The closing of the Jewish mind
How long will Jewish psychosis be tolerated, even vaunted, and its brutal consequences ignored, asks Issa Khalaf*
O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!
-- John Milton, Samson Agonistes (1671)
In March of last year I wrote, in other pages, that: "The events overtaking Palestine are eerily reminiscent of 1948. Unfolding today in the occupied territories is another disaster of historic proportions, evocative of Nietzsche's eternal recurrence. Israeli expansion, colonisation and consolidation of what is left of historic Palestine are reaching a culmination in the next several years. The Israeli goal, short of another 1948 or 1967- like event that would provide cover for further mass expulsions, is the complete political and social annihilation of Palestinian will and society... "
The Zionist programme to overtake the land and empty it of its indigenous people is so relentless and uncompromising, so openly implemented, so strikingly lacking in decency and humanity, that I'm trumped for categories to explain it. No question, history is replete with examples of inhumanity, of fantastical, violent ideological projects imposed by the state or by one group over another, of ruthless dislocation and expulsions. Yet this case, the ongoing brutal dispossession of the Palestinian people in the 21st century, is extraordinary for several reasons.
It is perpetuated by a people who should know better, who stake a claim to moral exceptionalism. It is ignored by the Western world, which apparently comfortably looks askance but hardly declines an opportunity to lecture others about their moral responsibility. It is shut out of the American and, less so, the Western media, so assiduous are they in protecting the Israeli-Jewish image. It is unnoticed by Western, particularly American, publics whose innate cultural distrust and hostility to Islam, magnified by what are regarded as Islamic terrorist fanatics, is transparent. And now, it is shirked by the UN, which, according to that body's former top Middle East envoy, Alvaro de Soto, is more concerned about pampering Israel and appeasing Zionists than being an impartial arbiter.
In no other similar situation, such as Bosnia, Rwanda, the southern Sudan, or former apartheid South Africa, do the heartlands of power remain complicit in silence as they do in Palestine. What explains this dismal reality is difficult to say, depending on the angle of the observer. Is it about imperialism finely expressed by leftist or Marxist paradigms, political-civilisational fault lines, historic Western antipathy to Islam, Western guilt for the Holocaust and Jewish organisations' exploitation of this phenomenon, the Israel lobby in Washington and the pervasive sway of Zionists in American politics and society and media regarding the Middle East?
I'm inclined to think that the worst is brought out in the American imperial impulse by Zionist organisations. Though the application of imperial power is conceivably tempered by pragmatism and calculations of self-interest and the need for stability, which would include the resolution of regional conflicts on a reasonably equitable basis, Palestine is an exception. Apparently, nothing short of complete surrender will satiate Jewish Israelis and the organised American Jewish community, who've managed to make US Middle East policy an extension of themselves and render synonymous in the American mind and institutions US and Israeli needs and interests -- and even then the Palestinians or Arabs will not appease them.
I'm struck by the profound indifference of American Zionists -- even more insensitive and hard-hearted and removed from reality than their Western European counterparts -- towards Palestinian torment at the hands of Israeli co-religionists. I believe this is a reflection of American political immaturity, provincialism, inexperience and naiveté born of fresh historical experience and great success -- which, when its awesome power is misdirected, poses a danger to itself and others -- as opposed to the weary European experience with changes of state, revolutions, class conflict, organised persecutions, violent ideologies, social realism, and religious and secular wars. Blend these American cultural traits with tormented Jewish history, screechy Alan Dershowitz-like triumphalism and ascendance in American life, overcompensation for not living in Israel, and a disconnect from Palestinian and Middle East realities, and you have a lethal mixture.
The result is a chronic American Jewish inability to see Arabs and Palestinians in all their complex humanity. Instead, Arabs are distant myths and images; culturally defective Muslims, unreformed savages and anti-semites ruled by their passions of hate, the only legitimate response to whom is crushing violence. What otherwise explains the shrieking escalation of the creed "Israel right or wrong," the infinite desire to satisfy Israel's every need, to achieve totalitarian conformity in support of it even if the consequences include taking the world down with it?
American Jewish sensibility is illustrated by a personal story. In September 2002, a local college organised a symposium on global peace. Hanan Ashrawi, an indefatigable humanist and proponent of Palestinian- Israeli peace, was the keynote speaker. The usual smear and pressure campaign was exerted on the college by Jewish organisations, portraying Ashrawi as a terrorist unfit to speak, organising loud protests on the college campus, bussing droves of people from a nearby city, and even flying in the fanatic Daniel Pipes to lead the protest. The school went ahead with Ashrawi whose address was global in substance, concerned with human rights and international institutions, hardly, if at all, mentioning Palestine-Israel. Because of lack of room in the packed auditorium, many, including myself sat on the grassy field and listened to Ashrawi through loudspeakers.
And there were these two: a Jewish man and his college-age daughter, sitting atop a picnic table, each facing opposite directions, bracing and balancing each other with their backs. I observed them with fascination as Ashrawi spoke, including their expressions and almost unconscious, incoherent mumbling and heckling as they rocked back and forth like an agitated seesaw, furiously chewing gum throughout a long talk, livid as they listened to Ashrawi say, well, virtually nothing about Palestine. I realised then the profound shutdown of the American Jewish mind. Ashrawi's topic was not on Palestine but they managed to experience what they expected. A total disconnect from reality. They were so utterly threatened and fixated on their hatred of this articulate Palestinian and what she represented that they literally did not hear what was, in the end, an innocuous talk, as far as they should be concerned.
This episode for me is a metaphor for self-fulfilling tragedy. I decided then there was nothing at this moment in history that could be done to rectify a yawning myopia. Prideful obsession with Israel has managed to wed crassness, cynicism, dishonesty and cruelty with genuine historical grievances and suffering. The Holocaust, always replayed and pushed on Western publics, is corrupted and appropriated by narrow ethnic imperatives. A persecuted people persecuted no more seem to have lost their senses, so fossilised are they in their Shoah, the culminating event of Jewish history. Compassion, remorse, guilt for the Palestinians eludes them.
These people's counterparts are in Israel, a society that has been completely socialised to hate and despise and dehumanise "Arabs," even as they, or their occupation army, encounter Palestinians daily. One soldier, followed by Israeli television as he and his comrades indifferently watched a Palestinian mother, Huda Khawaja, die on the floor of her home from an explosion the Israelis set off, said: "I don't know what we're doing here. Purification maybe. It's dirty here. I don't know why a good Hebrew boy should be here so far from his home." The wonder of it all is Israeli denial, happy to live their lives and pursue their pleasures in a bubble, hoping that the army would do something permanent to shut up those nuisances who keep reminding Zionists and Jews of their presence through their unbending will to live.
I wonder how the millions who died in the Nazi death camps would perceive the new, defiant, death- insensate Israeli Jew, forged through this sanctified entity called Israel, "purifying" others like animals.
How long is one to extend sympathy to Jewish psychosis in the face of this obvious self-righteous folly? Neither American Jews nor Israeli Jews, brilliant people overall, seem capable of understanding outside themselves, so gripped are they with the rectitude of their own past suffering. There is perhaps nothing more noxious than Jewish assumption of morality in the context of obscene inhumanity towards victimised Palestinians. No, I don't believe Zionist Jews who unqualifiedly support Israel can speak with authority on this issue, despite the illusion of a superior Jewish morality.
There are multiple meanings and lived experiences to any phenomenon. Jewishness can both be a universal, ethical experience and a tribal, xenophobic, exclusionary one. This is true of other attempts to mingle hallowed virtues and politics, such as in Islam or in Hinduism, though Jews bring an altogether unique consciousness, that of suffering, victimhood, specialness and chosenness.
But these may not be the only categories to comprehending Zionism's unmitigated inhumanity to Palestinians and other Arabs. After all, how can the student of history and colonial psychology not notice the striking similarity between Israelis and colonial settler societies, such as the Afrikaners, both of whom reduced the natives to lesser beings deserving of being quashed for resisting, lest they become reminders of a common humanity. The mangled psychological, theological, cultural facets of the encounter between European colonials and indigenous peoples are known.
There is also that Jewish political tribalism, one whose roots extend deep into the past, whose fundamentalist holy men justify the taking of Arab life, the killing of Arab children, in juxtaposition to the superior sanctity of Jewish life and Jewish children. The disfiguring effects of this way of seeing and acting, particularly when assuming a modern, nationalistic persona, are staggering. So it's not all about closed eyes caused by persecution and suffering, though these are essential to explaining Jewish understanding. It's also about Jews as ordinary people, capable as the rest of us of the basest transgressions against others, justified by a modern militant ideology, thus subverting the ethical meaning of the Holocaust and that other side of the Jewish experience, the one of social activism and justice and hope, and championing the wretched and the oppressed. The State of Israel may be more of an expression of intolerant Jewish political culture than one supposes.
Hatred, racism and cruelty justified by a sense of siege, persecution and historical wrongs are common group psychology. The Orthodox Serbs displayed a lot of it against the Bosnians in the early 1990s. They were the victims as they plundered and raped and cleansed Muslims. But they, like others, encountered a reality check along the way from forces more powerful than themselves. And herein is the key to the unchecked arrogance of Israelis and their American Zionist supporters: Jews have become intoxicated and corrupted with power. Left to its own devices Israel is capable of causing much damage, but its behaviour would most probably have been quickly modified by countervailing power. However, it enjoys something no other state has: the unconditional support of American power, again, driven to a significant extent by a combination of Zionist influence and the Israel lobby.
As I've previously argued in this newspaper, in the face of such power and influence -- and as truly tenuous, illusory and counterproductive this power may ultimately be -- rationality is all but lost. Power is used to impose a Jewish-Zionist defined reality, particular to its own perceptions and experiences and histories and psychologies, forcefully disengaged, oblivious, from others, ignoring actualities for the sake of chasing illusion, confusing rationalisation for rationality. It perpetuates delusions, choking a group's ability to see themselves as others experience them. Because of this distortion, action and its consequences remain devoid of introspection, humanity and reason. Cruelty is sanctified; imagination is impaired. The essential outcome, in the context of a narrow ethno-religious identity and messianic nationalism and militarism, is a most dangerous and fatal blindness.
The Palestinians are strikingly unburdened by the pathologies of their oppressors, not least of all because they do not reciprocate their occupier's widespread racism. Their responses to their sadistic dispossession and unbearable suffering run the gamut from peaceful to violent resistance, including the desperate barbarity of suicide bombings. Yet unlike their tormentors, they've not lost their humanity and essential decency, their acceptance of their enemy's humanity, their cultural generosity of spirit and life, their respect for the sacredness of all life, their sanity. I can't imagine that Palestinian soldiers would cruelly and coolly remain unmoved -- devoid of an abiding sense of rescue -- by a Jewish mother dying in her house as her children watched in fear and horror.
Israel is hardly an experiment in the best of Jewish ethics and Jewish sovereignty. That middle ground has been elusive, and Jewish ethics have been compromised in the process. The argument that Zionism accomplished its work of creating a Jewish state and that Israel represents a faulty but fixable post-Zionist age is sadly unconvincing, for Zionism's dark side dominates state ideology, practice and institutions. The continuity from proto-state ideology to statehood was seamless. Sustaining the assertion that Israel is an act of survival and an affirmation of life, morals and ethics is difficult indeed, especially when measured against its treatment of the Palestinians.
Following Marc Ellis, my longstanding conviction is that there is only one route to authentic Jewish redemption: acknowledging the sins against the Palestinians and beginning the process of righting a massive wrong. Jewish history has become inextricably linked to Palestinian destiny. It begins with one decent act: refrain from killing and maiming and persecuting. In this way Zionist Jews and Israelis can begin to reclaim their humanity and reassert Judaism's ethical core and meaning.
But I do not perceive Israeli and Zionist transformation any time soon. What I see is utter escalating self-absorption. The responses to this unfolding catastrophe include the heroic efforts of peaceful Palestinian grassroots resistance and organisation, with some support of Israeli and global civil society, far away from the stench and deformity of Palestinian "state" politics and even in the context of siege, suffocation and abandonment. Israeli-Jewish irrationality will ultimately be checked by its exhaustion from perpetual strife and overreach, the strain of visiting desolation on others, the demoralisation of a state project gone awry, and cracks in the deceptive American Jewish monolith in support of Israel. It can also be contained by the Arabs, but only if Arab regimes transform themselves into liberal democratic states allowing their peoples full participation.
My hope is dimmed, as Milton's words were meant to evoke.
* The writer holds a PhD in political science and Middle East studies from Oxford University.