Calling out Jewish self-haters

Interesting piece in today’s Jerusalem Post about self-hating Jews. Of particular value is the psychologist’s perspective in the piece that, just as an abused child will sometimes internalize the abuser’s hatred as an attempt at self-protection, so will individuals among groups who have been abused and marginalized.

One of the most painful experiences an individual can endure is shame and exclusion. Particularly during the 1980’s, when the media (only permitted in Palestinian territories if they reported sympathetically about the Palestinian cause) presented a strongly one-sided narrative, I saw this dynamic play out at my high school, where students were exposed to shallow and largely one-sided reporting. The school also hosted a few speakers during those years who created a powerful presentation of the Palestinian people’s suffering that tolerated no discussion of the ways in which that society’s own leadership was intentionally brainwashing its people toward violence, failing to educate them for peace, using them as human shields while attacking Israelis, etc. The fact that Israel’s emissaries and spokespeople were woefully inadequate at articulating their case didn’t help.

I witnessed many of my fellow Jewish students rush to embrace the Palestinian cause without even seeming to consider Israelis’ side of the story – and this made a powerful impression on me. Many of these students were bright, and some knew Israelis personally, well enough to understand Israelis had their side of the story and their right to self-defense. When other, non-Jewish students weighed in, comparing Israelis’ treatment of Palestinians to Germans’ treatment of Jews during the Holocaust, for instance, this distortion went unchallenged. I remember arguing most strenuously with Jewish students, a few of whom outmatched the non-Jewish students in their stridency. Now I see that it was simply so much easier to go along with the accepted thinking at the time, which presented Israelis as abusive, as killers of women and children (without asking the deeper questions about who was putting these women and children on the front lines and in many cases literally attacking from behind them–something that was Yasir Arafat’s specialty but had been perpetrated by other Arab leaders as well).

I realize now that these Jewish students’ reactions reflected a defense mechanism that overcame what would be a natural impulse: to stand up for Israelis and, by extension, for themselves. After all, most of these students had gone to Hebrew school and learned about the Holocaust; in fact, thanks to a very excellent and able (if strict) tenth grade world history teacher, Roz Sherman, who taught a unit on the Holocaust that could have rivaled in seriousness any college course, these students knew enough to grasp that such comparisons – even if Israel deserved some criticism – were offensive and unfair.

There was, and is, no dismissing Palestinian suffering, but to refuse to also acknowledge Israeli suffering or to understand that in a war perpetrated by Arab forces, Israelis are not exclusively to blame, would have been appropriate at the very least.

Why couldn’t these students manage it?

Because at the time, the news reported only that Palestinian children were dying and Israel was to blame. The world fed into Arafat’s orchestrated “child who is facing the tank” manipulation. So to argue that the issues were more complex – much less that Israelis had their side or were in the right – placed one outside the mainstream. To stand up for Israel in any way was to risk pariah status. So the Jewish students I knew simply parroted the media’s anti-Israel line, even though doing so went against what their own life experience (knowing Israelis) and educations had taught them. In short, it was just easier, while being shamed by the larger society, to blind themselves to certain aspects of reality that were too uncomfortable.

The psychology of self-hatred rests not only on fear of exclusion (I’ll reject/hate myself before you can do it to me) but on need for control. Irrational hatred is terrifying because, in addition to threatening one’s very existence, it is utterly beyond one’s control. Sadly, Americans experienced this on 9/11. To be attacked for simply existing is horrifying on multiple levels. On the obvious level is is painful and can be fatal. If one survives, the questions set in. Why did this happen? Why did they attack me? Human beings are wired to seek solutions and protection. But if the cause of the attack is, at its base, someone else’s problems/insanity, there is no way to protect oneself. Because one cannot change another person or people.

And so, the self-blame sets in. Maybe it is not entirely accurate to call it blame. In some cases, it may be well-intentioned. the idea is that, if we can identify what about our behavior prompted the attack, we can prevent it from happening again. Of course, this is usually unproductive because the deepest cause of the attack was not our existence. It is something “off” –something wrong with the attacker. Call it evil, dysfunction, sickness, insanity. Whatever it is, it has targeted us as a scapegoat, but would seek a different outlet were we absent. A variant of the self-blame–and an even uglier manifestation of it–is blame of that, or he or she, who is like us. In this variant, the self-hating Jew takes a moralistic, judgmental position toward his or her fellow Jews–toward Israelis in the settlements, for instance. The mind’s “logic” argues that the actions of these people–in this case, residing on a particular piece of land–cause justifiably murderous behavior in others.

The reality is Israelis are fighting a defensive war for survival. There might be logic in arguing that Israel’s unfortunately necessary forays into the Palestinian territories to kill terrorists that sometimes (often by design of Palestinian leadership) result in the deaths of Palestinian civilians have caused so much trauma that the Palestinians are suffering from a societal shell shock that makes them unable to act in their own self-interest. But that is not what Israelis’ critics argue, because that would be an honest (if generous) assessment that takes into account the situation’s terrible complexities (and reflects real compassion for the Palestinians). It is so much easier and simpler to reflexively blame Israelis and their policies–like the fence (which has saved lives on both sides) and the settlements (in what other context has living somewhere–anywhere–been cited as a justification for murder?) because in doing so, one can be, firmly simplistically, and in the eyes of the world–on the side of right.

This form of self-hatred, really a hatred of those close to the self–gives the blamer a sense of control without the discomfort of self-criticism or shame. It is a kind of double sleight-of-hand. In the end though, no matter how dressed in intellectual finery–it is cowardice.

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