He was a bestselling Israeli author, who had been deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process as the former campaign manager of a left-labor Prime Minister.
And we were sitting in a café talking about what it means to live in a society pervaded by the sense of threat. Israel may possess one of the strongest militaries in the world, but people there often casually speak about being wiped out. Much of this applied to his writings on evolutionary psychology.
But there was something subtler he wanted to convey. He was a successful businessman, and had some years back gotten involved in a socially responsible investment project in the West Bank. He wanted to support Palestinian development and was working closely with a local Palestinian. But the man had somehow taken advantage of him and it had broken his trust. He said he still gave to causes that other Israelis consider traitorous, and he was not making judgments on all Palestinians based on this one experience; he remained, in effect, free from prejudice and quite sensitive. But it had somehow taken him out of the game.
The conflict with Palestinians is unusually personal for Israelis. Sometimes it can seem that everything revolves around questions of trust and persecution. All too many Israelis were run out of some country or other, or else they are the descendants of the survivors of genocide. While the Holocaust was unusually brutal, many of these other experiences were far more subtle, more like a long series of hints that Jews were not really liked, let me show you the door.
These experiences have lent to Israeli culture a collective sense of insecurity. Israelis worry a lot about how the rest of the world views them. The insecurity is compensated for through an emphasis on military security and totalitarian control over the occupied territories. And with seemingly perfect anthropological symmetry, the totalitarian control provides young Israeli adults, suffering their own insecurities, as young adults so often do, the opportunity to play at being in command. What better way to overcome your own insecurities, than to be given routine control over the intimate lives of others. It is the perfect mechanism for overcoming collective insecurity. Unfortunately for Israelis, it just leaves them more disliked, and hence more collectively insecure, than ever.
Criticize an Israeli’s views on the occupation and you are likely to be met with the collective burden of generations of persecution. My own two-year relationship with an Israeli woman was regularly punctuated with fights over the occupied territories. Sometimes they got so bad we would joke about having to call in Jimmy Carter. At the time, he was quite respected in Israel for his Camp David Peace Accords. But when he wrote a fairly moderate book focused on ending the occupation in 2006, the American Israel lobby branded him an anti-Semite in a ruthless smear campaign.
Smearing critics as anti-Semites is quite common. But seldom do the supporters of Israel stop and think how this may strengthen the commitment of their critics. The Israel lobby has often gone after fairly neutral organizations, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But in so doing they have made the conflict personal for activists as well, thereby inviting the collective wrath of justice advocates the world over.
Of course, the occupation is extremely personal for Palestinians, whose life prospects it has a tendency to cripple. And Israelis are often most personally affected by hearing how their policies personally affect Palestinians. Yet it is not the Palestinians feelings they tend to be concerned with but rather their own. It is as if their sensitivity has been displaced; the empathy they might otherwise feel for Palestinians is instead experienced as a sort of personal injury. It is much like the person who is more concerned with the rude manner with which some injustice has been presented as opposed to the injustice itself.
While the sensitivity of Israelis may be most evident in the vicious manner in which emotion is used to manipulate critics today, this range of feelings and emotional engagement has often produced startling works of literature and philosophy. Twentieth century Jewry produced thinkers like Theodore Adorno, Gertrude Stein, Jacques Derrida, Sigmund Freud, Hannah Arendt, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. And Israel has produced two world class novelists in David Grossman and Amoz Os, who have themselves struggled with the meaning of the occupation.
But the Jewish use of emotional intelligence has been perverted. And the manipulation of the emotional lives of critics has reached crisis proportions. Israelis do not seem to understand the resentments their actions perpetuate. And they seem increasingly detached from a deeper Jewish tradition in which this emotional sensitivity is explored through the interplay between the conscious and unconscious, self and other, us and them. It is a far more cosmopolitan tradition, a tradition that is far more likely to draw from the thinking of those who Israelis now oppress, and to generate a multicultural vision of inter-ethnic harmony.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Travis May