This is notes from a talk I gave on Thursday 13th August 2009 at Adelaide University as a part of Action for Palestine’s anti Israeli-Apartheid week activities. You can contact Action for Palestine through Craig Nielsen (cmnselection@hotmail.com) or Julia Terreu (huliapril@gmail.com).

I gave the same talk again in Melbourne on 8th October 2009 at ‘The struggle for a free Palestine: Speaking out against Israeli apartheid and occupation’ — A public forum and discussion on Israel, Zionism, apartheid and the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. The event was organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Contact details: Telephone: 0439 454 375 or 0431 728 271, Email: palestinesolidaritycampaign@gmail.com, Web: www.palestinesolidaritycampaign.net

In addition to the notes below, you can also download a PDF of my slides from the Melbourne talk.

Introduction

The word Apartheid originated in South Africa in the 1940s. It referred to the official policy of segregation of black South Africans by the white population. Now it refers to any policy or practice of separating or segregating groups.

Apartheid requires the exercise of extreme social, legal and political power by one group over another. There is no question in an apartheid relationship who the powerful group is. The group that is discriminated against has less power and the one that initiates the apartheid is clearly the powerful group. But paradoxically, although a group that feels the need to use power in order to exclude and segregate another group seems on the surface strong, its policy comes out of deep insecurity. When you are afraid of another group and have enough power, you can legislate to marginalise and isolate the other group so that you can feel more secure.

It is now widely recognised and well established that the state of Israel has used apartheid policies against the Palestinians possibly since its beginnings in 1948 but certainly since 1967. Israeli apartheid has a devastating daily effect both on the Palestinian citizens of Israel and on the Palestinian refugees trapped in the West Bank and Gaza. In this talk I will cover briefly the kind of group psychology and belief system that I believe are responsible for Israel’s apartheid. I will refer to my own personal experience of growing up as an Israeli Jew — a mainstream member of the more powerful group in Israel.

Having been raised and indoctrinated in Jewish-Israeli culture I see myself as a survivor of a sect or a cult. It’s not a usual way to look at Israel or Judaism but I and a few other Jews from around the world have started to refer to, and think this way about the culture we have been brought up in.

The reason this is important is because the very nature of Israeli culture and its cultish characteristics are responsible for the way Israel is treating the Palestinians. I don’t think it is possible to understand the conflict between Jewish-Israel and the Palestinian people properly without grasping a few things about Jewish-Israeli culture. The origins of the conflict lie of course with the Zionist programme of the colonisation of Palestine, which started in the late 1880s. But this programme and the single-minded way in which it was carried out have their origins in Jewish culture and its perception of itself.

You can analyse Zionism from many angles but I think that there has been a general avoidance of looking at it as an extension of mainstream Jewish culture and its psychology. It’s seen as anti-Semitic or racist to talk about these political issues from the point of view of Jewish religion or psychology. But it has to be done, and these taboos have to be broken if we want to be honest and acknowledge things as they really are so that injustices can be corrected.

Courage to acknowledge the truth, and honesty are essential to solving problems like the conflict between Israeli Jews and the Palestinian people. Courage is needed primarily because of the emphasis that Jewish-Israeli culture places on group loyalty. I feel that it is my duty to speak up and openly break old taboos specifically because I am from there. Because I was brought up as an Israeli Jew I am partly responsible for what Israel has done in my name and on my behalf, and the part that I played in it as a young soldier and as a citizen of that country.

There are lessons to be learned from Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians that are universal too, and as a psychotherapist I am interested in sharing them with others. These are lessons concerning our lives as members of our societies and our perception of our individual responsibilities as citizens in what we would like to think of as democracies. I am referring to responsibilities such as to become well informed, to recognise when we are being manipulated through our fears, and to decide what we are prepared to be a part of or what we are not.

Growing up blind

Jewish and Jewish-Israeli cultures are not something that Israeli Jews learn about as an intellectual exercise. The indoctrination into the culture is deliberately designed to affect not just your beliefs and ideas but the very sense of who you are, your very identity in the deepest sense possible. Israel is not just a country you live in. As a Jewish citizen of Israel you are not just a person who happens to live in a country like any other country. Israel is personified; it has mythical proportions in the minds of its own Jewish citizens, and for many (but not all) Jews around the world. It is a living organism and there are deep feelings attached to the name ‘Israel’ in the same way as we attach emotional significance to the names of people we love. Being an Israeli-Jew defines you as an inseparable organ of this living organism that is larger than you, even larger than life. It’s an organism that you need for your survival and that in return needs you for its survival. Your survival and the survival of the state are intertwined. It’s a spiritual and psychological symbiosis.

There is plenty of evidence in the very language that Israeli-Jews use. For example, when they talk about their own country, they don’t refer to it as ‘Israel’. They call it ‘Ha’aretz’, which means ‘the homeland’. The word is laden with meaning and intensity of emotion. When I was in primary school I used to subscribe to a children’s magazine published by the newspaper Ha’aretz (those of you who are familiar with it, now know what its name means). The name of the magazine was ‘Ha’aretz she’lanu’ meaning ‘our ha’aretz’, or our homeland. It sounds innocent on the surface and it’s a kind of play on words that can appeal to children. But it’s a perfectly typical example of the more subtle tools used in Israel to create and reinforce Jewish-Israeli identity and with it an unquestioning loyalty. You need this if you are going to ask people to sacrifice their life, or their physical and mental health in the next war, and to give two or three years of their life for compulsory military service and then spend many more years in the reserve military force.

Even the language I use throughout this talk is significant. Jewish-Israelis do not refer to themselves this way. When they describe themselves they would simply say they are ‘Israelis’. The Palestinian citizens of Israel are called in Hebrew ‘Arab-Israelis’. So the default concept of belonging in the Israeli state is based on Jewish identity. Jews are the Israelis and the Palestinians are some other variety of Israeli, but not the ‘real thing’… Until fairly recently I referred to myself the way I was taught to, as an ‘Israeli’. Only now I am becoming aware of how the discrimination against the Arab population in Israel is so deeply entrenched in the very language I myself used. So although it makes the writing and talking about these topics a bit verbose, I have no choice, if I want to avoid collusion with this linguistic and social expression of Israeli apartheid.

From a very young age, about 6 or 7 years old my generation was exposed to gruesome images of the Holocaust, piles of dead emaciated bodies, the mountains of shoes, the gates of Auschwitz, hungry and filthy children and adult prisoners in stripy pyjamas peering desperately through barbed wire. We were taught Holocaust stories, real and fictional, about the life of children like us in the Ghettos under the Nazis: the ever present hunger, the crowded conditions, the daily struggle to survive, the uncertainty, heroic children risking their lives to smuggle food into the ghettos, and the constant terror of cold-hearted SS soldiers, their guns and their dogs.

The messages were crystal clear: ‘This could be you because you are Jewish. The only reason it isn’t, is not because they won’t try to do it to you — they almost certainly will do this again — but because you are here in Israel. The Holocaust victims were weak Jews but you are an Israeli, and you must grow up to be strong. Israel is the only protection you have against ending up like one of these children in the stories and the photos. You must help make Israel strong and do everything you can to make sure it survives, so that you don’t end up like these Holocaust children’.

As a psychotherapist I am horrified by the callous and cynical way that this trauma was passed on to us. Children this young shouldn’t be exposed to such images especially without some emotional support structures and debriefing mechanisms. But even if these were available I still think it’s unacceptable to expose such young children to this kind of material. This is emotional manipulation at its worst and it’s designed to make sure that we thought the thoughts that they wanted us to think and feel what they wanted us to feel. Israel has never spared any effort to try to ensure its continued survival and its strength, and children and young people are the cannon fodder in this ideology. This kind of indoctrination guarantees that the majority of Israelis grow up with generational trauma and never feel secure no matter where they are. The state seems to behave as if it has full ownership over the psychology of its individual citizens.

Until recently this process of indoctrination was achieved in a relatively subtle way through the use of language, songs, poetry, children’s and adults’ literature, the choice of subjects taught at school and their content, and many other aspects of popular culture. There is an endless string of national ceremonies throughout the year, and all children are encouraged to take an active part in them through school. I was always involved in reading something, reciting, dramatising or singing. I was soloist in my school choirs as a child and teenager, and sang many songs that now I consider very nationalist and unacceptable. But back then they stirred me at the deepest levels possible and gave me a sense of pride and belonging. Many of these songs are quite beautiful.

We started receiving military-like training from primary school. It was fun. I learned to shoot at age 15 and even got a medal for my achievements. One of our school excursions in year 11 consisted of our entire class spending a whole week in makeshift accommodation in the then new settlement or colony of Efrat in the West Bank. I volunteered to work in their banana plantation. Under the guise of a school camp or excursion we were in fact being used as free labour to help build those colonies. I suspect that many other classes from other schools had similar experiences in Efrat and other so-called settlements. It gives you an idea of how the Israeli government supported the colonisation of so much Palestinian land and how they mobilised the entire population including children to support the project.

As a teenager though, this felt good and worthwhile. We felt like we were pioneers, doing something that we could be proud of, helping grow produce for our country and settle its frontier areas. I remember standing on the hill where Efrat is built, and looking down at military drills of the armoured corps, watching tanks shoot live shells right beneath us. It was exciting and I felt important and proud to be witnessing this.

Until the past few years I didn’t really understand what Efrat and other kibbutzim or towns like it, really are. It never occurred to me that my school friends and I were supporting the theft of Palestinian land, that in fact we were there illegally, and that we were supporting and colluding with a heavily militarised society. All of us knew that within two or so years we would become part of our country’s military force. I and I suspect more than a few of my friends were looking forward to our military service. It was our rite of passage into society, and our chance to prove ourselves to everyone as good loyal citizens of our country.

When people are indoctrinated this way, this is not designed to elicit intellectual discussion. This is meant to penetrate deep into your unconscious, to the level below awareness and intellectual engagement. That way it forms a part of the very fabric that makes you who you are, it shapes you into something that the state can use. It goes so deep that it’s the sort of thing that few people tend to question.

I am saying ‘until recently’ because Avigdor Lieberman, who holds the very important portfolio of Minister of Foreign Affairs, is now actively changing the culture. Lieberman is many things but subtle he isn’t… He is now bringing this indoctrination out into the open and does things in a much more crass and unsophisticated way. His methods are the same ones used by far right rulers in other places around the world, and echo so much of what George Orwell described in 1984.

Paradoxically, the outcome of what Lieberman is doing could be positive in the long term. I think it will expose Israel for what it really is and always has been. The principles behind what Lieberman is doing are not new but they were well hidden when Israel’s Labor party was in power. The Labor party promoted an image of itself as peace loving and pretended to be interested in peace-making and a two state solution. On the ground however, they were responsible for the militaristic nature of Israel, for some of the worst oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel and the illegal occupation and increasing colonisation of Palestinian land.

Lieberman represents the settler culture, which essentially is extremist culture. The word ‘settler’ is a euphemism and has a benign sense to it but it is nothing of the kind. The settlers are far from being benign. They are religious extremists and the right way to describe what they are doing is violent and illegal colonisation, not settlement. Like most extremists, Lieberman does not think he has to be nice to anyone, or that he has anything to apologise for or explain. He knows he is right and if he wants something he will do anything to get it, no matter the cost. But rather than strengthen Israel he is rapidly encouraging the world to question the legitimacy of an exclusively Jewish state at the expense of another people. This is why I think that in the long term it could be a good thing.

Going back to my upbringing and my indoctrination into Jewish-Israeli culture: There were plenty of school excursions deliberately designed to instil in us a deep sense of connection to and ownership of the land. Difficult issues were either lied about outright or cleverly avoided. For instance, each time we visited a site of a destroyed Arab town or village from 1948, the reason given for what we saw was that the Arabs chose to flee. (I am using the word ‘Arab’ because this is the word that was always used. The word ‘Palestinian’ was never mentioned back then. It started to penetrate the daily vocabulary much later.) The emphasis was always on how we made the desert bloom and how there wasn’t much there before our brave pioneers came and settled the land. Until a few years ago I didn’t know that we committed deliberate and systematic ethnic cleansing in 1948; that we drove out the Palestinian population and caused over 700,000 people to become refugees; that we refused their return despite a clear UN resolution from 1949. None of this is mentioned in Israeli history classes, and the majority of people still believe what they were taught at school. It’s easy to support the false knowledge that the state teaches. What’s the alternative? To realise we are bastards who are responsible for ethnic cleansing, massacres, rapes, and that we have stolen the land? I suppose it was convenient to continue to believe and to repeat in private and in public what we were told by our authorities.

Most of us were children of migrants and the authorities felt that it was essential that we felt the same sense of belonging to the land that the Palestinians have. For some reason this never really worked on me. I wonder if I picked up the intensity behind the efforts to indoctrinate us, and it felt a bit forced and false. I felt without really understanding that there were ‘holes’ in what they were telling us. There were bits of the story that were missing. For example, the question of why the Palestinians hated us so much and fought against us in 1948 was never satisfactorily explained. We were all supposed to understand that the Palestinians hated us for the same reason the Germans and other people did, because we were Jews…

I think I felt instinctively that they were ‘protesting a bit too much’… I have always been repelled by anything that had an extremist or intense sense to it. Even now in my own profession I stay away from any therapeutic movement or approach that has a trendy or cultish sense to it. But back then I felt like I was defective in some way because I never felt at home in Israel and never felt any kind of emotional connection to the land. In some ways the indoctrination failed with me but in other ways it succeeded.

All the while when we were being brainwashed to be good loyal Israelis, terrible things were being done right under our noses. Some we didn’t see, some we heard about but dismissed and others we interpreted from within the official paradigm.

Life in Israel feels so intense and so anxious that few people have any energy left to take real interest in what’s going on. And if what’s going on contradicts the way Israeli-Jews have been conditioned to see themselves, then it’s all the more urgent to push all this out of awareness.

My brother, his wife and I have a good personal relationship but we never talk about politics. He belongs to this class of Israeli-Jews who try to not see or hear what’s going on. If my brother is pushed, he would usually express the standard apologist nonsense we have all been fed, such as that the Palestinians are not like us, that they don’t really want peace and that there is no one to talk to on the other side. These arguments show a profound ignorance about what’s going on and they are nothing more than a repetition of the official state position. But I think remaining ignorant is a conscious choice.

It’s effortless to access the information the government wants you to know in Israel but if you want to find out what’s really going on or read other perspectives, you have to make a conscious effort. Few people are prepared to do this. The members of the Israeli human rights and peace groups are doing that but they are a very small minority. I did tell my brother where to look for information and how to contact some of the activists I know in Israel in groups like Yesh Gvul and Be’tzelem but he refuses, saying that no one knows who they are and that they are not important.

Change

I had no reason to question my identity or the fact that it was so tied up with Israel and Jewish-Israeli culture. Like everyone else I took all of it for granted. I assumed that the history I was taught at school was true, I assumed that the Biblical stories I was taught from when I was born were true enough, that we were always an unwanted people that no one liked, and that it was only just and proper for us to want a state of our own. In the past few years I have been through a process of developing a new awareness of things that previously were just an unconscious part of my nature and my sense of self and identity.

The turning point for me came when I began to learn about the true reality of the conflict between Israeli-Jews and the Palestinians — that was a result of hearing Avi Shlaim, the author of The Iron Wall speak on ABC radio in 2001. What he said was deeply disturbing to me. I think if he wasn’t an Israeli-Jew himself, I would have dismissed it all as anti-Semitic nonsense. But I couldn’t easily dismiss a professor of history at a respected British university who just like me was also a former Jewish citizen of Israel. From that point on, a rift began to open between my personal human values and my Jewish-Israeli loyalty. The more I learned about the true history of Zionism and Israel the more I questioned everything I used to believe. It became harder and harder to continue to be loyal to Israel and to Jewish-Israeli culture and to continue to be an apologist for Israel.

It gradually dawned on me that I had to choose. Everything Israel stands for, even its insistence on being an exclusively Jewish state, contradicts my values as a human being. It was shocking to realise that I had to abandon almost my entire cultural heritage if I wanted to be a decent human being. It’s not an easy thing to come to term with the fact that you are a member of the group of ‘bad guys’ in the story…

This process is something that many Western Jews are finally starting to go through. The merciless and criminal attack on Gaza at the end of last year was the turning point for many previously loyal Jews living outside Israel. It is now becoming harder and harder for them to pretend they don’t see what is there, or to justify the unjustifiable. All of them will have to face a similar process to my own that includes a complete review of their identity and belief system.

What do Israeli Jews believe?

Every aspect of my education and upbringing in Israel was designed to make me a loyal Israeli Jew. A loyal Israeli Jew is someone who puts his or her differences with local politics aside if the nation is under threat. There is a perception in the world that Jewish-Israelis are allowed to express their opinions freely and without fear of retribution from the government. This is true only up to a point. I think George W. Bush’s statement after 9/11 ‘You’re either with us or with the terrorists’, sums up well the nature of patriotic loyalty in Israel.

The problem is that the way the culture is promoted and celebrated; the existential threat is never far off. It’s reinforced almost with every religious festival and in popular culture. When I was growing up it was a regular occurrence for the Chief of Staff to reassure us that ‘Israel is ready for the next war’. The word ‘war’ was always there and we truly believed that we were surrounded by terrible and powerful enemies who want to throw us into the sea.

This some of what the majority of Jewish Israelis believe:

  • We are Jews and therefore everyone hates us; everyone hates us because we are Jews.

  • This hatred cannot be changed. Hatred of Jews is in the blood of every gentile (a derogatory term for non-Jews) and is passed on genetically. It’s like a mental illness that can’t go away.

  • Even those who don’t exactly hate us were not prepared to stick up for us when we were in trouble, therefore non-Jews can never be trusted. There are ‘good gentiles’ and ‘bad gentiles’ but we can’t really trust even the good ones.

  • This is our fate from the beginning of our existence. The Jewish people have been despised and persecuted from their beginnings. There is a continuous history leading up from biblical times to the present day. It’s never changed. Hitler and Pharaoh of the Exodus story are the same.

  • The Holocaust is the ultimate proof that Jews cannot be safe among non-Jews.

  • Israel is the only safe haven for Jews and must remain under Jewish sovereignty. It must always guarantee special rights for Jews, like the right of return, so that no Jew anywhere will ever find him or herself in the same situation as the Jews who were victims of pogroms and of the Holocaust.

  • This must never happen to us again.

  • It happened to us because we were weak therefore we must become very powerful and never let anyone push us around.

  • We will never be safe until all foreigners and Arabs in particular are pushed away from our borders. We can only be safe among our own people.

  • We have a right to hurt others because we have been hurt — the principle of ‘destructive entitlement’ (a term from family therapy) is at the heart of Jewish-Israeli culture.

  • Others don’t matter as much as we do.

  • Another Holocaust is imminent. Jews from around the world must have a place to run to when it happens. Israel needs to have enough land and resources to take in 12 million Jews.

  • The main purpose of the life of every Jewish woman, man or child is to work to help the Jewish people survive. Therefore any other aspirations and passions must come second. Any values that Jewish people have must be put aside when the survival of the people is threatened.

  • This makes the life of Jews and Israeli Jews more difficult than the life of other people. But this is just how it is. It is our lot to have a hard time and this goes all the way back to the Bible.

‘Specialness’

Belief in ‘specialness’ has always been part of Jewish culture. From a psychological point of view a strong belief in ‘specialness’ is one of the symptoms of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It can also be a reaction to trauma. Jewish culture demonstrates both narcissism and reaction to trauma. A belief in specialness is also an inseparable part of most cults or sects.

Here are some of the beliefs held by Israeli-Jews:

  • Jews and therefore Jewish Israelis are more special than other people.

  • Jews have a special relationship with god.

  • Jews are more ethical and moral than all other people. By extension Israel as a Jewish state is a more moral and noble country that other countries. It is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’.

  • Israeli wars are different to other people’s wars. Our wars are just and are all ‘wars of no-choice’ — milchamot ein breira.

  • Our occupation is different to other occupations. We treat the Palestinians better than occupied people in other places. We cannot possibly be compared with other bad countries who do bad things.

  • Our colonisation of Palestinian lands is different too. First, it’s our land anyway, and second, as Jews we didn’t have a choice. What did you want us to do — die in the Diaspora?

  • Our suffering is greater and more special than the suffering of anyone else.

  • Even the hatred of Jews is not like other types of racism. It’s different and special. The Holocaust is proof of that.

  • The Holocaust is unlike any other genocide in human history.

  • Criticism of Israel is not like criticism of other countries. It is anti-Semitism in modern disguise. By extension any Jew who criticises Israel is aiding and abetting not only the enemies of Israel but the enemies of the Jews in general, and are therefore traitors. To be a traitor you must be mentally defective in some way. Healthy people are loyal to their group no matter what.

  • Our survival is more important than the survival of anyone else. We have more right to exist than they do.

  • Our love for our children and our families is superior to that of others.

  • Israel’s strategic enemies hate Israel because it is a Jewish state. Their hatred has nothing to do with anything Israel might have done.

  • Opposition to Israel in the region has nothing to do with sympathy towards the Palestinians and everything to do with anti-Semitism. Arabs and Muslims in general hate Jews.

Israel has unfortunately found a very like-minded ally in the US. I believe this is because the two countries share a very similar type of narcissism. If you look at the points I made about Israeli-Jewish specialness you can easily identify some of them also in American culture. I think things might be changing now in the US, but it’s not clear how far Obama can free himself from his nation’s inherent narcissism. I am not sure he can.

It’s easy to see how a policy of apartheid is in fact embedded in the culture and comes directly from it. Jewish people believe that they should be separate from others because others are not safe. This belief makes a policy of apartheid seem reasonable and acceptable. Morality or human values are pushed aside when it comes to survival and I think this is a wider human problem that is not unique to Israel but it certainly plays a huge part in Jewish-Israeli culture.

Contact details:

You can contact me through my political website at: www.avigailabarbanel.me.uk or through my work website at: www.fullyhuman.co.uk

Recommended readings on Israeli-Jewish culture, its relationship with the Palestinians and its apartheid policies and attitudes:

  • Amira Hass. (2003). Reporting from Ramallah: An Israeli Journalist in an Occupied Land

  • Amira Hass and Maxine Nunn. (2000). Drinking the Sea at Gaza: Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege

  • Hatim Kanaaneh. (2008). A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel

  • Susan Nathan. (2005). The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide

Other news and commentary on these issues are available through the websites of Israeli peace groups such as:

More links are available on my website at: www.avigailabarbanel.me.uk


Page content last modified: 17 August 2009