palestinians so hideous?

That it has been so long a calculated endeavor; not an act of sudden passion, but of elongated, carefully considered and activated cutting away of the life of the Palestinians; one organ, one limb, one life function at a time;

That it has had the great and growing sympathy and practical support of the Jewish people, who continue to anoint themselves, despite their horrid, destructive indifference, as the only democracy in the Middle East. I understand that it is extremely important to distinguish among the state of Israel, the Jewish people, Judaism and Zionism and that the account that applies to one is not likely to apply in detailed replication to the others. It is also true that they bear uncomfortable interlockings among a number of channels. Currently, the state of Israel is essentially Zionist and supported by the Jewish population regardless of how well or poorly they understand doctrinal Judaism;

That they have embodied in their morbid dishonesty and claim to moral superiority the most terrible denial of what it is to be human and inhuman; that they have driven out of themselves as fully as they could the terror that made of their lives under Nazi Germany so pestilent a horror and imposed it instead on another people weaker, less able to resist and without the guilt that they themselves may harbor for their failure to resist their own holocaust.

Yes, I grew up believing in some obscure way that there was an exalted virtue in the suffering of “my people,” and in myself for having undergone this misery. God had chosen the Jews to suffer because he loved them more than all other peoples of the world. This is what I was led to believe, that was the potent hidden text; the joining of love and suffering. And did that imply that I myself had to impose unnecessary pain on those I loved to show my love for them? Is that an aspect of what rages in me now when I consider the unjustifiable torment that current Jewry feels appropriate to its grievous inclination to destruction? But certainly it is not loving and honoring the Palestinians by destroying them. The labyrinth contradiction of madness that exalts in murder is not beyond the limits of unconscious irrationality. Is that what is happening here?

I feel a very particular shame for the events that have transpired over the last century in Palestine, though I obviously have had nothing to do with their origin, their continuation or their repetition.

Did not the Jews cry out for mercy and justice when they were being slaughtered by Nazi barbarism? What has driven them over the last century to become the perpetrators of their own bestiality, a slaughter of the innocents supposedly founded on a claim to landed possession thousands of obscure years old. It is by now a cliché, but no less true for that reason: The greater the calamity imposed on one group or class of people by another, the more horrible will be the response that people adopt to impose upon still others. The innocence of the newly oppressed group is not relevant to the imposition of this newly created bestial slaughter. Wasn’t one in a state of his or her own innocence when originally attacked? Can we now not transmit the horror we experienced to another and so rid our selves of this suppurating wound by the simple act of transmission? Once it was ours: now let it become the anguish of the other.

I began these remarks with reflections on my family, my culture and myself. Now I ask; what was the effect on me of Israel’s increasing destruction of the Palestinians? I admit that I had not asked this question of myself with any clarity or focus until I set out to explore its impact in this brief essay. And I realize that I was mistaken in declaring that I did not approach the situation with any particular adherence to my being a Jew. For it is clear to me that I feel a very particular shame for the events that have transpired over the last century in Palestine, though I obviously have had nothing to do with their origin, their continuation or their repetition. And these feelings derive from a different source in me than the rational conclusion I embrace of being not merely a nonbeliever in God, but a believer in the nonexistence of God.

Space, time and action have been transformed in me. Spatially, I experience myself today as infinitely distant from the site of this current unspeakable bestiality. My space seems discontinuous from the attacks on schools and hospitals, the murder of children and infants, the sick and the aged. I know that such horrors do, at times, exist in my own country, but the scale is discontinuous with what is happening “there.”

It is also true that I am devoid of any clear awareness of appropriate action.

Temporally, I more and more feel absorbed into the time of my childhood when my mother, filled with terror and grief, stood on the corner collecting money for Israeli survival. The feelings that I observed in my mother then bear an uncomfortable resemblance to my own experience now. I feel flooded by the terror, rage and grief my mother most likely attempted to distill from what she could understand of the danger to Israel. Yes, it is true that the agents in this recurring drama have changed, the original decimated victims now the decimated “victors.” And while I know that feelings cannot be separated from the conditions in which they flourish, I suspect too, that something in the horror and grief of one people bears a hideous resemblance to the horror and grief of another.

And it is also true that I am devoid of any clear awareness of appropriate action. I find myself at times sitting very still, looking at a wall of abject dehumanization until I become identical with its opaque incomprehensibility. I would strike my fist, my head, my heart against it, but that would simply leave an additional corpse for another to redeem. Is this vaguely what the Jews began to feel when they witnessed gas slowly seeping through the shower heads?

The numbers alone are enough to alienate me from my comprehension. Whether it was 6,000,000 Jews, 60,000.000 WWII victims or some thousands of Palestinians to come, I cannot grasp the occurrence in anything but my analytic understanding. But the more I grasp the world through reason alone, the less it is revealed to me as a human existence. One of the deepest characteristics of modern life is the opposition between the extent of its horror and the personal incapacity to respond to it.

The inability to feel appropriately produces in me a revulsion of its own.

In a small village when a child falls into a creek and drowns, there is general grief. In our time 75,000 Japanese are murdered in the span of one week and we respond with cognitive clarity, but certainly not with a feeling 75,000 times more intense than the small villagers. Our entire moral sense and particularly our sense of pathos, grief and compassion are dislocated. And if we do feel something profoundly disturbing, we are more likely than not to find the feeling diminishing to make room for the next moral holocaust.

And yet, on the other hand, the inability to feel appropriately produces in me a revulsion of its own, a “second order” revulsion, so to speak. I am not repelled by the fact that I have lost the sense of being Jewish and an advocate of Israel; but I am repelled by the loss of moral fervor that I experienced as a child seeing my mother on the street corner collecting money for Israeli trees. I am repelled that I do not respond to the stirring in me that demands I act to stop the Israeli terror for the sake of the Palestinians.

It is to an enraged world that we must turn for transformation, a transformation we cannot predict with any assurance of time or place.

The moral algebra that relates the increasing horror of world events to a diminishing capacity to feel this horror is an equation of infinite powerlessness. And yet, this grievous barbarism is not fully set in place. There is a tremor to be felt; voices of dignity, insight and courage that more and more are unable to abide the Nakbah and its aftermath. We cannot expect any sudden moral reversal by Israel. Such notions are fairy tales brought on by extensive powerlessness. For Israel to recognize the full dimension of the horrors is has inflicted would be to rupture its moral pretense and drive the prevailing sense of selfhood beyond their human endurance, beyond such sense of humanity they still retain. The more their bestiality persists and increases, the less able are they to permit themselves the self-consciousness that would be necessary for their own redemption.

It is to an enraged world that we must turn for transformation, a transformation we cannot predict with any assurance of time or place. However, there is a slowly increasing determination in the world to act through various forms of boycott, divestment and sanction; that is, through material speech it would be impossible to ignore. We cannot predict how Israel will respond to this movement should it grow sufficiently to threaten Israeli economic, political and social prospects. Over many decades the world, through the United Nations, has expressed a nearly unanimous moral condemnation of Israeli political terror.

We cannot know whether the pressure we are constructing will make a significant difference. We cannot know that it will not. Between the terror and the uncertainty of the means to prevent it is the space that makes action possible and necessary.

I learned growing up of the difficulty involved in changing the attitude of those in power. For better or worse, the world is not that sort of family; there are certainly traditions and the passage of ideologies from one generation to another. There is also, however, the interaction of nations and the alteration of their interests that may be brought about through a conjunction of material and moral pressures. Small opportunities exist and must be nurtured. So we are aware of the possibilities and the obligation to undertake them.

Countdown is on: We have 10 days to raise $50,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.