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General Articles
The Oslo Syndrome: The Psychology of Self-Hatred


By Jamie Glazov
FrontPageMagazine.com | 11/25/2005

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of the new book The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.


FP: Dr. Levin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.


Levin: Thank you.


FP: What inspired you to write this book?


Levin: It was obvious to me at the start, as it was to many others, that the Oslo agreements could only lead to disaster. I said as much in a Jerusalem Post op.ed. a few days before the 1993 signing of the first accords on the White House lawn. That there was something very deluded about the thinking of Israel’s leaders and their pro-Oslo constituency became more evident as Oslo proceeded. Arafat and his Palestinian Authority immediately used their media, mosques and schools to promote hatred of Israel and violence against Jews and continued to make clear their objective remained Israel’s destruction. The level of terrorism increased to unprecedented dimensions. Yet Israel responded with more concessions.


During this period, there were many cogent critiques of the Oslo process. But none addressed why Israel's leaders, supported by the nation's academic and cultural elites and much of the broader population, were pursuing a course that was demonstrably placing the nation, including their own families, at dire risk. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that, given the irrationality of Israel's course, the explanation had to lie in the realm of psychopathology.


Israel’s Oslo diplomacy was also reminiscent of aspects of the political life of Diaspora Jewish communities that likewise reflected a self-destructiveness inexplicable except in psychiatric terms.


The need for an examination of the true roots of the Oslo debacle has been reinforced for me by the post-mortems on Oslo offered by media pundits, policy analysts and diplomats involved in Oslo diplomacy. The book by Ambassador Dennis Ross, chief American Middle East diplomat during the Oslo era, is representative. He argues that the problem was the differing "narratives" of the two sides and the failure of the diplomats to reconcile the conflicting perspectives. Nowhere, amid this pablum, is there an acknowledgment that the Palestinian leadership remained committed to Israel’s destruction and that the Israeli leadership deluded itself into perceiving Arafat as a genuine "peace partner."


FP: Tell us how and why people under siege often end up internalizing the hatred against themselves and delude themselves about the malicious intentions of their enemies?


Levin: They do so because they are eager to feel some control over a painful situation which is, in reality, out of their control. Chronically abused children - more specifically those subjected to parental abuse - typically blame themselves for their victimization because to do so supports a fantasy that if they reform, if they become "good," their parents will treat them differently. To look at their predicament more realistically would force them to accept their helplessness to change their terrible circumstances, and children, and adults as well, prefer to fend off acknowledging such bitter realities.


Similarly, within populations under chronic siege - whether minorities marginalized, demeaned and attacked by surrounding societies or small nations besieged by their neighbors - some will invariably seek either to avert their gaze from the severity of the threat or rationalize the threat and blame themselves or others within their community for the danger. Their doing so reflects wishful thinking that if only they would reform sufficiently the danger would be alleviated.


Israel has, at best, a capacity to respond effectively to attacks by its neighbors; it does not have the capacity to end the Arab siege, to force peace upon the Arabs. Peace, if and when it comes, will do so on the Arabs' timetable, not Israel's. Unfortunately, all the evidence indicates the Arab world is not about to choose genuine peace with Israel in the foreseeable future. This lack of control over a painful situation led many Israelis to embrace delusions of control; delusions that the right concessions could not help but win peace from the Arabs.


FP: Can you talk a little a bit about European and American anti-Semitism and the effect it had on the Jewish identity and psyche?


Levin: Over the centuries, there has likely been no anti-Semitic accusation against Jews, however ridiculous or outrageous, that some Jews themselves have not embraced. More typically, it has been common for Jews to take to heart aspects of the indictments of the Jew-haters. Those who have done so have responded on one level by feeling they are somehow personally tainted and flawed by virtue of their Jewish identity. Many have acted upon their sense of taint either by seeking to reform the community in a manner they imagined would erase the flaw or by distancing themselves from the Jewish community and adopting another identity. Many have, for example, converted to another faith, or embraced one of the secular religions of the far Left and taken on an alternative identity of that stripe, or simply immersed themselves in the surrounding society and severed all ties with the Jewish community, or have, like Karl Marx, actively joined the ranks of the Jew-haters as a way of even more definitively marking their separateness from "the Jews."


Among those who have embraced aspects of the anti-Semitic attack but have stayed within the community, it has been common to blame Jews on the other side of economic or religious or social divides as the provokers of Jew-hatred. Thus, in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was common for German Jews to blame eastern European Jews for anti-Semitism, and secular Jews to blame the hatred on religious Jews, and socialist Jews to blame the Jewish bourgeosie.


The same responses by some Jews to the indictments of the anti-Semites have been part of the Jewish experience in America. This was more particularly so at the time of widespread anti-Semitic sentiment in the country, in the first half of the twentieth century. But, obviously, variations on the same theme persist today. For example, in America, as in Europe, those Jews living in milieus that have embraced bigoted indictments of Israel have not infrequently responded in such a manner. Thus, one has the phenomenon of New York University professor Tony Judt, for example, from his perch in the too often Israel-bashing realm of academia, calling for the dissolution of Israel because in his view the nation's existence instigates anti-Semitism and makes life more difficult for Jews such as himself.


FP: What do you think is the psychology of a left-wing Jew?


Levin: The sources of leftist predilections among Jews are manifold. In the early modern era in Western Europe, in the late eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, liberal political forces tended to be more supportive of granting rights to Jews than were conservative groups, and so Jews gravitated toward what became liberal parties. With the recognition that the help offered by the liberals was limited and Jewish disabilities remained, some committed Jews drifted further leftward, believing that genuine Jewish equality would come only with a more radical restructuring of society. They also believed that Jews could win more acceptance by allying themselves with the other disadvantaged groups in society, particularly the working class, in a common struggle for relief.


But the politics of the radical Left - of socialism and communism - was particularly attractive in Western Europe to some of those who, in the face of anti-Jewish depredations, were eager to divest themselves of a Jewish identity. Some such individuals chose to take on an alternative identity as champion of the working class.


Among Jews who aligned themselves with radical Left parties, both those who retained some sense of connection with the Jewish community and those who repudiated any such connection, many tended to ignore the anti-Jewish rhetoric that was standard fare for western European socialists. They chose to dismiss its significance or perceive it as something that would disappear in the coming socialist utopia. Jews eager to shed their Jewish connections often endorsed the anti-Jewish sentiments of their socialist colleagues.


In eastern Europe as well, which at this time meant particularly czarist Russia, anti-Jewish depredations led Jews leftward. When liberal forces failed to have a sustained impact on anti-Jewish government policies, the population moved toward socialist politics. The greater sense of peoplehood among Eastern Jews led to the evolution of specifically Jewish socialist parties, while the government-orchestrated impoverishment of the Jews and the drift of Jews to urban factories gave rise also to a Jewish union movement that reinforced the strength of Jewish socialist sentiment and political organization.


Those involved with the Russian Jewish socialist parties typically retained a strong sense of Jewish identity. But they commonly embraced elements of the anti-Jewish indictments of the surrounding society and chose to construe anti-Semitism as provoked by the ways of religious Jews and the Jewish bourgeoisie and as something that would disappear as Jews joined with their gentile worker-brothers in creating the socialist future.


Of course, in Russia as elsewhere, some Jews responded to anti-Jewish depredations by distancing themselves from the Jewish community and making common cause with those attacking the Jews, and many of these people aligned themselves with the most extreme among the radical Leftists; with, for example, nihilist groups and, most significantly, the Bolsheviks.


Jews brought their political perspectives with them to America and, more particularly, the eastern European Jews who made up the greatest part of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Jewish immigration brought along their socialist views. The extreme poverty of the Jewish immigrants and their eventual employment largely in urban factories reinforced these predilections.


Ultimately, this tendency mutated for most into liberal politics and support of the Democrat party.


But the persistence of intense identification with the politics of the Left in the absence of a personal economic status pushing in that direction is a particularly Jewish phenomenon. In part it reflects old thinking. Polls of American Jews in recent decades have continued to reveal that a vast majority believes anti-Semitism is more rife among American conservatives than liberals, even though actual surveys of American opinion do not support this assumption. Nor has suspicion of deeply religious Americans as more hostile to Jews than secular Americans - another perspective not supported by data - been shaken by, for example, the burgeoning of anti-Jewish sentiment in an essentially secularized Europe. Nor has the growth of hostility toward Israel among the so-called liberal churches in America, with theological as well as political import, or the attacks on Israel and virtual besiegement of its Jewish supporters on Left-dominated American university campuses, shaken old American Jewish attitudes about Left and Right, liberal and conservative.


Another factor in the persistence of leftward predilections is the ongoing impact of the redefinition of the Jewish vocation, formalized by the nineteenth century reform movement, as an exclusively universalist one of promoting transcendent humanitarian values. This reformulation of what it meant to be a Jew was motivated by Jews' hopes of making themselves more acceptable to their neighbors, countering antagonism and winning equality, by eschewing particularism and embracing an unthreatening and unimpeachable agenda. An embrace of left-wing universalism commensurate with this self-definition still retains its allure for much of the Jewish community, even though American Jews are not confronted by the lack of acceptance that helped shape this posture.


The clinging to old political perspectives reflects another phenomenon common among chronically besieged populations: an inclination to think in categorical terms, a wish to see in political alliances transcendent bonds that will inexorably endure and offer ongoing support and protection - a perspective divorced from the real world. Jews have recurrently perceived a continued bond with erstwhile allies who have essentially repudiated such a connection, have failed to acknowledge what may always have been the limited scope of alliances, and have often been slow to recognize convergences of interests with potential new allies.


In addition, many Jews in America as in Europe have sought over the years to escape what they see as burdensome in Jewish identity by crafting a new identity for themselves based on class affiliation and Leftist self-definition.


FP: Could you talk a bit about your own understanding of anti-Semitism? From where does it come? Why is there so much Jew-Hatred in history and in the world today?


Levin: First let me say that there is obviously a vast literature analyzing anti-Semitism and I am familiar only with a small part of it, as I have tended to study the issue more from the perspective of Jews' responses to Jew-hatred.


To the degree that hatred of Jews is unique, its uniqueness is generally ascribed to the impact of almost two millennia of Church denigration and demonization of the Jews. Over the centuries, Jews endured perennial mistreatment and attack and episodic mass slaughter at the hands of those driven by Church-inspired hatred.


But the issue of anti-Semitism is clearly more complicated. There have been attacks on the Jews by populations uninfluenced by Christianity. In the centuries immediately preceding the birth of Christianity, the large Jewish population of Egypt was the target of hate-mongering by Egyptian cultic priests and were attacked by Egyptian mobs, at times with extensive loss of life; and the Egyptian anti-Jewish literature found a receptive audience in areas of the pagan Greek world with significant Jewish populations. Key factors inspiring this hatred appear to have been the circumstance of being minority communities that were at once distinct and vulnerable and therefore an easy target for those who saw some political use in stirring up hatred and uniting a constituency around a common, alien "enemy." Many other distinct minorities have been the victims of similar social dynamics.


Also, Jewish communities were subjected to myriad abuse and recurrent slaughter in the Moslem world, as were Christian communities, despite Jews and Christians sharing "dhimmi" status as "tolerated" minorities.


Since, again, such treatment has commonly been meted out to vulnerable minorities, what is unique in the history of the Jews can be ascribed in large part to their having been uniquely vulnerable for such a long period and, at the same time, their having uniquely endured.


The relation of Church bias to modern Jew-hatred is complex. For example, the Catholic church was never genocidal in its official policies toward the Jews and in some respects repudiated explicitly racist Jew-hatred; yet the modern genocide of the Jews was possible because of deeply ingrained popular hostility toward the Jews largely inculcated by Church teaching. In a similar vein, medieval Christian rulers rarely instigated large-scale murderous assaults on Jews; the mass murders of Jews in the medieval period were almost always driven from below, by rebel groups or the burgher class or peasant class abetted by lower clergy. The state-choreographed attacks on the Jews instigated as official policy by the Nazis, or czarist Russia, or the newly created states of eastern Europe in the decades between the world wars, or by Bolshevik Russia and the Communist states of eastern Europe, have no real precedent in pre-modern times; yet, again, the way for them was smoothed by Church-inspired anti-Jewish sentiment. Finally, the situation in the nineteen-thirties where Jews were desperate to leave Nazi Germany but no one would take them in had no pre-modern precedent; when European rulers, for reasons of state, expelled their Jews, there were virtually always other states that welcomed them, interested in making use of their talents. But the indifference of the nineteen-thirties was likewise conditioned by long-encouraged hatred.


The differences of modern times from pre-modern European Jew-hatred also point to how Jew-hatred is in many respects not unique but a variation on a theme. If one looks, for example, at the new eastern European states carved out of the defeated empires after World War I, all were highly chauvinistic and subjected the minorities within their borders to extensive depredations. The Jews were generally victimized most in large part because, unlike various other minorities, there was no nation with whom they had ethnic ties that would intervene in their behalf; but others were victimized, too. In addition, the success of the Jews in having entered the professions, academics, the arts, and capital industry meant that campaigns by dominant ethnic groups to "purify" their nations' cultures and economies often fell more heavily on the Jews than on other minorities; but it fell on others as well.


As I mentioned, I have been particularly interested in the Jews' responses to anti-Semitism, and - a point related to the issue of Jews' predilections toward the politics of the Left - Jewish responses have repeatedly been compromised by thinking in categorical terms and expecting today's anti-Semitism to come from the same directions as yesterday's. There is a similarity of circumstance; attacks on Jews are predicated on perceived Jewish otherness and vulnerability. And in Europe anti-Semitism continues to be influenced by a history of Jew-hatred. But today in Europe it comes largely from the secular Left, and much of the hatred directed against Jews there relates to identification of the Jews with the United States, and Jew-hatred in Europe reflects a convergence between the perspectives of the Left and the perspectives of European and other Islamists. Jews' tendency to focus on the purveyors of yesterday's anti-Semitism hardly prepares them to recognize and respond effectively, including seeking out effective alliances, in confronting the current haters.


It likewise serves Jews badly to think of their own plight as unique and not to recognize other victims. Certainly, Jews have been more than sensitive to the victimization of others, including those subjected to the extremity of genocidal assault; yet there remain areas of myopia in drawing political conclusions from assaults on others.


For example, many Jews are aware of the intense Jew-hatred that has for decades been promoted in media, mosques and schools throughout the Arab world. But a general assumption is that it has all been due to the conflict with Israel and will be resolved by a" land for peace" agreement, particularly between the Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps once again Jews' reluctance to see their predicament in the context of larger forces reflects a wish to view themselves as more in control of their predicament than they actually are. But there is a larger pattern. For in reality virtually all the minorities living amid the Arab nations have been under siege, with a number suffering much worse depredations than the Jews of Israel.


Christian communities are almost everywhere under intense pressure. Egypt, the most cosmopolitan of Arab states and run by a secular government, has long required its large Coptic Christian community, numbering perhaps ten million, to live with onerous restrictions; even renovation or addition to a church needs approval at the ministerial level. Pressures applied to Christian communities have led to high rates of Christian emigration from nations throughout the Arab world. Of course, in Saudi Arabia no citizen can be a Christian, Christian prayer is officially forbidden, and conversion from Islam to Christianity is punishable by death.

The most horrific assault on Christians in the Arab world has been the decades-long campaign of enslavement, rape and murder waged against the Christian blacks of the southern Sudan. Begun virtually with Sudan's independence in the 1950s, the attacks and the killing have proceeded under both secular and Islamist regimes and have claimed more than two million lives –– one of the worst acts of genocide since World War II. Khartoum's murderous policies have consistently had the backing of its brother Arab states, some of which have lent active support to Khartoum's assault on the south.

But even the longstanding denigration of and attacks upon Jews and Christians do not fully encompass the victimization of minorities by the Arab Muslim nations of the Middle East and North Africa; in addition to the assaults on non-Muslims, there is a targeting of those who may be fellow Muslims but are also non-Arabs.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein pursued the forced expulsion and mass murder of Kurds living in Iraq's north, killing some 200,000 before he was distracted by his adventure in Kuwait, and he did so without criticism from his fellow Arab leaders. In Algeria, the Muslim but non-Arab Berber population did more than its share of the fighting against the French in the war of independence; but, with independence won, the Arab-dominated government embarked on a campaign of forced "Arabization" of Berber communities. In addition, since the outbreak of an Islamist versus secular civil war in Algeria in 1992, the largely secularized Berbers have been particular targets not only of the Algerian government but also of the Islamist rebels, who have wrought widespread carnage in the country. The people of Darfur –– Muslim, but black –– now being raped and murdered by the Sudanese government with the support of other Arab nations are only the latest example of Arab assaults on non-Arab Muslim populations living within the Arab world.


This chronic pattern of Arab intolerance and aggression on both religious and ethnic levels has implications for the Jews. It is noteworthy, for example, that none of the populations that have been subjected to murderous, at times genocidal, assault –– not the Kurds, for example, nor the Algerian Berbers, nor the Christian blacks of southern Sudan, nor the Muslim blacks of Darfur –– were sovereign communities or even enjoyed an autonomy to which the Arab regimes objected. Yet many Jews delude themselves that the Arab world is prepared to make an exception for the Jews and reconcile itself to a Jewish state in its midst if only Israel will make sufficient concessions on borders.

FP: Why do totalitarian despotisms (fascism, communism, Islamism) always entail anti-Semitism?


Levin: I believe several factors are at work here. Totalitarian regimes find it useful to distract their populations with external enemies, or internal groups that can be cast as enemies, and the Jews have tended to be an easy target for this, although rarely the only target. In addition, such regimes strive for uniformity in their population - including uniformity of thought - and Jews have often been perceived as not fitting well in totalitarianism's Procrustean bed. But again, as in contemporary Islamism, the Jews have not been the only ones targeted. What is unusual about the current struggle with Islamofascism is that, in this instance, the Jews, while the most vilified, are not the most vulnerable targeted group. It is unfortunate that there seem to be so many Jews who are eager for Israel to make itself more vulnerable.


FP: As Americans now face enemies who wish to destroy us, what specific lessons must we learn from the Israelis and the Oslo process?


Levin: At first blush, one might expect to find little similarity between the response, when attacked, of Americans, citizens of the world’s most powerful nation, and the psychology of Diaspora Jews living amid hostile societies or of Israel long facing enemies whose declared objective is the state’s annihilation. But the reaction of some Americans to the events of 9/11 illustrate that even ostensibly strong and secure populations, under conditions that entail ongoing threat and vulnerability, can respond in delusional ways reminiscent of the Oslo debacle.


Those who unleashed the carnage of 9/11, as well as their supporters, have conveyed in word and deed their grievances against America and their goals. They have declared their deadly hostility not only to America’s military and diplomatic presence in the Muslim world but to its cultural presence as well. They have informed us of their determination to pursue a violent path to a recreated Islamic caliphate cleansed of all Western "pollution" and to fight for imposition of their Islamic rule worldwide. They have declared this a religious duty. They have demonstrated there are no limits to the methods and weapons they are prepared to use in their war.


Yet, while much of the American public quickly recognized the gravity of the challenge, many have sought to recast the threat, to rationalize it, and to urge policies aimed at appeasing the terrorists and their supporters in the delusional hope of thereby rescuing the nation from the dangers it faces. Or they have preferred to focus on particular, supposedly misguided, American policies as having caused or intensified the threat. Indeed, blaming America is the standard line in significant segments of American academia and media.


Among our political leaders, a number have urged us to compromise our answers to the war against us by yoking our policies to European allies, to those even more determinedly averting their eyes from the threat in the Middle East.


In the last Presidential election, one candidate, with the support of his party, advocated subsuming our measures to the collective will of the United Nations. The UN has routinely pandered to terror-promoting states and has failed to respond forcefully even to acts of genocide. It has deemed Sudan and Saudi Arabia fit for membership on its human rights commission, and it chose Libya to chair that commission. Why political leaders would urge us to follow the consensus of that body in fashioning our own actions in the war against Islamofascism is difficult to fathom except as the delusional perspective of people determined not to look honestly at the threats we face.


Averting our eyes from the actual challenge cannot help but sap our capacity to fight the war in a manner that might minimize the losses we are yet to suffer.


FP: Dr. Levin, it was a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you for joining us.


Levin: Thank you.





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