Avigail Abarbanel: Understanding Israeli Psychology
- The Charter of the Israeli State
Earlier this month I had the privilege of hearing Ali Abunimah speak
at a dinner organised by an Australian pro-Palestinian activist
group. Abunimah, an author and an editor of the Electronic Intifada
website, is a supporter of the one-state solution in
Palestine/Israel, and so am I. One democratic and secular state for
both peoples with a right of return for the Palestinian refugees is
the only just solution to the long conflict between Israel and the
Palestinians. Abunimah is optimistic about what is possible. I would
like to be as optimistic but am not so sure I can.
Growing up as an Israeli provided me with an intimate understanding
of Israeli-Jewish psychology. Ever since I can remember, we in Israel
were told that Jews have nowhere else to go because the world didn't
like Jews. Seventeen years ago, when my former husband and I were
about to migrate to Australia, most of the people we knew were
dismayed by our decision. I was told by many that I was making a big
mistake. My father's heart surgeon for example, was in complete shock
when he heard our news. He took me aside and said that he did not
understand how I could leave; that he would never be prepared to live
anywhere where there might be even one anti-Semite alive. Like many
others he believed that Jews can only safely live in Israel.
This idea that Israel is the only safe place for Jews is critical to
understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and
Israel's policies and perspective in the present. The majority of
Jewish people do not trust non-Jews as life-long compatriots.
Experience and cultural narrative have been telling them that since
antiquity, rulers and governments as well as populations have become
hostile to Jews without warning. This means that no matter how long
Jews have lived anywhere, no matter how unobtrusive and well
integrated they have been, or how much they contributed to their
society, things could turn against them overnight. With a history of
European persecutions, pogroms, discriminatory laws, expulsions,
medieval and modern ghettos and a systematic plan of total
annihilation in what was considered an enlightened European country,
it's hard to blame people for feeling insecure.
Israel was not born in 1948 or because of the Holocaust. Its origins
are with Zionism, the Jewish national movement, which was born in the
late 19th century. Zionism was to put an end to the precarious
situation of European Jews by creating an exclusively Jewish state.
The logic was simple: if Jews could not trust that they could ever be
unconditionally welcome or safe in the countries in which they lived,
they needed a state of their own. This means a state governed by Jews
only, and that was largely free of non-Jewish people.
The location of the `Jewish national home' was debated at first but
eventually the entire Zionist movement agreed on Palestine because of
the spiritual meaning it had for Jewish people. The fact that
Palestine was populated was known, and openly recognised by the
leaders of the Zionist movement. The mainstream view was that it was
unfortunate, but that the plan to create a national home for the
Jewish people could not be abandoned, because the Jews were in dire
Zionists have always believed that Jewish fear justifies ethnic
cleansing. Ideas about transferring the existing non-Jewish
population of Palestine the Palestinians elsewhere to make room
for an exclusively Jewish state existed long before 1948. The
word `transfer' entered modern Hebrew, as a euphemism for ethnic
cleansing, an idea or a plan to move the Palestinian population en
masse elsewhere, as far away as possible from the borders of Israel.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine started in 1948 behind the
smokescreen of war, but it was not completed. It is not only
continuing today but Israeli scholars like Ilan Pappé believe that it
Zionist ideology is directly responsible for the charter of present
day Israel. Attempting to understand the dynamic of the Palestinian-
Israeli conflict or to analyse Israel's behaviour without
understanding this charter is bound to be flawed, and to lead to more
confusion and misunderstanding.
Since the foundational belief is that Jewish people can only be safe
in an exclusively Jewish state, Israel's charter is simple. Israel is
required to maintain itself as a safe haven for all Jewish people.
Based on their past experience and national and religious narratives
Jewish people deeply believe that it's only a matter of time before
the tide once again turns against them. When (and not `if') this
happens, the state of Israel will be there to take them all in and
I am using `they' instead of `we' because I have personally abandoned
this narrative, and have chosen not to live my life in its shadow.
This is seen by many Israelis as naive or even insane. But I decided
to take my chances in the wider world because I do not believe that I
can live a full life and make a contribution in the world if I live
in a permanent state of fear.
The development of the state of Israel and Israel's behaviour in the
region have always been consistent with its charter. Israel sees that
it would need as much land and natural resources as possible (such as
water, which is scarce in the region), in order to accommodate the 13
millions Jews who are expected to flock to it from around the
world, `when' a new era of Jewish persecution begins. Israel would
have to have enough housing, infrastructure and a functional economy.
It would have to be a modern state in which Western Jews accustomed
to technology, capitalism and affluence can feel comfortable. There
is nothing inconsistent or strange in what Israel is doing to the
Palestinians if you understand this charter. It surprises me that
this is never discussed openly in any political analysis that I see.
At the heart of this conflict is not economics, oil, `war on terror',
religion or various regional loyalties. Rather it is an age-old
psychology of persecution and survival to which all other
considerations are subservient.
Israel's loyalties are utilitarian. There is no great love there for
any other peoples or countries. Israelis always think in terms of
what is good for the Jews and what isn't, and they watch the world
carefully from within this prism.
Israeli children learn to see life from this point of view from a
very young age. I was the same when I was growing up. Only when we
grasp this we can understand why negotiations with Israel mean so
little; why Israel has never stopped building settlements on
Palestinian land and has been consistently expanding its territory;
why it's making life for Palestinians inside and outside of Israel so
unbelievably hellish; why it's brutally restricting them to ever
diminishing territories and why Israel is responding to Palestinian
resistance with such disproportionate and overwhelming violence.
Breaking down Palestinian resistance is critical from Israel's point
of view not only because of the pain that Palestinian armed
resistance causes in Israel, but also in order to destroy any
aspirations Palestinians might have to return to their ancestral
lands. Israel simply cannot afford this if it wants to stay an
exclusively Jewish state.
Israel is a country based on racist considerations because of its
very charter, and the circumstances through which it came into being.
From the point of view of Israelis accepting the one-state idea,
would change Israel into just another country where Jews live among
non-Jews. The whole idea of a Jewish safe haven would have to be
abandoned and there will be no guarantee that the new pluralist state
would take in Jews if they were ever in need of rescue. Israeli Jews
and many Zionists around the world believe that to ask them to live
together with the Palestinian people is to ask them to go back to a
state of insecurity and potential victimhood. They simply do not
believe that this is reasonable, and therefore would never willingly
agree to any solution that compromises their safe haven.
This is one of the reasons Zionists counteract any criticism of
Israel with persistent cries of anti-Semitism. They really believe
that to end the exclusively Jewish state would leave all Jews
anywhere in the world, vulnerable to another potential Holocaust.
It is clear to me that if justice is to be achieved for the
Palestinians this fear-based, racist and immoral ideology has to be
overcome because the fear of one people cannot and must not justify
the destruction of another.
But I do not believe that the Palestinians can afford to wait until
Jewish psychology changed by itself, and Jews felt sufficiently safe
in the world to let go of the idea of an exclusively Jewish safe
haven. I believe it will take serious international pressure on
Israel, or a real change of heart on the part of Israelis for a one
state solution to become a reality.
I would like to be optimistic and think that this change of heart
will happen eventually but am not sure I can. My doubts come from my
own experience after all it used to be my psychology too. Thus, in
order to save the Palestinian people the world must take decisive
action in this conflict, as it did in South Africa, or continue
sacrificing one people for the sake of another.
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