An Israeli Diagnosis of the Deteriorating Psychology of the Country

Akiva Eldar reports on the critical work being done on Israeli Jewish psychology and the war against the Palestinians. Eldar’s title, “Is an Israeli Jewish Sense of Victimization Perpetuating the Conflict with the Palestinians”, says it all, and he marshals significant evidence. Daniel Bar Tal is one of Israel’s premier psychologists.

The sweeping support for Operation Cast Lead confirmed the main diagnosis that arises from the study, conducted by Daniel Bar-Tal, one of the world’s leading political psychologists, and Rafi Nets-Zehngut, a doctoral student: Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering….

“Most of the nation retains a simplistic collective memory of the conflict, a black-and-white memory that portrays us in a very positive light and the Arabs in a very negative one,” says the professor from Tel Aviv University. This memory, along with the ethos of the conflict and collective emotions such as fear, hatred and anger, turns into a psycho-social infrastructure of the kind experienced by nations that have been involved in a long-term violent conflict. This infrastructure gives rise to the culture of conflict in which we and the Palestinians are deeply immersed, fanning the flames and preventing progress toward peace. Bar-Tal claims that in such a situation, it is hard even to imagine a possibility that the two nations will be capable of overcoming the psychological obstacles without outside help….it is very clear that those with a “Zionist memory” see Israel and the Jews as the victims in the conflict, and do not tend to support agreements or compromises with the enemy in order to achieve peace. This finding, he explains, demonstrates the importance of changing the collective memory of conflicts, making it less biased and more objective – on condition, of course, that there is a factual basis for such a change.

Bar-Tal, who has won international awards for his scientific work, immigrated to Israel from Poland as a child in the 1950s.

“I grew up in a society that for the most part did not accept the reality that the authorities tried to portray, and fought for a different future,” he says. “I have melancholy thoughts about nations where there is an almost total identity between the agents of a conflict, on the one hand, who nurture the siege mentality and the existential fear, and various parts of society, on the other. Nations that respond so easily to battle cries and hesitate to enlist in favor of peace do not leave room for building a better future.”

Bar-Tal emphasizes that the Israeli awareness of reality was also forged in the context of Palestinian violence against Israeli citizens, but relies primarily on prolonged indoctrination that is based on ignorance and even nurtures it. In his opinion, an analysis of the present situation indicates that with the exception of a small minority, which is capable of looking at the past with an open mind, the general public is not interested in knowing what Israel did in Gaza for many years; how the disengagement was carried out and why, or what its outcome was for the Palestinians; why Hamas came to power in democratic elections; how many people were killed in Gaza from the disengagement until the start of the recent war; and whether it was possible to extend the recent cease-fire or even who violated it first….

Bar-Tal says he takes no comfort in the knowledge that Palestinian collective memory suffers from similar ills, and that it is also in need of a profound change – a change that would help future generations on both sides to regard one another in a more balanced, and mainly a more humane manner. This process took many decades for the French and the Germans, and for the Protestants and the Catholics in Northern Ireland. When will it finally begin here, too?

Indeed. What the professor describes in Israel is exactly the mentality that I saw everywhere during the war. I grew up in the United States with the same sad points of view, people locked in an endless cycle of being injured and injuring, never seeing their own power, always feeling powerless even as they injure others, bringing on the very resentment from others that they so loathe. It was as true of abusive men in their homes, grown up children really, as it was of heads of Jewish defense organizations.

Much of this became a habit of the mind at a time of history when the world was filled with those who hated Jews on principle, a time that is long past despite the best fantasies of the ADL. And those whose minds were formed by this reality cannot fathom a world that may resent, fight, even kill Jews, not because they hate Jews but because there is a grievance, there is a war, there is conflict in the same way that people kill in conflict around the world when there are unresolved grievances and land that must be shared. I remember choking on the words in any number of Saturday conversations when I would hear people who were so blindly hateful of Palestinians, that they would sit back in astonishment at the Tutsi and Hutu, or the Irish, ‘why are the killing each other’, but the second it came to Palestine the enemies were just Nazis. From adulthood to childhood back to adulthood in seconds. But that is to insult children, because frankly my children are utterly incapable of hating Palestinians. They come to tears when they read that there was a Jewish law at one time ordering us to hate idolaters.

There are those in my town, Washington, who argue quite legitimately about the best course of action dealing with militant groups and countries. But that is not the problem. It is the victim mentality that shuts off all empirical research, that ignores evidence for a year that a militant group has substantially decreased its aggression and is calling for long-term treaties. Such blindness is due to psychological illness of the kind that Bar Tal describes.

The only hope is for those who have evolved from this mentality to lead those who have not into a new place of coming to know the world as it really is, a place of danger but also a place of great possibility, a place of enemies but also friends, a place of victimhood but also a place of personal and collective responsibility, a place of equality where there are no perfect saints and no perfect devils and no one chosen to be superior, a place where being beloved by man or God is not a license to kill but a responsibility to share the holy earth, and the Holy Land, in all its beauty and challenge.

Professor Daniel Bar Tal
Professor Daniel Bar Tal
© Marc Gopin