Survival instinct or Jewish paranoia?

Israeli soldiers participate in a drill simulating a chemical atack, March 2007. (Moti Milrod/MaanImages)

In late 2002 Yonatan Shapira, a former Israeli Black Hawk helicopter pilot and a few of his fellow pilots published the Pilots’ Letter in which they stated:
We, veteran pilots and active pilots together, who served and still serve the State of Israel during long weeks each year, object to perform illegal and immoral orders of attacks that the State of Israel performs in the territories.

We, who were raised to love the State of Israel and to contribute to the Zionist enterprise, refuse to take part in the attacks of the air force in concentrations of civilian population.

We, for whom the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] and the air force are inseparable parts of us, refuse to continue and harm innocent civilians.

These actions are illegal and immoral and are a direct result of the ongoing occupation, which corrupts Israeli society as a whole.

The continuation of the occupation delivers a mortal blow to the security of the State of Israel and to her moral strength.

This letter came after a series of attacks on the densely populated enclave of Gaza. For Shapira and his fellow pilots the last straw came following a mission in which “a one-ton bomb was dropped (equal to a hundred suicide bombs) on a house in the al-Deredg quarter in Gaza, one of the most crowded neighborhoods in Gaza, indeed in the whole world.” Shapira described how he and other pilots couldn’t sleep at night after and during these operations. This was despite a briefing by Dan Halutz Head of the Air Force at the time who said, “… everything taking place before the mission is justified according to my moral compass …” and his reassuring words: “Sleep well tonight … you executed this mission perfectly.”

Two days ago, on the 11 January, Shapira participated in a program on Israeli radio in which he was confronted with a Lt. Colonel in the Israeli Air Force, pilot Ye’ohar Gal. Here is what Gal had to say:

I think we should go at it more strongly. Dresden, Dresden. Devastate a city. At the end of the day we’re told that war has changed. It is no longer tanks roaring ahead, we no longer face regular rank-and-file armies. Missiles are targeting population centers. It did not start today, nor yesterday. It has been the state of affairs for over a decade now. The Arab states have realized that it is very difficult, rather impossible to defeat us on the battlefield, so they have changed their warfare. The battle is now waged between the old lady in Jabaliya and the old lady in Sderot or Ashdod. The entire people, from the old lady down to the child, are an army. An army that fights. I call them [Palestinians] a people — although I do not see them as such. A people is fighting another people. Civilians are fighting civilians. I tell you that we, as sons of Holocaust survivors, must know that this is the essence of our lives, coming from there: no one throws a stone at us. I’m not talking about missiles. No one will throw a stone at us for being Jews. And Yonatan [Shapira] is one of the people who have lost their survival instinct. As simple as that. He does not understand that a war of cultures is being waged here between the likes of him and the likes of myself. He is fighting for peace.

I want peace too, like Yonatan … I want the Arabs of Gaza to flee to Egypt. That’s what I want. I want to destroy the city. Not necessarily the people in it.

Make it crystal clear: no one is going to fire at us. Not a bullet from Gilo to Jerusalem, not a missile from Gaza to Sderot. I will not agree to a single bullet shot at us by the enemy. As soon as the enemy opens fire on me my survival instinct tells me to destroy the enemy. To defeat the enemy. If we do not defeat the Hamas — our deterrent force vis-a-vis the Arab states, who are also aspiring to destroy us one way or another — woe to us if we do not maintain this gap between us and them. [1]

I have often written about Jewish trauma and its effects on Israeli outlook on life in general and on the way it treats the Palestinians in particular. I get the impression that people are not so interested in my psychological take on the conflict. The mainstream media seem to prefer purely political or economic analyses, and that’s what I read in most newspapers and see on TV channels like the BBC or the Australian ABC or SBS. But Gal’s sentiments, which I know are widely echoed in the Israeli media and public — I listen to Israeli radio, read the newspapers and blogs, and correspond with Israelis — prove once more that we are not dealing simply with politics here but with psychology and more specifically, the psychology of Jewish trauma. This trauma pre-dates the Holocaust and goes right back to early Jewish narrative about Jewish identity, right back to the stories of the Old Testament.

Gal says that Shapira lost his “survival instinct” but what he calls survival instinct I call trauma-induced Jewish paranoia. Both Shapira and I have both lost our Jewish paranoia alongside a growing number of Jewish peace activists inside and outside Israel. And thank goodness we have, because it means that we have healed from Jewish trauma. As a result we are healthier more peaceful people, who do not see the world exclusively in adversarial terms. We no longer think about everything in terms of whether “it’s good for the Jews or not,” we do not believe that our life’s purpose is to preserve the Jewish people, and we can work as equals alongside non-Jewish people to promote peace. We no longer spend every waking moment worrying about anti-Semitism, as we were taught to do. We know it exists as do other forms of racism, but we do not allow it to define who we are, what we do, or what we think and feel about ourselves and about others. Being free from Jewish trauma means being free from fear of anti-Semitism.

Zionist Jews think I have gone insane because I don’t fear anti-Semitism and refuse to focus on it, but I think I have gone sane. I once received an email from an Israeli who said to me: “You are naive and stupid but regardless, when they finally come to get you, you will run to us and we will still accept you with open arms,” to which I responded, “Thanks but I had my time in Israel and I’d rather take my chances elsewhere.” Trying to convince him that no one is coming to get me, was pointless.

These are not just the ramblings of one man. This echoes the feelings of the majority of Israeli Jews and most Zionist Jews. Even very educated people feel this way. Because we were victims of anti-Semitism we can never relax and must always be vigilant in case a new enemy of the Jews will come to destroy us.

Living with trauma is a terrible thing and it leads to precisely the sort of views and sentiments expressed by Gal, and the kind of crimes committed by Israel right now. Trauma that is a product of past hurts can make you believe that everyone hates you and wants to destroy you — now, always, not just in the past. Some people respond to trauma by becoming aggressive and frightening, to make sure it doesn’t happen to them again. Just like Gal says, “No one will throw a stone at us for being Jews.”

This is a human reaction to victimhood and as a psychotherapist I can understand it. Anyone can understand the desire to not be hurt again but the question is, at what cost to oneself and to others? Together with the fierce determination to not be hurt again comes a perception of oneself as righteous and “better than.” Moreover, the former victim will hold survival as the highest value, above everything else. I am sad to say that the identity of the Jewish people is based entirely on survival. At least three important Jewish festivals are based on a story of a bloody victory over an enemy that sought to destroy the Jews: Passover, Purim and Hanukah. I stopped celebrating these festivals years ago because I find their real meaning offensive.

If life is only about survival it does not leave much energy for anything else. From what we know about the human brain we know that living with the belief that one is under constant existential threat can lead to tunnel vision, to short-term thinking, to lack of empathy, to constant stress. This ultimately leads to an isolationist mentality and an inability to see the humanity of others. This is Israel in 2009.

Note that Gal says, “for being Jews.” And this is another problem with trauma. It leads to blindness. Israelis don’t accept that their problem with the Palestinians was caused by the occupation. They really believe that it is because they are Jewish that the Palestinians are angry and attack them. Most Israelis do not even know that Israel committed ethnic cleansing in 1948. Most Israelis are convinced to the core that Israel is the “good guy” in this story who has done no wrong, the small weak David standing in front of a giant anti-Semitic Goliath. To many Israelis the Palestinians are not the same as the Nazis but are the Nazis, the powerful, non-human, faceless, single-minded psychopathic murderers who were determined to exterminate the Jews for being Jews. When Israelis kill Palestinians they are killing Pharaoh and his army (Passover), Hamman and his 10 sons (Purim) and the Greek occupying army (Hanukah) over and over again. The Palestinians are the recipients of 2,000 years of unresolved rage that has more to do with the past than the present. In therapy we call this “misplaced anger.” But I guess it is more comfortable for Israelis to blame Palestinian anger on anti-Semitism than to take responsibility for their real history.

The implications of seeing the conflict from within the lens of Jewish trauma are very serious. Can we really negotiate with this? Can we explain to Israelis that their perspective on life and on the conflict is seriously flawed? If we tried will they listen, and do the Palestinians have time to wait until they do? I know from the personal experience of having been born and raised in Israel, in a Jewish family, that this psychology is very powerful and very deeply embedded in one’s identity. To give up on it means to question everything one stands for, and that’s painful. It was very painful to me. But the cost of not doing it, we are seeing right now in Gaza and the Palestinians have experienced for a very long time usually away from the watchful eyes of the world.

It doesn’t help that Israel has a powerful friend in the US, a country whose collective mindset is very similar to that of Israel’s. As long as the US enables Israel’s blindness by vetoing any decision against it in the UN Security Council, by supporting Israel financially and militarily, there will be no reason for Israeli leaders to question their perception of reality. Israel needs real friends who with “tough love” can save it from itself, who can help it see what it is unable to see. Indulging Israel’s trauma and blindness is costing the lives and well-being of Palestinians, and it is inexcusable.

Gal thinks that Shapira has no survival instinct but he is wrong. Shapira and others are doing what they are doing because they know that Israel’s survival is threatened by its very own actions, its own psychology, not by the Palestinians or anyone else. They are not worried that Israel will be attacked or that the Israelis “will be thrown into the sea.” They are worried about the social, emotional and spiritual cost to a society that has become one of the worst perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in modern history. Israel is falling apart from within, losing its humanity, its dignity and its identity, and they know it.

Gideon Levy in the Israeli Haaretz newspaper reporter recently asked: “If Israelis were so sure of the rightness of their cause, why the violent intolerance they display toward everyone who tries to make a different case?”

Avigail Abarbanel ( was born and raised in Israel. She moved to Australia age 27 and has been an activist for Palestinian rights since 2001. She is a psychotherapist/counsellor in private practice in Canberra, Australia.

[1] Transcript by Eyal Niv; translation by Tal Haran.

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