Fierce debate has been raging in 'The Independent' about Israel's conduct in Gaza. Here, one leading Jewish thinker argues that until Jews shake off their persecution complex, there can never be peace in the Middle East
By Antony Lerman
Saturday, 7 March 2009
In most Jewish circles, if you pause to question this narrative and suggest that it might be exaggerated, that it unrealistically implies a level of dreadfulness and victimhood unique to Jews, you'll attract hostility and disbelief in equal measure, and precious little public sympathy. But in the work of Professor Salo Baron, probably the greatest Jewish historian of the 20th century, we find powerful justification for just such a questioning.
Professor Baron spoke out angrily against what he called the "lachrymose conception of Jewish history", which placed suffering at the centre of Jewish life. "Suffering is part of the destiny" of the Jews," Professor Baron said in an interview in 1975, "but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption." Another distinguished historian, Professor Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, said Baron always fought against the view of Jewish history as "all darkness and no light. He laboured mightily to restore balance".
Baron, who was born in Poland and went to America in 1930 to teach at Columbia University in New York, died aged 94 in 1989, perhaps one of the most significant years in post-war Jewish history. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the suppression of Jewish religious practice and cultural expression came to an end.
More than two million Jews were finally free to choose to be Jewish or not. An astonishing number chose Jewishness and a remarkable revival of Jewish life began. This historic moment aptly illustrates the central truth of Baron's critique.
Twenty years on, that revival continues, but the world's response to Israel's war on Gaza and the dramatic rise in anti-Semitic incidents in a number of countries since the war began have led many to paint a very dark picture of the current Jewish predicament. So, in thinking about the accuracy of this, especially in view of the poisonous weed of anti-Semitism that Howard Jacobson, writing in The Independent last month, claims to find growing in practically every patch of criticism of Israel, I wondered what light Professor Baron would have found in the current darkness. Would he have concluded that the lachrymose conception of Jewish history has returned and that a restoration of some balance is required? Have we Jews succumbed psychologically to a sense of eternal Jewish victimhood, a wholly negative Jewish exceptionalism, or is paranoia justified?
Some pioneering research, published as Israel's bombing of Gaza began, throws some light on this. It reveals just how much the feeling that no matter what we do, we are perpetually at the mercy of others applies to Jewish Israelis. A team led by Professor Daniel Bar Tal of Tel Aviv University, one of the world's leading political psychologists, questioned Israeli Jews about their memory of the conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, and found that their "consciousness is characterised by a sense of victimisation, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanisation of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering". The researchers found a close connection between that collective memory and the memory of "past persecutions of Jews" and the Holocaust, the feeling that "the whole world is against us". If such a study were to be conducted among Jews in Britain, I suspect the results would be very similar.
For Jews to see themselves in this way is understandable, but it's a distortion and deeply damaging. As Professor Bar Tal says, this view relies primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even nurtures it. The Jewish public does not want to be confused with the facts. If we are defined by past persecutions, by our victimhood, will we ever think clearly about the problem of Israel-Palestine and the problem of anti-Semitism?
To justify its attack on Gaza, Israel threw the mantle of victimhood over the residents of southern Israel who have lived under the constant threat of rocket attack from the territory since 2001.
Israeli government and military spokespeople seemed to get a remarkably sympathetic hearing in the media when they made this argument. But history did not begin in 2001. As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass notes, the origin of Israel's siege dates back to 1991, before suicide bombings began. The relentless emphasis on Israeli suffering, to the exclusion of all other contextual facts, and the constant mantra that no other country would tolerate such a threat posed to its citizens over such a long period provided the basis for arguing that the military option was the only alternative.
The victim is cornered and there's only one way out.
But the popular Israeli phrase ein breira, "there is no alternative", won't stand one second's scrutiny. There was a wealth of informed senior military and security opinion, especially following the disaster of the 2006 Lebanon war, which argued that there is no military solution to the problem of Islamist groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah. Even before Lebanon, in 2004, former IDF spokesman Nahman Shai, a senior figure in the Israeli establishment, said: "Despite all the anger, frustration, and disgust we feel, we ought to talk to Hizbollah. We must exploit every possibility to reach a compromise with them and gain precious time. Does it really embody all the evil in the region? What are we waiting for? We can always go back to fighting terrorism."
Early in January this year, Israel's former Mossad chief and former national security adviser, Efraim Halevy, said: "If Israel's goal were to remove the threat of rockets from the residents of southern Israel, opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation." Daniel Levy, former adviser in the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, shows clearly where the wrong choices were made: withdrawing from Gaza without co-ordinating the "what next" with the Palestinians; hermetically sealing off Hamas and besieging Gaza after the 2006 elections instead of testing Hamas's capacity to govern responsibly; instead of building on the ceasefire, Israel was the first to break it on 4 November. In short, there were other alternatives.'