Why do Israelis do what they do?
The most striking things about the commentary on the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza is the broad failure to ask why the Israeli government/military, backed by a large percentage of the Israeli population, is behaving like this.
Maybe the conflict has gone on so long that few people feel the need to ask this fairly basic question: what are the roots of Israel’s need to kill hundred of defenseless civilians in an act of “self-defence”, when any reasonably rational assessment of the actions suggests these actions a) constitute cold-blooded murder of children and other non-combatants, and b) feed an increasing hostility on the part of the Palestinian (and wider Middle-East) population, this decreasing the long-term chances of peace?
Perhaps the failure to ask that basic question, especially at times like this especially, is because the answer is at so obvious. Or perhaps – much worse for any possible resolution to the conflict in the long-term – it’s been forgotten by outside observers, and internalised by Israelis to such an extent that it is no longer utterable.
But I think the answer bears repeating: the root of the murder of Palestinian children today is simple: the holocaust.
The State of Israel came about because of the holocaust, and the national identity not just of Israeli Jews, but also – until relatively recently – the vast bulk of American Jews, is inextricably linked to it. After an initial period in which those creating the new, deeply militarized Israel built their identity around the Sabra, the very real threat to the new state’s existence in 1967, and the implied/inferred threat of a further genocide, led to very rapid formation a of national identity based on what Daniel Navon calls the “embracing of victimhood” and in consequence a “paradoxical perception of military superiority and existential anxiety” (p.10). Moreover, this national identity became shared not just in Israel but in the United States, to the extent that in many ways to be an American Jew was to be an Israeli living in America.
Ultimately, it is the fear of a new holocaust, however remote it might seem to outside observers but very real and very near in the days leading up to the 1967 war, which created the path-dependent institutions which we see in Israel and America (think Wall Street Journal) today, in which there is no escaping the internalised logic of “self-defence” born of victimhood.
It seems to be that until outside observers start to remember/learn all of this for the first time – perhaps starting by taking American Jewish and Israeli scholarship more seriously than it is “allowed” – then the chances of a long term resolution remain slight, since even the welcome generational shift amongst American Jews away from their parents and grandparents emotional link to Israel and to victimhood (and back towards the kind of relationship being developed in the 1947-67 period) may not have enough weight to counteract 50 years of institutional path dependency.
Of course none of this stops children being killed today, or tomorrow, or next year. But maybe it’s better to promulgate some kind of informed hope for the future, based on some kind of understanding of the past, than it is to simply regard the Israel/Palestine conflict as an elemental hatred between peoples.