In a 1977 Supreme Court opinion, Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African-American justice, observed, “Social scientists agree that members of minority groups frequently respond to discrimination and prejudice by attempting to disassociate themselves from the group, even to the point of adopting the majority’s negative attitudes towards the minority.”
Marshall further noted that “such behavior occurs with particular frequency among members of minority groups who have achieved some measure of economic or political success and thereby have gained some acceptability among the dominant group.” In fact, such behavior is particularly common within minority group elites more broadly; not only those to whom Marshall refers but also, for example, academic, artistic and journalist elites. In addition, it is more common not simply among those who have achieved elite status but also those who aspire to such status.
Of course, not all members of these elites within minorities embrace the wider society’s bigoted indictments of their own group; nor is the embrace of those indictments limited to the besieged community’s elites. But elites typically play an especially prominent role in this phenomenon.
In the context of Jewish experience, this has been a recurrent pattern throughout the history of the Diaspora and has figured in Israeli history as well. (Virtually all the psychological characteristics of minorities chronically denigrated, marginalized, and otherwise targeted by surrounding majorities are found as well within the populations of small states chronically besieged by their neighbors.)
The Oslo process of the 1990′s is illustrative. The path to Oslo was paved by journalists, academics, novelists, purveyors of other arts, and elements of the political elite who argued that the Palestinian-Israeli, and the broader Arab-Israeli, conflict remained unresolved because Israel had failed to make sufficient territorial and other concessions. If Israel would only return essentially to the pre-1967 armistice lines and were also more forthcoming in other ways, they argued, peace would be achieved. By the early 1990′s they had won about half of Israel’s population to variations of this view.
In doing so, they ignored the reality that throughout this same period, as well as in the wake of the initial Oslo accords of 1993, Yasser Arafat and his followers continued to tell their constituency that their goal was Israel’s annihilation and continued to promote terror to achieve that goal. During the years of Oslo, the editors and journalists of Israel’s three Hebrew dailies failed to report on the incessant defamation of Israel and calls for her extermination that permeated not only speeches by Arafat and his associates but broadcasts of Palestinian media more generally as well as sermons in Palestinian mosques and curriculum in Palestinian schools. The upsurge of terror that followed the initial Oslo accords was downplayed by the Israeli political leadership that had championed the Oslo process. Israeli academics, both immediately before and during the Oslo years, created a bogus “New History” that rewrote Israel’s past in a manner supporting the delusions of Oslo, the claims that Israeli missteps were perpetuating the conflict and Israeli concessions would resolve it. Israeli novelists, dramatists, film makers, as well as painters and others in the plastic arts, promoted the same delusions. A similar pattern of distortions characterized the work of many Jewish community leaders, journalists, academics, and artists in the Diaspora.
The reason so many Israelis followed the nation’s elites and embraced Oslo’s rationales is not difficult to fathom. Their doing so reflected the nation’s desire for peace and people’s wish to believe themselves in control of circumstances over which, in reality, they had, and have, no control. Both then and now, Palestinian and broader Arab media, mosques and schools purvey not simply the message that Israel must be destroyed but a broader, genocidal anti-Semitism. This is true as well in parts of the Muslim world beyond the Arab states. Peace will come only when internal political changes in these domains translate into abandonment of the drumbeat for killing Jews and annihilating Israel. It will come on the Arabs’ timetable. In fact, Israeli actions have little impact on this reality. Israel can neither appease its way to peace nor fight its way to peace. At best, it can deter aggression and suppress aggression when deterrence fails.
But for many, this lack of control over circumstances so central to their well-being is intolerable. The psychological response is like that of chronically abused children, who almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament. They choose to believe they are abused because they have been “bad” and that if they only become “good” the abuse will end. They do so, enduring the pain of the self-indictment, because the delusion preserves a sense of control over circumstances that are in reality beyond their control. Similarly, elements of minorities abused by the surrounding majority and small states besieged by their neighbors choose to embrace comparable delusions rather than acknowledge their helplessness to end their besiegement.
Even the dramatic upsurge in terror that accompanied the first years of the Oslo process had only limited impact on public support for the accords. It was not until Arafat, in 2000, rejected all compromise at Camp David, offered no counter-proposals, and instead launched his all-out terror war – which in the ensuing few years claimed another thousand Israeli lives and maimed thousands more – that Israelis in large numbers abandoned their Oslo delusions. Still more gave up their wishful thinking when Israel’s full withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 led only to more terror, much of it in the form of thousands of rockets targeting Israeli communities from the evacuated territory.
But hardly all Israelis have turned away from their Oslo delusions, and it is – perhaps even more than earlier – particularly elements of the elites that continue to embrace the argument, for example, that Israel does not require defensible borders. It is disproportionately members of the elites who insist return to the pre-1967 armistice lines will bring about a peace that will render “defensible borders” unnecessary, and that therefore it is Israeli intransigence that perpetuates the conflict.
The embrace of the indictments of one’s besiegers does not necessarily take the form of seeking to reform one’s community in accordance with those indictments, seeking to appease the besiegers in this way. It can also entail seeking to distance oneself from the community – to, as Thurgood Marshall put it, “disassociate themselves from the group” – to spare oneself the pain of the besiegement. And it is members, or those who aspire to be members, of the elites that disproportionately choose the path of distancing themselves from Israel’s predicament.
This is so because it is disproportionately members, or would-be members, of the elites who aspire to acceptance by circles beyond the nation, circles that have their own biases against Israel and its Jewish supporters. It is members, or would-be members, of the elites who choose to identify themselves less as Israelis and more as academics, writers, other artists, journalists, eager for the approval of their peers abroad and aware that being critical of Israel, whatever the reality of the nation’s predicament, is a surer path to that approval. It is disproportionately the academic defamers of Israel who get the visiting lectureships in Europe and elsewhere, including in the United States. It is the novelists and film-makers and journalists most critical of Israel who are awarded prizes and feted in Europe and elsewhere. It is the Israeli NGO leaderships most given to defaming the nation and promoting the indictments of its enemies, however bigoted and absurd, that are most showered with encomiums and lavish funding by governments in Europe and foundations in America.
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