Sunday Oct 18, 2009. Jerusalem Post
What a bizarre title, you may be thinking - and you're right. But it only reflects how bizarre things can get when you venture out to the fringes where it's fashionable to demonize Israel as a uniquely evil force in today's world. It wouldn't be worth writing about it were it not for the fact that when it comes to demonizing Israel, nothing is too absurd to get aired in respectable media outlets or at academic conferences; indeed, there are even prestigious awards to be won.
A good example is former Israeli lawyer and political activist Felicia Langer, who was recently awarded Germany's "Federal Merit Cross, First Class." Langer, who has lived in Germany for some 20 years, has made a name for herself as a fierce critic of Israel who wouldn't even shy away from language that suggests comparisons between the Jewish state and Nazi Germany. Reportedly, she left Israel out of protest and has explained that she made "a politically conscious choice for Germany ... because I understood with what brutality and sophistication Israel was exploiting the Germans' guilt."
Obviously, the kind of positive reinforcement bestowed on Langer is by and large reserved for Jewish "critics" of Israel, because if a non-Jew suggests that Israel should be suspected of genocidal intentions or be compared to Nazi Germany, most people realize that this kind of "criticism" of Israel is tainted by anti-Semitic attitudes. The phenomenon of Jews eager to level those preposterous charges against Israel has led to a debate about the question if this is a manifestation of "Jewish anti-Semitism."
Recently I came across an article that railed against the "tropes of 'Jewish antisemitism'" and dismissed the "concept of the 'self-hating Jew,'" which was described as having been "dignified with a pseudo-psychopathology by those keen to suppress dissent." The writer, Antony Lerman, is a regular contributor to the Guardian's "Comment is Free" blog, and this was not the first time that he expressed his passionate rejection of the concept of Jewish "self-hatred." One of the previous occasions was in Lerman's recent review of a book by Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, whom Lerman criticized sharply:
He wants space for dissident voices, yet repeatedly gives credence to the notion of Jewish self-hatred, a bogus concept that serves no other purpose than to demonise Jewish dissent. He calls on Jews not to see all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, but he endorses wholesale the idea of the 'new anti-Semitism' - basically, that Israel is the Jew among the nations - which licenses Jews to do precisely what he says they shouldn't."
Since a note at the end of the review announces that Antony Lerman "is writing a book reflecting on his personal experience of Zionism and Israel," we can expect to hear more from him in defense of even the most outlandish accusations against Israel.
While I myself have reservations about the concept of Jewish "self-hatred" - though for very different reasons than Lerman - it seems to me that his thinking on the matter is rather confused. To give just one example, consider his assertion: "Far from being the antithesis of Jewish self-hatred, it is arguable that Zionism was actually a display of it." Really?
Moreover, in his most recent article, Lerman hardly helped his case when he praised a conference held last week at Birkbeck, University of London, which explored the subject "Sites of Conflict: Psycho-political Resistance in Israel-Palestine." Lerman explained that this conference "was prompted by the work of a group called Psychoactive - Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights" and he highlighted the contribution of Professor Uri Hadar of Tel Aviv University, an Israeli psychologist, who "sought to explain 'Israeli brutality towards Palestinians and what enables it.'"
According to Lerman, Hadar presented a "troublingly controversial" argument by suggesting "that Israel has never been properly able to mourn the mass murder of six million Jews, thus never properly assimilating it into the Israeli psyche, and that this has led to [a] 'full-blown Palestinian Holocaust being part of an unconscious Israeli itinerary.'"
That is indeed a "troublingly controversial" argument, to say the least - though at the Birkbeck conference, it was immediately given a veneer of respectability with a reference to Primo Levy, whom Lerman described as "perhaps the most respected moral voice and witness of the Holocaust." But there is nothing remotely respectable about the ramblings regarding the "Israeli psyche" - which is of course meant to be the Israeli Jewish psyche. There is also nothing original to this "psychologizing," since it has become rather fashionable in certain circles to put the Jews on the couch to diagnose the supposed pathologies of their collective psyche - in fact, Antony Lerman is among those who has tried his hand at this endeavor.
There are two superb critiques of this latest fashion from a left-wing political perspective: one is an article by David Hirsh published in April in the Jewish Chronicle, the other is a post by Shalom Lappin published on normblog in May. Lappin describes the "psychologizing discourse" as "a vintage case of pseudo-science in the service of prejudice" and emphasizes that it is used to lend respectability to "attitudes and assumptions that would be inadmissible if expressed in traditional terms."
But it's perhaps also time to let the "psychologizers" have a taste of their own medicine. A recent article written by some of the members of the "psychoactive" group whose work inspired the Birkbeck conference throws some light on their own "psychoactivity." In an article published in September, members of the group describe their emotions during and after Israel's military campaign against Gaza. They note that due to their opposition to the Gaza campaign, they felt "a sense of deep disconnection from the Israeli collective." At the same time, it seems that the efforts of the group members to remain engaged in a mutually supportive dialogue with their colleagues in Gaza, the West Bank and Israeli Arab communities were not all that rewarding:
The fact that we were activists speaking out against the attack did not really count in our favour: we were perceived as part of the attacking entity and hence as an address for expressions of frustration and outrage. […] From time to time the Jewish participants came up with calls for Palestinians to express their disavowal of Hamas or their recognition of the suffering of the Jewish citizens of Sderot or the Gaza area. Such demands were perceived as non-legitimate by most Palestinians - at a time when Israel was carrying out, in their words, war crimes against their brethren in Gaza. […] our need to feel moral and humane was linked to Palestinians' recognition of our morality and humanity.
Whether consciously or not, we expected to receive recognition and acknowledgement in our activities, and to assert the difference between ourselves and the Jewish majority. We needed to confirm our humanity and morality through its appreciation by the Palestinian participants. When this did not quite happen, we found ourselves, again, coping with a sense of isolation and loneliness."
When the bar for the sought-after "recognition" is set so high, some real effort is required - like talk about a "full-blown Palestinian Holocaust being part of an unconscious Israeli itinerary" during a conference in London. That should do the trick and get the Jewish group members the desperately sought "recognition and acknowledgement," and help them "to assert the difference between ourselves and the Jewish majority" by confirming their "humanity and morality through its appreciation by the Palestinian participants."
Obviously, this is the perfect description of what is usually meant by "self-hatred." But this example also provides a perfect illustration why this concept is problematic: the "psychoactivity" described here has nothing to do with self-hatred; to the contrary, it reveals a sense of superiority that sets a small self-appointed "elite" apart from an inferior majority that is unable and unwilling to live up to the lofty standards this elite holds dear.
But what can you do: in Israel, it just isn't everybody's thing to hold out for a pat on the back and a heart-felt "well done" from people who see no reason to disavow Hamas.
Strike against Silence - Israelis and Palestinians are meeting in London this week to explore the psychological aspects of their conflict
Across the spectrum of activists working for Israel-Palestine peace and reconciliation a mood of deep pessimism seems to have taken hold. That it's possible to write this barely nine months into the Obama presidency, which seemed to promise the distinct possibility of a breakthrough in resolving the conflict, is not simply a reflection of disappointment – possibly premature – that the administration has achieved so little, but a realistic acknowledgement of a palpable deterioration on a number of fronts.
Binyamin Netanyahu is successfully resisting a freeze on settlements. Mahmoud Abbas flip-flopped over referral of the Goldstone report to the UN security council and damaged his credibility. Hamas is more in control of Gaza than ever. The Israeli authorities have been harassing dissenters and preventing Israeli human rights organisations from operating in Gaza.
In such a climate, where political and diplomatic means of conflict resolution appear to be going nowhere, where do you turn for inspiration to find new ways forward, better tools for analysing what's gone wrong?
One answer may lie in the issues being discussed at a conference taking place at Birkbeck, University of London, today and tomorrow, titled 'Sites of Conflict: Psycho-political Resistance in Israel-Palestine'.
Organised by Professor Lynne Segal, the conference was prompted by the work of a group called Psychoactive – Mental Health Professionals for Human Rights, which includes both Israeli Jews and Palestinians who are trying to deal with the psychological consequences of the conflict for occupied and occupier by offering their professional tools 'for engaging with oppression and violence – whether this is in the clinic or the public space'.
Members of Psychoactive and other groups working in nonviolent ways to resist occupation and military conflict are discussing the use of psycho-social methods to understand the motivations of protagonists and victims of violence and how resistance can be made more effective. At the opening public session last night, Professor Uri Hadar of Tel Aviv University, an Israeli psychologist, sought to explain 'Israeli brutality towards Palestinians and what enables it'. Professor Stephen Frosh, Pro-Vice-Master of Birkbeck, thought that some of the questions Jews are asking themselves are: 'What have we done? What have we become?'
Any discussion of the Israel-Palestine conflict which tries to take a psychological or psychoanalytical approach is bound to enter very difficult mental territory and also to attract some scepticism from those who see the problems as essentially political and requiring political solutions. Take the question of how memory of the Holocaust has influenced Israeli behaviour towards the Palestinians.
The notion that the Holocaust is seen by Israel as sanctifying its creation is widely accepted.
But the argument that Israel has never been properly able to mourn the mass murder of six million Jews, thus never properly assimilating it into the Israeli psyche, and that this has led to 'full-blown Palestinian Holocaust being part of an unconscious Israeli itinerary' (in the words of Uri Hadar) is troublingly controversial.
Stephen Frosh acknowledged that such a thought could be seen as flowing from the words of Primo Levi, perhaps the most respected moral voice and witness of the Holocaust, who said after the massacre at Sabra and Shatila in 1982: 'Everybody is somebody's Jew. And today the Palestinians are the Jews of the Israelis'. But Professor Frosh questioned the deterministic conclusion Uri Hadar drew from his understanding of how the Holocaust has influenced Israeli behaviour.
Even if such a conclusion were seen as valid, would it have any practical political ramifications? This is a question that a conference seeking to find new resources for combined resistance and shared hope must surely confront. When someone at the opening session said that because Israel had turned its back on the idea that there are 'Jewish alternatives to its behaviour', he could not see Israel surviving as an institution, this seemed to me to completely ignore the fact that Israel's power, however much it has lost its decisive quality in circumstances of asymmetrical warfare, makes such an outcome not only extremely remote, but entertaining it is of no help whatsoever to the Palestinians.
If the comments of Palestinians at the session are anything to go by, while understanding Israeli behaviour is important, the conference will need to address the issue of power and powerlessness. Both on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank, and on the international stage, many Palestinians will see the exercise of Israeli power as going unchecked.
But what one nation state can do, surely another nation state, the United States, can use its vastly superior power to undo. Obama at least engendered hope, and as one Palestinian from Gaza said, a key goal must be overcoming the terrible feelings of hopelessness that prevail there. He was looking to the conference to help move Israelis, Jews and the European community 'to do something for the Palestinian people'.
However far the conference is physically from the theatre of conflict, in the current climate the opportunity to discuss such issues as the mental attrition of activists, the politics of apology, acknowledgement and denial, the role of the Jewish and Palestinian diasporas in supporting resistance is not something to be taken lightly.
Judge Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission on the Gaza invasion has been virtually buried by the efforts of Israel, the US and the European Union, and his report described as a 21st century Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Anne Bayefsky speaking at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel has been barred from sending medical teams into Gaza. Israeli human rights groups will no longer receive answers to representations they make to the Israeli authorities on behalf of Palestinians who need to enter or exit Gaza for humanitarian or educational reasons.
All of these developments have a silencing effect: they bring action to an end, restrict the space for reasoned dialogue; demonise dissent and leave the Palestinians who are suffering in Gaza and living under Israeli control even more voiceless. By creating a site for sharing deeper understandings of the conflict, the Birkbeck conference is a strike against silence.
Podcasts of both events are now available:
Sites of Conflict: Psycho-Political Resistance in Israel-Palestine:
To listen to Uri Hadar click here:
Psycho-Political Resistance in Israel-Palestine 15 – 16 October 2009
16 October 2009
Uri Hadar –
International Support and Involvement in Psycho-active Work/Acknowledgement
Uri Hadar – Burning Memories: Sacrifice and the Unconscious in History
14 October 2009
Memory of historical events is necessarily collective, but acquires personal characteristics that are of the same nature as individual memory in general. This idea is illustrated through memories of holocaust survivors as they construct themselves in a particular biography of an Israeli child. Holocaust memories are then connected to the ethos of military strength in Israeli society, which ethos undertakes to transform the historical marking of the Jews as victims, sacrificed by the nations on the altar of ethnic power. This is where the Palestinians enter the unconscious Israeli narrative, allowing the movement of the Jew away from the position of the sacrificed. The theme of sacrifice conversion marks itself in historical events such as the Naqba and the recent attack on Gaza. The talk examines the manner in which these themes feed into personal memory systems and reconstructs the workings of memory through the entire historical cycle.
To listen to Nissim Avissar click here:
Psycho-Political Resistance in Israel-Palestine 15 – 16 October 2009
15 October 2009
Nassim Avissar – Psychoactive Work in Israel