The Power of Belief and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Avigail Abarbanel

Apologists for Israel are deeply relieved when they can find a flaw in anyone who criticises Israel. If you are a non-Jew you must be an antisemite, they would argue. If you are a Jew then you must be crazy or a ‘self-hater’. Being a former Israeli from Jewish background, and a supporter of a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine I regularly receive hate-mail from Zionist fanatics* telling me that I have psychological problems that cause me to criticise Israel and Zionism. The idea that Israel’s behaviour itself might justify criticism is inconceivable and unacceptable to these people.

Antisemitism is perceived among many Jews to be a unique form of racism, unlike any other. Many Jews would argue that it is some kind of a genetic ‘mental illness’ shared by many ‘gentiles’ and transmitted generationally. I remember being told this at primary school in Israel in the context of studying about the Holocaust. So essentially, for fanatic Zionist Jews whether you are a Jew or a non-Jew, if you criticise Israel you are dismissed as insane.

As someone who grew up in Israel and lived there for 27 years, I am well aware of these dismissive tactics. Many Jewish Israelis and Zionist Jews outside of Israel still believe that they are the eternal and ultimate victim, and that Jews everywhere are always facing a real danger of persecution and annihilation. This is the reason many Zionist Jews cannot deal with any suggestion that Israeli Jews themselves are perpetrators; that they are directly responsible for a systematic and deliberate act of ethnic cleansing, for racial discrimination, for an extremely brutal military occupation and for the suffering of generations of Palestinian men, women and children. They perceive criticism of Israel to be dangerous to the survival of the Israeli state because if Israel loses the support of the international community, they fear it might not survive.

Moreover, Jews who still believe that they are unsafe in the world want to preserve Israel at all cost so that they have a place to run to when the world turns hostile to Jews once again. In their minds, the certainty of this happening is not in doubt - the only question is when. Based on Jewish experience during the Holocaust, many Jewish people believe that when the next Hitler comes along, the only country that will be prepared to accept an unlimited number of Jewish refugees will be Israel. They do not worry so much about the question of what makes a Jew a Jew because Hitler’s ideology was racially based and he was determined to annihilate even those who were only partly Jewish. It didn’t matter to him whether you were secular or religious, or whether you even considered yourself a Jew. If you had one-eighth Jewish blood, you were marked for extermination.

The capacity to save Jews at any time in the future was the original intention behind Israel’s ‘Law of Return’, a law that guarantees immediate acceptance of any Jew into the state of Israel. Israel does not exist only for its citizens. It exists to be a safe haven for all Jews. This is why Israel is so insistent on keeping itself an exclusively Jewish state, and also why Zionist Jews around the world are so fanatic in their defence of Israel. They believe that they cannot afford for Israel to not be there, or to no longer be an exclusively Jewish state. If Israel is no longer exclusively Jewish, their dream of a safe haven will be shattered. From their point of view, a one-state solution for example, is perceived as equivalent to the destruction of Israel, and therefore potentially theirs as well.

In previous articles and papers I discussed the dynamic of the trauma and fear psychology that leads to these kinds of views, and have called for a new agenda of healing in Jewish culture in general and in Israel in particular. However, understanding the psychology of Jewish fear that underlies the dynamic of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is also fundamental for dealing with this conflict politically. It is time that the international community realises that Israel cannot be trusted to negotiate any kind of reasonable agreement with the Palestinians. They have no reason to. Their only agenda is to maintain themselves as an exclusively Jewish state on as much land as possible, in readiness for the next Holocaust. If the Palestinians are in the way, somehow they will have to be dealt with so that they do not pose a threat to this dream. What we are really dealing with here is psychology not politics.

Survival is the single most important principle in mainstream Jewish culture and in Israeli culture. A state that believes itself to be perpetually in danger, that believes it has no real friends and that it can only rely on itself will do anything to survive and has no reason to compromise. If Israel is really pushed it will become an openly rogue state. At the moment it behaves like a rogue state - Israel dismisses international law and is in violation of the International Declaration of Human Rights as well numerous UN resolutions - but does everything possible to cover it up or offer rationalisations, feeble as they might be, for its behaviour (for example, that the wall is necessary for security of both Israelis and Palestinians.) But if truly exposed, Israel can become even more dangerous and then who knows what will be the fate of the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories and inside Israel.

Maybe in a hundred years, fearful Jewish people will heal a little from their fears. But can the Palestinian people afford to wait that long? Can the world afford to wait that long? Even if the entire world could guarantee the safety of Jews everywhere, and can guarantee that there will never be another Hitler or another pogrom or genocide against Jews, I do not believe that anything much would change. The fear-based, survival-based belief system is too deeply entrenched. If you look at the history of Israel’s foreign policy, it is easy to see how the aggressive path has almost always been the preferred one. There is always a sense in Israel that nothing short of complete military and political superiority will be sufficient for Israel’s safety and survival.

The only way to save the Palestinian people is through international sanctions as was done in the South African case. We do not have much time left for any other option.

Avigail Abarbanel is a former Jewish citizen of Israel. She is a psychotherapist/counsellor in private practice in Canberra Australia. She is an activist for Palestinian rights, a supporter of a one-state solution and the Canberra (Australia) Director of the international human rights organisation, Deir Yassin Remembered.

* Please note that I make a strict distinction between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews. There are many Jewish people around the world and in Israel who do not identify with the Zionist agenda of an exclusively Jewish state at the cost of the Palestinian people. There are also many Jewish people who are now starting to question Zionism, often at a great personal cost.

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