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General Articles
A Jewish plague - March 5, 2004

Kenneth Levin

The Jerusalem Post:


Individuals betray their own nations and communities for well-known reasons - material gain, ideology, retaliation for perceived grievances, and blackmail. But betrayal takes on special dimensions for those groups subject to chronic assault by the surrounding world.

Exposure to persistent verbal and even physical attack, whether on the grounds of religion or ethnicity or some other communal characteristic, is a psychologically corrosive condition. Often those abused accept at face value the indictments of their accusers in the hope of thereby escaping their predicament.

They may seek to reform their community in a manner consistent with the haters' indictments. Or they may simply abandon what they have come to see as a tainted identity. Or they may join the attackers as a means of more thoroughly separating themselves from their status as victim.

The long history of Jewish Diaspora communities, chronically besieged, is replete with examples of such behavior, including actions that contributed to large-scale shedding of Jewish blood. The burning of Jewish books and more severe restrictions on Jews were often promoted by former Jews, like 13th-century French convert Nicholas Donin and 16th-century Nuremberg apostate Josef Pfefferkorn.

In the wave of forced conversions that swept Spain in 1391 with much loss of life, one of those who converted was Solomon Halevi, chief rabbi of Burgos. Wealthy and well- connected, Halevi could likely have resisted with some sacrifice of his status and wealth but preserving his life. He instead became Paul of Burgos and used his connections to rise ultimately to bishop of that city. He also turned his status in the Church and his political clout to relentless attacks on Spain's remaining Jews. This culminated in his authorship of Castilian proclamations in 1412 which deprived the Jews of virtually any means of supporting themselves, confronting them again with the choice of conversion or death, and triggering a second wave of mass conversion.

More modern examples of such apostates eager to separate themselves from a besieged Jewry include Karl Marx and his screeds against the Jews. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote of Marx's anti-Jewish rhetoric: "He was determined that the sarcasms and insults to which some of the notable Jews of his generation, Heine, Lassalle, Disraeli, were all their lives a target, should, so far as he could effect it, never be used to plague him. "

THE PRECISE motives that drive any individual to join his community's besiegers is, of course, often difficult to fathom, and some have noted that various Jews notorious for such behavior appear to have had intense conflicts with their families or serious psychological problems.

Yet it is characteristic of the spiritual corrosiveness of besiegement that its victims are predisposed to associate any grievance, such as unhappiness with family, or any sensed inadequacy in themselves, such as may be related to psychopathology, as due to the communal taint. They are more receptive to seeing the fault in their family or themselves as a product of their Jewishness and the solution as lying in escape from that tainted identity.

Mordechai Vanunu's motivation is similarly difficult to infer with any precision, but the role of Israel's besiegement and a wish to distance himself from it is suggested by his conversion to Christianity. It is noteworthy in this regard that a docudrama of Vanunu's story, made in Australia, is virtually an updated Merchant of Venice.

Vanunu's family, while in actuality of Moroccan origin, is portrayed as blackgarbed Eastern European Jews full of hate and vengeance, to better convey the message that Israel's nuclear arsenal is a reflection of unholy Jewish determination to exact pounds of flesh from its enemies. The Australian Christians who convert him are, in contrast, paragons of mercy, the quality of which is supposedly not strained even while the rhetoric is.

Although examples of outright treason such as Vanunu's are relatively rare in Israel, a broader identification with Israel's enemies is widespread and again a result of Israel's besiegement.

Natan Sharansky, addressing the current global upsurge of anti-Semitism, recently suggested a definition of anti- Israeli criticism that is actually anti-Semitism: Demonizing the Jewish state, or delegitimizing it, or applying to it standards different from those by which others are measured. By these criteria there are more than a handful of Israelis who are fellow travelers with some of Israel's most hate-driven critics.

For example, analogies of Israeli policies to those of the Nazis have appeared on Israeli campuses and in Israeli art galleries. That biased criticism of Israel is a path to visiting professorships abroad and an entry ticket to foreign art shows and film festivals has apparently not made Israelis avoid joining foreign bigots' attacks on the Jewish state.

Israel cannot end the hatemongering of its enemies. It can, however, do more to inoculate its own population, as well as Diaspora Jews, against the spiritual corrosiveness that leads to psychological capitulation and rhetorical betrayal if not outright treason.

Part of that effort must lie in making anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli rhetoric among Jews as illegitimate as Sharansky and others are seeking to make it among non-Jews.


*The writer, a psychiatrist and historian, is author of the forthcoming Surviving Deadly Delusions: The Challenge of Jewish Self-Blame.

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