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 Middle East policy, nobody seems to know much of anything about what goes on inside the White House. I’ve heard more than one Washington insider say that this administration is totally tight-lipped on the subject.
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 US or the Palestinians do, because the Israeli government and the bulk of Jewish Israeli voters are just too sick to move toward a just peace. At least that’s one man’s opinion.
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 Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust. That message of Jewish weakness and victimhood appeals to enough voters to keep him in power.
Gripped by such unrealistic fears, Israelis refuse Obama’s call to stop expanding settlements and start compromising for peace. Israel’s resistance to Obama’s serious peace effort has been called “nothing less than pathological.”
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 Israel’s enemies? Nope. It’s Henry Siegman, who spent sixteen years as executive director of the American Jewish Congress, one of the most powerful and respected mainstream organizations in the US Jewish community. With his vast experience inside the Israeli and American Jewish communities, he knows that the evidence to support his diagnosis is everywhere.
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 Israel and the Jews today? Iran, with its supposedly terrifying nuclear threat, continues to make the front page nearly every day. And Israel remains obsessed with its fear of the Goldstone Report – written by an eminent Zionist jurist who has now been magically transformed into an “enemy of Israel” – when the rest of the world has long since forgotten it.
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 Israel’s top newspaper, Ha’aretz. Burston is a liberal by Israeli standards. But rather than trying to rebut Siegman with thoughtful arguments, he unleashed a vicious ad hominem attack: “Siegman doesn’t merely think that Israelis are mistaken. He loathes them. In his reading, they are venal, deceitful…. He belongs to the school of thought which suggests that hating Israelis is a form of working for peace.”
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 Israel is a “galut [diaspora] mentality,” the tendency of diaspora Jewry to see itself as friendless, isolated and always at the edge of a looming pogrom. No one has described this pathology better than – guess who? – Bradley Burston.” Siegman quoted Burston’s own words, from a column the Israeli journalist wrote just a few weeks ago:
“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 Israel’s eleventh commandment, overriding all the other ten: Give no ground; make sure Jews are mightier than their enemies; fight back and win, at all costs.
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 Israel attacks Iran the war will go on for a very long time. And it’s all the Iranians’ fault:
“The Iranians’ typical willingness to sacrifice many victims for a long period of time in a conflict with Israel will dictate a prolonged war between the two states, which will be difficult to end…. This stems from the Shiite perception by which one must fight and sacrifice for the sake of justice and to correct wrongs to Islam and to Muslims.”
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 clear link 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 Israel’s resistance to peace, they should not be allowed to block a resolution of the conflict, which virtually the whole world now demands.
As Henry Siegman rightly concludes, “the conflict continues because US presidents – and to a far greater extent, members of the US Congress – have accommodated a pathology that can only be cured by its defiance.”
The US can defy Israel’s pathology because the power lies not in Jerusalem but in Washington. If the Israelis decide that they can live without US money and without US diplomatic and military support, let them try. Whatever harm might come to US interests will be more than offset by the benefits of improved US relations with predominantly Muslim nations and peoples around the world.
The main thing holding Obama back now is his own fear of the political price he might pay for defying Israel. The size of that price depends on how much support he gets for showing some courage. So the White House needs to hear a clear message from the American people: We may sympathize with Israel’s affliction. (Anger won’t bring anyone closer to peace.) But when it comes time to make policy – and the time is now – we should ignore the pathology. We can’t let it stop us from doing what must be done for the good of the US, the Middle East and the whole world.